In a new report the IEA (Institute for Economic Affairs) has suggested government should stop funding charities to support advocacy work – effectively paying for themselves to be lobbied. I admit that this is a good line that seems to fall somewhere between George Orwell and Edward Lear. But this soundbite is misguided and highlights the ideologically driven approach of the IEA who would rather put their faith in free market economics that have proven such a success over past few years (ahem).
Let’s look first at some of the ‘research findings’ from Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why:
“In the last 15 years, state funding of charities in Britain has increased significantly” – a partial truth as public spending cuts are having a huge impact on the sector right now. The last couple of years have massively eroded the increase over the previous decade. The comment is also ill informed as the increase has overwhelmingly been in the form of contracts – that is being paid to deliver a particular service or goods. Grant funding – and in particular ‘unrestricted funding’ that the IEA are particularly averse to – is in decline.
“State funding weakens the independence of charities, making them less inclined to criticise government policy”. State funding can indeed weaken the independence of charities. This is a theme that the National Coalition of Independent Action has picked up in earnest and there is some evidence to support this. However there are also examples of charities that have received public funding but still maintained their independence – I’d like to think Urban Forum has done so! – so we need to understand the reasons for this. My own view is that delivering contracts – as opposed to receiving grants – is more likely to lead to this sort of problem. In fact, if grants were unrestricted – which the IEA argues against – they might give charities more freedom to say what they really think, instead of gagging them over any problems they may encounter in delivering services.
The IEA criticise government funded charities which “…usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public”. If it wasn’t for the fact that some people will take this point seriously I would be inclined to laugh. This is utterly ludicrous. Of course they don’t enjoy popular support…that’s why advocacy charities are needed in the first place. If Gypsies and Travellers, for example, were less discriminated against, we wouldn’t need charities that sought to address this in public policy, would we? If everyone loved asylum seekers, no one would need to ensure they were being treated with respect and fairness. Just because something is unpopular doesn’t make it wrong to fund it. Take homeless provision for example; most people would agree that it is important that we have provision to provide a roof over the heads of those who are homeless. But far fewer people would be supportive of a homeless hostel next to their house. So we know some public policy decisions are going to be unpopular – even if, in more general terms, the need was recognised. Does the IEA really think popularity is a determining factor in whether a charity ought to be funded? If that were the case we’d have x-factor funding…and the mind boggles at the implications of that sort of approach.
I did manage to find one comment that I can (sort of) agree with – “It is vital that more transparency is introduced so the public know exactly what the government is funding”. The need for transparency applies equally to government and to the charitable sector, but the purpose of transparency is to support accountability. We have seen too much emphasis on making things transparent with far less concern consideration of how this contributes to greater accountability of the state to the public – or in the case of charities, to their beneficiaries.
The IEA seem to be suggesting that we leave the vulnerable, the marginalised and those who lack a voice to fend for themselves. If the public aren’t interested in supporting ex-offenders, or Gypsies, or asylum seekers or homeless people or the victims of domestic violence – all groups that traditionally struggle to secure funding – then let them suffer. It’s tough but the market has spoken.
And if big business is able and willing to employ lobbyists to represent their interests – as the Leveson Inquiry has helped to show is exactly what happens – then that is their prerogative.
IEA criticise charities for “…typically lobby(ing) for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws”. Or, you could say, for advocating in the interests of their beneficiaries…quite obviously unlike big businesses’ lobbying efforts. Can it actually be called lobbying if it isn’t reflecting the lobbyist’s interests? Or is it simply that the IEA are ideologically opposed to state intervention, taxes and regulation? That sounds remarkably politically motivated and not quite the ‘independent research institute’ the IEA’s website claims to be. Who are they advocating for?
I thought I might take a look at where the IEA’s funding came from – not government clearly – but I wasn’t able to find a copy of their annual accounts on their website…which is obviously perfectly legal, but hardly the benchmark for transparency. I did find them on the Charity Commission website however, and they showed they received income from foundations, corporations and individuals of £634,000 in 2010. I couldn’t however find out precisely who this money came from – which trusts and foundations, which individuals or companies were giving them money. Are they receiving funds from companies whose interests are threatened by charities lobbying for better regulation or the protection of exploited groups? I don’t know…..as I couldn’t find out. Perhaps this information is there and I just didn’t look in the right place or look hard enough.
But, being transparent does not mean hiding pertinent information away where no one can find it.
In the interests of being perfectly clear about my own position: I run a charity that has traditionally received government funding – often for doing the sort of advocacy work which the IEA so detests. However that has changed and we now receive no direct funding from central government – for advocacy or for service delivery – though we are sub-contracted to a small amount of work organising events and producing information on community rights. My views are unaffected by whether we are funded by government or not and my responsibility to advocate for the charities beneficiaries are what guides my work. But, in case anyone mistakenly assumes otherwise, I am not holding myself up as a beacon of good practice….just expressing an opinion.
There is much more we could and should do to; improve government funding of civil society, to ensure that government and charities are fully transparent and accountable and that we create conditions for a diverse and independent civil society to flourish. But with this report, the IEA have contributed nothing to that process of improvement.