The advocates for austerity now have charities in their sights

Recent scandals engulfing large fundraising charities dubious ethics and the collapse of Kids Company following the withdrawal of government funds have put the charity sector in the spotlight. However, things have quickly moved on from the legitimate questions around these affairs to more fundamental – and unwarranted – questioning of charity and charities.

the battle lines have been drawn

Take this Petition calling on the government to end funding for all charities.

No matter that it has only 300-odd signatures, the fact is someone thinks this.

The proposer’s thinking (I use the term loosely) is elaborated in this post on the Libertarian Home website. Let’s start with this for an opening gambit:

“If a “charity” receives public funding, it’s not a charity, it’s quango.  That may just be semantics…”

Excuse me? Semantics? Hello!!!!

I have sat on quangos and I have run charities and they are very different. There are similarities in that the principles of good governance and standards in public life apply equally to both, but one is answerable to a Minister, the other (notwithstanding the need to operate within the regulatory requirements) should be accountable to its beneficiaries.

Now it’s not clear whether the author is talking about grants and contracts. But even if we assume that it’s just grants, the receipt of government funds does not turn an independent organisation into an agent of the state. Does that apply principle apply equally to subsidies given to private sector companies to run railways, or for research and development grants or a whole host of other purposes?

And the argument is even more absurd if you take in funding awarded for contracts. Are the many private sector companies that thrive off the back of public sector contracts merely ‘quangos’ too? I don’t hear that argument too often, even from libertarians.

Successive governments have pushed the delivery of public services by charities and social enterprises for many years. For nearly 20 years the mantra from Whitehall has been: grants bad, contracts good. Charities should not rely on handouts, but should earn their income by delivering services.

That’s fine….to an extent. I certainly have no opposition to charities being more entrepreneurial. But the implicit suggestion here that charities are ‘dependent on the state’ is just neo-liberal claptrap.

Now the charity sector is seen as fair game for the ideologues intent on cutting back the state to unfathomable levels, that would have ever more dire consequences on the most vulnerable.

I believe that with confidence imbued from a Conservative general election victory the government’s real puppets are now attacking the charity sector, emboldened by the spotlight shone on Kids Company.

We’ve seen these ideas before from the likes of the IEA and other free market zealots and they were utter nonsense then. They haven’t improved with age.

trust in professionsSo there is something quite galling to see journalists lining up to criticise charities over how the conduct themselves. I am not for one second suggesting that charities should not be subject to scrutiny – far from it, I welcome the highest levels of accountability and transparency – but some of the criticism now being directed at the sector is as unwarranted as it is hypocritical.

Research conducted by Ipsos MORI shows that only around one in five of us trust journalists and Government Ministers to tell the truth.

trust in charities

Charities on the other hand have much greater levels of public trust and confidence – only doctors and the police are more trusted professions. As the figure (left) shows only 12% of the public think that charities cannot be trusted.

So when it comes to trust. There’s simply no contest.

That is not an argument against scrutiny of charities or their practice, but it does rather fly in the face of much of the rabid attack that seems to be a growing part of the current political and media discourse.

Some charity sector leaders have been defending Kids Company and the growing number of attacks on the charity sector. But fewer than I would have expected and less vociferously than I would have imagined. Perhaps they do not yet feel that their interests and values are – yet – in the firing line. But it is my firmly held believe that this is the beginning of a major offensive against charity and charities.

The battle lines are being drawn.


One thought on “The advocates for austerity now have charities in their sights

  1. Unfortunately, other research has shown that when people are asked who can be trusted, their answers don’t correlate with how much credence they actually give to those individuals’ views. It’s less about trust, and more about how loudly people are heard.

    If in doubt, consider the question of MMR and autism. That was journalists against doctors, and even though the doctors were telling the truth, people believed the journalists.

    The question of trust in charities, in my opinion, is a deeply misleading one. People don’t think long and hard when answering these surveys, and the word charity is imbued with such rhetorical force that it provokes an instinctive positive response. I suspect many people who say they trust charities, if asked in more detail, would admit they don’t actually trust charities to do anything – represent them, spend money efficiently, or deliver necessary services.

    Having said all that, you’re obviously correct that there’s an attack on the charity sector. In my view it’s gaining ground largely because people have such fundamental misperceptions of how charities work and what they do.

    But of course, given my profession, you might well choose not to trust what I have to say.

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