MPs will quiz charity chiefs on 'vile' fundraising techniques, PASC chair Bernard Jenkin says

Bernard Jenkin on ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme
Bernard Jenkin on ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme

MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee will take evidence from charity bosses during an investigation into what the committee’s chair said were "vile and disgusting" fundraising techniques.

Recent scrutiny of charity fundraising was heightened yesterday when the Daily Mail newspaper carried the front-page headline "Shamed: Charity cold call sharks", devoting four pages to the findings of a journalist who went undercover at the fundraising agency GoGen.

As a result of the wide-ranging allegations by the Mail, the Information Commissioner's Office has said it will investigate GoGen and four well-known charities over alleged breaches of Telephone Preference Service and privacy rules.

GoGen told Third Sector that it rejected some of the allegations, but recognised some "totally unacceptable" practices and has since said that four members of staff have been suspended.

Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme today, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the PASC, said it would bring charity chiefs before the committee to discuss the matter.

He said: "There’s no question that we will be doing an inquiry into this in the autumn."

He said charities were in the "last-chance saloon", and said of bad fundraising practices: "It really is vile and disgusting that this should be done in their name."

Jenkin said the PASC had picked up on concerns about charity cold-calling in 2013, but had not looked into them fully. "We’re very, very disappointed that this is still going on," he said, adding that unless the sector acted and created a "serious self-regulatory body", the government "will have to bring forward legislation". He said the government might wait on the PASC’s final report, but ministers "may well choose to act on their own volition".

The Daily Mail today ran articles about Mark Astarita, James Phillips, Tim Hunter and Paul Farthing, the heads of fundraising at the British Red Cross, Macmillan Cancer Support, Oxfam and the NSPCC respectively, alongside an article that called on charities to clean up their acts.

The spread included an image, taken at the Institute of Fundraising’s annual convention in 2012, of Astarita dressed as a post box with a note saying "no junk mail ever". The paper said his outfit "appeared to ridicule the notices put up by desperate homeowners plagued by begging letters and cold calls".

Commenting on the practices highlighted by the Mail, Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, said: "These practices are indefensible and immoral and cannot be tolerated. I am in discussions with the industry’s regulators and have made it absolutely clear that charities and fundraisers must take their responsibilities to vulnerable people and the wider public more seriously. It is time to clean up the sector and restore public trust."

William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, said the story raised "very serious concerns", and welcomed the Fundraising Standards Board’s investigation. He said: "Public confidence in the self-regulation of charity fundraising requires that serious allegations of unscrupulous practices are investigated swiftly and thoroughly."

According to the Mail, Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, has written to Shawcross to call for an "urgent and robust" inquiry into fundraising.

As Third Sector reported yesterday, three GoGen clients – including Oxfam, one of the four charities implicated in the ICO investigation – have put their relationship with the agency on hold pending internal investigations.

Third Sector has since been told by a spokesman for Save the Children, which was mentioned in the story, that the charity has "taken the decision not to use GoGen’s services for future campaigns". Earlier this week the charity pledged to stop cold calling and sharing data with other agencies.

The charities Caudwell Children, a charity for sick and disabled children that is mentioned in a Mail follow-up story today, and the Royal London Society for Blind People, have also said they had previously worked with GoGen but would not do so in the future.

The Mail devotes part of today’s front page to the story and says in an editorial that none of the regulatory bodies have adequate powers. "The last thing anyone wants is to discourage the warm-hearted from charitable giving," it says. "But until we have clear rules, policed by a single regulator with teeth, isn’t this just what bullying fundraisers will bring upon themselves?"

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