Charities, campaigning and ‘sock-puppetry’: why the sector has a right to speak out

On Tuesday I spoke at a fringe event called ‘Sock puppets: Should the state be funding pressure groups?’ run by the Institute of Economic Affairs. My colleague Karl Wilding recently wrote a blog post in defence of charity campaigning, in which he talks about the ‘why and how’ of charity campaigning – here, I would like to address some of the issues which arise when charities which campaign receive government funding.

Campaigning is an important part of democracy

One of the fundamental principles of a thriving and healthy democracy is that individuals and organisations can speak out about the issues they care about. Charities in particular have a long-established role in educating and informing the public, and crucially, holding the state to account. And it’s the sign of a mature democracy that we allow dissent and make sure we have wide-ranging and representative public debate.

Of course, that means that charities also need to be accountable, and it is right that they are subject to scrutiny. The Charity Commission regulate in this area, and have shown that they are prepared to act if they feel charities do cross the line; charity campaigning is even more heavily regulated during election periods, under the Lobbying Act.

Charities not only have the right to campaign, they are often also best-placed to provide important insights which can inform and improve policy-making. Organisations working with particular groups naturally develop expertise in their sector, including how to make service delivery more effective and how to provide greater value for money for the taxpayer.

For example, the charity Combat Stress receives government funding for a helpline to provide mental health support to veterans. To suggest that heavy-handed regulation is needed to prevent them using the insights they pick up to influence government doesn’t help anyone. There is significant public support for the role of charities in the development of public policy, whether they hold contracts from government or not.

The role of charities in influencing public policy is therefore crucial, ensuring that we increase the quality and breadth of debate on healthcare, the environment, veterans’ welfare and other issues close to the public’s heart.

This is not a widespread problem

The ‘anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppets’ clause adopted by Eric Pickles for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) grant agreements advocated stopping grants to charities for lobbying purposes. In fact, these sorts of grants have always been rare, and have been reduced even further in recent years.

Small and medium sized organisations, which were hardest hit by cuts to statutory funding, saw a fall in their income from government sources of 38% between 2007/8 and 2012/13.

At best the clause is unnecessary red tape, and at worst it would lead to a chilling effect among charities as they feel they are not allowed to speak on behalf of their beneficiaries. We oppose the Pickles clause, and in particular the message it sends to charities about their ability to speak out. This is completely wrong headed and we are pushing to ensure this is not extended to any other departments.

Campaigning can be the best use of limited resources

I put several arguments to the panel on Tuesday (something of a lions’ den – it included Guido Fawkes blogger Paul Staines, Daniel Hannan MEP and others) but in fact I felt there is one very simple and straightforward argument to make.

The reality is that charities have both a right and a duty to learn from the experiences of their beneficiaries and to press government into action – regardless of their funding arrangements.

Indeed, campaigning is where many charities can make a bigger impact with limited resources than they would through service delivery alone. Often this will save taxpayers’ money in the long term, as issues are addressed at their roots. After all, is it better to care for victims of crime in the aftermath of an event, or help to prevent crimes in the first place?

It is good to help care for cancer patients, but isn’t it better to push for more effective treatment, awareness of symptoms, and support for diagnosis? Ultimately, I believe the audience understood that merely servicing the problem costs a lot more than solving it.

Let’s not limit charities to just picking up the pieces, let’s all champion and support their campaigning role so that they can make a bigger difference.


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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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