Interview: Charlie Elphicke

The Tory MP says many will be horrified at his views on the sector - but he's not in politics to be liked

Charlie Elphicke
Charlie Elphicke

Charlie Elphicke, the Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, is firmly behind the voluntary sector on the controversial 'philanthropy tax' - the plan introduced in the Budget to cap the level of tax reliefs for charity donors. "I hope that it will be looked at again," says Elphicke, a tax lawyer by profession. "It was brought in at the last minute because Nick Clegg wanted a tycoon tax. I suspect Clegg didn't think through the detail enough to realise the knock-on effect on the third sector."

This attitude might win him some popularity with charities, but his strongly held views on a range of other issues affecting the sector have in the past had the opposite effect - and they will probably continue to do so.

He courted opprobrium at the Conservative Party conference last year by accusing charities of "business protection campaigning" when they spoke out against public spending cuts. Several charity chief executives said his comments were offensive.

He also sparked controversy when, as a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, he criticised charities that spent money on advertising and campaigns.

But Elphicke says unpopularity is a price he is willing to pay for starting a debate on matters he is passionate about. "I'm not in politics to be liked," he says. "I'm in politics to be there for the least well-off in society. When it comes to charities, my passionate belief is that they should be doing more at the front line and less in the back office."

On the surface, this sounds uncontroversial. But the details of Elphicke's vision for the sector are at odds with many of the orthodoxies of the past decade.

"Too many charities are too dependent on government money, and on delivering contracts for the state," he says. "That contaminates and compromises the entire sector. Charities need to be independent and get their funding from philanthropists and donors rather than the taxpayer."

Elphicke is critical of the government's emphasis on charities bidding for contracts to run public services. "If you look at the Work Programme, I don't think that is the role charities should be playing," he says.

"Delivering these contracts is a business. My view is that if you want to be in outsourcing, go and work for Capita, and if you want to help the needy you should be focused on raising voluntary funds.

"You should have a strong ethos, a strong sense of mission and go and make that difference with the funds that you raise rather than being contracted to the government."

Elphicke is also concerned about senior pay in the voluntary sector. "Some charity chief executives are paid £150,000 or more," he says. "What happened to the sense of vocation? If someone is working for a charity, you would think they'd be more keen to ensure more money goes to the front line than that they personally are very well paid."

He says he makes a habit of reading the annual reports and accounts of some of Britain's larger charities, "just to see where their money is coming from and what they're doing with it". Based on this, he says, he is worried about the high level of what he describes as "administration costs".

"Some charities are very high on management, marketing and lobbying costs," he says. "Would that money not be better used to help people?"

He extends this line of criticism to charities that get involved in campaigning. "The mission of the sector is helping the needy, not talking about doing it, and it's something I feel quite passionate about. Charities should be walking the walk, not talking the talk."

Elphicke says the Charity Commission should take a much more interventionist role. "To my mind, the commission is a paper tiger," he says. "What it should be doing is moving funds from underperforming charities to those that will be more active. And it should be saying that some administration costs are too high."

He says the commission should be funded entirely by charities, rather than the state. Asked whether payments to the regulator would count as an administration cost, he says: "I'd see it as a more certain form of funding for the commission, and I think that's more important. The cost would be only a small fraction of the amount charities get back in tax reliefs every year."

Elphicke says he knows his comments will be contentious: "I'm quite certain that many people in the third sector will read whatever you write with absolute horror, but others will say that we do need to discuss these issues."

- See Editorial

CV

2010: Elected as Conservative MP for Dover & Deal

2006: Partner, Hunton & Williams LLP

2001: Partner, Reed Smith LLP

1994-1998: Councillor, London Borough of Lambeth

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