Charlie Elphicke, Oxfam, charities and politics

Today Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke is leading the debate, “The political independence of charities”, in Westminster Hall. Ahead of the debate he has told PoliticsHome why he thinks that political campaigning is ‘undermining’ the independence of charities. Rather than entirely regurgitate an article I recently wrote on Conor Burns and the same issue I thought I’d analyse some of the language and arguments brought forward by the MP when discussing how charities fundraise and campaign.

Mr Elphicke sets the scene of the debate by summing up the charity sector.

“Think charity and you think of the volunteer rattling a tin, front line work relieving poverty and vocation lined with compassion.”

What we have here is a belittlement of the sector as a whole. It conjures the image of simple work, led by the heart and not the head. It panders to the stereotypical image of the retiree helping out at their local Oxfam shop. Whilst these are important roles, and I’m yet to meet a charity worker who isn’t passionate about their cause, the sector is 2014 is incredibly slick and professional encompassing an entire range of different people with different skills and backgrounds from all walks of life.

“Britain is one of the most generous countries in the world, with a proud tradition of philanthropy and giving. In 2013 76% of us had donated money to a charity in the past month. This makes us the second most philanthropic country in the world.

We give money to charity expecting it to go on charitable purposes that will make a difference – to help the most vulnerable and needy. Yet too many charities are using donations to award themselves big pay rises and to engage in politically partisan campaigning.”

Mr Elphicke showers the reader with praise, noting how generous they are with their hard earned cash and presses the patriotic button too. However, in the next paragraph he lets you in to a secret. The money isn’t being used to help people, but to line the pockets of charity workers by awarding themselves pay rise after pay rise.

I have two problems with this argument. Firstly, I don’t believe it to be true. I meet many charity employees, most of them incredibly bright and able people, who could have gone on to earn great sums of money in another sector, but instead have decided to follow another passion. They certainly aren’t ‘fat cats’ with so much money they don’t know what to do with it. I’m also yet to meet a charity employee who sets their own wage, what a pleasure this would be! Secondly, what is wrong with good wages in the charity sector? There seems to be an implicit argument that those who set out to help others in their daily lives should not be remunerated to a high level. Do we not want the person in charge of finding the cure for cancer to receive a good wage? Or should the physiotherapist who helps rehabilitate the injured soldier be paid less in their role just because they are employed by a charity?

“Take Oxfam’s recent poster campaign starring ‘unemployment’, ‘benefit cuts’, ‘zero hour contracts’, ‘high prices’ and ‘childcare costs’ as symptoms of ‘austerity Britain’. This caused real concern – particularly as it was factually wrong. Under this Government, unemployment is falling, there is more help with childcare costs and we are reforming zero hour contracts to end the exploitation Labour allowed to go unchecked. In addition, poverty is falling, child poverty is falling and the rich/poor gap has fallen too. Many felt that the poster could have been written by Labour Party HQ.”

Like Conor Burns MP, Mr Elphicke might disagree with the analysis that Oxfam make of the state of modern Britain but should that mean that Oxfam aren’t allowed to make this argument? That there should be laws in place that say if a charity and a political party have agreement on policy then the charity should not be able to air these views in public?

We should be looking to encourage debate in all areas of society. Far from undermining the independence of charities, campaigning against the government fiercely protects this important feature of a successful charity. They provide an excellent example of opposition to both Conservative and Labour governments and something that we should cherish, not try to end.

I look forward to the debate and I hope My Elphicke is a little more complimentary of the third sector, and its role in society, when he stands to speak.

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