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"Extensive research" by the Institute of Economic Affairs has been used as the evidence base for the government’s anti-advocacy clampdown on charities, but Andrew Purkis finds only a Tea Party-style polemic.
On 6 February, the government announced that charities in receipt of government grants would be banned from using that money for attempting to influence government, parliament, their MP or regulator.
This has caused quite a stir among those who believe that charity staff paid wholly or partly from government funds have fed a great deal of specialist knowledge, user views and research into policy-making which might otherwise have been excluded. Within days, 140 charity chief executives had written to the prime minister asking him to work with charities to find a more sensible way forward.
In making this policy announcement on 6 February, the Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock made it clear that this policy was based on the work of the free market think tank (and charity) the Institute for Economic Affairs.
“The Institute of Economic Affairs has undertaken extensive research on so-called ‘sock puppets’, exposing the practice of taxpayers’ money given to pressure groups being diverted to fund lobbying rather than the good causes or public services," he said.
"Taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government.”
It is unusual for a particular piece of “research” to be relied on so heavily and prominently as a basis for controversial policy change, so I have had a look at it. My view is that it is less “research” than a muddled polemic - a poor basis for sensible policy.
Indeed, I seriously wonder whether Hancock, let alone more senior ministers, can have actually read it. A number of commentators have noted that the Cabinet Office has refused to give one single example of the “farce” to which Hancock referred, and having read the original “Sock Puppets” report by Christopher Snowdon of the IEA, I am not surprised that they find this difficult.
I agree with Snowdon on certain points. For example, if charities are heavily dependent on government funding, they are at risk of being destroyed if there is a change of policy, and they may also over time lose their independence of spirit and action.
The most conspicuous example of the latter is not mentioned at all by Snowdon: large housing associations. I also agree that some charities may be inclined to exaggerate the distress and needs of their beneficiaries or the dangers they hope to help prevent, but this is mostly a problem of charities dependent on their individual supporter base via direct mail and internet appeals, which is not Snowdon’s concern.
I declare in the interests of transparency that I have been the proud chair of three of the charities that feature in Snowdon’s narrative: ActionAid, The Green Alliance and Living Streets, and a supporter and admirer of several others. I also own up to having worked for a while as a fast stream civil servant in Whitehall, so I am twice cursed: a typical example of the self-aggrandising co-conspiracy he detects between government and charities at the expense of the people.
I also plead guilty to being part of the manipulative “elite” that believes in policies such as stopping so many people dying as a result of smoking or obesity, and trying to limit climate change. For yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are in serious Tea Party-style territory here.
Snowdon is head of lifestyle economics at the IEA but makes no mention of an economics qualification. His “research” skills in attacking academics and doctors who advocate for restraint of smoking, drinking and obesity do not rest on any post-graduate degree, but on a BA in history at Lancaster University. He has a combative disdain for academics of this kind whom the elite regard as distinguished. Here are some examples, all referenced in detail on the website Tobacco Tactics:
Equally, the richly qualified academics whom he attacks do not rate the quality of his work, for example against the obesity police: his report on that subject was dismissed as “laughable nonsense which flies in the face of 50 years of science,” by nutrition expert, Dr Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, as well “completely wrong” by Professor Mike Lean, chair of Human Nutrition at the University of Glasgow. Perhaps the quality of Snowdon’s work would be higher if he submitted it to the same kind of peer review as those whom he disparages so freely.
With these background indications as to where Snowdon is coming from, we turn to “Sock Puppets”. Snowdon uses as a framework some anti-statist concepts from the 1960s called “public choice theory” based on a bleak caricature of the motivation of people in government.
His resulting generalisations are sweeping. David Cameron and Matt Hancock, are you listening? “The monopolistic nature of government, funded by taxpayers who cannot easily walk away, positively encourages nest-feathering, bribery and indolence”.
Sir Jeremy Heywood and (Cabinet Office permanent secretary) John Manzoni, are you listening? “The bureaucrat’s desire to maximise his salary while minimising his workload can be achieved with scant regard for the common good.”
Armed with these preconceptions, Snowdon contends that politicians, who know they are as a class distrusted by the public, think they can get better cover for their elitist\statist policies, and get more money and status for their own departments, by paying charities to do the influencing for them.
Charities want the money to aggrandize themselves, too (“public choice theory” view of humanity again) so they play the game by taking the money and lobbying for what ministers want anyway, sometimes pretending to disagree on the margins but really collaborating in the porkbarrel at the taxpayers’ and people’s expense. “Politicians fund their supporters (chosen charities) who, in turn, fund their bureaucracies”.
In essence, therefore, with a bit of an intellectual stretch, Snowdon can conclude that government is lobbying itself at the expense of the people: sock puppets!
When Snowdon tries to apply this model to real life and real Ministers, “bureaucrats” and charities, he runs into a number of difficulties.
Firstly, he has an inconsistent grasp of the charity sector. So he can assert that Citizens’ Advice are OK because “they rarely, if ever, use their charitable halo to influence public opinion and lobby for legislation”.
This will be a surprise to all those who know the high quality reports and briefings produced by Citizens' Advice for many years, bringing the experience they have of the realities of life every day to policy makers at different levels – a particularly good example of how government-funded charitable work enriches policy-making, now in jeopardy.
The same claim is made about Brook Advisory Centres, but if Mr Snowdon had looked at their website he would have found that as one of its three key activities: “Brook seeks to influence opinion formers and the public about the reality and complexity of young people's lives, and to encourage a climate and culture in which young people's sexual health issues can be discussed openly and positively.”
Secondly, Snowdon assumes that a government’s promotion of its view on key issues is likely to be a cynical effort to grow empire, but every government without exception must promote what it thinks is in the public interest and seek to influence opinion accordingly.
This includes the prevention of crime, preventing unnecessary disease, suffering and demands on the NHS, influencing young people against radicalisation, reducing the number of accidents, encouraging more people to take responsibility for lonely elderly people, encouraging less wasteful use of energy, rallying support for the Covenant whereby society rewards veterans of the armed services in return for their sacrifices, ensuring that the victims of crime have a sufficient voice in the criminal justice system… and so on. There is really quite a lot more to it in the real world than self-aggrandisement.
Thirdly, he cannot explain why, if this is a legitimate and necessary part of government, it should not be done in the most effective available manner. It is not always done most effectively by government employees. Whitehall does not always know best.
Charities do not bring only their supposed “halo”: they bring in many cases one or more of the following: dedicated expertise, the authority of experience and contact with users, local presence and memberships, a trusted status (which the state may not have) among marginalised groups, the voices of those excluded from the political space. In the world beyond “public choice theory” stereotypes, these are the assets that governments want to use to support their policies.
The irony is that a free market think tank (the IEA) has ended up recommending and welcoming a “Whitehall knows best” gagging policy cutting the state, MPs and Parliament off from the feedback and expert views of grant aided charity staff and their users.
Fourthly, Snowdon’s sock puppet caricature falls apart when he gives his examples. Many of the charities mentioned are quite clearly independent charities with a diversified funding base. They are not supine instruments of government. ActionAid, for example, is a feisty organisation with most of its money raised from individual donors. The Green Alliance is another, with a wide range of different donors and sponsors.
Indeed, Green Alliance works across the boundaries that separate the business sector, government, and voluntary sector and receives significant support from each: that is why it can add so much value to what government (or the other sectors) could do by themselves.
The idea that many of the charities mentioned will be co-opted and lose their independence is not credible. Stonewall is not going to lose its independence and sell out just because it is engaged by different public sector bodies to help them improve their understanding and policies as they affect gay people. Ditto the Fawcett Society and women’s rights. Another charity identified as a sock puppet – Alcohol Concern - was so angry at Government policy in 2010, Snowdon admits in a footnote, and so vocal about it, that the Government grant came to an abrupt end. Some sock puppet! The idea of the CPAG as a sock puppet is in my view equally far-fetched, as many bruised Ministers will tell you.
In the real world, tension, rows, tough discussions from different viewpoints, as well as more harmonious passages, are part and parcel of the relationships with government of most if not all of the charities he cites. Most of them are independent not only in constitution but in spirit. And if they are independent, they cannot be sock puppets enabling government to lobby itself. Even those very highly dependent on government funding, like ASH (the anti-smoking campaign), clearly (according to Snowdon) pushed the government further than government originally intended or wanted to go on the smoking ban, which is not surprising because it is independently constituted and heavily influenced by indomitable doctors and other campaigners. Snowdon acknowledges that the Fawcett Society and Age UK (with a strong and diversified funding base) did the same over equalities legislation.
Fifthly, many will find it hard to share Snowdon’s view that the outcome of most of the examples he cites are reprehensible, with the British people’s interests subordinated to a cosy conspiracy. Let us ask Matt Hancock which examples he had in mind in describing “the farce of government lobbying government”? Was it the “farce” of campaigning to curb smoking and save lives? Was it the “farce” of pushing concerns about the environment, including global warming, up the public and political agenda? Was it the “farce” of engaging equality charities to work with Government to change practices and attitudes? Was it the “farce” of supporting Living Streets to promote Walk to School across the country and help raise awareness of the needs of people going about their lives on foot? Was it the “farce” of working with independent INGOs to promote or deliver aspects of the government’s policies towards overseas aid? These are core government policies. We know that Mr Snowdon may regard such outcomes as the triumph of state interference, nannying, political correctness, and truckling to the wrong- headed ravings of distinguished scientists, but can it really be the government’s own position? If not these examples, then which other examples comprise the “farce” that led Ministers to embark on this policy change? Or perhaps there is no farce - other than a government citing such a risible polemic as its evidence base?
Sixthly, Snowdon argues that it is wrong for government to use taxpayers’ money for funding charities to influence policy in a direction that is “contestable”, ie with which many people disagree. This is odd. Public money is used all the time in ways to which some or many taxpayers are hostile. Think of Trident missiles, academy schools, legal aid, and badger culls. Think of investing in prison education or community sentences. Think of taxpayer subsidies to advance religion. Or public schools. Or public health policy on AIDS. Or encouraging community transport, with implications for private sector providers.
Public policy will often be contentious, with the Government choosing to be on one side of an argument and trying to convince others that its policy is right and good. Independent charities will also decide their own views and sometimes find overlap with Government, sometimes not. If yes, despite “public choice theory”, the motive and outcome of partnership on common agendas, including a funding relationship, may be the common good, even if some other people in a democracy disagree. Why would it be better for the taxpayer to expand the number of state employees or pay PR agencies for such contentious influencing work, rather than doing the job better, and often for less, in partnership with independent voluntary organisations?
Finally, Snowdon argues that by funding some charities to work in favour of chosen policy outcomes, government is “muzzling” civil society. He seems to imply, for example, that the real “civil society” did not want measures to discourage smoking and other lifestyle choices with bad health outcomes. No convincing evidence is given that supports such an assertion. He says that “independent voices” are bought off or excluded , and it seems what he means here are people such as climate change deniers and libertarian opponents of public health policy or of environmental regulation.
But this is not “muzzling” civil society; it is choosing particular charities as partners in support of government policies. His hyperbolic peroration continues: “The parody of civil society that they (government) have created excludes citizens’ groups, lay experts and concerned individuals in favour of an amen corner which will not, or dare not, fundamentally disagree with its funders”.
In fact, charities such as Age Concern, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and many others named in "Sock Puppets" are hardly short of citizens’ groups, lay experts and concerned individuals: in fact, that is who they are. And they can and do sometimes disagree with the government big time, whether they are in receipt of a government grant or not.
So “Sock Puppets” is not “extensive research”. It is a polemic rooted in a Tea Party type vision of government, politicians and bureaucrats as inherently self-aggrandising, conspiring with subservient fake charities for selfish ends to rob and cheat the people.
Snowdon’s most heartfelt hostility is towards partnerships (including funding) with charities involved in trying to restrain deaths and illness from smoking, excessive drinking and obesity; raising awareness of and coping with climate change and other problems; promoting fairness for women and gay people; and maintaining generous international development programmes. Mr Cameron, Mr Hancock, Ms Greening, Mr Hunt, Ms Rudd: is this really the “evidence” base you are happy to highlight so prominently for your new policy?
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