Its time this Government took some of its own advice, particularly as doing so would save money which is in much shorter supply than it was, even when the advice was first given. In December 2012 the then Minister for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles sent a festive leaflet to all local councils with the title “50 Ways to Save, Examples of sensible savings in local Government“. Amongst the many gems, others of which even Pickles ignored when it came to his own department such as stop providing refreshments during meetings (Pickles own biscuit bill ran into many thousands of pounds) and use video conferencing rather than paying for travel, was one at “37 – Cease funding ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’” At the time I saw this 4 years ago I confess I had never heard of either terms and had to check them out. In essence the idea was based on organisations which purported to be charities, but which were a front for lobbyists. Clearly This Government more than any other in history has a disregard for charities, having added a section to their Lobby Act specifically related to the activity of charities. However even Eric Pickles is able to tell the difference between a charity that does good work and those who are lobbyists in disguise, after all his 43rd piece of advice was to persuade charities to deliver public services at a lower cost than Councils could achieve themselves. Where his understanding comes unstuck is with charities such as foodbanks who in listening and learning about the plight of their beneficiaries, then start challenging the Government over its actions. One would have assumed that the man who at suggestion 3 suggested that transparency would help cut waste and had famously spoken about millions of armchair auditors, would welcome the challenge from charities who really do meet with people who have been badly treated by the state. However in Eric’s book, charities either do good work or they tell difficult truths which he mistakes for lobbying and should be held at arms length and certainly not funded by the state.
It is with this in mind that the news that Toby Young, one time Conservative Party candidate is about to take over the reigns at the New Schools Network, a charity funded in its last financial year to the tune of £1.72M of which 72% comes from one single Government source, the Department for Education. This charity does the work that at one time would be carried out by local government in supporting schools, but because these are the Schools that are not always the flavour of the month for every local council, the Government has created this sock puppet charity and now funds most of its activities. As this piece explains, Tory Toby Young is far from the first person with connections to this Government to head up this ‘charity’. Toby has filled a vacancy created by the departure of Nick Timothy who is now one of the two people acting as joint Chief of Staff to Theresa May. His role prior to the work for NSN was as special adviser to Theresa May at the Home Office. The founder of NSN was Rachel Wolf before she became David Cameron’s adviser on education and she was succeeded by Natalie Evans who was Director for 2 years during which time she was elevated to the House of Lords as Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. To describe NSN as anything other than a party political sock puppet or fake charity would depend on being a paid up member of the Tory Party which is presumably why Eric Pickles has never singled them out for criticism. However the silence from the Institute of Economic Affairs is much more strange (or predictable). They often act as supporters of the policies of this Government, although they don’t receive any public grants directly. It was the IEA and in particular their head of lifestyle economics Christopher Snowdon who first articulated the idea of Sock Puppet charities and yet they don’t appear to have said nothing about the success of the NSN at the expense of public funding!