When spending money is declared to be a good in itself, it is certain that much of it will be wasted. If that was not obvious already, it was proven by experiment when Gordon Brown announced 13 years ago that he wished to increase healthcare spending in Britain to the European average without much of a plan as to what he wanted to achieve with the money.
There followed years of plenty for NHS staff, whose pay packets bulged. Patients found it harder to discern an improvement. Indeed, Brown’s great NHS spending splurge coincided with the Mid Staffs scandal.
It should come as little surprise, then, that the same is happening in the charitable sector. The government’s target of pumping 0.7 per cent of our national income into international aid has enriched charities, but much of the money seems to be boosting the living standards of charity chiefs rather than those of the world’s poor. The chairman of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, complains this week that the number of staff at foreign aid charities in receipt of salaries greater than £100,000 a year has leapt from 19 to 30 since 2010.
Criticism of salaries should never be motivated by envy. Had a charity succeeded in eliminating HIV, no amount of compensation for its staff would seem too great. Yet no charity can claim any such achievement during the past 12 months. In fact, Syria aside, the past year has mercifully been a rather quiet time for earthquakes, famines, wars and the other events for which the charities associated with the Disasters Emergency Committee were set up to address.
Even if disasters slowed to a trickle, it is certain that aid charities would carry on growing and that their chief executives would continue to award themselves ever more extravagant salaries. That is the way with all organisations: they build empires and try to puff up their own importance even if, to outsiders, they have become redundant.
In the case of aid charities, feeding the poor and treating the sick is no longer enough. They have diversified into what for many of their chiefs seems to be a more pleasing activity: political campaigning. In no case is this more obvious than Save the Children, whose chief executive, former Gordon Brown aide Justin Forsyth, was paid £163,000 last year. Established in 1919, Save the Children once had a clear purpose: to improve survival rates for children in poor countries. Not once, during the Spanish flu, the Great Depression or the second world war, was the charity moved to extend its activities to Britain — until, that is, last autumn, when it launched a campaign called It Shouldn’t Happen Here. The campaign claimed that 1.6 million British children were growing up in ‘severe poverty’, and featured a video purporting to show some of them talking about their lives. It was soon rumbled: the children had been played by actors. It was little more than a crude political campaign against government cuts, conducted by a former Labour aide and paid for by well-meaning donors, many of whom perhaps had African children in mind when they dropped their coins into Save the Children’s collecting boxes.
Not to be put off, Save the Children went on to publish a ‘State of the World’s Mothers Report’ this May which claimed that Britain had dropped from tenth to 23rd in a league table of the best countries in which to bring up children. It had reached this conclusion by extraordinary means: it took into account just five factors, only two of which related directly to the wellbeing of mothers and children. One factor was the percentage of seats in the national legislature held by women. It was, in other words, a disguised political campaign for a favourite Labour cause: greater female representation in parliament.
Other charities, too, have begun to behave like a left-wing government in exile. Oxfam campaigns for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on financial transactions and has run a campaign to empower black and ethnic minority women in the UK: both issues far removed from the famine-relief work which it was set up to carry out. Press releases from Barnardo’s have become indistinguishable from those pumped out by the Labour party: it reacted to the March budget by complaining that is ‘has done nothing for the UK’s most vulnerable families’. Quite apart from the highly arguable nature of this statement — surely raising the income tax allowance to nearly £10,000 was helpful to low-income -families? — it is a long way from the purpose for which Barnardo’s was established: providing homes for orphans.
The Charity Commission needs to look beyond excessive pay. It needs to ask whether charities deserve to keep their tax advantages if they are principally involved in political campaigning, or whether the tax breaks should only be available for specific activities such as feeding the hungry or saving the hedgehog. Political debate is always welcome, and no one would wish to gag the chief executives of charities if they take exception to a government policy. But the favoured tax status offered to charities must not be exploited and donors must not be misled. Above all, the government needs to revisit its target for 0.7 per cent of our national income to be spent on aid. As with every other area of government activity, it would be remarkable if more could not be achieved at substantially less cost.
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