Free speech vs. paid speech
Two objections have been raised the ‘anti-sockpuppet clause’. The first is that the rule is unenforceable since it is impossible to tell whether a campaign has been paid for by government grant or private donation. Labour’s shadow minister for civil society, Lisa Nandy MP, said ‘Pickles is making a distinction between funds that are directly given to charities by government and funding that they get from elsewhere, but how do you tell the difference?’
You tell the difference by seeing what is coming out of each budget. The government has ways of making sure its money is being used for allotted purposes and not spent at Alton Towers. Money is given for specific deliverables with specific costs which can be written out on a spreadsheet. This is what organisations do when bidding for contracts and these are the figures that are published in their accounts along with an explanation of what the money was for and how it was spent. Taxpayers’ money is not, or at least should not, be thrown into a pot along with public donations and restricted grants.
It is perfectly normal for the government to insist that its grants are not used for certain purposes. For example, gifts to individuals, depreciation, entertaining, hospitality and the acquisition of fixed assets are all non-eligible expenses under standard government contracts. Is running or funding a political campaign more of an eligible expense than any of these? Is it easier to police the ban on state-funded dinners than it would be to police a ban on state-funded campaigning? In both cases, I doubt it.
The second objection, which follows from the first, is that if it is impossible to tell whose money a charity is spending at any given moment, charities will not express an opinion about anything for fear of breaching the conditions of their agreement. Paul Burstow, a Liberal Democrat MP, said ‘It’s an absolutely crazy idea that you can improve public services and policy by gagging those who can bring the lived experience of the people who use those services and the people who benefit from those policies.’
This presents a false dichotomy between charities running political campaigns with public money and charity employees being forbidden to express their views to politicians and civil servants. But nobody is suggesting that an organisation in receipt of a government grant would be prosecuted for expressing an opinion if a journalist asked for a quote or a politician asked for advice. If this was what DCLG were proposing, it would indeed be unenforceable and absurd, but it is not. Unless a charity was 100 per cent government-funded, such a case could not be proven even if it was brought. The problem being addressed is organised campaigning with websites, adverts, pamphlets, petitions etc. and the hiring of professional lobbyists, advocates and policy managers. These activities require invoices which much be paid. DCLG is saying that they must not be paid by the government.
Nobody is “gagging” anybody. It is not an issue of free speech but of paid speech. Civil society organisations must be free to speak out, but the taxpayer should not have to pay for their megaphone. DCLG’s ‘anti-sockpuppet clause’ does no more than put into words what should go without saying. Opponents of this modest restraint can only object to it by vastly exaggerating its scope and scale. It is telling that they have nothing to say about what they would do about the problem of the government paying to lobby itself. Indeed, they give the distinct impression that they do not think it is a problem at all.