Government and Institutions

Where does the state end and civil society begin?

A group of charities and campaign groups have written a letter to The Times complaining about what they regard as attempts to ‘stifle’ debate about the ’causes of poverty’. This comes in the wake of the controversial Lobbying Act and the equally controversial Oxfam campaign, discussed by Ryan Bourne last week, which proposed a raft of borrow-and-spend policies as an alternative to ‘austerity’. The Conservative MP Conor Burns has made a complaint to the Charity Commission about Oxfam’s campaign.

The IEA has gone on the record with its own concerns about the heavy-handed Lobbying Act, and Conor Burns’ complaint is unlikely to lead to action from the Charity Commission. The Oxfam campaign is unashamably left-wing (and terribly misguided), but it is not explicitly party political and therefore does not contravene charity law. More interesting is the list of signatories to the Times letter, which tells a familiar story.

Of the 75 organisations that put their name to the letter, 56 are charities. Of these charities, at least 37 (66%) receive money from the government—central, European and/or local.* In most cases, their state funding makes up a very significant part of their income. For example, NAVCA—whose stated charitable purpose is to ‘exert influence on government policy’—relies on DfE, the Home Office, the Office for Civil Society, the Ministry of Justice, DoH and the lottery for most of its income. Concern Worldwide gets nearly £5 million per annum from DfID in addition to funds from the Scottish government. Children England gets more than 90 per cent of its income from the government, as does Keep Britain Tidy.

The list goes on. Friends of the Earth are heavily dependent on grants from the EU. Health Poverty Action, ActionAid, BOND, the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust and Progressio are funded by DfID. The European Commission funds the Jubilee Debt Campaign, Progressio, ActionAid and the Runnymede Trust. The Scottish government funds SCVO, Energy Action Scotland and the Scottish Out of School Care Network. The Welsh government funds Concern Worldwide and Children in Wales. Manchester Community Central appears to be wholly funded by the state via DfE, NHS Manchester and Manchester City Council. Woodcraft Folk is funded by the lottery and by the International Falcon Movement: Socialist Educational International, which, in turn, is funded by the European Commission. Other signatories receive taxpayer funding via BIS, the FSA, DWP, DoH and DCSF.

The left-wing bias of many of these organisations has already been discussed on the Guido Fawkes blog. One might ask why, if the government is so keen to ‘stifle’ these charities, it continues to fund them so heavily? If they are part of Labour’s ‘government-in-exile’, as Fraser Nelson put it in 2012, the government in Whitehall has so far been reluctant to take them on.

In total, two-thirds of the charities that signed the letter receive significant sums of money from various arms of the state. Some of their concerns about free speech are legitimate, but we must ask where free speech ends and subsidised speech begins. A number of these organisations would not exist at all if the taxpayer was not financing them. Many of the others would be greatly diminished – and would therefore have less of a voice – if they were not being boosted by the government’s largesse. In what sense can a group that receives 90 per cent of its income from the state be considered part of ‘civil society’, let alone a ‘non-governmental organisation’?

The issues raised in the letter to The Times should not be lightly dismissed, but the list of groups that signed it highlights a wider point. It illustrates a phenomenon that has transformed the charitable sector in the last twenty years, with the government pumping billions of pounds into tens of thousands of putatively ‘voluntary’ organisations thereby distorting public debate and blurring the lines between civil society and the state.

[This is updated figure. An early draft of the letter – upon which this blog post was based – was signed by 35 charities, of which 23 are state-funded. Interestingly, the percentage (66%) remains the same.]

Head of Lifestyle Economics, IEA

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".

14 thoughts on “Where does the state end and civil society begin?”

  1. Posted 16/06/2014 at 03:32 | Permalink

    That is the problem the world over is it not? The fact that funding often captures the voice.

    Irrespective of whether you agree or not with the arguments, the fact that an organisation is willing to speak out against the hand that feeds is an important democratic right.

  2. Posted 16/06/2014 at 11:06 | Permalink

    “it is not explicitly party political”

    Only in the sense that it excludes the word “Labour”

  3. Posted 16/06/2014 at 11:18 | Permalink

    Read the memoranda of understanding between NACVA and the cabinet office

    One of the understood, agreed and stated purposes of the NACVA is to provide a campaigning voice for voluntary and community organisations. The government explicitly intends that the NACVA should have a campaigning voice, because it sees this as a worthwhile thing.

    Why so?
    a) because it is important that a variety of different viewpoints and interests are properly represented in a democracy
    b) because it would be a waste of the resources of the organisations it represents if they had to divert resources away from delivery and towards policy and campaigns work

    These groups do not distort debate, they form a necessary part of the debate articulating the views of organisations and individuals who are often most impacted by government. There are plenty of other well funded, well resourced groups who are more than capable of presenting alternative views.

    The alternative to not funding the NAVCA (which by the way isn’t a ‘voluntary’ organisation, but rather a representative of them) would be that these views are not properly represented or articulated. That is what really would distort the debate.

  4. Posted 16/06/2014 at 11:36 | Permalink

    Good afternoon Mr Marx
    You say – “There are plenty of other well funded, well resourced groups who are more than capable of presenting alternative views. The alternative to not funding the NAVCA (which by the way isn’t a ‘voluntary’ organisation, but rather a representative of them) would be that these views are not properly represented or articulated. That is what really would distort the debate.”

    Can you please point me towards a view on these matters that is not at the left edge of society? Seems to me they are a bit scarce, just like right-wing comedians.

  5. Posted 16/06/2014 at 12:21 | Permalink

    Hi Cupertino,

    If you google an organisation called the Institute of Economic Affairs, they tend have views that are not particularly left of centre.

    Other organisations include, the Taxpayers Alliance, the Centre for Social Justice and Policy Exchange.

  6. Posted 16/06/2014 at 12:22 | Permalink

    As well as the Conservative Party, the Spectator, Daily Mail and Daily Express……

  7. Posted 16/06/2014 at 13:52 | Permalink

    Once part of the population realises that they can vote themselves the Treasury, as somebody noted, the game is over. The Left realised this and the game is over.

  8. Posted 16/06/2014 at 13:54 | Permalink

    Never mind the politics and squeels, I am a tax payer and I do not support left wing policies. I do not want my money used to campaign against the party and policies I prefer. So far as I am aware it is ONLY left wing charities and groups which get this funding and it goes back a long way.

    Why wont the coalition act? Maybe they agree with the left wing bilge.

  9. Posted 16/06/2014 at 14:04 | Permalink

    Hi Groucho
    I wasn’t including think tanks or the press which have promoters on both sides. What is wrong with the Fabian Society, IPPR, and others that we need a state sponsored voice too?

  10. Posted 16/06/2014 at 14:19 | Permalink

    If there were more right wing voluntary and community organisations then their views would be much more reflected in organisations such as NAVCA. As it happens there aren’t very many, hence their views aren’t reflected.

  11. Posted 16/06/2014 at 18:57 | Permalink

    Don’t you think that’s because right-wingers involved in charities are more likely to do so for the purposes of charity, rather than to push their political agenda, as some on the left seem to?

  12. Posted 17/06/2014 at 07:59 | Permalink

    Taxpayer funded lobbyists at best, outposts of the Labour Party at worst. It’s time funds were withdrawn from
    politicised charities.

  13. Posted 17/06/2014 at 17:14 | Permalink

    I am right wing, but I tend to believe that whether you are left or right wing your idea of a fair and just society should be more or less the same. The route, the means are different is all. This article concerns me in that it seems to suggest that a government should not represent the entirety of the population, only those that support it. Our society is a machine that requires all parts working efficiently and while this may be hard to achieve we must nevertheless try to achieve it.

    Democracy starts with the voice and tyranny with its silence.

  14. Posted 17/06/2014 at 17:51 | Permalink

    It is worth emphasising that any objection to Charities getting involved in party politics is not to stifle debate, it is just that there are proper and improper routes and ways to do that.

    Firstly, charities are given considerable public respect by default and they should not be allowed to use that to pursue a party political agenda

    Secondly tax advantages and other legal advantages are granted to charities on the basis they pursue stated objectives, which are not, and should not be campaigning party political ones

    I would go further and refuse charitable status to any organisation which received any significant amount of cash from HMG as that immediately negates its independent private non-governmental status. many “charities” are wholly or largely financed by HMG which then “welcomes” the “independent” advice they give on policy issues. It is all a stitch up of democratic ideas.

    I would refuse charitable status to any organisation which did not spend most of its money doing something charitable, as opposed to campaigning. Campaigning should not be a main activity of a charity but only incidental and small scale in relation to its active role in reducing suffering, education, etc etc.

    To complain about a charity abusing its status by party political campaigning does not in any way limit the right of private individuals or non-charity organisations to campaign. I do believe there are too many pressure groups, or rather the ministers take too much notice of them. MPs should keep in touch with their constituents and represent a wide range of views in the HoC, and Peers ditto in different ways. But they don’t, they are lazy and allow pressure groups to control policy instead.

Comments are closed.