At the recent Conservative Party Conference, the Institute of Economic Affairs, a rightwing pressure group hosted numerous fringe meetings within the steel cordon that keeps unwelcome visitors at bay. One of these meetings was on the theme of whether the state should be seen to fund pressure groups. The catalyst for this subject choice was a paper published in 2012 by Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, calling on the government to stop giving funding to “sock puppet” charities that lobby it. Since 2012 the coalition introduced legislation that further restricts the freedom of charities from lobbying the Government, even though there were already adequate rules in place. There are strong arguments on both sides of this issue. It would be terrible if the English National Opera lobbied the Government to end all other Arts funding, in order to release additional funds for Opera, but on the other hand it would be a travesty if legislation limited the ability of charities with objectives seeking to end International Slavery from challenging the Government on its relationship with nations such as Saudi Arabia which openly supports slavery.
One of the speakers at the fringe meeting was my own MEP, Daniel Hannan whose view was rather confused, based on this report. Daniel said charities were welcome to campaign about the issues they felt strongly about but they should not then market their activities in such a way that supporters believed their donations would go directly towards programme work. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with advocacy,” said Hannan citing a range of examples which were clearly intended to provoke a reaction from the right wing audience, “But don’t do all of those things and then have a picture of a happy African family on your website saying if you give £5 it will buy farm tools for this family in Zimbabwe – because that is the equivalent of stealing from the church poor box.” What Daniel is either ignoring, or ignorant of is that it is illegal for charities to campaign for funds for a particular campaign (such as the one he used in his example), and then redirect these funds to other purposes. However Daniel then went on to speak about a charity he does approve of. Some charities, such as the RNLI, “heroically” do not receive state funding and carried out activities, such as lifeboat rescue, that would be carried out by the state anywhere else in the world. “Those are the people I think we should remember in all this as the real heroes.” It is always very sad when public figures make such comparisons, as if one could somehow measure heroism based on how much Government Money a charity receives or how much work they do that the state would do elsewhere. In any event Daniel may have missed the fact that many states don’t rescue people who go out in boats. Here in Brighton the RNLI are involved in a campaign to prevent holiday makers getting drunk and then going for a swim. It is a preventative approach to stop drownings that I am involved with due to my role with the Street Pastors. It is not hard to imagine the RNLI going further to campaign for a minimum price for alcohol, as a way of deterring people from getting drunk on the beach having stockpiled cheap supermarket alcohol. That would, based on Daniels judgement cross a line, as it is a matter on which the Government is concerned (one suspects because of the way in which Political Parties such as the Conservatives are funded). However Daniel is not someone who spends a great deal of his time listening and learning from others, just as he does not spend any time reporting back to his constituents on the work he carries out on their behalf.