The ex-Minister and his Trumpian ‘Facts’

As a former MP, Tom responds to the former Charities’ minister’s attack on Oxfam – and on charities generally.

Did Rob Wilson learn nothing as the Charities’ Minister?

I never thought I’d do it. I registered as an online Daily Telegraph reader so that I could absorb the thoughts of Rob Wilson, the former charities minister who lost his Reading seat at the last election. Had the commentators quoted him correctly? Unfortunately, they had. To dismiss Oxfam as he does, as a ‘left wing pressure group’ who therefore cannot have their views taken seriously, not only lacks evidence but is wholly irrational. That he learned so little in his time in office is a poor reflection on my former profession as a Parliamentarian.

Let me first pay tribute to some very sensible Conservative supporters and members, who play key roles in many major charities. They will feel offended by the implications in Wilson’s words that passionate support for a campaign or cause is somehow unworthy. The charity world needs Conservative activists just as much as it needs passionate and conscientious people of other hues. As a serial charity chair myself, and a lifetime Labour Party member, let me assure him that I’m very aware of the need for charities to behave in ways that are not seen to be Party-political. That doesn’t mean we can’t make a case.

Not only are lefties in my position aware of our legal duties but we actually agree that charities should not behave in overtly party political ways. When I chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Charities I never expected them to roll over, I expected them to challenge government. In part, that’s what charities are for! We want people of all political views to share charities’ commitment to social and economic justice and join our campaigns and activities. Or perhaps Wilson believes that ‘social and economic justice’ can only be a leftwing idea? Nonsense.

Nor, Mr Wilson, do charities campaign for ‘state handouts’ as if they had a divine right to exist. State handouts, as you may have noticed, are emergency measures which are not sustainable in the long term; there’s nothing charities would like more than to not have to ask for money – not for themselves, but for their beneficiaries. The idea implicit in Wilson’s view, that having more money circulating in their economy cannot be any part of a solution to people’s poverty, is simply bizarre.

This leads to my most serious concern about the former minister’s position: his Trumpian engagement with facts. I used to chair an international development charity (not Oxfam) and I know that no charity is more committed to ‘the market’ in its operations than is Oxfam. A decade ago I watched the journey of the international organisation of which Oxfam UK is a part. They realised – and then committed to the idea – that developing effective and efficient markets is the most sustainable way of helping people with next to nothing become economically viable in places like Africa. They moved away from a focus on ‘aid’, short term alleviation of the symptoms of poverty, towards ‘development’, the honing of processes to help the poorest people help themselves. That is not communism, Rob, it is not a ‘failed left-wing economic model’ as you claim: it is the fair and inclusive operation of a market economy.

Thank goodness the rumours that predicted Rob Wilson’s next career move to be the Charity Commission were wrong. Charities, led by a politically and otherwise diverse group of people, need partnerships and friendships with Government (and political parties) but they must always be critical friends.

That’s a lesson this former minister clearly never learned.