Oxfam “should have done more” to avoid being seen as politically biased against the government, the Charity Commission has said in a report published today.
The Commission said in the same report that charities should have written sign-off procedures for tweets and that trustees should have direct scrutiny of the campaigning process.
The Commission investigated Oxfam over an image it tweeted entitled The Perfect Storm. The investigation followed a complaint from Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, who said a tweet sent by the charity was “overtly political and aimed at the policies of the current government”.
The tweet was part of a social media campaign leading up to the publication of a report called Below the Breadline, produced jointly by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust. But the Commission said the charity should have made it clearer what the purpose of the tweet was, and how it was linked to the report.
“We considered that the tweet could have affected the views of those who received it and could be misconstrued by some as party political campaigning,” the Commission said in its report.
“A charity must remain neutral and should consider working with other parties to help ensure public perceptions of neutrality and, as set out in an example in our guidance, that acceptable political activity is that which ‘supports the charitable purposes and that perceptions of the charity’s independence are unaffected.’
“Although we accept that the Charity had no intention to act in a party political way, we concluded that the charity should have done more to avoid any misperception of political bias by providing greater clarity and ensuring that the link to the Below the Breadline report was more obvious.”
The Commission said other charities should have “written authorisation and sign-off procedures” for sending tweets, and that as much care must be taken with social media as any other activity.
“For trustees to have clear oversight of the campaigning work of their charities is essential,” the Commission said.
Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, said he accepted his charity had not done enough to avoid accusations of bias.
"We are pleased that the Charity Commission is clear that our tweet was motivated by the desire to draw attention to the problems facing poor people in Britain today and was not party political," he said.
“At a time when increasing numbers of British people are surviving on food hand-outs, we have a responsibility to draw attention to their plight and challenge the politicians who have the power to help them.
“The Commission found that in relation to this tweet we did not do enough to avoid people misunderstanding our intentions and we accept that. We have reviewed our social media procedures to reduce the risk of tweets being misconstrued in future.”
The Commission also looked into Oxfam over the publication of an advertisement entitled Gaza. Trapped. which appeared in August.
The advert called for the ending of the blockade in Gaza (being the restriction on entry to and from Gaza) and an end to violence by both sides engaged in the conflict.
The Commission said this advert was also political campaigning but it was acceptable for the charity to run it.
“Whilst this was a political activity, we were satisfied it was undertaken in the context of supporting the delivery of Oxfam’s charitable purposes and was within the scope of our guidance on campaigning and political activity,” the Commission report said.
“Where charities engage in such an activity which concerns an area of international conflict with complex causes, they should ensure that the matter is approached in a way which clearly supports the needs of their beneficiaries. We are satisfied that the charity has done so here.”