More than 70 charities and campaigning groups have expressed concern that the call by a Conservative MP for the Charity Commission to investigate a tweet by Oxfam is the "latest attempt to stifle charities and campaign groups taking part in public debate".
Conor Burns, MP for Bournemouth West, asked the regulator to assess whether a tweet from Oxfam, which said that austerity was forcing more people into poverty, was politically motivated.
In a letter in today’s Times newspaper, the group of organisations, which include Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International UK, the RNIB and the local infrastructure body Navca, say that the voluntary sector’s ability to speak out is already being hampered by the lobbying act.
"In the past few decades, campaigning organisations have succeeded in persuading reluctant governments to cancel poor countries’ debts, remove lead from petrol, prevent the selling of our forests and allow Gurkha veterans the right of residence in the UK," it says. "Attempts to silence legitimate debate risk undermining our democracy."
Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, has also called on the Charity Commission to guarantee charities’ right to campaign.
In a letter to William Shawcross, chair of the commission, Bubb says: "It is essential that the traditional right, indeed duty, of a charity to campaign is guaranteed by the regulator. We worry that our right to be a voice for the voiceless and to champion the vulnerable through strong and edgy campaigns could be undermined."
Bubb said the attack on Oxfam and others representing an "indefensible attempt to shoot the messenger and ignore the message about serious poverty in the UK".
He added: "Charities and campaign groups will not be bullied by these underhand tactics and cheap smears. We have a duty to speak out for the most vulnerable and we will continue to do so, no matter which government is in power."