Oxfam has removed a page on its website that was highlighted by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector as an indication that the Charity Commission had taken a stronger line on charity campaigning, because it was out of date.
The independence panel this week published its fourth and final report, which said that the threats to charity independence had intensified over the past year.
The report picked up on the Charity Commission’s consideration of a complaint from Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, about a tweet from Oxfam. Burns complained that the tweet – which said that the government’s austerity measures were forcing more people into poverty – was party political.
The commission’s report on the case, published six months after the complaint was made, said that the charity "should have done more to avoid any misperception of political bias".
The independence panel’s report highlighted a page on Oxfam’s website about the charity’s campaigning activity, which it said had appeared at some point before the commission’s decision was published.
The page, called "Oxfam’s Constitution", set out what the organisation’s charitable mandate allowed it to do in areas including advocacy and campaigning.
The page said that its campaigning work was subject to guidance from the Charity Commission, which allowed charities to campaign provided the work met various criteria, including that it was an "ancillary activity", that it was based on "well-founded and reasoned argument", and that it was conducted responsibly.
It said that failure to adhere to the guidelines listed on the page could lead to "investigation by Charity Commission, which could result in possible suspension of the affected work, fines and legal action, as well as damage to Oxfam's reputation".
The independence panel’s report expressed particular concern about the use of the word "ancillary".
It said: "Oxfam says that the Charity Commission has told it its political activities must be ancillary and that ‘the commission sees a difference between a charity contributing to public debate by expressing a point of view and using funds to mobilise public opinion to apply pressure on a government to change policy or practice’.
"The commission’s guidance was revised in 2008 to go beyond the view that political activity should just be ancillary and to allow such activity as long as it was not the continuing and sole activity of the charity. The commission appears to be defining its own guidance on campaigning more restrictively than hitherto."
Asked by Third Sector about the page, including when it was put up and how the wording was agreed, an Oxfam spokesman said it was out of date and would be taken down.
He said he did not know exactly when the page was put up, but it was before 2010. The page had been removed on Friday morning.
Caroline Slocock, who provided the secretariat to the panel and who is also director of the think tank Civil Exchange, said she was pleased that the page had been removed because it had muddied the waters around the campaigning activities of charities.
She said she had come across the page in November when trying to find the outcome of Burns’s complaint, and had drawn it to the attention of the rest of the panel, who were concerned about it.
She said it looked as if the page had been drawn up in response to the complaint about the tweet and was interesting to the panel because of that background.
"We did not talk to Oxfam about it," said Slocock. "The report just notes what was there."