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Silencing the Critics: Charities, Lobbyists, and the Government’s Quiet War on Dissent

Phil Parvin

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It is almost ten years since the publication of my report Friend or Foe: Lobbying in British Democracy, and six years since David Cameron used its findings as a basis for his 2010 speech on lobbying.1 The speech, delivered at the University of East London two months before the general election, was a major part of the Conservatives’ campaign. In it, Cameron pledged to tackle those sources of corruption, secrecy, and unfairness which caused citizens to become cynical about the British democratic system. The speech, and the campaign of which it was a part, captured the political zeitgeist of that time. After the MPs expenses scandal, public confidence in politics and politicians had reached a new low. Rates of political participation plummeted, faith in politics declined, and the disconnection between the people and their elected representatives arguably became wider than it had ever been.2

Cameron’s speech conveyed a simple message that proved popular with a public only too willing to believe the worst about British politics, a message that has been strengthened over the course of decades by the vast majority of the British media, and which profoundly shaped the decision by so many in Britain to vote to leave the EU in the recent referendum.3 Labour, he said, had allowed the British political system to become too elitist. Power that rightfully belonged to the British people had been moved upwards to the EU and other supranational institutions, and downwards to local and regional quangos all of which operated beyond the conventional checks and balances our system has established in order to ensure transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, in the middle between the local and supranational, central institutions had become diminished in power and authority, and also secretive and insular. The further democratic institutions (and the people who worked in them) had retreated from the people, the easier it had become for MPs to falsify their expenses, for corporate lobbyists to strike deals with elected politicians, and for decisions to be made behind closed doors. What political power remained at the centre had become concentrated among a cosy clique of politicians and powerful vested interests.

Cameron’s diagnosis of the problem in 2010 struck a chord, as did his solution, which comprised two principal elements: a form of localism which gave power to local people rather than to local or regional quangos which claimed to speak on their behalf, and new laws aimed at increasing transparency and fairness at the level of national policy making.4 A vote for the Conservatives, he suggested, was a vote to end the ‘secret corporate lobbying’ that had ‘tainted our democracy for too long’. They would wrest power from big business in order to end their unfair dominance of the democratic system and give power back to the British people.

But they haven’t. In fact, they have deliberately and methodically strengthened the power of large corporations to influence elected politicians at the expense of smaller organisations, and have diminished our democracy as a result. Under the pretence of addressing citizens’ concerns about lobbying, the government has in fact been waging a quiet and continuing war against those institutions and organisations capable of holding the government to account. Since they took office in 2010, the Conservatives have sought to restructure the institutions of British democracy in order to remove sources of dissent and to ensure their electoral dominance not just in the short term but for generations to come. And they have done so while claiming that their actions are intended to remove the undue influence of big business, equalise access to politicians, and put people, not business, at the heart of the democratic system. Furthermore, they have gone about this in a way that directly seeks to undermine the development of a leftist political movement at its root. Just as they have deliberately and methodically strengthened the power of large organisations relative to smaller ones, they have also deliberately weakened, or removed entirely, those civic, social, and other institutions which have traditionally mobilised social democratic activism and consciousness, while leaving intact those other organisations and institutions which have traditionally supported conservatism and markets. To see how and why this is the case, and to grasp the scale of the problem facing the left in Britain today, let us consider in some detail the recent steps that the government has taken to address widespread concerns about vested interests, first, in new rules governing the public funding of charities, and second, in the regulation of political lobbying more generally.

Charities and the government’s fake war on lobbyists. In February 2016, the government announced that it would be changing the rules governing the allocation of public funding to charities and what charities in receipt of public grants could spend their money on. These new rules state that any funding agreement between the government and the organisation in question will, from May, stipulate that no part of that public funding can be used to ‘support activity intended to influence . . . Parliament, Government or political parties . . . [or] to influence legislative or regulatory action’.5 The policy is grounded in research published in 2012 by the Institute for Economic Affairs, which raised concerns about the amount of public money that was being used to lobby for niche interests, many of which do not enjoy widespread public support.6 The proposals have thus far caused widespread concern among academics, in particular about the stifling effects that they are likely to have on public debate and the use of certain forms of expertise in policy making. Scientists, for example, have expressed concern that the new rules effectively prohibit them from communicating their research to government, dramatically reducing the quality of public debate in a wide range of areas including embryo research, climate change, and public health.7 And social and political scientists in receipt of public grants who uncover evidence that government policy may perhaps be misguided may now be prohibited from discussing this fact, or communicating their findings to government, for fear of violating the new ‘anti-lobbying’ rules. The Cabinet Office has promised to review the policy with regard to scientists and other academics. But it has not pledged to review the policy with regard to charities. 

The funding of voluntary organisations and charities consumes a significant proportion of Britain’s annual budget. Last year, for example, the government distributed in excess of £10bn to voluntary sector organisations, including some of the UK’s largest charities which, in recent years, have taken on greater responsibility for the delivery of, as well as advocacy for, essential services for some of the most vulnerable men, women, and children in the UK and abroad. Also included is money given to smaller charities intended to help them achieve their charitable ends and represent their constituent members.8 According to IEA figures, in 2012, 27,000 charities of varying sizes were dependent on the government for 75% of their total income.9 Many of these organisations, both large and small, use this money to support campaigning activities aimed at seeking policy change. 

The government thinks this is a problem, although not for the same reasons as the IEA. Indeed, the government’s proposals appear to entrench one of the IEA’s central concerns about the practice, which was that publicly funded charities become an extension of government. The IEA’s chief concern is that charities that are dependent on government funding for their survival have an incentive to support, rather than criticise, the government; an incentive to not bite the hand that feeds. The government’s concern, on the other hand, seems to be that too much money is being given to groups who then use that money to criticise government policy. For after all, lobbying and campaigning both seek change. Both seek to use creative means to change the government’s mind, not to support the decisions it has already made. Hence, when former Cabinet Minister Matthew Hancock stated in support of the new rules that ‘[t]axpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government,’ he meant that public money should not be used in the practice of publicly criticizing the government, exposing weaknesses in its policy agenda, and campaigning for alternative courses of action.10 The government believes that charities should remain apolitical. They should not be using public money to employ lobbyists, policy advisers, and such like to criticise the government. They should be using it to help the people it claims to be concerned about. Charities should ‘do good works’ instead of lobbying for policy change. 

But this distinction is false. Often, the most effective way in which charities can defend their members’ interests, or improve the lives of those people with whom they are concerned, is to try to persuade the government to reform laws which harm those interests or those people. This is especially true of small charities, for whom the question of how to maximise the use of relatively meagre funds is of paramount, and increasing, importance. Small and medium-sized organisations (that is, those who have an annual income of less than £1m pounds) have seen disproportionately severe falls in income and assets relative to larger organisations since 2007, with recorded declines of around 38 per cent as a result of, among other things, the withdrawal of public grants. Small and medium-sized charities are thus under particular pressure to maximise the impact that their small, and dwindling, funds can achieve. The decision of how best to spend their money is thus complex and finely-balanced. How might a small charity like ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) most effectively spend its annual income of £800,000 in their fight against a global tobacco industry worth around £500b? How might a public health charity most effectively spend one million pounds in the fight against cancer? Would it be best to spend it on the refurbishment of a hospice? Or would it be better to commission a scientific study which provides evidence that a change in government policy would result in fewer deaths, and then organise a campaign that communicates this to government? Is it better for a homelessness charity to spend its money on food parcels or a campaign that secures more funding and opportunities for people living on the street? The answer will not always be the same. Sometimes it will be better to provide food parcels or better respite care. But often a charity’s goals will be more effectively achieved through high profile political and media campaigning aimed at securing real, lasting, structural change. As Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, recently put it, ‘campaigning is the lifeblood of the great British charitable tradition. We work to alleviate the symptoms of disease and poverty and to tackle the causes of such.’ Spending ‘every penny on the front line of a charity leads to collapse. Money spent on . . . fundraising and campaigning is central to charities’ survival’.11 The government does not agree. On the contrary, it believes that public funding should only be available to those organisations which keep quiet, stay out of politics, and – most importantly of all – avoid criticizing it or engaging in practices which put it under any pressure to change its mind or admit it is wrong. 

The government does not describe its position in this way, of course. It argues that the new measures are part of the wider commitment to addressing concerns among citizens about lobbying and the decline of democracy that David Cameron outlined in 2010. Indeed, these rules cannot be fully understood independently of the steps the government have already taken to rein in lobbyists. But in the 10 years since that speech, what steps has the government taken, and what have been their effects on British democracy?

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