The Tories want to muzzle Oxfam for speaking the simple truth

Poverty and hunger are a blight on modern Britain

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It started, as many things do these days, with a tweet. Oxfam posted on Twitter a mock-up of a film poster entitled “Perfect Storm”. Against the backdrop of a swirling sea, the charity set out what it sees as the five evils stalking Austerity Britain: zero hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment and childcare costs. Another Oxfam tweet with the hashtag #BreadlineKids said: “We think all political parties need to commit to action on food poverty in the UK.”

The tweets had a simple aim– to draw attention to Oxfam’s “Breadline Britain” report on poverty and hunger in our country. But they have triggered a storm in which Oxfam finds itself at the centre.

The Conservative MP Conor Burns described it as “explicitly political” and has reported Oxfam to the Charity Commission. Another Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, said yesterday that the charity’s complaints were inaccurate, that poverty and unemployment were falling in the UK under this Government. Why should Oxfam, they say, receive £60m a year in Government grants for its charitable status when it is mounting a partisan attack on that same Government? Mr Burns tweeted at Oxfam warning them that they would lose many everyday donors – including those who spend money at their high street charity and bookshops – as a result of the campaign.

Reading this, I wondered whether Oxfam’s newly enraged opponents think that this charity only gathers its donations from selling second-hand clothes and books, then sending the proceeds off to stricken families in Africa. Because the outrage seems to stem from surprise that Oxfam is working – and has been doing for years – among us, helping Britain’s poor.

As we have seen from the two MPs, there are two criticisms of Oxfam: first, that the five evils it highlighted are misplaced, because the economy is growing, poverty is falling and more and more people are in jobs under this Government. The second is that Oxfam have assumed the position of the Labour Party and are mounting a party-political attack on the Coalition.

David Cameron said yesterday that relative poverty is at its lowest level since 1986 and there are now 300,000 fewer children living in poverty than under the last government. This may be true, but last month 170 public-health experts wrote to The Lancet saying that severe malnutrition was getting worse in this country. They highlighted a 12 per cent rise in the cost of food since 2007 compared to an average 6.7 per cent fall in wages over the same period. The rise in food banks shows how those two figures are leaving more and more families relying on handouts. Much as the Prime Minister’s statements on poverty may be correct, this doesn’t mean that hunger and poverty have been eradicated in Britain. Nor does it mean Oxfam can simply down tools.

As the charity’s policy and campaigns director said on Radio 4 yesterday, there are families starving in Britain today. Hungry children describe a “biting feeling of hunger” in their stomachs. Maybe it is easier, when we talk about Oxfam, to think of strident ladies of a certain age behind the counter in a second-hand bookshop, rather than a child clutching its stomach in pain in Britain in 2014. But nevertheless, that is the reality. As for the other things on Oxfam’s list, it is a fact that benefits are being cut, that childcare costs are soaring and zero-hours contracts have taken root in every industry.

Currently, Oxfam is running a major campaign directed at famine in South Sudan – but it is a patronising world view that sees poverty and hunger lurking only in developing nations and not in our own, especially when there are parts of Glasgow where life expectancy is lower than in South Africa.

For more than 70 years, Oxfam has been lobbying governments of different parties. Its first campaign in 1942 cajoled the wartime national government to allow aid into Greece through an allied blockade. During the last Labour government, Oxfam criticised ministers over trade and arms and refused to accept government donations because of the Iraq war. Oxfam’s work is political, yes, but party-political? No.

What’s a school trip without a spot of binge drinking?

News that a group of teachers were involved in a drunken brawl on a school trip must have sent a shudder down the spine of many in the teaching profession. Staff from Stanley Park High School in Carshalton, south London, are being investigated for bad behaviour during the trip to Spain last month. One teacher sustained a black eye.

But surely this can’t be the only time a school trip has ended in such fashion. When I was a sixth-former, our class went to Dublin for a few days. The evening ferry crossing from Liverpool allowed us to spend several hours drinking pints of Guinness in the bar – not a good idea for 17-year-olds on a rare night away from home. We all got very drunk, some were sick on the carpet, and in the end the ship’s steward had to be called. “Where is your teacher?” he demanded as the shutters came down on the bar and teenagers scattered to another deck. “He’s the one who’s just fallen off his chair and is lying face down on the floor,” said one of my fellow pupils brave enough to hang around.

Lurking in the understory... a  Labour kitten

He was one of the last Labour government’s big beasts, and then slunk off into the jungle after losing his seat in the 2010 election. But the row between Theresa May and Michael Gove has allowed Charles Clarke, who was both Home Secretary and Education Secretary under Tony Blair, to re-emerge into the Westminster clearing and onto the airwaves.

Mr Clarke has not restricted himself to commenting on the Cabinet infighting, but has – somewhat predictably – criticised Ed Miliband’s leadership, saying that the Labour leader “still has to convince people he has the capacity to lead”. Given how routinely Mr Clarke used to try and take chunks out of Gordon Brown when he was leader, with little success, I’m not sure Mr Miliband needs to worry.

Despite his one-time loyalty to Mr Blair, Mr Clarke also went for his former boss by saying that he was in “quite a tragic position – he’s finished as prime minister relatively young”. Mr Clarke reminds me of the tiger in Henri Rousseau’s Surprised!,  trying to blend into the jungle understory. But I suspect that Mr Clarke is more cuddly kitten than predatory beast these days. We should not, in fact, be surprised at anything he says.

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