Government should not be doling out money to charities for lobbying

Chris Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

WOULD you be surprised to hear that British charities receive more money from the government and the National Lottery than they do from individual donors? More than £12bn a year was transferred from the taxpayer to the third sector at the last count. Much of this was essentially outsourcing. Millions of pounds of foreign aid is channelled through groups like Christian Aid and Oxfam, and many healthcare services, including hospice care and family planning clinics, are provided by grant-maintained charities.

This is all well and good. Government has worked with charities to provide public services since the welfare state was created and there is no compelling reason for it to stop now. However, in the last 15 years, the relationship has become murkier. Governments, from the European Commission down to local authorities, have been funding overtly political organisations on a large scale. Did you know, for example, that dozens of environmental pressure groups, including Friends of the Earth, are largely funded by the EU? Is it transparently clear that many of the charities who lobby for various taxes and prohibitions are being paid by government departments for “advocacy” and “policy development”?

To give a recent example, various arms of the Department of Health have, over the past year, spent public funds campaigning for minimum pricing of alcohol and plain packaging for cigarettes. If Action on Smoking and Health and Alcohol Concern were being commissioned to set up stop-smoking clinics and rehab centres, it could be described as providing a public service, but these groups don’t focus on this. Their purpose is almost exclusively to campaign for legislation. So why is the government paying to lobby itself?

These are not isolated examples. 27,000 charities rely on taxpayers’ money for three-quarters of their income and the misleadingly named voluntary sector (which employs 600,000 staff) has never been more politically active. The websites of charities such as Living Streets or Sustain (both heavily subsidised by the taxpayer) are crammed with online petitions, ongoing campaigns and calls to action. Some of their policy prescriptions may be laudable, but is it asking too much for them to promote them with their own money?

With charities reputedly facing up to £3bn of government cuts, it is difficult to believe that the sector could not survive with a few less policy managers and media advisers. But aside from the issue of efficiency, an important principle is at stake. Taxpayers should not be compelled to pay for campaigns with which they may profoundly disagree. Lobbying and activism are healthy parts of any democracy, but civil society is supposed to put pressure on the government to take action, not the other way round.

Chris Snowdon is a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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