Peter Christmas explains why we won’t be sticking to our knitting.
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Archbishop Hélder Câmara
The first and second parts of Quaker Social Action’s mission statement are two sides of the same coin:
We enable people on low incomes in east London and beyond to seek solutions to the issues affecting their lives. To do this we listen and respond to the needs of the community by running practical, sustainable and collaborative projects.
We share our work with others when it is clear that it has the potential to bring benefits to communities outside of our own.
The two aspects are inextricably linked: by working alongside people living on low incomes – seeing how specific poverty issues affect households, how they tackle them, and helping where we can – we gain knowledge which we use to provide training for other frontline workers, to develop our own services, and to influence attitudes and policies through reports and campaigns. For example, over a decade ago, when people taking part in our Made of Money courses described the financial shocks that created debt and stress, sometimes they talked about the high cost of funerals. This led QSA to research the issue of funeral affordability, before setting up the UK-wide Down to Earth funeral costs helpline and the Fair Funerals campaign.
People affected by an issue are often the most powerful advocates for change – because they don’t want other people to experience what they have been through. Some clients of our Down to Earth helpline were prepared to share their stories as media spokespeople, as cornerstones of the Fair Funerals campaign. The campaign helped to bring about the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation into the funerals market, which in turn has resulted in mandatory price transparency in the funeral industry.
Currently, many voices within the charity sector have expressed concerns about an increasingly restrictive environment for campaigners. Last December our Friends at Quakers in Britain spoke out about this trend. QSA recognises these concerns. However, as things stand, Charity Commission guidance clearly sets out that charities have rights – and of course responsibilities – in relation to “campaigning and political activity”.
“Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions… where such change would support the charity’s purposes. Charities can also campaign to ensure that existing laws are observed”
(Charity Commission for England and Wales - campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (CC9)).
A recent example is QSA’s report into, sadly, local authorities’ failings around public health funerals. We were prompted to investigate this issue through the experiences of people using our Down to Earth funeral costs helpline. Some of our clients appeared to be eligible to access a public health funeral for a deceased friend or relative under local authorities’ legal duty, but were unable to find – or were turned away by – the relevant local authority department. QSA investigated this issue by researching public health funeral information on local authority websites and by telephone. Our resulting report calls for local authorities to follow their existing legal duties, and calls upon the government to replace additional voluntary guidance with statutory minimum standards.
Needless to say, entering the contested arena of social policy is not controversy-free, and charities may in turn be criticised for their campaigning and political activity. This is all part of the democratic process, though in the febrile atmosphere of the UK’s current culture wars, fairness, respect – and, sadly, sometimes even safety – cannot be guaranteed. Sometimes charities have attracted major hostility not for campaigning activity, but for other ways of fulfilling their charitable objectives. Recently the National Trust was attacked by a number of MPs for researching and reporting on an important historical aspect of some of its properties: their links to slavery and colonialism. The Trust’s actions were exonerated by the Charity Commission.
Politicians objecting to charities speaking out are nothing new: in 2014 a then civil society minister infamously remarked that charities should be “sticking to their knitting” – presumably wishing that they would just treat the symptoms of societal problems, and avoid the annoying habit of seeking to understand and speak up about underlying causes. Thankfully the tenure of that civil society minister was short-lived; and in fairness, a more recent charities minister, Tracey Crouch, urged charities in 2018 to “speak truth to power” – a phrase which has particular resonance for Quakers.
For its part, QSA will continue asking challenging questions of those in power – it will strive to do so based on evidence, in good faith, and with the words of the late Hélder Câmara and many others to remind us that we’re not alone.