Wednesday, 11 June 2014

'Thou doth protest too much'

An overly keen graphics operator within Oxfam probably got a bit of the hairdryer treatment today. The tweet which emerged from the campaigning charity provoked, if not a ‘perfect storm’, then certainly an unwelcome squall after listing a series of policies which, some may feel, are penalising those worst off in our society and stem from the current government.

The ‘Perfect Storm’ poster from Oxfam was, in my view, overtly political and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a Labour Party logo being slapped on one side and banner adverts being pasted up across the UK in time for the next General Election. If I had been in charge, the row over the image would have been an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the current campaign highlighting the extremes of poverty in Britain. Having said that, once it was out there, I would have defended it to the hilt.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that several Conservative MPs were incandescent by the poster. Leading the way was Conor Burns, who reported the charity to the Charity Commission

In his letter, Mr Burns wrote:

‘Many people who support Oxfam will be shocked and saddened by this highly political campaigning in domestic British politics.

‘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’

Another Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, added:

'Political campaigning by charities like Oxfam is a shameful abuse of taxpayers’ money.’

Well Mr Burns and Mr Elphicke, you are both wrong and staggeringly, possibly wilfully, ignorant of Charity Commission guidelines relating to this issue; it is their time now being wasted.

Here are a few highlights from the Charity Commission's advice (the full guidelines can be found here):

‘Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities to undertake.

However, political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes.

Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions… where such change would support the charity’s purposes.

However, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interest of any political party….

A charity may give its support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member.

A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a legitimate evidence base.

The principles of charity campaigning and political activity are the same, whether the activity is carried out in the United Kingdom or overseas.

Not only, therefore, is it perfectly legitimate for Oxfam to campaign politically, it is absolutely fine for them to campaign specifically against particular laws and policies; the location of such a campaign is irrelevant. The key is they cannot campaign for a political party. And, as Oxfam didn't mention a political party, they can argue - and indeed are - that they didn't.

As I said above, I think Oxfam sailed close to the wind and I think they probably realised that; subsequent tweets tried to make clear they were referring to the policies of parties of all colours, such as this one:

As for the Conservative MPs, while they may feel justified in their protests, ultimately it is an exercise in futility; they themselves have launched a party political attack against one of the country's most respected charities. Who is going likely to win over public opinion?

While making their protests known would be reasonable, they would have been wiser not to raise too much of a fuss. The Charity Commission will clear Oxfam and there will be a lingering feeling that these politicians protested just a little bit too much. 

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