A group of charities and campaign groups have written a letter to The Times complaining about what they regard as attempts to 'stifle' debate about the 'causes of poverty'. This comes in the wake of the controversial Lobbying Act and the equally controversial Oxfam campaign, discussed by Ryan Bourne last week, which proposed a raft of borrow-and-spend policies as an alternative to 'austerity'. The Conservative MP Conor Burns has made a complaint to the Charity Commission about Oxfam's campaign.
The IEA has gone on the record with its own concerns about the heavy-handed Lobbying Act, and Conor Burns' complaint is unlikely to lead to action from the Charity Commission. The Oxfam campaign is unashamably left-wing (and terribly misguided), but it is not explicitly party political and therefore does not contravene charity law. More interesting is the list of signatories to the Times letter, which tells a familiar story.
Of the 75 organisations that put their name to the letter, 56 are charities. Of these charities, at least 37 (66%) receive money from the government—central, European and/or local.* In most cases, their state funding makes up a very significant part of their income. For example, NAVCA—whose stated charitable purpose is to 'exert influence on government policy'—relies on DfE, the Home Office, the Office for Civil Society, the Ministry of Justice, DoH and the lottery for most of its income. Concern Worldwide gets nearly £5 million per annum from DfID in addition to funds from the Scottish government. Children England gets more than 90 per cent of its income from the government, as does Keep Britain Tidy.
The list goes on. Friends of the Earth are heavily dependent on grants from the EU. Health Poverty Action, ActionAid, BOND, the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust and Progressio are funded by DfID. The European Commission funds the Jubilee Debt Campaign, Progressio, ActionAid and the Runnymede Trust. The Scottish government funds SCVO, Energy Action Scotland and the Scottish Out of School Care Network. The Welsh government funds Concern Worldwide and Children in Wales. Manchester Community Central appears to be wholly funded by the state via DfE, NHS Manchester and Manchester City Council. Woodcraft Folk is funded by the lottery and by the International Falcon Movement: Socialist Educational International, which, in turn, is funded by the European Commission. Other signatories receive taxpayer funding via BIS, the FSA, DWP, DoH and DCSF.
The left-wing bias of many of these organisations has already been discussed on the Guido Fawkes blog. One might ask why, if the government is so keen to 'stifle' these charities, it continues to fund them so heavily? If they are part of Labour's 'government-in-exile', as Fraser Nelson put it in 2012, the government in Whitehall has so far been reluctant to take them on.
In total, two-thirds of the charities that signed the letter receive significant sums of money from various arms of the state. Some of their concerns about free speech are legitimate, but we must ask where free speech ends and subsidised speech begins. A number of these organisations would not exist at all if the taxpayer was not financing them. Many of the others would be greatly diminished - and would therefore have less of a voice - if they were not being boosted by the government's largesse. In what sense can a group that receives 90 per cent of its income from the state be considered part of 'civil society', let alone a 'non-governmental organisation'?
The issues raised in the letter to The Times should not be lightly dismissed, but the list of groups that signed it highlights a wider point. It illustrates a phenomenon that has transformed the charitable sector in the last twenty years, with the government pumping billions of pounds into tens of thousands of putatively 'voluntary' organisations thereby distorting public debate and blurring the lines between civil society and the state.
[This is updated figure. An early draft of the letter - upon which this blog post was based - was signed by 35 charities, of which 23 are state-funded. Interestingly, the percentage (66%) remains the same.]