My Lords, I have spent a great deal of my life in the charitable sector. I worked professionally—among other things, I was chief executive of Oxfam and Voluntary Service Overseas—and spent a great deal of time in the charitable sector as a volunteer and trustee, in some instances chairing boards of trustees.
This report is superb, and I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley on her leadership in producing it. However, I found it striking to read the declarations of interest by the members of the committee as published in the report. What a wealth of talent and in-depth experience of the issues we are discussing. It is important for the Government not to cherry-pick but to take the whole report, take it seriously and implement it. In this respect, special tribute must of course be paid to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for the courage and character of his own observations on all this.
It is true to say that, particularly during my time with Oxfam, I came to the conclusion that campaigning was perhaps at times the most important service to those we claimed to serve. It is as though intellectually and morally, charities have grown up. They said, “We’re no longer prepared simply to succour need”. Very often that can in effect perpetuate the need, because it may remove the unpalatable signs of what is wrong but fail in the responsibility to speak out about the causes. That is why I find it sad that, in what we want to be a thriving democracy, we do not accept that charities have an important, key role to play at times such as general elections. They are not just political party manifestos; they speak with the authority of engagement.
One other point which should be emphasised—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has drawn attention to it, as have others—is that core funding is in many ways key to the whole concept of a charity. In the last two decades there has been a tendency to move towards a world of subcontracting, and charities have, in effect, become deliverers of services contracted by somebody else. I want the best possible public services in Britain—I take second place to nobody in that—and that is one of the reasons why I am on this side of the House. However, charities are not just about public service; they are about being catalysts in society. They are about engaging with and enthusing the public with the issues that need to be addressed; they are about increasing public awareness of the challenges we face. If we do not give core funding the attention it deserves, a charity loses the ability to be itself, to develop thought and to make its own choices about where the priorities are. I repeat that it becomes a deliverer of services, which is increasingly a world of subcontracting.
I conclude with an anecdote from my time as director of Oxfam. I was coming towards the end of my stint and was in central America, which at that time was a terrible place—the most terrible things were happening. I had been in El Salvador and Nicaragua and was now in Mexico. I remember our field director getting rather irritated with me. I was talking about all the things that were happening in the countries I have just mentioned and she said, “But it’s happening here”.
I met the Bishop of San Cristóbal, who was an incredibly courageous chap. He wore an open-necked shirt, was very simply dressed and wore a wooden crucifix, but, my God, was he standing by the poor of Chiapas, who were being exploited. He was always in trouble with the Mexican Government of the day because he challenged them about what was happening. We were sitting in his simple terraced house talking over a cup of tea. I asked, “Have you got a message that you’d like me to take back not just to my colleagues and supporters in Oxfam but to the wider public?”. He said, “Yes, I have”. The first point that he made haunts me to this day, and it is something none of us working in the charity sector can escape. He said, “Oxfam talks a great deal about its commitment to equality, but how equal are these people with whom you work, or how far are they in effect the indispensable objects of your institutional need?”.
My second point is that in situations like that you cannot be neutral—you have to stand up and be counted. However, what matters is solidarity. He said, “Solidarity is a process of identification at the level of the individual, the family, the community and the nation and, hopefully, internationally”. My God, I wish that there were more international solidarity abroad in Britain these days. He said, “Solidarity is the real challenge of charity”. I have never forgotten that conversation; it has been a lodestar for me in my life ever since.
When you think about it—and we in this House should think about it—you will see that we talk about the poor and to the poor, but how often do we talk with them and for them? How far are we the instrument of putting on the agenda the real issues as seen from the perspective of those about whom we are speaking? For that reason, I believe that the Government’s failure to respond on this point, as was so well emphasised by the brave stand of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is a very serious omission that needs to be put right as soon as possible.