THE BLOG
04/11/2013 08:10 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Can Charities Be Political Without Being Political?

What should a charity be able to say without being accused of being "political"? I'm comfortable that charities should not be party political. On the other hand, when a charity speaks out about the impact of government policy, whatever the party in power, it opens itself up to attack.

A few years ago, a year or so before the 2010 general election, I made two predictions to colleagues at Brighton Housing Trust (BHT), that the time would come, sooner rather than later, when whole groups of people would be denied entitlement to social security benefits, and that a particular section in the charity world would be scapegoated, politically and in the media, for high pay and for the resources they had.

I was completely right and totally wrong. I thought that drug users would be denied benefits with charities such as BHT, or more probably the likes of Serco and A4E, being asked to accommodate, cloth and feed them. You can almost see the headline in papers like the Mail and Express asking "Why are we paying addicts £71.70 a week to buy drugs?".

But it hasn't been addicts who have been singled out, but most under 25s who, if the prime minister's announcement at the Conservative Party conference comes into force, will lose entitlement to all social security benefits. Already asylum seekers whose claims have failed but who aren't being deported because, ironically, it would be too dangerous for them to return to their countries of origin, are denied benefits and access to services paid for by public funds.

I also thought that housing associations and their chief executives would be criticised for salary levels, the level of surpluses they are generating, and the land that they have 'banked'. As community cohesion disintegrates and poverty levels increase (illustrated by the increased dependence on food banks), questions would be asked and criticism levelled at the larger social landlords for not investing more in their communities. Something similar happened in the Netherlands between 2003 and 2004.

I was wrong about housing association chief executives. It has been chief executives of overseas aid charities who have come in for criticism.

There is an underlying, and worrying, trend developing, quite subtle at the moment, certainly not overt, that charities should know their place and not speak out about the impact of government policy. Under the last government, compliance leading to silence resulted from charities growing dependence on public funding. There is currently going through Parliament a Bill that might silence charities speaking on a number of issues. My friend and prolific blogger, Ian Chisnall, recently blogged on this ("I say engagement, you say lobbying").

So what should a charity be able to say without being accused of being "political"? I'm comfortable that charities should not be party political. On the other hand, when a charity speaks out about the impact of government policy, whatever the party in power, it opens itself up to attack. Politicians should accept that there is a world of difference between a charity representative criticising a particular policy if it believes that the policy might have or is having a negative impact on the beneficiaries of the charity's services. That is very different from a representative saying something like a policy being "everything you would expect" from the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems or, as is the case in Brighton and Hove, the Greens.

I frequently quote the Latin American priest, Dom Helder Camara, who said: "When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I asked why they are hungry, they call me a Communist".

At BHT, I believe we exist to provide high quality services to change the lives of individuals and to improve communities. But we are also have a responsibility to look at the causes of poverty, deprivation, abuse and addiction, and ask why as a society we are not doing more to deal with their causes.