Earlier this month, Matthew Hancock MP and Minister at the Cabinet Office announced that he plans to introduce a clause into all funding arrangements for charities which will prevent the charities from using funds they receive to lobby the Government. I wrote about Matthews announcement here. A day or two later the BBC Radio 4 moral maze programme debated the same issue. One of the contributors to that programme was Christopher Snowdon the author of The Sock Doctrine which was published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in February 2014. This document has clearly influenced Matt Hancock both in terms of its conclusions and its languages. Matthew Hancock has been lobbied by the IEA, in one way or another. The IEA themselves are a charity but because they don’t receive money directly from any Government agency, they are presumably free to carry on lobbying! One of the things that Christopher mentioned when challenged, was that he thought that businesses should also be prevented from lobbying with the proceeds of Government contracts. I was intrigued as I had read of sock puppets before, and not understood that there was any link with business. I came across the term in December 2012 when Eric Pickles published a Christmas Present for local Government called 50 ways for local authorities to save money, a patronising document to say the least. It referred to a briefing document on the IEA website from June 2012 by Christopher which made no mention of businesses being seen as a problem. When I challenged Christopher on twitter that the Government and his doctrine ignore references to business, he sent me a link to his 2014 publication which is a great deal longer than the 2012 document. It does mention businesses, but you have to look hard. It refers to charities nearly 60 times in the main text and Trustees 4 times, while companies are mentioned twice (albeit as part of the recommendations) and directors once in that context. Whereas the IEA go into a great deal of detail regarding how charities that unlike themselves benefit from Government funding, should be prevented from lobbying Government, there is no such comparable text to suggest how businesses should be similarly prevented. I was not deterred and have written twice to Christopher offering to meet him and help address this imbalance in the doctrine which appears to either have had the three references to the private sector added in at the last minute to avoid criticism, or has several chapters on business lobbying missing. Christopher appears not to want to meet which is a shame. In the meantime Matt Hancock is pursuing half a sock puppet agenda with no public sense of concern from the IEA. Thankfully some of Matts Parliamentary colleagues are attempting to help shape his thinking but at present there appears to be no change to his narrow focus on charities and any lobbying they carry out.
There are many examples one could give of how this policy could lead to unintended consequences, here is one. A number of charities champion the needs of disabled people. All public sector agencies need critical friends who can articulate views that the political decision makers do not possess. No one would argue that offering Government departments suggestions on how they can make their policies and practices more accessible to say the 11M people in the UK with impaired hearing is bad for the nation. This is certainly a form of lobbying and the charities that carry out this good work have running costs which it seems reasonable for the taxpayer to contribute towards, particularly if they are spending funds to send people to meetings or to read documents. It may be that a private sector adviser could also carry out this sort of work, someone that may charge the state a great deal more than then charity for the same piece of work, or whose views may be a bit more limited than is possible from a broad based charity that can work with its membership to engage a community of those affected. Matt Hancock may prevent charities from participating in this sort of activity, and if he does finally discover the references to the private sector might discover he only has his own opinion to worry about, along with that of groups such as IEA. Let us hope that is not their intention!