In The Guardian this week, Zoe Williams laments the charity sector’s failure to speak out against government policy. She attributes this supposed conspiracy of silence to the statutory funding to which many large charities are now addicted. She has a point. As I argued in Sock Puppets, true independence is contingent on financial independence.
One of the key problems with the enormous increase in statutory funding enjoyed by charities in the last fifteen years is the way it has stripped its beneficiaries of their autonomy and left them vulnerable to changes in government. Charities which rely on the government for 75-100% of their income, as 27,000 UK charities do, cannot call themselves independent in any meaningful sense. Many charities acknowledge this, but the kind of funding they say would give them greater independence - unrestricted grants - is not conducive to transparency and accountability.
But Williams is wrong to portray the sector’s lack of independence as a new phenomenon that began when David Cameron entered Downing Street. State-funded charities are no less ‘independent’ today than they were under the previous regime. They might have preferred working with the previous government, but that is not the same thing. If state-funded charities feel less independent today than they did under the previous government, perhaps it is because there is less risk attached to free speech when you have positive and helpful things to say about the government. It is strange to be told that charities which described themselves as ‘fiercely independent’ when funded by a Labour government are suddenly ‘no longer able to speak out’ under the Tories. Could it be that what they want to say is systematically biased towards Labour Party policy?
It would be surprising if there were not a bias towards the politics of the left in the state-funded part of the third sector, since Labour had thirteen years to distribute grants to an ever-growing assortment of ‘civil society organisations’ whereas the coalition has held the purse strings for less than three years. Even charities which do not have a leftist bias are likely to have preferred Labour’s policy of increasing funding to their sector to the coalition’s policy of making cuts.
But of course political patronage comes with strings attached. Williams says that state-funded charities who stay silent about what she regards as undesirable policies are ‘colluding with the government’. If, by that carefully chosen pejorative term, she means ‘co-operate’ or ‘collaborate’ then that is exactly what politicians expect when they employ third parties to assist them. It is what anybody expects when they exchange money for services. When politicians spend public money to achieve political objectives, it is naive to think that politics doesn’t matter. Blair and Brown did not spend thirteen years funding a network of fox hunting conservatives and libertarian activists. They gave money to groups that broadly supported their agenda.
Governments are under no obligation to fund any special interest group and if a charity dislikes the ruling party enough to be briefing journalists and undermining policies, the government might consider it to be in its interests to direct taxpayers’ money away from malcontents and towards groups which are more sympathetic, or at least neutral, towards government policy.
The question for the coalition today is whether to continue funding groups which do not share its vision (whatever that may be), while the question for the ‘sock puppet’ charities is whether to keep quiet and hope the funding rug is not pulled away from under them. It is a dilemma I predicted in Sock Puppets:
‘It is entirely possible that a future administration could withdraw its funding from the charities favoured by the Blair-Brown government and divert taxpayers’ money towards right-wing pressure groups, libertarian think-tanks, free-trade associations and advocates of privatisation. Or it might choose to spend millions of pounds amplifying the voices of religious charities, pro-life groups, cigar aficionados, gun-owners or any other group that it decides is “under-represented” in civil society.
‘The system is therefore inherently unstable. Those who benefit from political patronage are highly vulnerable to changes of government. It is an onerous task for a government to replace one set of sock-puppets with another, but the politician may consider the risks of inaction to be too great.’
The answer, in my view, is for the state to end this tawdry and wasteful charade - which has done the reputation of charities in general much harm - and place stricter limits on how public funds are spent by third parties. The spectacle of charities acting as cheerleaders for the government one minute and cowering in the corner the next is unedifying. The parties should work together to bring it to an end.