What charities exist for ...

25 Feb 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Feb 2022

Pic: Ian Schneider, Unsplash

One of the more disturbing aspects of government over the past few years has been the tendency at Westminster to regard charities as subjects for hostility, rather than co-operation.

We’ve not had this so much in Northern Ireland but in England it has felt at times as if charities are bearing the full brunt of culture wars with skirmishing even breaking out around how they should be regulated.

The National Trust, the Runnymede Trust, Barnardo’s and the RNLI have all been accused of acting outside their mandates.

The Runnymede Trust – which represents black and ethnic minority communities - was criticised for taking exception to the Sewell Report into Race and Ethnic Disparities.

The MP John Haynes called upon equalities minister Kemi Badenoch to make representations to “stop the worthless work of organisations, often publicly funded, promulgating weird, woke ideas and in doing so seeding doubt and fear, and more than that, disharmony and disunity.”

Barnardo’s produced a pamphlet explaining “white privilege” which it defined as “ the multiple social advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race.”

It said doing so was part of a process whereby it had ‘constantly raised awareness of the plight of the most vulnerable children in society’ and that it ‘wasn’t political activism to remove barriers for the most vulnerable children.’

More than a dozen Tory MPs disagreed, warning that they had asked Charity Commission chairman Baroness Stowell to investigate ‘whether this departure into political activism is compatible with Barnardo’s noble purpose and charitable status’.

The National Trust report on its properties’ links to slavery risked legitimising attacks on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, according to Guy Oppenheim MP. 

He added: ‘This is manifestly wrong and not part of its mission statement or what it was created to do. My hope would be that the National Trust realises that the direction of travel is clearly wrong.’

Surely the most egregious complaint of all came from Nigel Farage who accused the RNLI of operating a “taxi service for migrants”.

All five complaints were referred to the Charity Commission in England and Wales, all five were rejected.

This series of controversies has provoked an even broader debate about the purpose of charities, a topic which has not been debated as much as it merits. 

This from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation: “in North America there is a significant industry - made of up of for-profits, not-for-profits and academia - devoted to building civil society’s capacity to effect change. By stark comparison, there is very little here in the UK.”

“Indeed, in the UK we don’t tend to think of civil society as being about change at all. Instead, it is more strongly associated with the concept of ‘charity’ and the relief of suffering. There is no consensus here that civil society is where people and communities find a voice, where groups organise to advocate for shared interests, and where citizens hold government and other big institutions to account. Perhaps this is because UK civil society has its identity rooted in the ideas of ‘charity’ and Victorian philanthropic giving.”

But where does that leave charities when they find themselves unable to speak truth to power, and feel unable to advocate for those they work so hard to serve?

Baroness Stowell served as chair of the commission from 2018 to 2021. Her appointment was marred by controversy when an all-party group of MPs said she lacked “any real insight, knowledge or vision” for the job. She was however a former leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords and a former head of corporate affairs at the BBC.

Baroness Stowell in a landmark speech, intended to set “a new strategic direction for the regulator” put it like this: “Charity involves generosity of course, but it is more than that. It’s the fundamental human instinct to seek solutions where we see problems, improve on what is already good, and to leave the world better than we found it.

“All charity is, at heart, about altruism and selflessness: about respect and care for people and causes other than ourselves.”

It is hardly likely she was intending to inspire activism in her audience, but how else can we interpret this call to show respect and care for others, to display altruism and to leave the world a better place than we found it in, when those very sentiments are manifestly not those that inspire current government thinking?

Campaigners across the sector say that the Lobbying Act has had a chilling effect on the sector. And the “war on wokery” has led to a further loss of confidence among trustees about the very legitimacy of campaigning.

The trouble is that there is now more engagement around social change than ever before. It’s no longer good enough for people to pay for a membership or make a donation -  they want to be active in the causes they espouse.

And the more we discover, like the link between poverty, ill-health and early death, to take just one example,  the more complicit we appear when we decline to campaign over the very factors that cause so much suffering.





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