After receiving a complaint from a Conservative MP, the Charity Commission is assessing whether Oxfam has broken any rules with a tweet that said government austerity was "forcing more and more people into poverty".
On Friday, the charity tweeted a spoof film poster of a stormy sea with the text superimposed reading: "The Perfect Storm, starring: zero-hour contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment, childcare costs."
The tweet initially got very little attention, with only six people replying to Oxfam on Twitter by the end of Sunday. On Monday, Conor Burns, the MP for Bournemouth West, tweeted: "I have written this morning to the chairman of the Charity Commission asking them to investigate Oxfam’s highly political advertising."
He also tweeted directly to Oxfam, saying: "@oxfamgb. This has lost you a lot of supporters. Very foolish." Some Twitter users responded in agreement, while others said the organisation was likely to gain more supporters – and followers – as a result.
Burns has since said: "Most of us operated under the illusion that Oxfam’s focus was on the relief of poverty and famine overseas. I cannot see how using funds donated to charity to campaign politically can be in accord with Oxfam’s charitable status."
Ben Phillips, campaigns and policy director at Oxfam, said the organisation was making a comment on a situation created by successive governments. Oxfam is "resolutely non-party political" and has "a duty to draw attention to the hardship suffered by poor people we work with in the UK", he said.
Phillips said: "Fighting poverty should not be a party political issue – successive governments have presided over a tide of rising inequality and created a situation where food banks and other providers provided 20 million meals last year to people who could not afford to feed themselves. This is an unacceptable situation in one of the world's largest economies, and politicians of all stripes have a responsibility to tackle it."
A spokeswoman for the commission said: "We are aware of concerns relating to a tweet by the charity and are currently assessing whether it raises any regulatory concern. Charities are often the most appropriate organisations to speak out and campaign on behalf of their users."
She said that charities "can engage in a range of activities" in support of their aims, but "must never be politically biased".
Joe Irvin, chief executive of the local infrastructure body Navca said that Burns’ action was "an attempt to bully charities into silence". He said: "We have a duty to speak out to protect the people and communities charities exist to serve."