Sector policy chiefs condemn government guidance to councils on 'sock puppet' charities

Karl Wilding, head of policy at NCVO, says it is disappointing that the recommendations come at a time when local authorities are reviewing voluntary sector budgets

Karl Wilding
Karl Wilding

Voluntary sector policy chiefs have criticised new government guidance that urges town halls to cease funding for ‘sock puppets’ and ‘fake charities’.  

The suggestion is listed in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s 50 ways to save, which gives "examples of sensible savings in local government" and was launched yesterday by Eric Pickles, the local government secretary.

"Many pressure groups – which do not deliver services or help the vulnerable – are now funded by state bodies," the document says. "In turn, these nominally ‘independent’ groups lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding. A 2009 survey found that £37m a year was spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying and political campaigning across the public sector. Many of these causes may be worthy, but why should they be funded by taxpayers?"

The guidance references the discussion paper, Sock puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why, which the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs published earlier this year.

The IEA publication said charities are effectively given funding by government in order to build support for policies that are not in the public interest but which the government itself wants to implement, and to lobby for higher taxes to pay for those policies.

The paper was criticised at the time by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which said it was "woefully short-sighted" and misunderstood the work that charities do.

Karl Wilding, head of policy at the NCVO, said about the latest guidance's reference to that report: "The sock puppets report is terrible: it’s badly researched and it vastly overstates its case. We know that most funding from government for voluntary organisations is for the delivery of services, not for advocacy and certainly not for lobbying government.

"I think it’s particularly disappointing to see this recommendation at a time of year when many local authorities are thinking about their budgets for next year and therefore thinking about their relationships with the voluntary sector."

Another tip from the government paper suggests how to "help the voluntary sector save you money".

"Councils should not only involve voluntary and community groups in budget setting but give organisations, local service users and the wider community the opportunity to offer options for reshaping and reducing the costs of the services provided," it says. "The best councils are showing that they can both embrace the big society and balance the books at the same time."

Jay Kennedy, head of policy at the Directory of Social Change, said that while the document contained some pragmatic ideas, it was "let down by a number of things which are just ideologically loaded rubbish" and was "quite shockingly bad in parts".

"The sock puppets recommendation is pure gibberish and hence hard to even engage with rationally," he said. "Frankly, I don’t even know what they are talking about when they say ‘fake charities’. It's a nonsense term.

"The truth is that the charitable sector offers a much needed and largely free service to government in evaluating and challenging poor policy, and representing the needs of people who might not have any leverage in the political system. We need charities to be free to campaign for change – our public policymaking would suffer if that were somehow curtailed.

"Another concern with this document is with the recommendation which seems to portray the voluntary sector as a solution to government's budgetary problems. We don’t exist to help government save money. Charities aren’t a cost-saving solution to help local government out of its crisis. We don't serve the state, we serve its citizens."

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