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Yes, political think tanks deserve their charitable status

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This piece was first published in The Times on 12 March 2024. 

Think tanks are critical to our political ecosystem. Their work is valued by parliamentarians and those interested in public policy. Their model of policy development and scrutiny is present in most established democratic nations, where solutions to the toughest challenges are researched, analysed and debated with gusto.

It is because of the important role of think tanks in informing debate and educating the public that many of them hold charitable status in England and Wales. Yet the nature of these charities is too often called into question.

Some argue that think tanks are inherently political organisations and, accordingly, don’t deserve the benefits that charitable status brings. I disagree. Charitable think tanks make an enormously positive contribution to intellectual debate. That is a good thing, whatever intellectual tradition they come from.

Like any charity, think tanks are free to engage in political activity where doing so supports their charitable purposes. Despite this, some have sought to co-opt the Charity Commission into campaigns against think tanks with which they disagree.

I want to be clear that, as long as a think tank is not endorsing political parties or undertaking inappropriate political activity, the commission, as regulator, has no interest in stifling their work and thus will rarely intervene when allegations of political bias are made. This is a key part of the fair, balanced and independent approach of the commission.

We expect their research to be open-minded and their conclusions not to be predetermined. But we are unlikely to consider that a progressive think tank is in breach of charity law by the fact that it may favour left-of-centre solutions, and likewise with others elsewhere on the political spectrum.

Similarly, it is not a regulatory matter if charity think tank staff join any future government, or if staff leave government to join a charity think tank. Ex-politicians and officials have a lot to offer the voluntary sector (think of David Miliband at the International Rescue Committee), just as many former charity employees have made strong contributions to politics (think of the current charities minister Stuart Andrew, formerly of the British Heart Foundation).

I hope charity think tanks can continue to carry out the work they do unhindered by unfounded complaints made to the commission about the alleged non-charitable nature of their work — and continue to be the valuable part of our democracy they are trusted to be.

This article was published on the same day as an event held at the Institute for Government, titled: ‘General Election: How can think tanks shape policy and political debate?’ You can watch or listen to the discussion.

The event was attended by Orlando Fraser and three think tank leaders, and chaired by former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, who described the Times article above asa really significant step in terms of helping everybody understand where we are and giving that permission to do the appropriate things that think tanks need to do in the run up to an election.”

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  1. Comment by Edward Hodgson posted on

    Your comment is blatantly political and , to be honest, disgraceful.
    Is this why so many ‘charities’ are left wing mouthpieces?
    Are there any other‘charities’ who espouse opposing political views?
    I would wager not. But, l would love to hear from you with the Charities Commission’s explanation and its own views. However, the question of bias is overwhelming.
    Nevertheless I look forward to hearing from you.

    Yours sincerely
    E. Hodgson

  2. Comment by Angela Guest posted on

  3. Comment by Angela Guest posted on

  4. Comment by Paul Settles posted on

    All well and good to robustly defend charity think tanks. However, we should have full transparency about funding of such organisations.

    If a think tank is pushing strongly for higher union membership should we not know if the think tank is funded by unions?

    Similarly if a think tank is pushing hard against action to counter the climate and ecological crises should we not know if said think tank is funded by fossil fuel/climate change denying interests?

    Without such information we are left to second guess if the research really if open minded, as their charitable status requires.


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