This review first appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of Charity Times.
The prominent free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) recently released a follow-up to its controversial 2012 report, Sock Puppets. The contention of that report was that there is a sinister new trend for the government to fund lobby groups, including charities, to campaign for policies it wishes to pursue in order to create a false sense of grassroots support, and it met with angry criticism from the sector.
The new report, The Sock Doctrine, aims to “discuss recent developments and assess the options available to government in addressing the issue.” I have a number of problems with this report, two of which I will focus on here. Firstly, I just don’t believe the central thesis. And secondly, I think the policy recommendations in the report are worryingly misguided.
The main issue is that there simply isn’t enough evidence to stack up the claim that there is any sort of meaningful trend towards the use of “sock puppet” charities. Almost all the examples given in this new report are not even charities. And in the previous report, most of the examples are of charities which receive state funding and also campaign on certain issues, but with no evidence to suggest that they receive state funding for their campaigning activities.
The report makes the false assertion that charities receive more in state support than they receive from individuals. In fact, the NCVO Almanac shows that voluntary organisations annually receive over £16bn from individuals and just over £14bn from statutory sources. And over £11bn of this statutory funding is in the form of contracts to provide services, rather than grants. This means that in the majority of cases, when a charity receives money from government it is because there is a contract to provide a service. If that charity chooses to use some of the money it earns to undertake campaigning work, then so be it. This should no more be seen as the government supporting the campaign than my purchase of petrol from a BP service station should be seen as an endorsement of their stance on Scottish independence.
There are is small subset of examples given in the first report that are more difficult to dismiss; where charities that are primarily campaigning organisations receive grant funding from the state so it does look like government funding for campaigning. However, in these cases – many of which are charities raising awareness on public health issues – although the statutory funding may well be for campaigning work, it cannot (or at least should not) be for lobbying work aimed at the government itself. If it is, then there would be a case to answer.
I am quite sure that the author of the IEA report, Christopher Snowdon, would not be happy with the idea of the government using taxpayers’ money to support organisations undertaking public campaigns on issues he considers divisive (such as the health risks of smoking), and would not consider this a legitimate approach. However, I disagree. Governments have to use taxpayers’ money for all sorts of things that individual taxpayers don’t necessarily like or agree with, and that includes awareness-raising initiatives.
Snowdon might object that if the Government wants to push a particular policy, it should do so itself. Again, I would counter that if the government thinks a charity is better placed to raise awareness of an issue then it makes sense to give them the money rather than duplicating their efforts. The only situation in which I would agree with Snowdon that there is a problem is where the government is deliberately using charities in a non-transparent way to put forward policies that it otherwise wouldn’t feel able to promote. However, I don’t think any of the examples given in the IEA reports fits this description.
Assume for a moment that I accepted the report’s central thesis. Would the policy prescriptions work? I don’t think so. For instance, one eye-catching recommendation is that the UK should adopt a version of the “Queensland model”, where organisations that receive a majority of funding from the state are prevented from campaigning against policy and legislation. This is a deeply worrying suggestion. If, as I argue, the vast majority of state funding for charities is for services delivered on a contractual basis, then constraining the campaigning activity of a charity just because it also happens to earn a significant proportion of income in this way is totally wrong.
This recommendation, however, does point to the real issue is when it comes to state funding and campaigning by charities. It is not that the state is illicitly funding charities to campaign on its behalf, but rather that in some cases state funders are improperly using their position when contracting with charities to try to stifle their campaigning voice. We can see this with worrying developments like the insertion of gagging clauses into Work Programme contracts. The adoption of the “Queensland Model” would simply amount to an enshrinement in law of this deeply negative trend.
My concern about the “sock puppet” rhetoric coming out of the IEA is not so much to do with the reports it publishes, as I think these are fairly easily dismissed when you analyse the detail of the evidence they present. It is rather that they provide an evidence base, however flawed, for those who want to pursue an agenda that is opposed to campaigning by charities. This is something we need to continue to guard against.