Birmingham had been the council to watch on chuggers: they were hoping to introduce a by-law that would enable them to ban chugging in the city centre. Unfortunately the government has refused them permission.

Councils are generally powerless when it comes to dealing with chuggers. When I was attempting to get a solution the response from the charities minister, requesting that he simply activate an already existing law that would allow councils to licence chugging was a flat no. Instead, he suggested, we should enter a voluntary agreement with the Public Fundraising Regulatory Assocation, the chugging trade body.

However, our contact with the PFRA revealed they thought a voluntary agreement meant they would volunteer to chug when and where they wanted, and the council would agree to it. I found that an impossible stance, when businesses here report chuggers’ aggressive tactics causing loss in trade, as they did in Birmingham, I was not prepared for the council to be put in the position of effectively sanctioning loss of trade in certain areas.

Birmingham found “96% per cent of visitors to Birmingham said they had suffered unsolicited approaches by ‘chuggers’ and 84% said this would put them off walking around the city centre.” I simply do not see how any council can pretend to support business or high streets allowing that to happen, and Birmingham deserve credit for finding a creative way to deal with it.

What is deeply disappointing that the local government minister, despite agreeing that “chugging techniques are deeply unpleasant” has decided that local government shouldn’t have the power to do anything about it. It makes you wonder what happened to localism.

I don’t know if I could ever have been called a ‘campaigner’ against chugging, but for a short while a few years ago I did find myself occasionally commenting on one of the scourges of modern life. But having failed to make any real difference—the industry lobbying group relied on their right to be annoying and my attempts at lobbying ministers came to nothing—I retired from activism to return to being a mere disgruntled pedestrian like everyone else.

Despite that I do watch the news on chugging so found the nfpSynergy report, informatively headlined Doorstep and telephone fundraising very annoying for the public interesting even if it didn’t say anything I didn’t already know. Apparently over half of all people are annoyed at being disturbed at home, and over a third dislike being hassled on the street.

nfpSynergy, along with their non-traditional use of capital letters, have a “Driver of Ideas” who commented “fundraising must be to maximise the money raised and minimise the aggravation it causes. This data gives a good indication that we are not winning this battle.” However, the BBC News website’s coverage of the report suggested this lesson isn’t being learned, quoting a former call centre worker:

I had to phone people, give them a sob story, make them feel guilty and get their money. The company rule was that we had to hear them clearly say no three times before we should stop. If someone just hung up on us or was angry or upset, we were told to keep calling them back.

It’s obviously only one person, and I have no idea what his story is, but I have always suspected that the biggest problem (aside from the fact that very few formally complain, and therefore the industry thinks everything is hunky-dory) is that charities appoint agencies that are, effectively, charity mercenaries motivated far more by money than they are by the charity’s reputation.

Imagine I stopped you on the street, perhaps applying a bit of gentle pressure, persuaded you to give me your bank details, then used them to take over £500 from your account without really telling you what it was going towards; you would have good reason to think you have been mugged.

Yet last night’s Newsnight revealed that this is, in effect, what is happening with chugging. The British Heart Foundation are paying on average £136 per sign-up, but claim that they get £3-4 back.

The industry ‘watchdog’ the PFRA – who, of course, get some of that £136 – were wheeled out to defend the practice along with the British Heart Foundation (to whom I’d occasionally donated in the past, but will channel that money elsewhere in the future) but not, to my mind convincingly.

To me it’s hard to see how it’s anything but an incredibly bad way to give money. Half the people who sign up never even cover the costs of the sign-up to the charity they are, supposedly, supporting. Even if the £3-4 return on the sign-up fee is true it still represents and administration cost of 20-25%.

In effect we have a practice that doesn’t really benefit the charity as much as if should, and most certainly doesn’t benefit the high streets where they hassle people.

In Wandsworth we still have an uneasy truce in which the PFRA have, graciously, agreed not to chug in the Tooting Broadway area, but insist they are entitled to go chugging when and where they want. And while the council still has no power to licence or regulate the practice pedestrians in the rest of our town centres still have to risk walking the gauntlet of chuggers when they go shopping.

I suppose I should be honoured to be deemed noteworthy enough to appear in an April’s Fool ‘joke’, even if it is only Third Sector.

In an article bylined by ‘May Dupp’ they reveal that a street fundraising ban unites main parties and I’m quoted as saying what good news a ban would be. Not the best April Fools joke ever – but good to see they are thinking of me!

Meanwhile, the temporary ban on chugging in Tooting Broadway remains while we try and talk with the Professional Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA). Theoretically there shouldn’t be any chugging there at all, although we know the agencies ignore this from time to time. The main sticking point in the discussions is a fairly fundamental difference of opinion over what licensing means – the PFRA believe it means the council rubber stamps their applications to chug, the council believes that it means assessing applications on their own merits and against council policy.

The Guardian (or more specifically Paul MacInnes and Hildegunn Soldal) did a short video piece about chugging last year: you will note the early stages of my festive beard, and me looking disturbingly jowly. It finally appeared yesterday (they don’t allow embedding, so the above is on my YouTube account – but you can see the original, preceded by an ad, on the Guardian site).

Some interesting vox pops from Tooting residents, though I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion.

It’s occurred to me that I never returned to the comments I removed from the blog during the chugging episode, despite promising that I would either restore them or explain why I removed them.

In fact, I made the decision fairly soon after I removed them that they would not be returning. This was after a few people made some easy suggestions on how I could test my theories.

There were six comments deleted (along with my responses which made no sense on their own) which purported to come from two people. Both were from what I would call ‘disposable’ addresses, in other words webmail accounts that can be set up for free using any name. And all the comments came from the same place, which first aroused my suspicion that it they might be the same person. However, it was that the place in question was a charity that fundraises using chugging, while the commenters said they had no direct interest, that made me decide they would be permanently deleted.

While I’m prepared to accept that two individuals from the same charity independently decided to comment on my blog in defence of chugging I do think they should have stated their involvement with chugging rather than claiming to be “just an interested observer.”

After I suspended the comments one of the accounts was used to accuse me of censorship. Well, it is my blog and it’s up to me what goes on here, but even so there are a number of people who have commented to disagree with me and those comments have been allowed to stay – indeed, there are a number from the PFRA on this very subject and several on my original chugging post whose comments express their dislike of my position (and indeed me). With the exception of spam these are the very first comments I have deleted and I think I have every justification in that course of action.

Clearly anyone who works for a charity that is, at least in part, reliant on chugging will have an interest in defending chugging. We all have interests and prejudices – but we should be open about them. To my mind it’s slightly dishonest to pretend you are an impartial outsider since this adds more credibility to your argument, pretty much whatever the subject. It was because of this, rather than censorship or the fact they were getting a little offensive, that I decided not to reinstate the comments.

However, in the interests of openness I will briefly outline the points made. All I would ask is that you read them aware that they originate from staff at a charity that uses chugging:

  • I was shifty in the interview on the Today programme
  • The PFRA have been entirely honest and straightforward about the issue
  • I am only feigning concern about chugging as a publicity stunt
  • Anyone who opposes chugging prevents essential help getting to the world’s most needy
  • The campaign is solely to further my political career
  • People dislike chuggers because it reminds them of their shared guilt for colonial exploitation and slavery

It was partly because of this series of comments that I stopped blogging about the issue. However, we are continuing to monitor the situation in Wandsworth and are trying to seek a solution. We formally complained to one of the charities in September, copying the complaint to the PFRA, Institute of Fundraising and Fundraising Standards Board, but to date I have had no response from any of them, possibly because of the postal strike.

I’m happy with people of any viewpoint having their say, and would encourage anyone to comment. I do not require any details from you, and while your first comment is moderated (that is, I will read it before it is published) after that any comments are posted immediately. To my mind a blog is not a blog without comments, and those comments can – and should – include debate. If you ever read anything on here that you want to say something about, whether you agree or disagree, please be my guest and say what you want. All I ask is that you are honest and straightforward.

Not a stock photo, but MiniMe's first digger

Being a new man
Actually a fairly quiet week this week.  Partly because it’s still summer, and consequently everything is just a bit quieter, and partly because I started my new man duties this week – which effectively limited me to half-days consisting of an hour’s work during the morning nap and a few hours after bedtime.  It also provides me with the photo of the week:  The Digger.  I rather like the photo for some reason, the lighting and aperture worked far better than it normally does for me.  Indeed, I like it so much it’s now my wallpaper (though that was a close run thing against the man in the nappy).

I am incredibly hesitant to raise this again. Not because it’s an issue that has gone away, or because I think I was wrong (feedback has been overwhelmingly in favour of the council’s position) but largely because the majority of the discussions on here were negative circular and, in one case at least, borderline offensive. While I’ve no problem with allowing and responding to the comments (which a few people have suggested I would have been better deleting or at least ignoring) I recognise it all gets rather dull for the reader.

[Within a few hours of writing this I have temporarily (and possibly permanently) removed several comments which appear to be from sock-puppets supporting chugging.  I’m a little sad since  this is the first time I’ve had to do this on the blog. I’ve no issue with publishing comments disagreeing with, or in outright opposition to, my views – and there are many comments like this scattered through the blog – and I don’t have any issue with comments being anonymous but feel it’s perfectly reasonable to remove comments purporting to be from multiple people when there’s some evidence it’s all the same person.]

Having said all that we are continuing to monitor the situation (one trader reported counting 11 – that’s eleven – chuggers operating the Tooting Broadway piazza area earlier this week, most using aggressive tactics) and are taking up the issues with the charities directly, since the PFRA are unwilling or unable to deal with the problems themselves.

New Covent Garden Market and Nine Elms
Perhaps one of the most interested meetings I had this week was with New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) to get an update on their progress towards redevelopment. It really brings home the scale and scope of development that is taking place in Nine Elms when you go there. It is a massive site.

It also brings home the complexities involved in redeveloping the whole area – since it won’t just be NCGM developing the area, but also the new US Embassy and the Power Station alongside a number of smaller developments. Moving beyond our borough boundary Lambeth are ambitious to redevelop Vauxhall. None of these developments will exist in isolation, and making sure the whole area ‘works’ instead of just creating a series of individual developments will not be easy, but will definitely be worth it.

Bank Holiday Weekend and crime maps
I will, as I usually do, be taking a blogging break for the bank holiday (unless there’s something so amazingly urgent I can’t wait) – so the crime maps will appear on Tuesday rather than Monday. In the meantime have a great bank holiday weekend.

I felt these need a bit of perking up, so I’d thought I’d start a…

Fairy cake and a cup of teaPhoto of the week!
The idea was nice, I fairly often take photos – most often with my phone, but I’ll often find myself wondering around with various cameras.

Sadly, when I looked through this week’s photos there wasn’t really anything relevant. The best I could manage was a fairy cake and a cup of tea. Although it was a very nice fairy cake and cup of tea. You might have to get used to it, because despite my failure this week I’ve decided to continue trying to use a photo in this post… and if I haven’t got a good one. This is what you’ll be seeing.

The police, crime and community safety
I’ve spent quite a lot of time on various community safety issues this week. Unfortunately, they don’t make for good blogging because some elements are confidential, some still not ready for public consumption and some, quite frankly, just a bit dull. Necessary, but dull.

However, it’s still a major concern that crime is still up compared to last year. To some degree it was inevitable, crime was incredibly low in Wandsworth last year, but the entire country is seeing an increase in crime rates. Its effect is felt most notably in burglary, and particularly along the Lambeth border (which makes me think I need to look into adapting the crime maps with some boundaries).

While the police and council are doing all they can to fight this, it remains the case that the best way of beating burglars is to prevent it happening in the first place. Make sure your home is secure and doors and windows aren’t left open unattended and, if you don’t already have one, consider starting a Neighbourhood Watch.

How can I not mention chugging?

I really didn’t realise how this would take off. And I certainly didn’t realise the strength of public opinion. Chuggers are not popular people.

I posted about it last week, having mulled the issue over for a week or so. The council also issued a press release, and from there it exploded. It’s been covered by quite a few papers, BBC online and I’ve managed a few radio appearances as a result. Natually, I’m arrogant enough to link to them…

I did the Today programme yesterday – my bit starts around 55 minutes in.

The PRFA responded this morning – this starts around 47 minutes in. I rather like the way he describes half the crowd on Ascot’s ladies’ day as “irritating and startling”.

And finally, there had to be a head-to-head. This happened on the Jeremy Vine show (with Matthew Bannister standing in) this lunchtime – this starts 1 hour and 40 minutes in.

All these links expire a week after the broadcast.

It is silly season, but even so I’m surprised at how the chugging issue has taken off. It’s got a fair chunk of coverage via the media and generated a rather pleasing set of supportive emails and messages for me.

What is absolutely bizarre, however, has been the response of the Public Fundraising Regulatory Authority (PRFA) who seem to have what can best be described as a bunker mentality. They are currently pushing the line that it’s all a set-up. In an article in Third Sector (registration required) the PRFA accused Wandsworth and Westminster of conspiring to orchestrate a campaign against chuggers:

Mick Aldridge, chief executive of the PFRA, said he suspected the two Tory-run councils were orchestrating a campaign against street fundraising.
“I suspect that formally or informally Westminster and Wandsworth have been conferring,” he said. A spokeswoman for Westminster denied this.

I’ll deny it too. The timing of our press release had far more to do with the fact I spent most of last week in Lincolnshire with a very poor internet connection and only approved it this week. There’s no recent mention of chuggers on Westminster Council’s website and I imagine they told journalists about their plans to take advantage of the publicity.

Perhaps the PRFA don’t realise two councils independently expressing concern – supported by huge numbers of residents – might actually be a sign their chuggers are a real problem and councils, quite rightly, want to do something about it.

Rather than portraying themselves as the victims, they should be thinking about the thousands of people who are victims of hassle, harassment and haranguing from chuggers on our high streets every day.

In all his time at Tooting Broadway, Edward VII has never pestered anyone for a direct debit.
In all his time at Tooting Broadway, Edward VII has never pestered anyone for a direct debit.

There’s been a good response to my, and others, various mutterings about chuggers.

One of the most exciting is that as a result of yesterday’s council press release Sadiq Khan’s office have been making enquiries about the problem (and as far as I know all have confirmed that a problem exists). If the local MP backs the council’s campaign it will be a huge boost, especially as we need Government ministers to activate clauses from the Charities Act 2006 so the council can regulate chugging.

So far, I’ve yet to see or hear someone criticising our concerns. Comments from my previous post include:

  • Chugging is “by it’s very nature an intrusive and pressurising pest, in the busiest areas at the busiest times… Is it fair to expect all of society, including vulnerable individuals, to be harrassed on the street, whatever the cause?”
  • “High pressure guilt-based selling should not be allowed on the streets.”
  • “I’m sick and tired of being approached four or five times a day … and being guilt tripped, insulted, followed down the road and generally harrassed for money.”

And on the council’s website:

  • “it is time this blight was removed from the streets and shopping centers. I am not surprised businesses are suffering as a result of their irritating presence.”
  • “I also cross the street to avoid these individuals.”

One repeated comment is that it’s good we’re trying to do something at Tooting Broadway, but what about the other town centres.  The simple fact is that we don’t have any power to do anything anywhere – we are campaigning on Tooting Broadway because that is where the problem seems to be worse.  However, if successful, we’ll will be looking at regulating chugging across the borough and not just in Tooting.

If you want to have your say you can either comment below, or have your say on the council press release.