As a government minister calls charities that speak out ‘sock puppets,’ SOLOMON HUGHES looks at the interdependency of the two and the wider political implications for a sector with a total income of £37.9 billion
Tory cabinet office minister Matt Hancock has banned any charities that get government money from speaking out.
Hancock’s “Charities: shut up!” rule is based on what he calls “extensive research” by the right-wing Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA).
Look at that research and it turns out to be a couple of ranty pamphlets full of slight, barmy assertions.
Hancock and the IEA call charities that want to speak out “sock puppets.” But I think they must be planning to apply their new rules in some very unfair ways, or they will silence some actual government-funded Tory sock puppets.
Hancock based his charity-muffling rule on IEA pamphlets by Christopher Snowdon. His Hancock-inspiring 2012 pamphlet starts with what is I think a very real issue. He says: “Between 1997 and 2005, the combined income of Britain’s charities nearly doubled, from £19.8 billion to £37.9 billion, with the biggest growth coming in grants and contracts from government departments.”
Now Hancock doesn’t say what proportion of government spending is going to charities (perhaps because his “research” wasn’t really “extensive”), but the increased state funding of charities does raise important questions that are worth thinking about.
Does this money mean some charities have become essentially arms of the government? Is the government avoiding responsibility for essential services, or losing control of them by using charities for paid service delivery?
These serious problems blew up in the Kids Company affair.
But it seems Hancock and Snowdon don’t want to address these big issues at all. They just want charities to take government cash, then shut up and do what they are told.
You can see how slippery the argument is because of the “sock puppet” talk. The IEA mean the common internet use of the word — as they say: “A sock puppet is defined by Wikipedia as ‘a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who spoke to or about himself while pretending to be another person.’ The average sock puppet uses pseudonyms to praise and endorse his own views.”
Sock puppets are those crude, unconvincing voices speaking up for the guy who controls the hand.
If this “sock puppet” argument is right, when the charities which get government cash speak out, they should be saying what their government paymasters want. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The hand controls the sock.
But why would Hancock want to shut up government-funded charities if they are just his “sock puppets,” echoing his government’s line?
Why is he bashing his own hand, inside a sock?
Well if you read the IEA pamphlet which Hancock calls “extensive research,” it says: “These ‘sock puppet’ organisations would masquerade as civil society while promoting the ideology of the political elite.”
Apparently this “political elite” isn’t anything to do with the Tory Party or the Daily Mail or anyone like that. Or even the current government.
Browsing through the IEA “research,” the first charities speaking out for this shadowy elite that jump off the page are Stonewall, the Fawcett Society, Child Poverty Action Group and Action on Smoking and Health. So the evil “political elite” are paying fake grassroots charities to promote gay equality, women’s equality, an end to child poverty and non-smoking.
The secret “elite” are, even under a Tory government, some kind of “liberal-Islington-dinner-party” Daily Mail nightmare.
The supposedly “rigorous research” tries squaring the fact that the sock puppet on the Tory minister’s hand speaks with a kind of “liberal elite” voice by claiming they are a “shadow state,” set up by and funded by the wicked Blairite liberals of 1997-2010. Even five years of Tory funding and government won’t make them say the right thing.
The “sock puppets” won’t obey the new government hand, so they just have to shut up. They are a “government-in-exile” hiding in the minister’s sock drawer, making horrible liberal noises about cigarettes and gays.
The idea that charities, even when they take government cash for specific projects, might sometimes actually have their own point of view, developed through their experiences, is ignored.
Instead the paranoid fear of a “shadow government” taking over Hancock’s socks has caused him to pass this new rule.
From now on charities that take government cash will have to be sure that they don’t use a bean of it on “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.”
Note that it is only charities who will be expected to be quiet. Corporations which get government contracts can lobby all they want — and they do. For example, many of the corporations that ran the government’s £1 billion failing Work Programme were totally dependent on government cash, but they were also all over the party conferences lobbying away.
Hancock’s paranoid posture will, I think, have a chilling effect on charities. But it might also tangle up some favourite Tory causes in the process.
The IEA said there was another way government could approach the loud-mouth charity problem.
Its pamphlet said: “The new government may choose to weed out its predecessor’s sock puppets and replace them with state-funded activists who are more to its liking.”
Well, actually the Tories have done a bit of that, and it is hard to see how they won’t be caught by the new rule.
Take for example the New Schools Network. This “charity” helps set up Tory-backed “free schools” and to help government-favoured academy schools. It relies on £1.2 million a year from the Department of Education, making up the bulk of its income.
The network is run by Nick Timothy, a former special adviser to Theresa May. Before that he worked for the Conservative Research Department. He is helped by Sarah Pearson, who used to work for a political lobbying company, Hanover. The New Schools Network is a Tory-connected “charity” funded by the government devoted to a Tory educational policy. Attempting to influence the award of school contracts and promoting Tory schools policy is its central motivation. So either Hancock’s “sock puppet” rule will hit them hard, or it will be applied in a thoroughly partisan way.