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1992 – Right Said Fred, Eldorado, Robert Halfon and Me

Robert Halfon is complaining about good and healthy organisations again – it’s like going back 20 years for me.

Back then I was at the University of Exeter with Robert. I was Deputy President of the student union, he was Chair of the Conservative Association. His focus was then the supposed closed shop of student unions.

Robert Halfon, who is now the Conservative MP for Harlow, told the Public
Administration Select Committee that the Charity Commission had made “arbitrary
decisions” about how much lobbying charities were allowed to do.

“A charity should be about doing practical things,” he said. “Surely the
real test of whether something is a charity is what it does on the ground.” 

Halfon said that there were too many very large “Tesco charities” that spent millions of pounds lobbying in Whitehall.

I think he was wrong and misguided in the early 90s about student unions. He just didn’t like the word union and the political connotations behind it, that was – left-wing and militant. And as a student, he was a member of a Union – which was repugnant to him. He tried to take a case to the courts in Strasbourg. He lost of course – student unions are just communities of students which have chosen to call themselves unions. And an inclusive student union was a practical and healthy community.

In fact, in Exeter, they chose to call it a student Guild – which you would have thought was less militant and more cuddlier.

And I think he is wrong today. His current concern about charities campaigning. Again, it’s not really the principal of them campaigning, it’s more that they are campaigning against things that he doesn’t agree with. His party is part of the current government and he wants to see charities weakened so that they can’t be so critical.

In fact, I take the view that charities should campaign more to look to end or minimise the problem that they were set up to do. But some charities are not campaigning enough because of their concern of “biting the hand that feeds them” in terms of the funding from government they receive.

In 1992, virtually the last thing I did as a Student Union representative was to win the vote at a general meeting against Robert Halfon on automatic membership of all, to the student body.

I hope more of us who care about the charity campaigning sector will stand up and counter those who want to diminish the ability of charities to campaign and so lessen the chance of making our society or our world better.