We need the banks? Perhaps. We certainly need charities, too

A monthly donation to Oxfam might provide water to Yemenis affected by Saudi airstrikes. Sub-prime mortgages these are not

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The Independent Online

On Radio 4 yesterday morning, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin caught himself in the middle of what might today be called a “problematic” comparison, and put the engine swiftly into reverse. Having spent a few minutes talking about what lessons the charitable sector – this month’s bête noire – could learn from banking’s own history of scandal, he added, a little on the defensive: “I’m not comparing charities with some of the monstrosities committed by the banks.” It was interesting that this disclaimer needed to be given at all.

Mr Jenkin, in the first place, was not weighing up like with like. The misbehaviour – some would say criminality – of the banks in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis happened right under the eye of board members, if it was not directly prompted from the top (see: Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin of Bear Stern, Andy Hornby of HBOS, Fred Goodwin of RBS: the list goes on). The misbehaviour – and it amounts to little more than that – of the charities took place, meanwhile, out of sight and broadly out of mind. 

Remember, it is not charity employees who are under scrutiny now, but the companies to which they outsourced their fundraising; GoGen, Listen and other phone bank services, hired to drive up the number of donors on direct debit.

That charitable trustees spent more of their time near canapé trays and champagne trollies than finding out how these places operated is certainly a black mark on their record. But theirs is a sin of omission: from what little I learned of the third sector as an employee, I suspect that between the options of “incompetence” and being “wilfully blind” – the two explanations offered by the Government for trustee failings – the vast majority fell into the former camp. What went on in the boards of the banks, on the other hand, was clearly a sin of commission. 

Absurd not long ago, it also seems appropriate in the current climate to contrast what exactly the two industries were selling. A monthly donation to the NSPCC helps children who have been beaten up, or worse, by adults; one to Oxfam might provide water to Yemenis affected by Saudi airstrikes; one to Save the Children could well end up feeding a Syrian toddler inside that country. Sub-prime mortgages these are not. 

And the lengths being gone to by charities to raise money speak to a spike in demand for their services: the UN announced last week that it needs $15bn more than it expects to receive this year to handle the victims of the world’s wars and natural disasters. Food aid has been slashed for refugees in Syria and Somalia. You might, in such circumstances, excuse the accountancy departments of Oxfam and co a measure of desperation.

Which is not to minimise the abusiveness of the centres they employed. Some targeted the elderly. Some sold on personal details. Some refused to stop calling, even when potential donors took refuge in the Telephone Preference Service. 

The Government is entirely right to strengthen the independent regulator, as it is to call for improvement in the calibre of charitable trustees. But the growing sense that charities are “a problem”, whipped up by elements of the right-wing press – who are to hypocrisy on the left as sharks are to a drop of blood in the ocean – strikes me as more than a little overdone. (The family of Olive Cook, the 92-year-old whose suicide followed a barrage of unsolicited requests, maintain that her death was not related to such hassling – in contrast to the public impression.) 

Certainly, when 10 per cent of local authority contracts are handled by charities, it would make little sense for the Government to bring in the kind of state chokehold the likes of the Daily Mail have been calling for. The less money charities raise, the less well equipped they will be to manage the public services the Conservative party has shifted on to their shoulders. And it might seem contradictory, to tie charities in regulation, at the same time as George Osborne is loosening as many bonds as he can from the banking industry, as part of the “new settlement” announced last year.

What the Government is offering in this case – “one last chance” for charities to self-regulate – is about right: Oxfam and Save the Children have already suspended cold-calling, and Cancer UK cancelled a contract with GoGen. They may lose some funds, but will gain in the public eye.

Of course it is the unfortunate truth that charities cannot fund their services through general esteem. If these organisations could count on everyone who “likes” their work supporting it financially, nobody would have had their path blocked by a chugger, nor a “minute of their time” begged on the telephone. The end result of this imbroglio may be that fewer people donate to charity, convinced by the likes of Chris Grayling that it does not “have its house in order”. That would be a shame. And it remains baffling that Mr Grayling – and many of his colleagues – has so little to say on the regulation of banks, whose failures blighted the lives of millions. “We need the banks” is the typical response. You so rarely hear  from that other “we” – the ones who need the charities.