Martin Edwards: The view of the sector in parliament is rooted in a Dickensian understanding of charities

Charities would be limited to crocheting woolly hats and blankets if MPs had their way, writes our columnist

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

So now we know. According to a recent survey by research consultancy nfpSynergy, more than three-quarters of Conservative MPs think it is a negative trait for charities to "be political". Seventy-eight per cent think it is a negative thing (as do 23 per cent of Labour and 38 per cent of Liberal Democrat MPs). None of the Tories polled think being political is a positive trait for a charity.

Right, where to start?

It’s clear from the report that MPs do not want charities to be party political. Fair enough. But as to not wanting them to be political either – campaigning and lobbying, in other words – well, it’s a view rooted in a Dickensian understanding of charities: that people who do that sort of thing should restrict themselves to handing out food to the hungry or suchlike. Then again, several ministers don’t like to talk about the need for food banks either, do they? Too political, you see.

So we can’t do food. Or drugs (not that I do them anyway, officer) because they might also be indicative of an underclass in our society. Maybe we should stick to crocheting woolly hats and blankets – but only if we don’t hand them out at food banks. And only if the hats don’t have slogans on them like "Class war" or "please can we have an amendment to the disability requirements from local authorities on short breaks for carers". That would be a political woolly hat, and on our heads it would be. 

It’s possible that the survey is all just a misunderstanding. Sometimes that’s the only logical deduction. I recall one that was conducted by the Charity Commission among 500 Welsh charities, in which 94 per cent of trustees answering said they felt they behaved with integrity. This begs the question: what the hell did the other 6 per cent think they were doing? Money laundering for the Pontypool mafia?

It’s possible with the nfpSynergy survey that the MPs misunderstood the question or answered the opposite of what they intended. Or maybe they can’t read too well and simply put their ‘X’ in random boxes. Elections are still done that way, after all. But I’m going to assume – and you might not all go with me on this – that they can read and that they did understand.

Which leaves us with the scenario that a great many MPs, especially those of a blue hue, apparently think that it is fine for an individual to campaign on a social issue, but if that person founds a charity around the issue because they believe in trustee teamwork and in public accountability for their actions, then they should jolly well stop campaigning and start crocheting instead.

And if that person happens to work for a major drinks or betting company and employs Lobbyists R Us Ltd to lobby for their corporate interests, that’s fine – just so long as they don’t talk about charities.  

A couple of years ago I took part in a lobbying campaign for children’s hospices. It helped secure £10m of annual funding, ultimately helping a great many seriously ill children. Other charities can point to their own, bigger breakthroughs – such as Age UK’s campaign to abolish the mandatory retirement age, or the British Heart Foundation’s campaign to ban cigarette vending machines because of their ease of access by under-age purchasers.

The conclusion from these and many other honorable examples is just bleeding obvious. Charities can do more than provide hands-on help. They can dare to dream of forging changes in the law or in the funding landscape, so that many more people can be helped. But remember to bring your knitting needles when you have those meetings, so that it looks like you’re doing something charitable.     

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia's House

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