1980s >> 1980 >> no-908-april-1980

The Briefing Column: A bitter charity

Charity is commonly understood as acts of generosity towards the less fortunate and as such it appeals to both our sense of morality and feelings of obligation. But such an interpretation fails to recognise that only certain activities can be judged as being charitable and this has been the case since the Statute of Charitable Uses (1601) and the Mortmain and Charitable Uses Act (1888).


Charities today are expected to be concerned with the relief of poverty, the advancement of learning, the support of religion, and other acts not covered by the first three. What is not a charitable act is any activity of a political nature. The Charity Commission has been in existence since 1853, to ensure that charities do not indulge in activities which are not “charitable”. This body, whose existence was perpetuated under the Charities Act (1960), is expected to promote the effective use of charitable resources and make effective the work of charities in meeting the needs designated by the trust.


The Report of the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales (1969) states the legal position with regard to political activity. The Commission argued that: “a well-established principle of charity law is that a trust for the attainment of a political object is not a valid charitable trust”. It was denied that propaganda could contribute to the advancement of learning as it is understood within charity law—and of course the dissemination of any information of a political nature is propaganda. The commissioners claimed to appreciate the reasons some charities felt the need to influence policies but pointed out that charities must nevertheless work within the confines of the legal status quo.


In other words, a situation may be unacceptable, but we can only attempt to patch it up. It must not be seen as politically unacceptable, for that would involve removing the very causes which have given rise to the status quo within which the unacceptable exists. We can now begin to appreciate that the work of charity is to straighten out the ragged edges of the capitalist system while refusing to alter its basis and structure.


The Report of the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales (1978) attacked the activities of War on Want, Oxfam and Christian Aid Division. War on Want was criticised for undertaking research “into the root causes of poverty which lay in the social, economic and political structures of countries” and Oxfam was rebuked for indulging in “political propaganda as defined by the courts”. Of the activities of Christian Aid Division the report states that:


“it seeks to finance political action, mobilise public opinion, and effect structural change within societies, in an attempt to tackle those causes of poverty which lie in the economic, social and political structures of communities. We have advised the Trustees of the Charity that such activities are not within their objects nor within the scope of charitable endeavour as understood in this country”.


For the year 1978 there were 129,212 charities registered with the Charity Commission; for the most part their activities are a supplement to government programmes, in that they supplied services not provided by the state. This massive mopping-up operation highlights the failure of capitalism to provide for the needs of its people. At the same time charitable activity distracts attention from the true cause of our problems—a society in which the overwhelming majority, the working class, have only their labour power to sell on the market.


Charities delude workers into thinking that the problems created by capitalism can be solved within that system rather than pointing out that those problems are endemic to it. The activities of the charities are simply an expression of the well-meaning but impotent rage at the problems of capitalism instead of at the system itself.


Philip Bentley