It’s official – preventing poverty is not charitable

For some time now, the UK charity sector has been under pressure from government and from parts of the media that want to stop it speaking out. Just as the term “political correctness” is used not to highlight bureaucracy gone mad but to signpost that the speaker is about to come out with something objectionable, so “political” has become a term thrown at charities specifically to put them on the defensive.

This tactic was well documented in Independence Undervalued, the January report of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector. Its chair, Sir Roger Singleton, a former chief executive of Barnardo’s, described, in BBC Radio 4’s Face the Facts last week,  the “chilling effect” this was having on legitimate charity campaigning. Take the time to listen to it.

So it might come as either a worry or as something of a relief that it is bureaucracy-gone-mad that is doing the job of the government in Canada, where there is a breakdown in relationships with the charity sector similar to that in the UK.

In 2011 Canada passed a new law requiring charities to reapply for their non-profit status in order to continue getting tax benefits. Last week it was reported that Oxfam Canada’s application was rejected by the Canada Revenue Agency (equivalent to HMRC) on the basis that its charitable objective “to prevent and relieve poverty” was not, well, charitable.

Come again?

Let’s read their exact advice. “Relieving poverty is charitable, but preventing it is not. Preventing poverty could mean providing for a class of beneficiaries that are not poor.” Their spokesperson went on to add: “charities cannot help people not already impoverished”.

Before you think too hard about whether or not there’s a point there (there isn’t – prevention is better than cure, as I’m sure you were told as a kid), let’s apply this logic elsewhere.

Preventing child abuse or violence against women: not charitable because you might help children or women who will not be abused?

Preventing cancer (or insert disease of your choice): not charitable because you might help people who would never get it?

Preventing smoking, obesity (or a raft of other things that have heavy and costly health or social consequences): not charitable because you might help people who would not go on to develop those?

This absurdity might be funny and something we can laugh off as coming from crazy Canadians, but in the context of what the sector has been experiencing in the UK,  is it really?

We already have a fierce fight on our hands about the space charities have to campaign, something already well defined and supervised by The Charity Commission. Witness Lord Lawson’s climate-sceptic charity, recently rapped over the knuckles for peddling their views as education and being obliged to form a non-charitable non-profit.

Will we see a further challenge to doing anything more than handouts and relief of suffering?  Be warned and be vigilant. Be very vigilant.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action Consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @m_sherrington