Tuesday 25 January 2011

The "Cap Doffing Charity" and the Public Administration Select Committee

I have now read the full transcript of the oral evidence session held by the PASC.

It is deeply depressing. On pretty much every issue which for our sector has been fighting over the last few years in order for us to modernise and better reach those who need us, MPs are saying shocking things campaigning is wrong, taking public money makes you an arm of the State, social investment is a gimmick/wrong, charity CEOs are Fat Cats, bla bla)

The depth of the prejudice and the length of the stereotype would be laughable if these MPs were not conducting a serious study into sector funding at a time when we face a rising storm of cuts, more cost and higher demand.

I have dealt with the absurd argument that taking money for contracts means you are nationalised in previous blogs. Now let me turn to campaigning.

Apparently a number of the MPs on the Committee think that good charities don't campaign. The fact is that this view simply ignores the fundamentals of charity history.

The academic Robert Puttnam (a favourite of David Cameron) in his superb studies of civil society makes the important point that it is the role of civil society in advocacy and campaigning that marks a truly democratic society. In countries where there is a weak civil society despots rule. Look at what is happening to NGOs in Russia.

Our glorious charity history in the UK is marked out by campaigns against injustice. Look at the campaign against slavery. The thousands of citizens who campaigned for change against a corrupt and immoral establishment involvement in a disgusting trade in humans. It was the work of civil society, ably corralled by William Wilberforce that secured the change in law to prohibit slavery in the British Empire.

Look at the brilliant work of the RSPCA (founded by an enlightened Tory MP) to root out cruelty to animals and campaign for law change. And those good folks then went on to found the NSPCC. A marvellous organisation, but one singled out by one Tory MP as a bad charity because it campaigns.

And here their logic gets chopped. They think you should not take too much money from the State but are unaware that NSPCC is very largely supported by voluntary donation. People who abhor child abuse and so support the "Full Stop campaign". Thanks goodness for charities like the NSPCC and their vigorous advocacy. Over the last century and a half their campaigns have led to law change that makes Britain a better place. That role must continue. And must be supported.

The MPs single out Shelter. This is a campaigning charity founded by that fiery Notting Hill Priest, the Rev Kendrick. Appalled by the behaviour of Rackman he decided to do something practical about it; found a housing trust to provide homes and set up Shelter to campaign for law change to prevent landlord abuse. They succeeded; they roused the conscience of the nation. But their continuing work in highlighting the consequences of homelessness remains as important as ever. As homelessness rises thank goodness for Shelter and our many homeless charities in fighting to highlight the scandal of homelessness and in campaigning for change.

Christian Aid comes in for criticism from certain MPs. The major crime here appears to be the 21st century CEO using a digital signature, rather than, presumably her quill pen.

It is core to our charitable function that we campaign. We must speak truth to power. Never be content to provide soup for the poor without demanding changes to the conditions that lead to poverty. It is a role we cherish and have used to success over the centuries. Charity in this country has its roots in our Christian heritage. It is a tradition rooted in Christ's own teaching and actions. He campaigned; turfing the money changers from the Temple, castigating the rich, championing excluded minorities. It is a tradition mirrored in Islam. Good job he was not in front of the PASC!

It is why we are never content to simply alleviate the consequences of poverty but demand legislative change. To deplore that tradition as a number of MPs did at that evidence session is to challenge our charity legacy and to undermine our democratic traditions. Robert Halfon MP asked if they thought it fair that NSPCC, Barnardos and Shelter receive money, "when they don't actually do anything"!! They "spend most of their huge budgets on campaigning"!! Warming to this theme, Mr Elphike MP talked of charities "just advertising and talking about it". He went on to complain about "charities living off the fat of the land". And not content with this slander he goes on to complain about charity CEOs getting paid. "Some CEOs earn more than £120,000 and some even more and people think, well that is not really volunteering, that's like an industry and a business "!

Oh dear, oh dear.

I don’t think we should go to far out of our way to try to explain how the views of these MPs could be so far away from an understanding of the modern enterprising third sector. However it is worth thinking about whether the sector has something of a role itself to correct some of these misconceptions. A couple of years ago ACEVO with the ImpACT coalition undertook some research with YouGov which showed that the public’s knowledge and understanding of the sector is a long way away from how the modern sector is operating. Part of the cause we attributed to this was that charities are often not telling the public what they are really doing but continuing to fuel myths such as we give all out money to the front line and don’t spend anything on administration. I am not sure that the sector’s own contributions to the debate in PASC helped to dispel any myths.

It would appear from the session that what a number of MPs actually want is a "cap doffing charity". One that does not take money from the State, knows its place in society and never criticises, never complains (and certainly doesn't write letters that are not signed with a fountain pen), but meekly accepts the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. Essentially a non national, non campaigning charity, preferably where the CEO is a volunteer.

I have now written to Bernard Jenkin MP, the Chair of the Committee to ask for a session to put the record straight. And I shall be writing to said named MPs asking them to meet with our modern day, enterprising third sector CEOs for a spot of debate and exchange of views.

And if you think I'm exaggerating all this just read the transcript of oral evidence yourself and be appalled. And be warned; this is a sign of the attacks we will face when we continue to highlight the consequences of spending cuts.


Paul Smart said...

Well done mate!
Freedom is a priceless thing that many of us take for granted. If we lose the right to speak out for injustice then we deny our roots as a nation. So many have spoken out throughout history and given their lives to bring justice. They have changed the course of society for the better and we are all the beneficiaries of this.
Don't let up and God Bless

Paul Smart

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