The Runnymede Trust is a charitable think-tank focused on race equality and race relations in the UK. The Charity Commission opened a compliance case in April 2021 after complaints about the Trust’s response to the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (“the CRED report”) and the trustees’ decision to work with the Good Law Project to challenge certain public appointments. The Commission also noted the appearance of a senior executive of Runnymede at an event organised by a political party, alongside several elected representatives and affiliated speakers. The issue, in short, was whether the Trust was engaging in party-political activity, contrary to charity law – and the Commission has concluded that the Trust has not broken the law. So far, not much obviously to do with “religion” – but read on.
The Commission’s guidance states that a charity may campaign and undertake non-party-political activity and take up positions that not everyone agrees with, provided it is done in furtherance of the charity’s purposes. The Commission has decided that it was within Runnymede’s purposes to engage with and take a position on the CRED report and to work with the Good Law Project; however, it has welcomed the trustees’ decision to strengthen the charity’s internal policies and procedures on political activity and to be more proactive in demonstrating party-political neutrality. The trustees have given assurances that they endeavour to engage with a range of parties and political viewpoints.
To describe this as “a grey area” would be an understatement. Though religious charities are only rarely accused of taking overtly party-political positions, they frequently find themselves in opposition to the Government of the day – of whatever political persuasion – on individual policy issues, particularly in areas such as social deprivation, personal relationships and overseas aid.
There are also fears that the measures proposed under the Elections Bill may further restrict the ability of charities to campaign on non-party issues at General Elections. For example, Quakers in Britain told the Committee on Standards in Public Life that in the run-up to the 2017 General Election they had spent £76,385 on activities that fell under the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 – and estimated that they had spent almost £3,000 in staff time in order to calculate that total for the Electoral Commission. In the run-up to the 2019 General Election, they decided not to register with the Electoral Commission but still spent a significant amount of staff time on recording their expenditure just in case they were asked to prove that they had not met the registration threshold.
And might the position of charities generally that operate in the socio-economic field be further confused by the existence of a number of ostensibly “independent” social, political and economic think-tanks which, though registered as charities, nevertheless appear to adopt a partisan stance without formally endorsing any political party?
Perhaps the answer is not so much better Charity Commission guidance – welcome though that may be – as a more fundamental reconsideration of what should qualify as a charitable purpose under the 2011 Act.