Minister says chugging techniques are 'deeply unpleasant' and 'a menace'

Brandon Lewis, minister for local government, says street fundraisers should not jeopardise charitable causes, but turns down Birmingham by-law to allow fines

Brandon Lewis
Brandon Lewis

A government minister has described the techniques employed by street fundraisers as "deeply unpleasant" and "a menace" and has called for councils to take steps to clamp down on what he called their "high-street harassment".

Brandon Lewis, the minister for local government, fire & rescue and high streets, said that chuggers, as he called them, should not jeopardise charitable causes by becoming a public nuisance.

He made the statement as he announced today that he had rejected a by-law proposed by Birmingham City Council that would have enabled it to fine unruly face-to-face fundraisers.

The council had been pushing for the past year for a by-law that would allow it to fine street fundraisers that caused "obstruction or annoyance" up to £500.

Lewis said that aggressive fundraisers risked turning the city’s high streets into "an unwelcome gauntlet of bolshie bucket shakers and clipboard waving connivers", but creating laws was not the best way to address the problem.

"Hundreds of towns across the country have already put the brakes on this menace by making them sign up to sensible local rules stating precisely when and where they can do their fundraising," he said in a statement, alluding to the 265 site-management agreements the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association has with 92 local councils.

Some councillors in Birmingham have said they do not like handing control to an outside organisation and some see it as a form of privatisation.

Jonathan Cheetham, chair of Retail Birmingham, which last year offered to help cover the £12,000 cost of enforcing the by-law, expressed concern that charities would not adhere to a PFRA site agreement.

He told Third Sector: "Agreements are all very well if they are abided by, but there’s evidence that they are not – they tend to get abused. So I think legislation is the way forward. Then there’s clarity."

Research carried out by the Local Government Association has shown that almost three-quarters of councils with site-management agreements with the PFRA have reported a fall in the number of complaints. SMAs define fundraising conditions such as team size, frequency and site locations.

Responding to Lewis, Peter Hills-Jones, head of policy and communications at the PFRA, said: "The minister has used language that we wouldn't use, but it isn't for the PFRA to comment on the language government ministers use in their press releases."

Hills-Jones said that more than 95 per cent of councils with SMAs had said they would recommend the agreements to other local authorities.

"We’re very clear that our members do abide by the terms of their site agreements, and there’s no evidence to suggest that they are not."

He said the association was working with the LGA to see if Birmingham City Council would be "open to a conversation" about implementing an SMA. He said that in theory an SMA could be in place within a month and a half, but that this would be unrealistic given the council’s previous resistance to such agreements.

Mark Astarita, director of fundraising at the British Red Cross and outgoing chair of the Institute of Fundraising, said he welcomed the government’s decision to reject the ban. He wrote to the council in September on behalf several charities arguing that donations would be damaged and services cut if the by-law came into force.

Commenting on what should happen next, Astarita said: "The council should sit down with the PFRA, talk together and come up with a plan so that charities can fundraise and the council can feel content that rules are being applied that do not cause discomfort and distress to people. The streets of Birmingham are safe in our hands."

A spokesman for the council said it was disappointed the government had not listened to the people of Birmingham.

"We were never seeking a ban on charity collectors, just permission to create a legal framework that ensured they behaved in an appropriate and responsible way," he said.

"Our request for a by-law was submitted on the basis of public feedback, which showed that 95 per cent of those surveyed said they minded being stopped by collectors."

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