What is charitable education?

The status of The Institute of Economic Affairs is under the spotlight again. Our Trustee, Andrew Purkis, delves further...

The Charity Commission has recently confirmed that charitable education for the public benefit must inform the public in a balanced and neutral way. It should not, they say, comprise selectively presented information that is designed to promote a particular point of view.

The Legatum Institute Foundation recently fell foul of this guidance with its report “Brexit Inflection Point: The Pathway to Prosperity” published on 4 November 2017″. The Commission decided that it was OK for Legatum to have a free trade perspective as a starting point, but it was not OK to fail to make clear that there are multiple Brexit outcomes and that free trade is only one of a number of potential political outcomes that might be sought. It was not OK to fail to present balanced, neutral evidence and analysis. As a result, the Commission concludes that the report could be seen as promoting a particular political view for the aim of a particular outcome and recommending specific Government action that reflects this. That is inconsistent, says the Commission, with the purpose of charitable education.

I have written to Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, to suggest that this guidance is incompatible with the continuing charitable status of the free market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

The IEA produces a whole stream of reports, articles and verbal media contributions on highly controversial subjects, all with a view to shrinking the state and promoting free market solutions. They are not balanced and neutral. There is no consideration of the downsides of policies recommended by IEA reports nor of other desirable outcomes or alternatives. As I write to Helen Stephenson, “Whether the subject is the growth of obesity, the taxation of alcohol, public health policies, taxation, tax havens, Sock Puppets or solving the housing crisis by reducing planning controls, you will find in every case a one-sided and controversial contribution (whether adorned by footnotes or not) aimed at reducing the role of the state.” One of the latest is, in the words chosen by IEA, “a report debunking the myths surrounding the purposes of tax havens”. Does that sound like a balanced and neutral contribution? Remember the Commission’s findings for the wider sector from the Atlantic Bridge case in 2010: “One of the key features of advancing education or promoting research for the public benefit in charity law is that the education or research must not promote a position on a contested issue or area, unless that view is uncontroversial”. In my view, this is what the IEA does all the time.

To my mind, the reason for such frequent transgressions (as I see them) against the guidance is plain from reading the IEA’s website. This explains that the purpose of the IEA as understood by itself is not merely academic or intellectual but is also directed at securing lower taxes, lighter regulation and what they call “freedom” in education and health. It explains that all of its contributors and partners are, explicitly, looking out for ways of shrinking the state. That agenda is of its nature partly political, as defined by the Commission in its guidance on political activity. CC9 says that a charity cannot exist, either wholly or in part, for any purpose “directed at…securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions of central government, local authorities, or other public bodies”, eg the purpose of shrinking or weakening the state in different dimensions of public policy.

Like Widow Twankey, the IEA wears the clothes of an educational charity, but the reality beneath is different: an organisation with a partly political purpose and a controversial, predetermined viewpoint which it seeks to promote with vigorous consistency. This purpose might be good for public debate and pluralism, but it is not charitable.

I am leaving for another time the debate over another aspect of the IEA, which is its untransparent treatment of who funds its work. Its standards of transparency are far below those of many other well known charitable think tanks. The public does not know whether those funding its work might have a personal or financial interest in relation to tobacco, sugar, tax havens, alcoholic drink, and so forth. This is not good for public confidence in the nature of charities’ work as being exclusively for the benefit of the public. There are complex arguments about what could effectively and properly be done about this.

For now, the key question is this. If the IEA consistently breaches the guidance recently reaffirmed in the Legatum case, why should it remain recognised by the Charity Commission as an educational charity? There have been other cases where a charity originally properly registered as an educational charity turned out, in practice, not to act like one. An example is the Atlantic Bridge, registered as a charity in 2003, on which the Commission produced a critical report in 2010, on the grounds for example that “its activities promoted a particular point of view which was not uncontroversial, and were consequently not educational”. Atlantic Bridge was later dissolved by its Trustees.

I have asked Helen Stephenson to consider the issues relating to the IEA afresh, taking full account of the Commission’s conclusions in the Legatum case. It isn’t easy, but the integrity and consistency of the Commission’s guidance on both political activity and the nature of charitable education are precious commodities in a world of polarised, one sided opinions.

*This article was first published on Andrew’s website. You can read the full version here. The article doesn’t necessarily represent the views of DSC.