Quite by accident, I seem to have written something that resonates with the British public. I don't know how this happened—a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day and all that—and I'm sure it won't happen again, but my first full paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs was received very well when it was released yesterday. Even my recent adversary Peter Hitchens found some kind words to say about it...
I see Christopher Snowdon (my opponent in a recent drugs debate) has done some excellent work on the growing interdependence between government and charities. For all that we clashed quite bitterly over drugs, I think Mr Snowdon should be complimented on this.
The paper is Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why. It is a study of state-funded activism with a particular eye on those charities who lobby the government whilst in receipt of government money.
I did several radio interviews yesterday and was repeatedly met with shock when I told them that 27,000 British charities rely on the state for more than three-quarters of their income. Perhaps I am not supposed to disclose such things, but even the researcher who sounded me out for the Today programme was surprised to hear that charities received any money at all from the state. In fact, the government gives charities around £13 billion a year—more than they receive in donations from individuals. With such an imbalance between private and public 'giving', the term 'voluntary sector' seems wholly inappropriate and that's before we even touch on the sector's rampant politicisation.
And yet the researcher's attitude was, I think, typical of the British public, who see charity in the terms described by the Devil's Kitchen:
People tend to think of charities as being... well... voluntary organisations, doing actual, physical good deeds in the community—whether that be running soup kitchens, cancer hospices or homeless shelters.
Today, alas, the truth is often very different...
But most of these organisations were indulging in little more than flat-out lobbying. And they were using our money to do it.
It is one thing for the government to outsource public services to private charities. It is quite another for politicians to give pressure groups large sums of money which are then used to campaign for legislation (and they do—one thing this report shows is that successive Health Ministers have, ahem, 'misled the house' when they said that ASH's grants were not being used for lobbying). We have seen several instances of this on this blog in recent times (eg. here and here) and that is only the tip of the iceberg. It has to stop. It is profoundly undemocratic and a grievous misuse of taxpayers' money. As I said a few days ago...
This is not the kind of activity that should be taking place in a free and open society. A country in which the government's putative critics are funded by the government has more than a whiff of totalitarianism about it. What kind of state pays people to campaign for or against the government? What kind of politician thinks it appropriate to use public money to fund activism?
Naturally, the grant-addicted charity sector has responded to the IEA paper with displeasure (see here and here), but their rebuttals only highlight their belief that they have a divine right to taxpayer loot merely because (in their opinion) their causes are worthy. The obvious retort to them is that the schemes of technocrats, bureaucrats and vested interests might not be worthy and that is why people prefer a representative democracy to the managed democracy that the sock-puppet system would leave us with.
A large part of the charitable sector is so used to being funded by the state that it simply cannot understand why anyone would regard such an arrangement as unseemly. The original meaning of charity seems to have been consigned to the past for much of the 'third sector'. Amongst the public, however, there is still a strong sense that charity is nothing if it is not freely given.
If this report does no more than alert people to the scale of government funding of quasi-charities, it will have done some good.
Download it here (it's free) and stick it on your laptop, iPad, Kindle or what have you and tell me what you think.
The report was covered by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail and there is also some nice mentions from Ed West at the Telegraph, Bishop Hill, Phil Taylor, Guido Fawkes, the TPA, the aforementioned Devil's Kitchen, as well as my IEA colleagues Ruth Porter and Mark Littlewood. I also wrote a couple of short pieces for the IEA and Conservative Home.
I was slightly sleepy on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (9 minutes in), but woke up for BBC Humberside (35 minutes in) and was bright and breezy for LBC (there's a podcast of some sort but it requires more effort than I can muster, which is a shame because it was the best one).