Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dear Mr Newmark - I cannot knit but I have a voice!

Brooks Newmark is certainly not the first politician to come out with a comment which is so alarmingly of touch with reality, that it belongs in science fiction. He won’t be the last. But his recent comments about the role of charities must justify some award, such as honorary citizenship of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Brooks who? He is the recently appointed Minister for Civil Society. He has been in the news this week for saying that charities should keep out of the realm of politics. In one sentence he has managed to insult the entire voluntary sector by saying that charities should be ‘sticking to their knitting’. The comment come as politicians discuss the Lobbying Act which could restrict the ability of charities to lobby the government.

It is easy to dismiss this as the harmless rant of a patronising idiot. But he has a senior political position and what he says is noticed.

He clearly has no idea at all of what is done by charities and voluntary workers. I am involved in two charities. The one in which I play an active role is the North West Legal Support Trust (NWLST). This Trust raises funds and makes grants to organisations which provide free legal advice to those in need. The fact that this trust exists at all is a political issue. Politicians have taken it upon themselves to virtually wipe out Legal Aid in the UK. At a time when more and more people are needing advice for debt, family breakdown and benefits, they have had the gateway to advice shut firmly in their faces. The government pushed through the cuts in the face of a huge campaign. The story of that struggle can be found in Patrick Torsney’s book Saving Justice –

That was, and still is, a political struggle. Ensuring that the citizens of our country have access to our country’s justice system regardless of wealth is ultimately a matter of politics. Anyone who cares about justice for all has to fight attempts to remove people's rights. But in the meantime, those in need cannot be turned away and so it falls to charities to try and fill the gap. Someone needs to tell Mr. Newmark that these are serious, cutting edge issues.

For me this is also a Christian imperative. Jesus said that as we feed the hungry, welcome outsiders, visit the sick, clothe the naked we are feeding, welcoming, visiting and clothing him. For me, this includes campaigning on behalf of those who have nothing. That means wading into political arguments. It certainly does not involve knitting.

The same goes for food banks. I have written on this before –

In the UK, in 2014 people should not have to rely on charitable hand outs to get a meal on their table. This again is a political issue. The need has come about as a result of the actions of ministers. The need can be resolved by politicians. Those who work tirelessly to meet the ever growing need are the ones who have earned the right to be heard. It is an affront almost beyond words to say that they should stay at home and do the knitting.

In one sense he should be right. Volunteer workers should not have to involve themselves. It should be the role of the state to look after those in greatest need. But until this happens the burden will fall on charities, churches and voluntary groups.

David Cameron has talked about a Big Society in which we all care for those in need –

But he cannot say this and at the same time permit ministers to dismiss the concerns of those charities who are trying to do just that, when nobody else will.

Mr Newman may think that he can silence people by legislation, removing funds and insults. But none of that will take away the need. And while that need exists we will not go away as easily as he hopes!

End of serious rant.

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