The interview given by Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, to Civil Society News (16 July) had some welcome elements. He declared: “I have no problem with charities advocating on behalf of their beneficiaries and challenging government.” Coming on top of his recent statement that charities are definitely welcome in the political space, provided they avoid being party political, this is a more positive attitude to non-party political activity by charities than we have heard from senior Conservative Ministers or the Charity Commission for about 3 years. It is not necessarily a line that will make Rob Wilson popular with all of his Conservative colleagues, so credit is due to him for sticking to it in public.
He also pointed out that it is not for him to tell charities how to run their affairs, showing a welcome respect for the independent role of Trustees. Nor could anyone properly object to his overall emphasis that charities must ensure they cherish the reputation of charities among the general public.
But there is a distinction between sharing a politician’s instincts about public opinion, and uncritical repetition of ignorant opinions attributed to “the public”. A Minister of the Crown has a different role from the taxi driver relaying the views of someone he had in his taxi. The Minister tells us that “I heard one of my constituents talking about the RSPB saying they don’t do much conservation.” This is rather like repeating uncritically the belief of some members of the American public that Barack Obama is in fact a closet Muslim. The RSPB has 150 nature reserves in the UK, works with farmers, mobilises thousands of the public for the Big Garden Birdwatch and nature walks, and tells them how they can identify birds, create their own ponds and nurture their own wildlife. Research projects abound aimed at conservation of Cirl Buntings, Corn Buntings, Ring Ouzels, upland lapwings, Capercaillie and many others in 2014 alone. The view that the RSPB does not do much conservation is grossly ill-informed. The RSPB recruited a record number of 95,000 new members in 2014, too, bringing the grand total to nearly 1,115,000, suggesting that rather a lot of “the public” think differently from Rob Wilson’s sample of one.
Next in the dock: “While once the RSPCA was regarded as an organisation where if you found a stray animal you would take it along, there’s now some concern that they are just a campaigning organisation”. Really? Even a cursory glance at their website shows that the RSPCA receives hundreds of thousands of calls each your reporting animals in need, and its hospitals, clinics and vets up and down the country treat all kinds of stray and wild animals who are brought to them by the public or by their own inspectors and animal welfare officers. They provide short term shelter and long term homes for abandoned animals. They secure nearly 4000 convictions for animal cruelty and neglect every year. Their work with politicians of all parties to ensure that the law takes account of their experience and concerns is, quite obviously to anyone who bothers to ascertain the basic facts, just one part of a multi-dimensional strategy.
Whatever the Minister intended to convey, these are smears. And repeating smears does not help the reputation of charities, which he is rightly concerned to cherish.
There is a line in the RSPCA website that is worth framing and sticking up on the wall in the Cabinet Office: “Taking part in the democratic process is vital to ensuring decision makers are made aware of concerns about animal welfare” – and about so many other charitable causes. That has been true ever since the Tory William Wilberforce and his friends established the RSPCA in 1824 (a few years before they abolished slavery throughout the British Empire). It was true when Queen Victoria put herself at the head of the charity. It was true when the RSPB was founded to counter the terrible massacre of egrets and other birds for the millinery industry, bringing their concerns into the political arena where something could be done about it.
So let us build on Rob Wilson’s more welcoming statements about the (non party) political role of charities and rebuild a consensus that it really does have a “vital” place in our democracy.