Charity campaigning regulations are allowing opponents of charities’ policies to raise questions about their integrity, according to the director of communications at Oxfam.
Jack Lundie was speaking from the audience at a panel debate on the future of charity campaigning hosted by the PR agency Weber Shandwick in London today.
He said that opponents of a charity’s policies could "use the mechanics and the ambiguity in the regulation to silence us or to raise questions about our integrity and about the proper and appropriate use of charitable funds".
Last year, Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, complained to the Charity Commission about a tweet from Oxfam that said the government’s austerity measures were forcing more people into poverty.
The commission’s report on the case, published six months after the complaint was made, said that the charity "should have done more to avoid any misperception of political bias".
Lundie referred to Burns’s complaint and asked whether the panel felt that the "regulatory devices" were working well when people who took exception to the content of charity communications could complain to the Charity Commission on grounds of inappropriate political activity.
He said that although Oxfam was completely cleared of engaging in any political activity, it was nevertheless caught on a technicality, which allowed the Daily Mail to publish an article under the headline "Oxfam is political".
Lundie said: "I’m wondering whether the panel thinks the regulation is working well or whether there needs to be more clarity so that whenever we make a bold claim our opponents don't quickly drift into tired, well-rehearsed speeches about chief executive pay or charity staff focusing more on rural areas."
His comments came in response to remarks made from the platform at the same event by the Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, who said that international development charities were causing prices to rise in the capital cities of developing countries because most of their staff were based there instead of in the rural areas where there was more need.
Elphicke claimed these charities were announcing substantial pay rises despite the austerity felt in the rest of the country, and that their administration costs were also high, causing disquiet among the public.
On Oxfam's tweet, Elphicke said he had been concerned about its accuracy rather than its political nature. He said it was unfair for the charity to point to zero-hours contracts, as it did in the tweet, when some politicians, himself included, had been campaigning for reform in this area. It was also untrue to say there was high unemployment when the country was undergoing a jobs revolution, said Elphicke.
Responding to Lundie, Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the Charity Commission, urged people to read what the regulator wrote about the Oxfam tweet. "We concluded that the charity hadn't done anything wrong, but said it needed to take more care," she said.