Heritage charities complain of government interference

New rules on advertising, technology and procurement make life more difficult, senior figures say

Some museums have complained of government interference
Some museums have complained of government interference

Museums and other heritage charities have suffered so much government interference over the past year that it is harming their ability to function effectively, senior figures in some of those charities have claimed.

More than 20 well-known charities, including most of London’s best-known museums, are classified as non-departmental public bodies because the government has substantial powers to appoint and dismiss board members and provides much of their funding.

These organisations have an "arm’s-length relationship" with the government. But according to senior staff who spoke to Third Sector on condition of anonymity, the coalition government has applied much closer control since coming into power, imposing strict rules on advertising, technology and procurement.

One senior director said some charities have had to ask for special government exemption to advertise, making it difficult to publicise their attractions to visitors. They have also been forced to freeze recruitment, despite needing new staff and having the money to pay them, the source said.

"There’s been a whole year of frustration over things like this," the source said. "It doesn’t make any financial sense at all."

Sources said major IT projects had been put on hold and the government had forced charities to use systems that were both more expensive and less suitable than their preferred alternatives.

"As a non-departmental public body, we’re seeing quite a lot more interference from government," another director said. "The new rules of procurement mean we’re forced into a one-size-fits-all policy. We’ve been forced to use a government IT system that doesn’t provide us with best value."

It would be a scandal if charities were forced to do business in a more expensive way in order to meet government guidelines, she said.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which sponsors many of the best-known heritage charities, said it was important that the government got value for money.

"We’ve asked for these measures from all of our non-departmental public bodies," she said. "We need to get best value for the taxpayer, and that’s why these rules are in place.

"We’ve made exceptions for organisations that need to advertise what they do. Clearly, we’ll listen to the individual needs of organisations."

Lawrence Simanowitz, a lawyer at the specialist charity law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, said trustees had a duty to refuse the government’s demands if they felt it was in their organisation’s best interests. However, the government often had the power to dismiss trustees if they did so.

"Obviously, that puts trustees in an extremely difficult position," he said. "In practice, the government usually holds the purse strings, so it is very hard for these organisations to say no to them."

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