One of the main stories to emerge from the collapse of Kids Company, the superstar charity beloved of politicians and rock stars alike, was how little scrutiny there is of how charities disburse public money.
Some charities now depend on public money for more than 80 per cent of their funding, at which point they are de facto agencies of the state.
Yet the moral cachet attached to charities serves to shield them from critical scrutiny by the public, and their de jure distance from the Government means that they remain, as private organisations, immune from Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.
Back in August our own Mark Wallace made the case that transparency measures should follow public money when it passed into the third sector – and today’s Daily Telegraph reports that ministers are drawing up plans to achieve just that.
According to the paper the proposals are being driven forward by Matt Hancock, the minister overseeing the Government’s review of FoI legislation.
It quotes ACEVO, the charity lobby, as offering a conditional welcome to the reform. However, in the past they have lobbied against it. The unhappy story of Kids Company has offered the Government a unique opportunity to push this measure through.
Yet whilst they’re in the business of clearing up the murky use of public money, perhaps the Conservatives might do something about sock-puppetry.
This is the term used to describe what happens when the Government disburses public money to advocacy groups who then spend it to lobby the Government.
A recent illustration of where this can lead was provided by Bob Blackman, the Tory MP for Harrow East, whose contribution to a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s smoking strategy was printed on headed paper from ASH, an anti-tobacco lobby group funded by the Department of Health.
In how many instances are MPs, who seem to be making independent contributions, simply speaking words handed to them by (Government-funded) outside organisations? If they take the care to remove the logo from their notes, how would we know?
The problematic implications for transparency in policy-making are obvious.
It’s long overdue that the true relationship between the third sector and the Government was recognised and addressed. But that cuts both ways: the Government can’t regulate inconvenient political speech from the third sector (by means such as the Lobbying Act) whilst subsidising the convenient.
There is a case to be made for partnering with charities to deliver practical services, but this is very different to subsidising advocates to stimulate – or even simulate – public support.
It is hard to reconcile such practises with the Government’s efforts to increase transparency and democratic accountability into the relationship between charities and the state. Some ministers have made up some steps on the right direction, but there is more to be done.