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No sacred cows

Charities are allowed to be political – if they’re left wing

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

On Monday, I appeared on Good Morning Britain to debate President Trump’s forthcoming state visit with Asad Rehman, the executive director of War on Want. I was surprised to learn that War on Want, a charity in receipt of lottery funding, is a partner in the Stop Trump Coalition, the group behind the anti-Trump demonstration last year. It is hoping to organise an even bigger protest next month.

The reason this came as a shock is because the Charity Commission issued an ‘official warning’ to the Institute of Economic Affairs in February for a report on how to create a prosperous post-Brexit UK that wasn’t sufficiently ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ and therefore fell afoul of the rules regarding ‘political activity’. The IEA is the second thinktank to be told off by the regulator for being too ‘political’ in the past 12 months. Last year, it ordered the Legatum Institute to take down a report on UK trade policy that, like the IEA report, argued for a particular post-Brexit strategy.

The regulator’s targeting of these thinktanks is a little baffling, given that it hasn’t reprimanded other charities, such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, which have published reports on the UK’s post–Brexit trade policy. Where was the ‘official warning’ for the Resolution Foundation, a charity that published a report claiming the vote for Brexit had left the average UK household £1,500 worse off? Could it be because the IEA and Legatum are right-of-centre, whereas the IPPR and the Resolution Foundation, which is run by a former Labour party policy director, are left-of-centre? It would be ironic if a UK government regulator wasn’t being ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ in its choice of which charities to reprimand for being insufficiently ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’. But it certainly looks that way — particularly when you dig into the activities of War on Want.


The executive director’s Twitter feed makes his politics clear. On 20 April, Rehman tweeted: ‘Tony Blair is like that embarrassing old white man who you wish would just shut up and stop spouting racist rubbish.’ In another tweet he lists his ‘campaigning passions’ as ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-fascism’, ‘anti-capitalism’, ‘climate justice’ and ‘smashing patriarchy’. The UK’s wealth, he tells us, derives from ‘slavery, colonialism and neoliberalism’. He chastised the Extinction Rebellion protesters for not being clearer that the way to combat global warming is ‘ending neoliberal capitalism’. Rehman’s unrelenting hostility to capitalism strikes me as perverse, given that War on Want’s objective is to end global poverty and the free enterprise system has lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990. Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising. In case you haven’t worked out Rehman’s British political leanings, he tweeted a picture of himself with ‘principled and dedicated comrade’ Jeremy Corbyn.

Admittedly, that’s Asad Rehman’s Twitter feed, not War on Want’s, but the latter recently urged its 34,000 followers to join the anti-Trump protest on 4 June. The charity, which has received almost £400,000 from Comic Relief in the past two years, also published a report on trade policy entitled ‘The Trans-Pacific Powergrab: Why joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be bad for people and planet — and the UK’. Not ‘political’ enough for the Charity Commission?

Another of Rehman’s ‘campaigning passions’ is ‘Palestine’, and War on Want’s stream of anti-Zionist campaign messages prompted a group called UK Lawyers For Israel to lodge a complaint with the Charity Commission in September. It accused War on Want of ‘misleading and anti-Semitic propaganda’ and called for an investigation into its connections with NGOs linked to terrorist organisations, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which aims ‘to destroy the state of Israel’, according to its manifesto. So far, the regulator hasn’t publicly responded.

I asked the Commission why it hadn’t given War on Want so much as a wrist slap, given the treatment it has meted out to the IEA and Legatum? ‘We will be contacting the charity for further information in order to assess these concerns,’ said a spokesman. ‘Political purposes cannot be charitable in law; where concerns are raised with us that suggest a charity is not complying with our guidance on campaigning and political activity, we deal with these robustly in line with our regulatory and risk framework.’ I won’t hold my breath.

Update – The Charity Commission has been in touch with the following statement: ‘We assess all concerns about charities impartially and consistently. We have taken regulatory action against a range of charitable think tanks, and issued a regulatory alert to all charitable think tanks to warn them against engaging in unacceptable political activity. We have been in ongoing engagement with War on Want in connection with a range of regulatory concerns, and will be assessing the new matters brought to us as part of our ongoing case.’

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.


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