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Charities reject Minister’s ‘stick to knitting’ jibe

12 September 2014

CABINET OFFICE

Acceptable face of campaigning: Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, with members of the UK Youth Parliament's Make Your Mark campaign, last month

Acceptable face of campaigning: Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, with members of the UK Youth Parliament's Make Your Mark campaign,...

CHARITIES have rejected a suggestion made by the government minister responsible for the charity sector last week that they should stay out of politics and "stick to their knitting". The Conservative MP Brooks Newmark was giving his first speech as Minister for Civil Society, at an event about charity involvement in public services.

Civil Society magazine reported that he had responded to a question about charities' campaigning by saying: "We really want to try to keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics. Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent do exactly that. When they stray into the realm of politics, that is not what they are about, and that is not why people give them money.

"The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others."

His comments provoked a political debate; his Labour Shadow Lisa Nandy telling The Guardian: "I think it's not just patronising but actually deeply offensive, at a time when charities are picking up the pieces from this Government's awful, unfair policies, that their ministers would talk about them in such a dismissive way."

The head of advocacy for Christian Aid, Laura Taylor, said on Tuesday that she also disagreed with Mr Newmark. "I would definitely say that charities have a role to play in shaping the public debate. We cannot be party political, and we would never want to endorse one party over another, but charities' voices are really important."

A similar row erupted earlier this year, when the Conservative MP Conor Burns reported Oxfam to the Charity Commission over an advert that referred to the Government's welfare reforms (News, 13 June).

A spokesman from the Charity Commission said at the time: "From lobbying politicians to running online petitions, charities can engage in a range of activities to support their charity's aims. But charities must never be politically biased."

Oxfam's director of campaigns, Ben Phillips, said on Monday that his charity would not stop lobbying politicians if it felt it was necessary.

"When, through our work on the ground, we find something that policy-makers need to address, it is our duty to tell them and tell the public."

Ms Taylor said that, for charities such as Christian Aid, it was impossible to stay out of politics if they wanted to help people. "Influencing people in power is really embedded in most of our work." She said that Christians had been part of charity-led political campaigns, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign and Fairtrade food.

While Mr Newmark suggested that many donors would prefer their money not to be spent on political lobbying, a survey by the consultancy nfpSynergy earlier this year suggested that "almost nobody is put off giving to a charity by its campaigning activities".

Only four per cent of those questioned selected "the charity campaigning to change the law" as a reason that they would be reluctant to support a charity. Some 58 per cent agreed that "charities should be able to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to their work", and ten per cent disagreed.

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