Conor Burns, Oxfam, charities and politics

The argument between Conor Burns MP and Oxfam has rumbled on over the past few weeks in relation to, what he calls Oxfam’s “highly political advertising”, relating to the tweet below.

He has referred the charity to the Charity Commission to investigate this.

On the BBC Daily Politics show he stated, “We have government giving unrestricted grants to charities, and then those charities using that money to lobby the government to change policy. That is, I think, an abuse of taxpayers’ money and one that should come to an end.” So what is it that Oxfam have done wrong? The Charity Commission seems to give fairly straight forward advice on this matter:

The law makes a distinction between charitable purposes, and charitable activities. A charity must be established for a charitable purpose, and as a general principle, charities may undertake campaigning and political activity as a positive way of furthering or supporting their purposes. Charities have considerable freedom to do so, subject to the law and the terms of their governing documents. In doing so, charities must be mindful of their independence. Charities, of course, can never engage in any form of party political activity.

Mr Burns seems a little confused on the role of charities in modern society. It would appear that he prefers the concept of charity in Victorian Britain, the hand out of soup and bread to the poor. These days successful charities do not just tackle the symptoms, but the causes, of societal problems. They don’t do handouts but act to make change. Whether he agrees with Oxfam’s analysis of modern Britain or not, he shouldn’t try to silence them. Their role is to stand up for their beneficiaries and to ask the difficult questions.

Third Sector quotes him as saying that he had “no issues with charities campaigning”, but thought that people who supported their local Oxfam shop “gives money on the assumption that that’s going to alleviate poverty in some of the poorest parts of the world, not that it’s going on political campaigns in the United Kingdom”. What charity does not campaign ‘politically’? Do cancer charities not not ask government to invest more in the health service? Do armed forces charities not say that the state should look after the young men and women who fight for our country? All these concepts are ‘political’. A charity that isn’t knocking on the door of government and authority is the one that is missing a trick.

Finally, he should also do a little more research in to the charity that he is complaining about. If you are to look up Oxfam on the charity commission they seem to have a fairly clear remit of where they work and what they do, i.e. “Prevent and relieve poverty and protect the vulnerable anywhere in the world”. I look forward to reading the response from the Charity Commission.

Oxfam CC

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