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Coffee House

Oxfam’s Vanity Fair

16 June 2014

11:24 AM

16 June 2014

11:24 AM

Today, dozens of campaign groups rushed to defend Oxfam’s advert attacking government austerity for ‘forcing more and more people into poverty’, claiming complaints about politicisation were an attempt to ‘silence legitimate debate’. In a free country, pressure groups are part of the fabric of our democracy. But, if they choose to be charities for ‘public benefit’, they must remain independent to justify extensive tax breaks.  Oxfam sounds like an echo chamber for the Labour Party – and taxpayers aren’t there to subsidise that.

Like the Hollywood blockbuster it was mimicking, Oxfam’s ad mixes fact and fiction. It conjurs a tempestuous image of The Perfect Storm of ‘austerity Britain’, ‘starring: zero-hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment, childcare costs’. English author, William Makepeace Thackeray, coined the phrase in his 1847 classic, Vanity Fair, to warn against rabble-rousers whipping up a ‘perfect storm’ of indignation against some ‘fictitious monster’ for ulterior motives. There is more than a hint of that in Oxfam’s shrill PR. But, unlike Hollywood directors or literary authors, charities have a legal duty to stay independent, avoid being a vehicle for political views, remain ‘factually accurate’ and present a ‘legitimate evidence base’. Oxfam failed to discharge that duty.

For a start, two of the ‘stars’ emblazoned across the advert don’t even feature in the report. There is no mention of ‘childcare costs’, no attempt to explain how austerity Britain created ‘unemployment’ (down from 8 per cent to 6.6 per cent under this government). If you paid to watch a film at the cinema that didn’t feature two of the star attractions, you’d expect your money back.

Oxfam’s campaigns director, Ben Phillips, compounded his Arthur Daley sales pitch by claiming ‘we’re facing a rising tide of inequality’ and must tackle ‘the underlying causes’ of poverty. Yet, the Office for National Statistics confirms income inequality is lower now than when Labour was in charge.

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As for underlying causes, Oxfam can’t blame ‘high prices’ on austerity. Inflation is almost half the rate left by Gordon Brown. Last week, British Retail Consortium data showed spending on food falling for the first time since 2008, while non-food prices fell by 2.8% on last year. Oxfam should thank the free market that delivered the supermarket ‘price wars’ responsible for this.

The advert’s top billing went to ‘zero-hours’ contracts, which offer part-time work with scalable hours to meet business demand. Following Ed Miliband’s script, Oxfam lamented that many new jobs are part-time and insecure. In fact, 74 per cent of all new jobs created since 2010 are full time. 443,000 part-time jobs have been created – many taken up by working mothers and students who need flexibility.

Today, there are 1.4 million workers on zero-hours contracts. Many signed up when Labour was in office. Contrary to myth, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report that just 9 per cent on zero-hours contracts are prevented from taking up work elsewhere, and job satisfaction is almost identical to other workers. It’s not reasonable to force someone to sign an exclusive employment contract, and then offer no work. But, the scale of the issue – and its relevance to cost of living pressures – has been massively over-blown.

Finally, Oxfam blame ‘benefits cuts’ for food poverty. Yet, the Trussell Trust, which runs foodbanks, reports that just 1 in 6 referrals cite ‘benefit changes’ as the reason.

If Oxfam wants to grip poverty, why confine itself to apeing Labour Party mantra? Why no mention of the debilitating impact on the poorest of national debt? The best way to help the most economically vulnerable is to create more jobs. Only the dynamism of the private sector can do that. And, as poverty economist Kristian Niemietz argues, in a report for the Institute of Economic Affairs, if Britain wants to help the poorest it should: let councils keep more tax from building new homes to boost supply of cheap housing; scrap the EU agricultural subsidies draining 2 to 3 per cent of annual spending by poorer families; cull the subsidies big energy companies blow on green fads which suck another 1 per cent from the poorest incomes; and look again at the straitjacket regulation hiking childcare costs.

Oxfam’s ad misrepresents its report. Its report smacks of political bias. And the charity has become a revolving door for Labour figures. One of Oxfam’s most effective campaigns has been against tax evasion. Yet, its partisan approach is a gross abuse of its own tax status. If it wants to jettison its independence, it can enjoy all the campaigning freedom in the world – but, then, it must give up the public subsidy.

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