Earlier this week the Daily Telegraph unearthed an important and until now unreported recent speech made at the end of March by the chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser.
In it, he expressed a sentiment with which most of us would empathise. Charities are of great importance in the UK because of the vital work that they do to help people, but when they are used as platforms to lobby for political action which is only peripherally relevant to their activities, it brings both the charity and the sector as a whole into disrepute.
It is wholly right that charities should be forceful in promoting their activities to the public and indeed educating everyone about the pressing needs of certain groups in our society.
This has the benefit of creating a much greater general awareness, which can only be good, and can help the charity in raising funds. It is also generally accepted that limited ancillary lobbying can be undertaken by a charity provided that the issue relates directly to its fundamental objectives.
For example, nobody would object if a charity set up to help those with hearing difficulties lobbied for a major expansion in sign-language training facilities. A second proviso should be that the campaign to influence government policy should be one which has the overwhelming support of the key stakeholders in the charity – the trustees, senior members of staff, the donors and the beneficiaries.
I am not sure whether Fraser had the Board of Deputies of British Jews in mind when he made his comments, but it’s certainly possible he might. On March 9, the Board issued a statement criticising the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill. It said the Jewish community is descended from refugees and migrants, expressed “concern” that the measure may fall of the Refugee Convention and the Human Rights Act, and claimed that “strengthening and enhancing safe, legal and viable routes to gaining asylum in this country will be a far more effective way to significantly reduce such numbers”.
The following day, a statement by Fraser appeared on the Charity Commission website appeared, saying that if charities engaged in political campaigning, they should remember that the law required them to ensure that “all and any campaigning by a charity must further its purposes. It must be done in the interests of the charity’s cause and the people it was set up to help”.
Fraser added: “As a new debate rages about how best to tackle the worldwide migrant crisis, and charities enter that fray… Charity leaders must remember their responsibilities and avoid inflammatory rhetoric that may undermine public trust in the sector… When charities respond in combative terms to government proposals and language, even those that they feel strongly about, they risk achieving the opposite of what they are setting out to do - namely to change the minds of those who think differently - and instead harden attitudes against the causes they hold dear.”
Immigration issues are in no sense a fundamental issue for the Board (unlike fighting antisemitism, supporting Israel and promoting Jewish life, which certainly are). The Board claims to represent UK Jewry, and I do not believe that UK Jewry as a whole expects this behaviour from the Board. Nor does it seem to be merely a matter of a Board press release.
The Board President, Marie van der Zyl, accompanied by a member of the Board’s staff and a journalist from another Jewish newspaper, has just visited a camp in northern France for migrants hoping to come and live in the UK.
As a humanitarian action this is of course laudable, and whatever one’s political views it is hard not to be utterly shocked by the appalling conditions in these camps, yet the relevant point is to ask whether this is what the Board should be doing with its resources and to question the political stance that this visit encapsulates.
There are equally or more deserving refugees in worse camps in other countries, which are not safe like France, going through the proper process. How do the Board’s actions fit with the charity’s objectives? Or the views of the stakeholders? This followed a public spat with the Home Secretary, who is probably the most important minister for preserving the Jewish way of life in our country. This surely works against the charity’s objectives.
It is also worth pointing out that some charities use an artificial mechanism to get around the law on a charity not engaging in irrelevant political activity. Such charities have two entities. One is a charitable trust, the other is a separate limited company - both often with similar names, only the legal form is different. They claim all the political activities are done out of the limited company. As an example, this was relevant recently when the Board held a debate on the political situation in Israel. The event was held by its political arm and not through its charitable foundation.
Where charities have two such entities, the individuals representing both are usually largely the same people and when engaging in “political” activities they pass them off as being from the recognisable charity, as for the most part, they make no attempt to explain that the relevant press release is from the separate limited company. A member of the public would reasonably assume the release came from the charity.
This sham double-entity approach needs to be looked into by the Charity Commission. It might be a clever legal wriggle but it is clearly outside the intent of charity law and often deceives the public.
Gary Mond is a former senior Board of Deputies vice-president, who resigned from the body in January 2022. He now leads the National Jewish Assembly.