08 June 2009

Political Purpose

Is Common Purpose a political organisation?

It may or may not be: the question is whether or not it is a political organisation with respect to the law surrounding charities. Since Common Purpose is a charitable organisation, if it is found to have political objectives it cannot be registered as a charity in England and Wales.

According to guidance from the Charity Commission,

"... A ‘political purpose’ means any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government or local authorities, whether in this country or abroad. This means that a political purpose cannot meet the public benefit requirement and so cannot be a charitable purpose. However, charities do have a great deal of freedom and flexibility to undertake political activities and campaigning as a way of carrying out their charitable aims."

Deciding whether or not a charity is political can sometimes be extremely difficult. In Southwood and Parsons v. Her Majesty's Attorney General [1998] EWHC Ch 297 Carnwath J said,

"13. To determine what is a political purpose, it is helpful to refer to the review of the earlier authorities by Slade J in McGovern -v- Attorney-General [1982] 1 Ch 321. The case concerned a trust set up by Amnesty International to administer those parts of its activities which were considered by its advisers to qualify as charitable. This view was rejected by the Court in relation to two of the stated purposes: the purpose of seeking release of prisoners of conscience, and the purpose of procuring the abolition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These objects, however laudable, were held to be political in nature, because they involved seeking the alteration of current legislation or Government policy in the countries involved.

14. Slade J referred to statements of high authority that "political" purposes cannot be charitable (for example per Lord Parker in Bowman -v- Secular Society [1917] AC 406, 442). He summarised his conclusions as to the effect of the relevant authorities relating to trusts for political purposes :

"(1) Even if it otherwise appears to fall within the spirit and intendment of the preamble to the Statute of Elizabeth, a trust for political purposes falling within the spirit of Lord Parker's pronouncement in Bowman's case can never be regarded as being for the public benefit in the manner which the law regards as charitable. (2) Trusts for political purposes falling within the spirit of this pronouncement include, inter alia, trusts of which a direct and principal purpose is either (i) to further the interests of a particular political party; or (ii) to procure changes in the laws of this country; or (iii) to procure changes in the laws of a foreign country; or (iv) to procure a reversal of government policy or of particular decisions of governmental authorities in this country; or (v) to procure a reversal of government policy or of particular decisions of governmental authorities in a foreign country.

This categorisation is not intended to be an exhaustive one, but I think it will suffice for the purposes of this judgment; I would further emphasise that it is directed to trusts of which the purposes are political. As will appear later, the mere fact that trustees may be at liberty to employ political means in furthering the non-political purposes of a trust does to necessarily render it non-charitable"

The case is worth reading in full. It explores the boundary between education and politics, particularly,

"... in re Koepplers Will Trust [1986] Ch 423. ... a project, known as Wilton Park, under which name were promoted conferences for politicians, academics, civil servants and others, relating to political, economic and social issues of common interest, with a view to promoting co-operation in Europe and the West in general. It was held in the Court of Appeal that the project was sufficiently well defined to be the subject of a valid charitable gift, and that the objects were charitable in nature. In particular, the project was held to be educational in nature notwithstanding the "political flavour" of some of the matters discussed."

This would give Common Purpose room to argue that they are not a political organisation.

Common Purpose, however, argue that one of their charitable objectives is education. I suspect that this would be where their weakness lies.

Of course, if all you do is whine and bleat to Suzi Leather rather than going to the courts, forever a charity they will remain.

Southwood & Anor v Attorney General [2000] EWCA Civ 204 was an appeal and is included here for completeness.

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