Gaining Momentum? What the Charities Bill tells us about Labour’s outlook on charities

As of tomorrow, Jeremy Corbyn will have been leader of the Labour Party for three months, and it is fair to say that his leadership has seen a great deal of change, both of in terms of how the party itself operates, and also the policy positions that it advocates under his leadership.Jeremy Corbyn

 

Earlier in the year, my colleague Rhodri Davies investigated what ‘Corbynism’ could mean for Labour’s attitudes towards voluntary sector issues. We also looked deeper into the priorities of both Labour MPs and voters for the charity world in our ‘Under the Microscope’ report for party conference, and the passage of the Charities (Protection of and Social Investment) Bill through Parliament is helping to provide a greater insight into Labour’s thinking.

 

It seems that Labour – led in this area by Shadow Civil Society Minister Anna Turley – will broadly back the Charities Bill (as it did in the House of Lords), which has mostly received support from charities across the voluntary sector in addition to politicians across the voluntary sector. However, as the Charities Bill enters report stage, Ms Turley has proposed a series of amendments (on behalf of Labour) that hint at the areas where Labour may seek to create dividing lines with the Conservative Government.

Anna Turley

Firstly, New Clause 2 proposed by Labour seeks to reiterate within statutory law the principle that charities are able to undertake political campaigning, and to support or oppose changes to the law. This is in reality just a restatement of the existing status quo, by which charities are able to undertake political activity, as long as it is it not party political. However media stories in recent months have conflated the two and – when combined with the restrictive impact of the Lobbying Act – have meant that some charities have been more cautious about voicing their opinion and seeking to influence the political process.

 

The ability of charities to campaign is strongly supported by voters across the political spectrum. As our ‘Under the Microscope’ report found, 71% of Labour voters believe that it is important for charities to highlight if they believe government policies will negatively affect people, a statement also supported by 60% of Conservative voters.

 

This consensus disappears, however, when MPs give their views on the same statement. Whilst 93% of Labour MPs share the broad public support for the advocacy role of charities, this figure falls to 33% amongst Conservative MPs. In addition, almost half (49%) of Labour MPs want to see the Lobbying Bill scrapped, with only 3% of Conservative MPs agreeing.

Lobbying Act

It’s worth noting that Labour’s opposition status means that they are perhaps more likely to welcome the challenging of government policies than representatives from a party currently in power would be, and we do not have data from Labour’s years in power to compare the figure to. It is, however, fair to say that enshrining the right of charities to campaign in statutory law would be broadly welcome across the sector.

 

The other amendments currently proposed by Labour are perhaps more surprisingly, touching on the area of independent (or private) schools. Labour’s proposals seek to ensure that private schools actively engage and share resources with local and state schools in areas such as sports, music, arts and careers advice. It is suggested that the Charity Commission should publish guidance on the minimum that charities must do to comply with this enhanced public benefit test. Although it is not clear what the repercussions would be for failure to comply, last year Tristram Hunt, a former Shadow Education Secretary seen to be on the so-called ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour Party, proposed that non-compliant private schools would lose out on relief from business rates.

 

The article linked to above suggests that Labour would seek to cut business rate reliefs for private schools instead of tackling their charitable status head-on primarily because it is something that could be done by a Minister relatively easily, having the impact of reducing the benefits provided to private schools without having to formally challenge their charitable status. However, given the clear link in the amendments proposed by Ms Turley, it is possible that Labour may now be considering revisiting the issue of the charitable status of private schools.

 

Here, there is a divide in attitudes between public and MPs as a collective, which perhaps reflects the disproportionate number of MPs who were educated privately. When asked about their policy priorities based upon those proposed by parties at the 2015 election, 30% of UK adults stated that they wanted to change the rules so that a private school can no longer be a registered charity, making it the third most popular policy suggestion. This idea, proposed incidentally by the Green Party, received support from 25% of Conservative voters and 32% of Labour voters (and 42% of voters in Scotland).

Under the Microscope

By comparison, only 15% of MPs as a whole thought that seeing private schools lose their charitable status should be a priority. As with the advocacy role of charities, here there too was a cross-party divide, with zero Conservative MPs advocating the adoption of this policy compared to 32% of Labour MPs, making it the fourth-most popular policy position held by those on the opposition benches.

 

Whether these amendments progress as the Bill continues to be debated in Parliament is yet to be determined, but the focus of Ms Turley’s amendments do provide a clearer understanding of the likely priorities that Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party will have for the voluntary sector. (Another example is the recent Westminster Hall debate led by Naz Shah MP on the rumoured cuts to the funding of the Big Lottery Fund, which were in line with our discovery that Labour MPs are more likely than Conservative MPs to want to see charities that deliver public services protected from spending cuts.)

 

Meanwhile, Conservative priorities for the sector are shaping up differently. There is significantly greater support for the involvement of charities in the delivery of public services, as well as a greater focus on engaging young people in social action – priorities reflected in the action that the Government pledged to take, as part of the #GivingTuesday campaign. The ambition to expand usage of social investment is also an aspiration of the Bill.

 

It seems that the divisions in attitudes between Labour and Conservative politicians is growing wider – which might seem somewhat paradoxical in the context of a Bill that looks set to be backed by both. In fact, it might be away from the main content of the Bill that the real skirmishes of note for charities take place – certainly something to keep an eye on as the Bill Committee begins to meet, and as Labour begin to flesh out their policies further. Meanwhile, other MPs will also be putting forward their proposed changes to the Bill, and we’ll take a look at the most interesting as it progresses.

Steve Clapperton

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