Regulatory alert for think tanks – charitable education

A number of our clients have expressed concern about a regulatory alert issued on 7th December 2018 by the Charity Commission “to remind trustees of their legal obligations and duties to retain balance and neutrality in their research work and publications”.

Charities, Education

The alert was accompanied by a letter from Charity Commission Chief Executive Helen Stephenson CBE, explaining that the advice was being issued under Section 15(2) of the Charities Act 2011, which empowers the Commission to give such advice or guidance with respect to the administration of charities as it considers appropriate in connection with its function to encourage and facilitate the better administration of charities. She also expressed an expectation that charitable think tanks should draw the new advice to the attention of all trustees “in order to consider it carefully, including discussing it at a future board meeting, to ensure compliance with charity law” and, worryingly, suggested that ignoring the advice “could be deemed as misconduct or mismanagement and will be assessed accordingly”.

We share the concerns of some of our clients with an interest in this area, including concerns that:

  • The tone of the new guidance seems to be at odds with recent Government statements about the important contribution that charities can and should make to public debates, with Theresa May recently pledging to ensure that the wording of contracts and grant agreements did not prevent charities from speaking out against government policy, and new Minister for Civil Society Mims Davies this week stating that “Independence and freedom of speech are absolutely vital in this sector” and “government should never seek to stifle debate and prevent legitimate criticism”.
  • The guidance places an undue emphasis on ensuring that the “outputs” of a charitable think tank (such as research reports, articles and seminars) are “balanced and neutral”, which we consider to be an unrealistic and undesirable requirement of charitable education. Educational research will inevitably reach conclusions and the research would often be of limited value if that was not the case. The relevant requirement of educational research is, in our view, better expressed in the Commission’s guidance on The Advancement of Education for the Public Benefit, which provides that where research reaches conclusions, those conclusions should be “based on evidence and analysis”.
  • The guidance implies that researchers should not be “linked to a particular view or opinion”, which seems to ignore the practical reality that many academics and researchers will be linked to particular schools of thoughts, as a result of their body of work. In our view, the key issue is that any assumptions underlying a research product should be clearly explained and the conclusions derived from a clear, educational process of analysis, allowing the reader to make up their own mind on whether they agree with the assumptions and resulting conclusions.
  • The guidance also implies that, at think tank events, it will be unacceptable if “the audience is only addressed by people with the same views on a topic”. This seems to ignore both the practical reality that educational lectures are regularly given by a single academic or expert (such as in charitable universities and other seats of learning) and also that it will often be unreasonable to view a single event in isolation, rather than within a broader programme of output.

The guidance is clearly relevant to charitable think tanks, but some of the broader issues it raises in relation to charitable education will also be of interest to a range of other educational charities.

If you would like to be involved in any discussions relating to the new guidance and potentially help us prepare a response on behalf of our clients, please contact Simon Steeden or Luke Fletcher at [email protected] or [email protected].

This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of December 17, 2018.