The Government has just announced a change they will introduce in May 2017 to reduce pressure on hard working MPs and Ministers. These new arrangements were announced by Matthew Hancock, Minister in the Cabinet Office. They will change the terms of all Central Government grants so that in the future any charities or other organisations that receive this sort of public funding to carry out work on behalf of all of us will be prevented from using any of this resource to lobby for changes in legislation. Matthew Hancock said: “Taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of Government lobbying Government…These common sense rules will protect freedom of speech – but taxpayers won’t be made to foot the bill for political campaigning and political lobbying….This Government is standing up for value for money, so we can keep taxes down and support better services that people can rely on.”
On the face of it, this sounds eminently sensible and reasonable, as so many political speeches do. However the challenge is in the implementation, where Government plans usually fall down, despite the sensible words. If this approach was being treated as a matter of principle rather than the attack on the charitable sector that it seems to be, the issue would go beyond grants made to charities. It would extend to the extensive public funding of companies such as G4S and Capita which spend enormous sums on lobbying, including no doubt the profits they make from government contracts. It would extend to all parts of the public sector, preventing Councils and Police Forces, the NHS and Prison Service from lobbying Ministers and campaigning for a change to legislation. There are many good reasons why such an approach would be neither realistic, nor acceptable to any of us. It is also obvious that asking charities to prove which funds they use to carry out activities that go beyond the existing rules will add to the cost of running these organisations as they are forced to carry out further accounting activities.
A further problem with this clever wheeze is that while it might in the short term reduce the postbag for some of our elected representatives, it risks denying them access to a peripheral view of their world that should improve the way that public services are delivered, or help them to save public money. Examples include the case of Kids Company which received £Ms of public funds as a result of Government Ministers including Matthew Hancock himself, ignoring the advice of their officials and other charities working in a similar field. If charities were prevented from lobbying civil servants, MPs and Ministers in the future, another Kids Company scenario could occur without challenges from other parts of the sector. Another example is the catastrophic government programme called Transforming Rehabilitation which has resulted in a company called Seetec delivering probation services in Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The signs of problems with Seetec were evident to the charities they work with, long before the recent MOJ audit which discovered their failings. Rather than preventing lobbying by these charities, the Government should be encouraging them in making meaningful challenges to the prevailing wisdom. It is clear that where Government funds charities to deliver a particular service, that when other public sector agencies make this work difficult to carry out, that the quicker that whistles are blown, the better for the taxpayer, even if the initial challenge is embarrassing to certain Politicians. All too often Politicians respond to symptoms of problems in society, these new regulations risk preventing the charities commissioned to deal with these symptoms from identifying the root causes if they feel that this will be misunderstood as lobbying for more work or changes in policy.
It seems as though people like Matthew Hancock are incapable of discussing issues like this in an open manner with the charitable sector. It is depressing that people who support this change like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and my MEP Daniel Hannan are so unwilling to be held accountable for their own words and motives. If Government money is being used to lobby government, Hancock is right, that in the short term this may seem to be a waste of money and affront to law makers and MEPs like Dan Hannan. However charities are not always wrong and the Government is not always right. There are many examples of public money being wasted by Government departments fighting with one another over matters of policy. Differences of opinion are seen as a good thing in most organisations and environments, providing they are resolved in a timely manner and that the most effective outcome is achieved. This proposal robs you and I from having advocates in a debate that is all too often carried out based on party political dogma and personal ambition, rather than what is right for society. Let us not get obsessed with the cost of worthwhile debate, but instead focus on the value that charities can bring to Government decision making. A poor decision can ultimately cost all of us a great deal more than a bit of conflict in a Ministers in tray.