Charities that engage in campaigning activities without making this explicitly clear when soliciting donations from the public are doing the equivalent of "stealing from the church poor box", the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has said.
Speaking at a fringe event about whether the state should fund pressure groups, which was hosted by the Institute of Economic Affairs at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Hannan, who represents South East England in the European Parliament, said charities were welcome to campaign about the issues they felt strongly about but they should not then market their activities in such a way that supporters believed their donations would go directly towards programme work.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with advocacy," said Hannan. "If people feel strongly that free trade is a bad thing, let them make that argument. If people feel strongly that we should be boycotting Israel or the Israeli settlement, let them make that argument. If people want to lobby on climate change, great.
"But don’t do all of those things and then have a picture of a happy African family on your website saying if you give £5 it will buy farm tools for this family in Zimbabwe – because that is the equivalent of stealing from the church poor box."
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who was also on the panel, said the rules on charity campaigning were clear.
He cited the case of Oxfam, which the Charity Commission last year concluded should have "done more to avoid any misperception of political bias" in a tweet about the coalition government’s austerity measures, as showing that the rules were working and were being enforced by the regulator.
Hannan said the rules clearly did not work because Oxfam was still being funded by government. "They can go right up to the point as long as they stop just short of saying ‘vote Labour’," he said.
He said the proof that the charity had been political was that nobody at the event would have doubted which party Oxfam might have been alluding to in the tweet, which was sent out in June 2014 and read: "The Perfect Storm, starring: zero-hour contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment, childcare costs."
The Charity Commission gave the charity what Etherington described as a "rap over the knuckles" for the tweet in December.
Asked if he held this position because he was envious of the widespread support for the Labour Party among charities, Hannan said: "Do I seriously need to say that I also think it would be wrong for pro-Conservative NGOs to be receiving taxpayers’ money for advocacy work? That’s very revealing about the mindset of the people on the other side – do they assume this is just a partisan view?"
The panel also included Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, who published a paper in 2012 calling on the government to stop giving funding to "sock puppet" charities that lobby it. There were also representatives from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the political blog Guido Fawkes.
Hannan began his segment with a video he had produced about how many of the charities that had pledged their support for the UK to retain its European Union membership had received significant funding from the EU.
The video said that every year the EU provided €2bn to favoured NGOs, with the pro-EU charities Oxfam and ActionAid and the environmental campaigning body Friends of the Earth receiving millions of pounds respectively.
It concluded: "The next time you hear an NGO supporting the EU, ask yourself, is it really independent or is it a sock puppet?"
Hannan said some charities, such as the RNLI, "heroically" did not receive state funding and carried out activities, such as lifeboat rescue, that would be carried out by the state anywhere else in the world. "Those are the people I think we should remember in all this as the real heroes."