Educational, or political? The Charity Commission draws a line.

The Charity Commission recently published its case report into its work with the Legatum Institute, a think tank and registered charity aiming “to advance the education of the public in national and international political, social and economic policy”.  The case report provides some useful advice to educational charities dealing with very political issues generally, and Brexit in particular.

Why did the Commission become involved?

The Commission became involved in the Legatum Institute as a result of concerns being raised about the charity’s independence from the Legatum Group.

There were also complaints made that the charity was political and acting to promote the views of those in favour of Brexit. There were particular concerns about a report published by the charity’s research body, which was called “Brexit Inflection Point: The Pathway to Prosperity”, in November 2017.

The report’s executive summary:

  • highlighted the ‘opportunity’ posed by Brexit for Britain to restore freedom to trade, and the benefits of trade liberalisation.
  • set out specific terms of the interim arrangement, described as ‘vital’ for ‘Britain’s ability to resume its place as an independent trading nation’ and
  • called on the UK government to act.

So, the Commission sought information from the Legatum Institute regarding its structure and relationship with the Legatum Group. It also sought an explanation of the aims and background of the report, and the charity trustees’ response to concerns that the paper promoted a particular political direction.

The Commission’s conclusions

The Commission was satisfied that the charity operated independently of the Legatum Group, even though some individuals connected with the Legatum Group serve as trustees of the charity, and that the charity trustees were aware of the need for them to maintain this separation.

The charity trustees were also aware of the need to maintain balance and neutrality in its research work. However, while research into the framework of Brexit negotiations from a particular perspective, such as a free trade perspective, was appropriate for the charity, in order to advance education it would have been necessary for the report:

  • to be clear that free trade was only one of the possible political outcomes that might be sought, and
  • to “present balanced, neutral evidence and analysis explaining why it has chosen to adopt a free trade perspective over others”.

The Commission came to the conclusion that “as a whole the report may be seen as promoting a political view directed towards securing a particular negotiating position for the aim of a particular final outcome, and recommending specific government action that reflects this.”

What can other charities take from this case report?

Firstly, charities with connections to other non-charitable organisation will once again be reminded by this case report of the need to ensure an appropriate separation is maintained between the charity and non-charitable organisation.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the reminder that a charity must be, and must be seen to be, independent of party politics.

If a charity commissions and publishes reports on political and controversial subjects, it must be careful to maintain balance and political neutrality in those reports. Trustees of charities carrying out these kinds of activities should ensure they have an appropriate procedure in place to help manage the risks to the charity, and be aware they may be treading a thin line.

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