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  1. Politics
24 July 2007

Charities are hamstrung by the law

One would have thought in a liberal democracy the promotion of debate and free speech is inherently

By James Medhurst

My last blog entry about carers received an unprecedented response, some of which was rather heated. One of the issues was whether charities set up on behalf of carers reflect the interests of carers themselves.

This is a familiar debate for many groups and, among disabled people, it can be particularly severe, because, rather than the two main charities which exist for carers, there appear to be hundreds.

Many disabled people object to the fact that these charities have historically been run exclusively by non-disabled people and we have been given little say about how their money is spent until recent years.

We are also very uncomfortable with the way in which we can be portrayed in advertisements, as being as pathetic as possible, in order to persuade potential donors to part with their cash.

This may all seem to be rather ungrateful but, really, it is not. In a week in which Comic Relief and Children in Need were caught up in the BBC phone in scandal, it is very clear that there are limits to the tactics which should be considered to be acceptable for raising money.

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It is a short step from saying that fake competitions are inappropriate to acknowledging that charities must not deceive the public as to how their money will be spent, or perpetuate damaging stereotypes, however profitable it may be to do so.

Ironically, a former competitor of Children in Need was the thankfully short-lived ITV Telethon, a mind-numbing twenty seven hours of inanity. This became the target of a direct action campaign by disabled people, who were credited with its eventual demise.

However, lest it be thought that I am taking sides, I wish to say a few words in defence of charities as well. It would be difficult for them to do as much as we would like them to do to spread the word of equality because they are hamstrung by the law itself.

Charities are required to provide a public benefit and the courts have refused to rule upon the question of whether a political campaign provides a public benefit or not.

This is rather a bizarre conclusion because one would have thought that, in a liberal democracy, the promotion of debate and free speech is inherently beneficial, whether one agrees with its content or not.

In any case, the upshot is that a charity can only be political in as much as it supports the law as it stands, rather than seeking to change it, hence another recent controversy at the BBC about its coverage of Live 8. However, it is difficult to determine where charity ends and politics begins. How a desire to reduce poverty can be apolitical is beyond me.

There is evidence that some disability charities are starting to take a campaigning stance, with Scope and the Down’s Syndrome Association running recent campaigns in support of employment rights.

Partly this is because of a change of attitude within the charities themselves but it also reflects a wider social trend.

Anti-discrimination legislation means that such campaigns are now within their charitable remit and are no longer seen as being political.

For the large charities in particular, it must surely have a positive effect if they direct their large resources towards this type of work, although taking part in the political process has its disadvantages as well.

It will doubtless be necessary to make compromises which individual campaigners would be in a position to avoid. They should be forgiven for this although it can be difficult for people who fall on the wrong end of a compromise to do. Charities and political groups have different roles to play and both are important.

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  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
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  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
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  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
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