Stephen Cook: Eric Pickles takes up the sock puppets theme

The latest move by the communities and local government minister is likely to inhibit charities from putting their case to government

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has introduced a new clause in his department’s standard grant agreements that says "eligible expenditure" from grants excludes "payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action".

In his statement to parliament announcing the clause, he cited research by the right-leaning think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs on the subject of so-called "sock puppets", the name it gives to charities and pressure groups that, it argues, use money granted by government to lobby government to further their aims and causes. Pickles adopted the institute’s disparaging terminology, calling his clause "a new anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppet clause" and referring to "pressure groups and supposed charities". He said his department was setting an example to the rest of Whitehall and "we hope this can and will be rolled out more widely across the public sector".

At this week’s meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering, the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, was asked what he thought of the Pickles initiative and said he didn’t think it was a big problem. He had always been clear, he said, that campaigning was an important role for charities, but it was also important that clear criteria were attached to grants and it would be wrong for political lobbying to be paid for by taxpayers’ money.

Leaders of sector bodies have referred to the move variously as "a side-swipe at charities that attempt to speak up for the communities they serve" and "a squalid attempt to get charities to dance to the government’s tune in an election year". The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is seeking more detail from the permanent secretary at the DCLG about how the new clause is intended to operate in practice.

The question is whether this is just political posturing by a minister who revels in his reputation as a bit of a bruiser, or something more serious that will further restrict campaigning by charities already inhibited on this front by the lobbying act. Pickles does not cite any specific evidence about the extent to which charities with grants from his department have gone as far as using those grants to hire professional lobbyists to influence its policies. One suspects there has been very little of anything as blatant as that, and in this sense the minister might be tilting at windmills.

But some charities do have their own policy and communications staff, who quite legitimately seek to convey their arguments for change to politicians and policy-makers. If such charities receive any money from the DCLG, is it intended that they should therefore not seek to influence DCLG policy in any way, or even just to feed back policy-relevant information and conclusions that emerge from the work they do that the department has funded? This is the kind of grey area that needs clarification.

In the real world, wise politicians welcome information, policy proposals and feedback from charities, whether funded by their departments or not, because it allows them to hear what is really happening in the world, as opposed to the sanitised account they receive from civil servants. This is why, over the years, governments of different stripes have been willing to keep funding charities and pressure groups with which they are never going to agree. The information they receive as a result is useful to have, even if they are never going to act on it. An over-zealous application of the Pickles principle would be potentially damaging to this important aspect of the political process, and arguably to the democratic process as well.

But whatever the effect of this clause in practice, it is bound to have a chilling effect on charities that receive government grants. Some have already been warned privately that they will lose their grants if they speak out. They will now be even more likely to hesitate and look over their shoulders before they say anything to the department concerned other than "yes, sir". There is an unmistakeable agenda in certain political quarters to shut charities up and keep them out of politics.

This episode also raises the question of what other aspects of the IEA prescription for charities might be coming down the line if the Conservatives win the election. The sock puppets document recommends ending all unrestricted grants to charities and creating a new category of non-profit, with fewer tax advantages, for charities that receive more than a small proportion of their income from government. It is also recommends significant tightening of the Charity Commission’s rules on campaigning, which the commission has already said it might review after the election.

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