Brian Lamb: Don't restrict charity campaigning - it's a legitimate use of state funding

There are serious issues about how the sector works with government that deserve analysis, but the recent Institute of Economic Affairs' report isn't one of them, says our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Charity campaigning is under attack again. The latest broadside, from the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, castigates charity campaigners as "sock puppets", echoing whatever policies government officials want to see implemented.

This process, it claims, is aided by relaxed Charity Commission guidelines that allow campaigning to become the dominant activity.

Instead of "speaking truth to power", the report says, charities have colluded to create service empires, distorted public choice and increased unpopular regulation for issues the public does not support.

The solution offered by the report is to restrict charities' ability to campaign by making them dependent on public donations and prohibit service providers from campaigning.

Service knowledge

The report ignores the fact that most campaigning is already funded by public donations and that the legitimacy for campaigning comes from charities' service knowledge and experience. Service growth has not occurred through collusion between officials and charities, but through locally commissioned services. Money from contract income cannot easily find its way into lobbying.

But you don't have to agree with the report to note some of the vulnerabilities of the sector to this line of attack. Under all governments, campaigns are welcomed by ministers where pressure supports the direction they wish to go. Charities will be critical and supportive in different measures at different times. Influence is a two-way street.

Government has always funded a range of umbrella bodies to help with advice and inform policy. Hearing one voice instead of many competing ones has always been helpful to governments but does not mean the bodies are always listened to.

Business interests

What is always absent from such attacks is any counterbalancing analysis of the business interests that might distort public choice. Apparently, saving millions of people from dying of cancer caused by cigarette smoking - the funding of Ash is the report's major case study - becomes a conspiracy of Machiavellian proportions against the public, while the role of the tobacco lobby is ignored.

The Charity Commission guidelines were updated to reflect modern campaigning practice and do not allow unrestricted campaigning to be the primary purpose of charities. Any examination of the whole range of charity activity would show that campaigning remains ancillary for charities. The public, far from opposing charity campaigning (as the report claims), has shown a remarkable appetite for it, through both engagement with campaigns and consistent support for charities spending more on campaigning.

The report also seems oblivious to the fact that it is the same charity guidelines it criticises that allow think tanks to be registered charities and produce 'political' reports subsidised by taxpayers - often on unpopular issues and sometimes even commissioned by government.

There are serious issues about how the sector works with government that deserve analysis, but this one, which starts from partial evidence and skewed analysis of the sector, is not one of them. And the solutions are not to be found by restricting the sector's capacity to campaign.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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