Matthew Sherrington: The attacks on charities aren't going to stop

Criticism of the The Trussell Trust, the anti-campaigning views of MPs, calls to redefine charity: it's all very patrician and Oliver Twist, says our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist".

A witty throw-away line? Hardly. Brazil’s Archbishop Helder Camara spoke those words in the dark days of military rule in the 1970s, when dictatorships across Latin America were taking it upon themselves to "disappear" their ideological opposition. And to them, that opposition included those speaking up for the poor. Churchmen were not immune. Oscar Romero, "Bishop of the Poor" in El Salvador, was assassinated in 1980.

I was reminded of this quote just before Christmas when Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith chose to attack the Trussell Trust, whose food banks now serve half a million people in the UK, for its "political messaging". A DWP spokesperson elaborated: "The Trussell Trust itself says it is opening three new food banks every week, so it's not surprising more people are using them". Of course - it’s a cynical supply-side strategy to expand their "market". Shame on them. Well, that’s some twisted logic.

But it’s not going away, is it, this relentless attack on the role and space of charities in today’s society. The sector has taken quite a battering over the last year. The lobbying bill is going through the Lords at the moment - an ill-thought-out pig’s ear of a piece of legislation, full of limits on charitable campaigning, if watered down as a result of a vocal backlash. Ministers are at pains to say such limits wouldn’t be put into effect because that’s not their intent, but they seem too lazy and in too much of a rush to make the legislation fit for purpose. Unlike pirates and their Pirate Code, we tend to assume laws are written as rules, not guidelines. Third Sector’s own poll suggests the sector remains far from happy.

Now it is reported that four in five Conservative MPs think charities shouldn’t be "political". In contrast, only 10 per cent of the public disagreed that "charities should be able to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to their work".

So what exactly does "political" mean? It’s rather telling, perhaps, that it is politicians who live in the fevered Westminster bubble who choose to view things through a "with us or against us" ideologically partisan lens. And don’t think it’s just the Tories. To spread the dismay, a third of LibDems and a quarter of Labour MPs also think charities shouldn’t be "political".

Charities can’t engage in party-politics already, quite rightly (unlike companies that can make donations to parties and MPs as part of their lobbying) so are politicians, who should know better, really conflating party-politics with the politics of every-day life – engaging in public policy, what citizenship and civil society are all about? Remember big society? That has turned out to add up to offloading public services for the most vulnerable on to local organisations, now expected to pick up the pieces while their funding is axed. And as the example of Trussell Trust shows, they are then told to shut up about the problem.  People speaking up for the poor might not be dismissed as communists these days, but whenever you hear a politician suggesting a charity is being political, the same thing is going on. No - they are not ignorantly conflating this with party politics. They mean you to shut up.

Poverty is not some benign natural state. As Nelson Mandela said, "fighting poverty is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice." In other sectors too, public policy can have a positive and negative impact on a charity’s service-using constituency. Of course it is legitimate for charities to campaign in the interests of their mission and contribute to those debates.  

Throw into the mix the chair of the Charity Commission William Shawcross’ recent call for a debate on "the definition of charity". On the face of it, this could be innocuous. Clarity is usually a good thing. Except that Shawcross has shown himself to be rather partisan himself, as I wrote for Third Sector here and here, and he is intentional in his interventions, so an agenda is not far behind.

The voluntary sector is a big tent. These days, the essential benefit of charity status is the tax-break. There are rules about what campaigning charities can do. Some campaigning organisations like Amnesty International already don’t have charitable status in the eyes of the taxman, though I doubt the general public sees much distinction, or cares. The US uses labels such as "non-profit", and "progressive" or "advocacy" for organisations that also engage in campaigning beyond service delivery. But essentially, they are divided the same as they are in the UK, whether they benefit from tax breaks or not, as a 501 (c3) or a 501 (c4). That’s tax language for you.

Where Shawcross, the lobbying bill and MPs all seem to be coming from is a view that charities should not be able to bite the hand that feeds. Take public funds to run services, but don’t you dare speak out about the issues you work on. How very patrician: how Oliver Twist.

The world and society has moved on about 150 years since then. Catch up, pols.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant in fundraising and strategic communications. Follow him on Twitter

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