On 6 June, Oxfam sent out a tweet on inequality in Britain. "Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm – and it's forcing more and more people into poverty," it read. The tweet included a spoof film poster of choppy seas with the text: "The Perfect Storm, starring: zero-hour contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment, childcare costs."
It received little attention until Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, replied a few days later.
"@oxfamgb. This has lost you a lot of supporters. Very foolish," he wrote. He promised to ask the Charity Commission to investigate "Oxfam's highly political advertising".
Ben Phillips, Oxfam's campaigns and policy director, said in response that the charity was "resolutely non-party political" and that the tweet was not directed at the current government. "Successive governments have presided over a tide of rising inequality," he said.
A spokeswoman for the commission says it is assessing Burns' complaint and stresses that, though charities cannot be politically biased, they are allowed to campaign to support their aims and are "often the most appropriate organisations" to do so.
This sentiment was supported by letters to The Times. More than 70 charities and campaigners called the MP's complaint "an attempt to stifle charities and campaign groups taking part in a public debate". A separate letter from Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders group Acevo, decried the MP's "fabricated outrage".
Burns has not responded to several questions from Third Sector on whether or not he had hoped to promote broader debate about the campaigning voice of charities, but his next moves lent the issue a distinctly party political tinge. A subsequent tweet said "the left have an inexhaustible capacity to hate"; another questioned the neutrality of Bubb and the sector. "Yes, he also is yet another former Labour Councillor. Trend developing. Sector packed," Burns tweeted. He also shared a blog post, "Third Sector Mafia Tantrum: Labour's charity allies attack Tory MP".
John Williams, a PR consultant and trustee of the Association of Chairs, says Oxfam is partly to blame for becoming the subject of party political point-scoring. "The word 'austerity' has become associated with the political debate," he says. "It is probably advisable to use your own language to describe issues - not party political reference points."
Brian Lamb, a consultant and chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' campaign effectiveness advisory board, says charities need to sit up and pay attention: "I think MPs are going to be a lot more vociferous in pushing back. If you're not careful and don't have the resources to review your legal position, it might make you think twice. But charities should be thinking very carefully anyway."
The Burns tweet turned out to coincide with that broader debate. The following week, the commission opened an eight-week consultation on changes to its annual return, including a proposed requirement for charities to say how much they spend on campaigning – as suggested by MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee last year. Meanwhile, the sector expects the Electoral Commission to publish its full guidance on the lobbying act soon.
Lawyers think it unlikely that Oxfam will be told off by the commission; in an informal Third Sector poll, five charity specialists say the tweet probably did not cross the line into party political territory. But the rights or wrongs of that one tweet are not the only point any more; whatever further comment the commission makes will be read with interest by a much wider audience.