Ministers are grown-ups and should be able to handle criticism

The latest attempt to gag charities reminds Debra Allcock Tyler of her squabbling nephews calling each other 'stinky poo-pants'

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I love my young nephews, nieces and godchildren. It's so entertaining, observing them learn social skills, especially at the toddler stage, when squabbles break out because "he looked at me funny, Debs!" or "she said my name wrong" or "he called me a stinky poo-pants".

Of course, learning how to deal with what people say about you is part of growing up. Realising that feedback is useful, how to separate what is valid from what is just being mean, and how to respond appropriately, are vital skills for us as adults.

Which is why the latest proposal from the government to gag, in effect, any charity that is in receipt of government money is so reminiscent of the latest squabble between my youngest nephews, aged five and three. It's like a bunch of grown adults whining "mummy, the nasty charity was mean to me!" The idiocy of this proposal lies in the idea that we are allowed to help people who are disadvantaged or excluded by a policy decision, but we can't help government to make decisions that don't disadvantage them in the first place!

It is so tempting to make this a battle of the righteous and enlightened (us) versus the blinkered and wilfully ignorant (them) - to shout and scream that we're right and they're wrong while the minister sticks his fingers in his ears and mutters mulishly about austerity or the deficit or some other thing.

Entertaining as that might be, I suspect that what we actually need to do is help our government recognise the short-sightedness of this approach and the damage it is probably doing to our citizens. We need to remind them why our voices can be so supportive of their work, especially if we are critical of them. No one ever learned or improved what they do by not being told the truth about where they were going wrong.

We need to remind the government about the thing: to point out that if you have to do a thing, and there are a great many infinitely more experienced and better placed people than you who could give you advice, data and insight about and into the thing, wouldn't you want that? Or if you had to do a thing and you were doing the thing, but the thing wasn't working, wouldn't it be better to find out why it wasn't working and then make it work?

And what if you have to do a thing and you are sure the thing is the thing, but actually it isn't? Instead, the thing is a person -someone's mother, someone's child, alone, terrified, with nobody to turn to, nowhere to go, and nobody to tell them "it'll be ok; we'll take care of you". What if that was actually the thing, but you hadn't realised it? And if you knew, you would fix it? But you didn't know because you were so frightened of criticism that you prevented the very people that could help you from telling you the truth.

That's why we teach our young not only to listen to feedback but also to actively seek it out so they can be the best they can be. We just need to remind our government that they're adults now, and if we call them stinky poo-pants in public they should be able to handle it.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change.

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