From time to time ministers do or say things that simply make your jaw drop. A case in point came earlier this week when Brandon Lewis, the minister for local government, issued a press notice headed "Minister sends tough message to end high street harassment by fundraisers." In the release he was quoted saying "chugging techniques are deeply unpleasant" and "aggressive fundraisers risk turning our high streets into an unwelcome gauntlet of bolshie bucket shakers and clipboard-waving connivers." He also called street fundraising a "menace."
It would be bad enough if he had said this kind of thing off the cuff, in a discussion or an interview, or when caught off his guard. But this was a formal statement issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, presumably drawn up after some thought and with advice from his private office and press office – which makes it far worse. At the Office for Civil Society, whose brief includes spreading a sector-aware message across Whitehall, they are probably holding their heads in their hands.
Not everyone likes street fundraising, but it is a legal, legitimate and effective way for charities to raise money, and the concerns that have been raised about it are mostly being dealt with by setting up site-management agreements between councils and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (whose name Lewis got wrong, calling them an "authority"). Things have quietened down in recent years.
Particularly offensive is the minister’s attack on the character of street fundraisers, using phrases that come over like an undergraduate parody of alliterative tabloid language – "bolshie bucket-shakers" and "clipboard-waving connivers." There may be isolated incidents of aggressive or rude behaviour (as in other spheres of life - parliament, for example) but most street fundraisers are conscientious, respectful, young and idealistic. It deplorable for a minister to denigrate them like this.
The irony of it all is that Lewis was actually announcing a decision not to permit Birmingham City Council to have a by-law that would allow it to regulate street fundraising itself instead of following the example of most councils and setting up a site-management agreement with the PFRA.
This was a reasonable decision and one that will be welcome to charities. But instead of making a straight announcement that would cast him as a rational man, it seems the minister couldn’t resist trying to spin it as some kind of get-tough measure on his part. He appeared to suggest that working with the PFRA was actually more restrictive a measure than a by-law, which is the opposite of the truth. As a piece of manipulative and intolerant populism, this is surely up for a prize.