The myth of sock puppet independence

In The Guardian this week, Zoe Williams laments the charity sector’s failure to speak out against government policy. She attributes this supposed conspiracy of silence to the statutory funding to which many large charities are now addicted. She has a point. As I argued in Sock Puppets, true independence is contingent on financial independence.

One of the key problems with the enormous increase in statutory funding enjoyed by charities in the last fifteen years is the way it has stripped its beneficiaries of their autonomy and left them vulnerable to changes in government. Charities which rely on the government for 75-100% of their income, as 27,000 UK charities do, cannot call themselves independent in any meaningful sense. Many charities acknowledge this, but the kind of funding they say would give them greater independence – unrestricted grants – is not conducive to transparency and accountability.

But Williams is wrong to portray the sector’s lack of independence as a new phenomenon that began when David Cameron entered Downing Street. State-funded charities are no less ‘independent’ today than they were under the previous regime. They might have preferred working with the previous government, but that is not the same thing. If state-funded charities feel less independent today than they did under the previous government, perhaps it is because there is less risk attached to free speech when you have positive and helpful things to say about the government. It is strange to be told that charities which described themselves as ‘fiercely independent’ when funded by a Labour government are suddenly ‘no longer able to speak out’ under the Tories. Could it be that what they want to say is systematically biased towards Labour Party policy?

It would be surprising if there were not a bias towards the politics of the left in the state-funded part of the third sector, since Labour had thirteen years to distribute grants to an ever-growing assortment of ‘civil society organisations’ whereas the coalition has held the purse strings for less than three years. Even charities which do not have a leftist bias are likely to have preferred Labour’s policy of increasing funding to their sector to the coalition’s policy of making cuts.

But of course political patronage comes with strings attached. Williams says that state-funded charities who stay silent about what she regards as undesirable policies are ‘colluding with the government’. If, by that carefully chosen pejorative term, she means ‘co-operate’ or ‘collaborate’ then that is exactly what politicians expect when they employ third parties to assist them. It is what anybody expects when they exchange money for services. When politicians spend public money to achieve political objectives, it is naive to think that politics doesn’t matter. Blair and Brown did not spend thirteen years funding a network of fox hunting conservatives and libertarian activists. They gave money to groups that broadly supported their agenda.

Governments are under no obligation to fund any special interest group and if a charity dislikes the ruling party enough to be briefing journalists and undermining policies, the government might consider it to be in its interests to direct taxpayers’ money away from malcontents and towards groups which are more sympathetic, or at least neutral, towards government policy.

The question for the coalition today is whether to continue funding groups which do not share its vision (whatever that may be), while the question for the ‘sock puppet’ charities is whether to keep quiet and hope the funding rug is not pulled away from under them. It is a dilemma I predicted in Sock Puppets:

‘It is entirely possible that a future administration could withdraw its funding from the charities favoured by the Blair-Brown government and divert taxpayers’ money towards right-wing pressure groups, libertarian think-tanks, free-trade associations and advocates of privatisation. Or it might choose to spend millions of pounds amplifying the voices of religious charities, pro-life groups, cigar aficionados, gun-owners or any other group that it decides is “under-represented” in civil society.

‘The system is therefore inherently unstable. Those who benefit from political patronage are highly vulnerable to changes of government. It is an onerous task for a government to replace one set of sock-puppets with another, but the politician may consider the risks of inaction to be too great.’

The answer, in my view, is for the state to end this tawdry and wasteful charade – which has done the reputation of charities in general much harm – and place stricter limits on how public funds are spent by third parties. The spectacle of charities acting as cheerleaders for the government one minute and cowering in the corner the next is unedifying. The parties should work together to bring it to an end.

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA. He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of papers, including "Sock Puppets", "Euro Puppets", "The Proof of the Pudding", "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling" and "Free Market Solutions in Health".

9 thoughts on “The myth of sock puppet independence”

  1. Posted 24/01/2013 at 12:23 | Permalink

    State funding of any charity is disgraceful. Charities are being funded by coercion, whereas last time I looked the very nature of charitable giving was that it was voluntary. The whole thig is a political scam to further embed the client state. Stop all of it now.

  2. Posted 24/01/2013 at 12:27 | Permalink

    Except that a Conservative government would not divert funding to free-market groups. They are more likely to continue to fund left-wing charities, in the hope of appeasing them a bit in this way. A bit like big corporations giving money to anti-capitalist groups like Greenpeace.

  3. Posted 24/01/2013 at 13:13 | Permalink

    Any charity that is overwhelmingly funded by public money from the exchequer is not a charity.

    Its a quango.

  4. Posted 24/01/2013 at 13:56 | Permalink

    Whoever pays the piper should call the tune, if you’re going to engage pipers in the first place.
    But there is the aroma of another Piper here, one who did not get paid. Spiteful little bugger he was, too.
    But once you’ve conceded that you must pay a piper, regardless of how well (s)he plays a tune, a tune you didn’t ask for and didn’t particularly want to hear, and a tune which doesn’t at least have the saving virtue of ridding your town of rats, this is the sort of mire you fall into.

  5. Posted 24/01/2013 at 14:00 | Permalink

    There should be a clear line between state spending and private individuals giving to charities to spend on their behalf, and never the twain should meet.

    Stop government charity donations now.

  6. Posted 24/01/2013 at 14:39 | Permalink

    Some free-market charities would simply refuse to accept ‘government’ money from taxpayers.

  7. Posted 24/01/2013 at 15:02 | Permalink

    There are 27 000 of these fake charities taking large amounts of taxpayers money to campaign and lobby for their pet causes when if they had to generate funds the way real charities do – eg standing on street corners – they would hardly get a penny piece, which tells you how much genuine public support they have. Examples are ASH – who are trying to stop you smoking, Stonewall – who promote the Homosexual way of life, Alcohol Concern – who want to limit your drinking and Brake – who want you to drive at 20 mph. All of these are subsidised by taxpayers money via Government and Government agencies. Put another way – You are paying for them ! What’s more, many of these Fake Charities have CEOs on salaries of £60k or more, again funded by you !
    Meanwhile, real honest charities doing real honest charitable work like RNLI and Air Ambulance seem to get nothing and instead have to rely on individual and private donations. This is an enormous scandal and needs to be given as much publicity as possible. More than that, Government ( i.e taxpayers ) support of Fake Charities or ‘Sock Puppets’ needs to be stopped as soon as possible. If their cause is worthy, they will find their support elsewhere.

  8. Posted 24/01/2013 at 17:03 | Permalink

    But this conversation is not just relevant to the Charity sector. Labour during their time in office stuffed the quangos and the civil service full of Labour placemen, not to mention the BBC having a native left wing slant. Is it any surprise the Tories ability to execute it’s agenda is so ineffective?

    In fact the only department achieving anything is Education, where Michael Gove simply excluded the Civil Servants from any role in the delivery of policy.

    All of this patronage needs to be revoked and mandated against by statute…

  9. Posted 25/01/2013 at 09:11 | Permalink

    One might even speculate that the process of government funding charities was used effectively as a way of buying votes. There are only about 50,000 charities big enough to have paid employees in this country, so half of these probably draw the majority of their income from the state – and state funding is almost certainly concentrated mainly on the biggest of these charities. Charities employ 780,000 people, so its a fair bet that half a million people working in charities rely on taxpayer funding, to some extent, for their jobs.

    They’re likely to vote for whichever political party promises to maintain that funding, aren’t they?

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