That Tory Charity Problem


What is it with Conservative politicians and charities? This week, new Tory Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, provoked outrage by telling charities to “stick to their knitting” and keep out of politics.

The tone was about as patronising as you could get. The use of language was nothing short of insulting when referring to organisations which span the spectrum from providing emergency relief to those facing massacre in Iraq, to children’s charities and the RSPB here in the UK.

It wasn’t so long ago that David Cameron was going on about what he called a “Big Society” in which charities, volunteers and civil society organisations would play an ever more important part. At the time, many people were worried that – whatever the spin- Cameron’s “Big Society” would in reality become a fig-leaf for an austerity programme which would inflict huge damage on vital public services. Recent events certainly provide ammunition for the sceptics. In my own constituency, a brilliant local organisation, the SWEET project, won a Big Society award from the Prime Minister in 2011 for its innovative work in integrating social work training and family support in deprived parts of South Birmingham. Now Ministers in the same Government are cutting SWEET’s funding precisely because that same innovative work doesn’t fit with Departmental rules! At the same time as SWEET faces cuts for delivering successfully though, questions are being asked about how some “favourites” close to the Conservative Party seem to have got large slugs of Government money while apparently delivering very little.

And now we see a Government Minister telling charities to shut up. It echoes all the concerns which charities voiced at the time the Government pushed through what has become known as its Gagging Law earlier this year. Ministers claim that they are not trying to stop charities speaking out on the issues that concern their work; that it’s only “party political campaigning” by charities that the Government is trying to stop. It all looks a bit thin. Party political campaigning by charities was not allowed even before the new law came in. And it seems that Tory politicians only get excited when they hear a charity say things with which Conservatives are uncomfortable, rather than worrying about whether the charity has actually mentioned a Party at all.

For example, in Birmingham, Conservative PPC Rachel Maclean provoked a similar response to the one Brooks Newmark got this week when she took to Twitter in March to question Oxfam’s charitable status, calling the charity a “thinly disguised left-wing lobby group.”

She later deleted the tweet but she had already let the cat out of the bag. And nobody still knows whether she deleted the tweet because she had changed her mind or simply to try to close down the debate for electoral reasons.

The essential point remains the same. Charities do absolutely vital work. They work daily with some of the most vulnerable people in the world and they work on some of the most difficult yet vital issues facing us at home and abroad. Their charitable status precludes them from backing particular parties and it always has done. But their voices must not be silenced. Political Parties – all of us – need to hear those voices, whether or not we agree with them. And however uncomfortable they might make us feel from time to time.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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