Brooks Newmark, the Minister for Civil Society, has been criticised for saying that charities should be "sticking to their knitting" and stay out of the "realm of politics".
Asked at a conference in London yesterday about whether he sympathised with the view of the Charity Commission board member Gwythian Prins, who said in an interview with Third Sector last year that charities should "stick to their knitting" and stay out of politics, Newmark said: "We really want to try to keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realm of politics. Some 99.9 per cent do exactly that. When they stray into the realm of politics, that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money.
"The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others."
He subsequently issued a statement yesterday afternoon clarifying that he was talking about party politics and reaffirming charities’ right to campaign.
"Charities, with all their expertise, have an important role to play in helping to shape government policy," the statement said. "While they have the right to campaign, they should stay out of the realm of party politics."
Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister for civil society, said Newmark, who was appointed in July, had misunderstood charities.
"Telling charities to stick to their knitting is patronising and deeply offensive, especially at a time when they are picking up the pieces from this government's unfair policies," she said.
"Charities play a vital role in our democracy, challenging government, informing policy and holding politicians to account. If the government is causing harm to their beneficiaries, charities don't just have a right but a duty to say so."
Frances Crook, director of the crime-reduction charity the Howard League for Penal Reform, said on Twitter: "Incredibly insulting for charities minister to tell civil society to 'stick to its knitting', and I think sexist too."
"Does new charities minister think we live in a Downton land handing out baskets of home-made pudding and socks to the poor?"
Ben Phillips, campaigns director at Oxfam, said: "We work to improve the lives of millions. When we find something that policymakers need to address, it is our duty to tell them and tell the public."
Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, defended Newmark’s position. He said he had had a meeting with the minister yesterday afternoon at which Newmark had made it clear that he was not challenging charities’ right to campaign.
"He was making the point that this cannot stray into party politics," Bubb wrote on his blog. "And of course he is right."
Bubb said there was confusion in some parts about what the boundary was between being political and being partisan. "But to be fair to our new minister, though he might have been more careful in what he said in the context of all the rows on the lobbying act, he did take pains to clarify what he meant."
Bubb said his judgement was that the sector had "an ally in our new minister".
"He is not attacking our right to campaign, and we can take his words as encouragement to keep speaking truth to power."