There have been a number of challenges that we have faced in the last decade between MPs and Charities. The first matter arose when the coalition Government appointed the new Chair of the Charity Commission as someone with strong political views and very little experience of charities. William Shawcross had a great deal of support for the Conservative Party. A year later the Lobbying Bill was set out with a section that focused on charities. There have always been rules to prevent charities from being political but the lobbying bill set out to stop charities from publicly raising themes in the year before an election that could influence the political debates. Many charities have been impacted by the lobbying bill. Then in 2018 William Shawcross was replaced by someone who was formally a Conservative Politician albeit from the House of Lords. Unexpectedly Tina Stowell did resign from the Conservative Party to try to demonstrate a level of political independence. However, since then her votes and comments in the House of Lords have not been very independent. At around the same time the Charity Commission transferred its website from an Independent setting onto the Government website which was also concerning.
Meanwhile recently an MP called John Hayes from Lincolnshire has set up a group that is ironically called the Common Sense Group. Apparently, there are around 70 Conservative members from the Houses of Parliament in the group. The only member I have identified as being from Sussex is Sally-Ann Hart who is the MP for Hastings but of course there could be other local MPs. Last November about half of the group which includes Sally-Ann Hart sent a joint letter to the Daily Telegraph. The letter was an attack on The National Trust charity that as we know owns a massive number of premises across our nation. Many of us have visited some of their sites and some of us are also members of the organisation. The criticism of the National Trust arose because they were reflecting on the history of some of their inherited premises. In particular the trust had identified the extent to which some of their previous owners had operated on themes that today we would not be willing to accept. This included people who were involved in slavery and colonialism. The letter in the Telegraph claimed
The Common Sense Group was formed to speak for the silent majority of voters tired of being patronised by elitist bourgeois liberals whenever issues such as immigration or law and order are raised. Part of our mission is to ensure that institutional custodians of history and heritage, tasked with safeguarding and celebrating British values, are not coloured by cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the “woke agenda” So, when National Trust directors implicitly tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons, Winston Churchill, by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism, 20 of the group wrote to the Culture Secretary requesting he review the trust’s funding applications to public bodies.
The letter went on to acknowledge the approach taken by Tina Stowell that they had appreciated as she had reminded the charities that they need to avoid both the theory and the practice of politics. Whilst these 28 Politicians argued that charities should avoid politics which is widely understood, one wonders if they as MPs are entitled to define history. After all it was history rather than politics that the National Trust was focusing on. No doubt there will be some politicians with a grasp of history, but unlike the National Trust, political parties do not recruit historian members. There are also many MPs with a poor grasp of history. Along with that if a self-selected, private group of politicians who are members of a narrow political party claim that they can speak for a majority of people in our nation there are concerns about their own grasp of politics and society.
The challenge that these 28 people raised in their letter also made its way to the Charity Commission which is chaired by Tina Stowell. Last Thursday the Government run Charity Commission published its response. However it was very inspiring that the Charity Commission has responded very differently from the so called Common Sense Group. The response is headed “Charity Commission finds National Trust did not breach charity law” and it goes on to state that “The Charity Commission has concluded its compliance case involving the National Trust, finding that there are no grounds for regulatory action against the charity.” The person who has written the document went on to say “In this instance, the National Trust was able to provide us with a well-reasoned response, supported by clear evidence of how it had carefully considered how this interim report fitted with its charitable objects, and we are satisfied that there are no grounds for regulatory action against the Trust.” This is clearly very significant and presumably we can now wait for the Common Sense Group including Sally-Ann Hart to accept this response! I suspect we may not get a very positive response.