The UK government moves to purge the public conversation of unwanted voices

by Chris Bertram on February 6, 2016

I blogged a few months ago about the various moves the UK’s Conservative government has put in place that seek to cement its ability to govern without effective opposition. Since then there have been various developments, including the entirely predictable loss of a million voters from the electoral rolls. Some of those names may be restored, but they will have been absent from the register at the moment used to calculate the size of constituencies with the consequence that MPs from leafy affluent places will represent populations much smaller that poor post-industrial ones. Restrictions on trade unions are steaming ahead (including “reforms” that will deprive Labour of most of its funding), and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act are still on the way.

This morning’s atrocity involves [government plans to prevent charities and the voluntary sector from using any funding they’ve received from government to lobby for changes in policy or expenditure]( The proposal is the result of lobbying from the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Charities won’t be completely silenced. If they have funds that are raised from private sources then they can use these for advocacy. It isn’t clear from the reports whether funding from sources like the Big Lottery or local government (what’s left of it) will be covered. The effect of these restrictions will be that there will be fewer voices advocating for the poor and dispossessed in areas like housing, mental health provision, or policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Charities who point out the effects of benefit sanctions on welfare claimants or the conditions in immigration detention centres may find that they are under a duty to demonstrate that the salary of their talking head on radio or TV didn’t come from public funds. Meanwhile, the corporate sector, being “private” can lobby away all it likes.

Of course ministers don’t like being told about the effects of their policies. But good *government*, as opposed to good politics, requires that they find out what those effects are. And that means they need independent people to tell them. And it means that the voiceless need advocates to counter the lobbying of corporate-sponsored think-tanks and lobbyists. In other areas of policy, the government is keen the vaunt the “independence” of those who advise them, frequently mentioning this as a feature of, for example, the Migration Advisory Committee, a body consisting of economists appointed by government, who answer questions set by government, according to criteria devised by government. There, “independence” has a legitimating function for policy. What the UK government doesn’t want is independent voices who give it accurate information about the effects of its policies. It wants the public conversation to be dominated by supine journalists fixated on the Westminster narrative who work for private media conglomerates. The voices it wants are those who don’t care about the people who don’t matter. When the consequences are horrendous, ministers will probably complain that nobody told them.



Gary Othic 02.06.16 at 12:21 pm

At this rate it looks like I might well win my bet on elections being suspended indefinitely sometime around 2018-2019…


P O'Neill 02.06.16 at 12:43 pm

And nothing in the new rule to prevent another Kids Company fiasco ie politically connected charity going straight to ministers and the media to get more cash over the heads of the specialists.


nick james 02.06.16 at 12:58 pm

seems to me that being a government contractor, as so many ‘charities’ are, is incompatible with being an actual charity. taking the govts money compromises them.


Tim Worstall 02.06.16 at 1:00 pm

And yet watching the likes of the booze and anti-ciggies “charities” using nothing but public money to lobby for legislative change. For example, the campaign for minimum booze prices doesn’t seem to have any private sector money in it at all.

Maybe the precise distinctions being made right now aren’t right, but the general idea has merit.


Petter Sjölund 02.06.16 at 1:11 pm

This sounds reasonable, but has to be balanced with corresponding legislation on the private side. Organizations that receive funding from, say, the banking sector must be prevented from lobbying for changes in banking policy or expenditure. And so on.


Phil 02.06.16 at 1:20 pm

#4 – It’s not often I agree with Tim, but I think he – and the IEA – are more right than wrong on this one. Policy-making by charitable bodies – as distinct from political parties, trade unions, grassroots campaigns etc – is unaccountable of its nature; when it’s only made possible by public money, the lack of accountability is compounded. Not every charitable recipient of government funding is a voice of opposition – unless decision-makers are extraordinarily open-minded, funding is more likely to go to charities that swim with the tide and say more or less what their friends in government want to hear. The danger of mutual confirmation – with policy emerging from a feedback loop between the permanent government, the government-funded charity and charity-funded academics – is obvious, particularly to anyone who’s looked at the way the alcohol charities work.

And if the (broader) Left is so weak that it won’t be able to hold government to account without relying on charities – which themselves are so weak that they can’t do anything without central government funding – then that’s the problem that needs addressing. (Although, to be fair, it’s needed addressing for some time now.)


The Raven 02.06.16 at 1:32 pm

“When the consequences are horrendous, ministers will probably complain that nobody told them.”

In the USA, we say “hoocoodanode.”


Chris Bertram 02.06.16 at 1:52 pm

@Phil So you think there’s something fundamentally wrong if Shelter warns the government that its housing policies are likely to exacerbate homelessness do you?


Keith 02.06.16 at 2:10 pm

Petter Sjölund at 5

The former bill to regulate lobbying in the last Parliament mysteriously failed to uh regulate lobbying. The profit making sector are the only sector not to be subject to restrictions, making the UK the Liberal democracy with the least legal regulation of any and no accountability. It is strange to me to argue that any public funding to a body should rule it out of expressing policy views critical of the Government of the day. That means any expertise in the not for profit sector is unavailable to inform debate. A idea that is undemocratic and just absurd. The purpose being to allow far right outfits like the IEA to more easily push policies to suit the Billionaires.


Brett Dunbar 02.06.16 at 2:39 pm

@9 The restriction is on using public money for lobbying, not on organisations receiving public money lobbying. Provided that the money is sourced elsewhere the charity is perfectly free to use it for lobbying. Donations, admission fees, money from local government &c. can be used for lobbying.

The current distribution of seats in the Commons systematically underrepresents conservative voting suburban seats and overrepresents Labour voting urban seats as that has been the pattern of population movement. Labour lost the 2015 election despite a substantial systemic bias in Labour’s favour. That is quite apart from the over representation of Wales due to a lower tariff for Welsh seats. The redistribution will favour the Conservatives as the existing map has a pro Labour bias.

The change in the procedure of the electoral register from a household to an individual registration had support from pretty much the whole political spectrum, the old system had serious problems with accuracy, there were an awful lot of spurious entries.


Richard Cottrell 02.06.16 at 2:50 pm

It seems that correspondents are missing Chris Bertram’s thread. The comments that I have seen so far largely bear on the lobbying rights of charities, and their ability to influence government policies, or otherwise. Is there any elephant in the room here or not? The elephant is contained in the opening remarks by Chris, that the Tory government is working very hard to make it impossible for any alternative government – meaning Labour of course – to be voted in at the next, or indeed any other election. It is correct that the government are gerrymandering the new ‘super constituencies’ (to accommodate a small HoC) by using pruned electoral rolls as a mask for the steady inch by inch move to a totalitarian form of government – and there is no other fitting description.
One by one a raft of measures appear drip-drip, day by day, to curtail the rights of the citizen versus the state, a mark of totalitarian structures wherever they appear. In a new book that I am preparing at the moment, I argue that the UK is now in a proto-Weimar situation, that the steady chipping away of rights and civil liberties while the population are amused and sedated by bread and circuses (football and sport in general, celebrity worship, post historical games of thrones) has now reached the tipping point. That tipping point is the rigging of the electoral registers.
Let me give a specific example instanced recently in the New Statesman. Leicester currently elects three Labour MP’s. Post the rigged electoral roll, and the import of Tory-favouring voters from the countryside, the city will find itself with an in-built Conservative electoral majority. Repeated nationwide, then the Conservative party will become an entrenched bloc. How Mrs. ‘on and on’ Thatcher must be spinning with delight in her mausoleum.
Let’s not stop there. President Cameron and his PM, George Osborne, are working to dry up the flow of union funds to the Labour party, while of course the Tories will remain entirely free to collect unlimited bounty from their friends in the City. The ‘Short Money’ (first proposed by the Labour minister Edward Short in Harold Wilson’s time) which is intended to assist opposition parties in funding their organisation work, is now to be pruned to ‘save money.’ Another slash at the jugular of parliamentary democracy.
The introduction of a home-grown ‘civil liberties and human rights’ panorama is nothing less than a ruse to prevent European judges from poking their noses into the eradication of birthright freedoms that stretch back to the Magna Carta. It might be opportunistic to say that the media are self-gagging themselves, but this it not correct. The alarms are being heard, indeed by commentators and editors, but no-one is listening. We are self-drugged into believing ‘it cannot happen here’. At the current level of erosion, it can and will.
Richard Cottrell MEP (1979/89, Conservative)


marcel proust 02.06.16 at 3:05 pm

The Raven @7: In the USA, we say “hoocoodanode.”

Well, except when referring to scandals typical of right wing, often evangelical, or other rieligious-right, republican politicians: then the term is “hoocoodanude.”


Phil 02.06.16 at 3:08 pm

To be clear, I agree entirely with the previous comment, and with the first paragraph of Chris’s post.

As for #8, my argument was that it was a bad system – despite sometimes having effects that I support – and that the IEA & friends had good reasons for being opposed to it.


Phil 02.06.16 at 3:09 pm

That’d be comment 11 from Richard Cottrell that I agree entirely with, obviously(?).


engels 02.06.16 at 4:08 pm

Logical step 2 of this wonderful ‘you can’t criticise the government on its dime’ idea is probably to apply it to academic research


ingrid robeyns 02.06.16 at 4:20 pm

This is just very bad news and in line with some other bad things happening in Europe and the world. In more places, the rule of law is weakened, and democracy under threat.

As to the discussion about government-funded vs. purely private funded charities: there are advantages and disadvantages to both. If they receive government funding, they can do more because they have more money, but are likely to self-censure (He who pays the piper decides the tune – it’s always been like that in all sectors of life). And now, if this plans gets off the ground, legally being censured.

What I would hope is that more citizens would do more to protect democracy (in a rich understanding), and not think that if they vote, that they have done their bit. Giving money to charities who are critical about what the government does, can be part of such an effort.


bianca steele 02.06.16 at 4:34 pm

On the surface, you might expect a policy like this to avoid something like the Matthew Effect where favored charities push others out. It seems reasonable that charities and non-profits should be able to criticize the government. It also seems reasonable that non-profits that take an adversarial stance to government think hard about what they’re doing when they take grants (I always think about a local NGO here that runs shelters and things for towns around here and thinks of itself as politically radical and finds it difficult to see itself as working in partnership with the governments–while also, it’s been claimed, turning a profit on subsidized apartment buildings it owns). I’d think there’s a danger of the state outsourcing the “representing the people” part of government to NGOs: for example, defanging the EPA while relying on the press, activists, and researchers to look out for the public interest; while reassuring itself that this is just a reasonable division of labor. Is this just the Conservatives shaking out the Labour-favored NGOs from the system? Or is the assumption that all charities are going to favor Labour (which might be the case in the UK for all I know)?


novakant 02.06.16 at 5:03 pm

I have no doubt that the more general points regarding nefarious Torie policies are worth being concerned about, but regarding the particular question of charities and their advocacy we should ask ourselves if we would really be happy to fund charities who promote causes we are fervently opposed to with our taxes. My council tax apparently supports a big campaign in favour ofthe bedroom tax and I don’t like that at all….

There is of course also a free speech issue here.


Brett Dunbar 02.06.16 at 5:51 pm

The BBC reporting on the issue was fairly clear that it only affects central government money.

The redistribution of seats will benefit the Conservatives but that is due to eliminating a fairly substantial pro-Labour bias in the current distribution. Inner city areas have more MPs than their current population merit as the population has declined there since the start of the last boundary review.

The switch to individual registration is part of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 introduced by Labour.


Ecrasez l'Infame 02.06.16 at 6:20 pm

This is just very bad news and in line with some other bad things happening in Europe and the world. In more places, the rule of law is weakened, and democracy under threat.

This isn’t a threat to democracy. “Charities” funded by government are taking positions that the general public doesn’t have any real support for, and that are indeed more extreme than what moderate action the government’s proposing. They’re then “lobbying” the government funding them, and also lobbying MPs, and parties, and regulators, and the media, and raising public awareness. This fake support then sees things like government funded talking heads complaining the government isn’t going far enough, and pushes the debate in direction the government needs to enact its agenda.

I grant this has likely had a positive effect in areas like public health, foreign aid, and the environment; but it’s fundamentally a subversion of democracy for the government to shunt public money to front organisations to push its political agenda. I don’t mind Shelter warning the government on housing, but any charity worth it’s salt should be able to pay for its own headed paper to do this on. It’s deeply improper for government money to be used to run campaigning with the wider public in order to influence support for government policy.

It’s to the Tories credit that they’re doing this rather than merely trying to redirect government “charity” funding to serve their their own pet obsessions.


The Raven 02.06.16 at 6:42 pm

marcel proust@12: chuckle.


Chris Bertram 02.06.16 at 6:51 pm

@Brett Dunbar

The redistribution of seats will benefit the Conservatives but that is due to eliminating a fairly substantial pro-Labour bias in the current distribution. Inner city areas have more MPs than their current population merit as the population has declined there since the start of the last boundary review.

Nope. The new system doesn’t allot representation based on population but on registered voters, a shift that already contains a bias towards the more prosperous and stably housed part of the population. This shift has been exacerbated by the decision to use those voters registered very early in the electoral cycle only, leaving a million people out.

The BBC reporting on the issue was fairly clear that it only affects central government money

Maybe. But what’s normal in these contracts is that they are top-sliced to meet a share of the general running costs of the charity concerned, including salaries. So it may well be that this money legally infects the full range of its activity.

@Ecrasez l’Infame

It’s to the Tories credit that they’re doing this rather than merely trying to redirect government “charity” funding to serve their their own pet obsessions.

My sides! A career awaits you in stand up.


Igor Belanov 02.06.16 at 8:25 pm

The problem with this is the fact that charities have been drawn in to provide various functions and services that in essence should be provided by the public sector and open to wider social accountability.

The Tories want the best of both worlds. They think charities will provide these services at a lower cost and in a way that will divert responsibility for them away from the government and deny wider political input into how they are provided.

It’s a continuation of policy that has been going on for 40 years- weakening the state to strengthen another, more ‘strategically important’, part of the state. The charities were eager to accept the role they were offered, only now realising that they were dupes.


Maria 02.06.16 at 10:34 pm

Before the last election, the government gagged charities from speaking out on policy issues for a set period of time. They didn’t want to hear about the poors. Several reports were quashed that would have put data in the public domain about the effects of austerity policies. And as with all clampdowns on freedom of speech, people/organisations over-censored themselves as they were frightened of being investigated by the charities commission and felt it would be irresponsible to do anything that risked their charitable status. In the field I work in, a couple of organisations faded away from the public debate because of their charitable status, further narrowing the range of views heard. This is all of a piece, as Chris says, to silence voices speaking on behalf of anyone except the government of the day and the private sector.

Many large charities do work previously done by government, as the public sector has been hollowed out. The effect has been to squeeze out smaller independent charities – who don’t have the scale to successfully bid for these projects – and corporatise the charities who become little more than gagged service providers that dare not offend their paymasters.

The point is to permanently cripple institutions that could provide a bulwark against Tory policies. It’s working.


Collin Street 02.06.16 at 11:31 pm

The point is to permanently cripple institutions that could provide a bulwark against Tory policies.

I don’t think it’s planned. Global silencing is just the inevitable consequence of ever-present individual minor acts of silencing, and the minor acts of silencing are a pretty much inescapable consequence of the personal factors that drive people to ally themselves with conservative [==reactionary, “world-simplifying”] politics.


Alan White 02.06.16 at 11:58 pm

Well, after fighting the good–but probably lost–fight for something stronger than “tenure-lite” in University of Wisconsin System, it’s just more cold comfort that the UK seems as plagued by the cash-infused tsunami of privatization as stands behind the transformation of Wisconsin to Wississippi. FWIW here’s a url at Leiter’s site about my own woes; please forgive some sympathetic thread-jacking.


Brett Dunbar 02.07.16 at 3:07 am

It may require some changes to the financial structure of some charities; but any charity that is structured to deal with donations and bequests which have conditions restricting use should already be able to do this. For others the extent to which re-structuring is required depends on how the legislation in interpreted. The minimal approach would be to look at the total non-central-government funding and check that that exceeds the actual expenditure on lobbying. A stricter approach may require having multiple funds and paying for lobbying through one not using central government money.

Unless a charity is pretty much exclusively funded by central government then it should have enough alternative funding to cover the lobbying expenditure.


Alison P 02.07.16 at 10:37 am

Some UK charities in the past were funded exclusively by government, with the purpose of providing independent criticism of policy. You’d be constituted as a charity so you couldn’t make a profit. You’d get the money in a big grant, so the minister (or business interests) couldn’t pressure you financially to give an answer he/she wanted on any particular issue. A board of trustees would oversee budget to ensure money was all spent for the public good. You’d be assessed by them on success in saving money for central government, and producing positive social impact via policy changes.

These charities were not well known because obviously they didn’t fund raise. I used to work for one. It was abolished within days of the 2010 election.

Anyway, my point is this seems to be a legitimate use of government funding (save money), and a legitimate charitable purpose.


Brett Dunbar 02.07.16 at 3:58 pm

@28 That isn’t however lobbying, that is central government contracting a charity to produce an analysis. In much the same way an audit produced by a firm on accountants for a business isn’t the accountants lobbying the business.


Alison P 02.08.16 at 7:27 am

Trying to influence ministers to alter legislation is lobbying. It’s just that you can instinctively see how, like an audit, it can be a positive thing. A good discipline for a government. And lobbying by charities is regulated and monitored by their trustees to align with the wider public good. They can’t spend the money unless they can prove that.


reason 02.08.16 at 8:34 am

I don’t find the main point particularly worrying – it just means that charities will have to improve their accounting and transparency, which is not a bad thing. The real problem is here: “Meanwhile, the corporate sector, being “private” can lobby away all it likes.”

We know corporate lobbying is a problem and corporations (being you know incorporated) require a public charter. That is where the problem should be fixed.


Brett Dunbar 02.08.16 at 3:18 pm

Being commissioned to produce a report for the government isn’t lobbying. Lobbying is something you decide to do in order to convince the government to do something. While a report is commissioned by the state in order to inform policy making. It is purchased advice rather than lobbying.

The main effect seems to be on things like the campaign to minimum per unit pricing of alcohol which seems to have no non-state funding.


Helen 02.09.16 at 5:03 am

It’s not just NGOs. Here in Australia, “Chilling” anti-protest laws have been passed in various States. Bob Brown, an activist who has devoted his life to protecting old growth forests, was recently arrested and charged under this legislation. SLAPP suits, also, abound. It’s designed to make protesters fear for their jobs and their houses.


Helen 02.09.16 at 5:05 am

The same applies to anyone complaining about the conditions in our concentration camps. Oh, sorry. Boncentration Bamps.

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