By Angela Harbutt
There was much talk at the start of this coalition government of ending the practice of government lobbying government. Eric Pickles led the way by promising to end “lobbying on the rates” . Back in August 2010 the BBC reported that
“Government agencies and councils in England that spend public money on lobbying ministers face a crackdown. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said it was wrong that taxpayers’ money was being spent on political lobbying. He has told his department’s quangos to cancel lobbying contracts and the code of conduct governing when councils can employ lobbyists is also being changed.”
Sure enough some work has been done, including the introduction on a Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity. Yet the truth is that many councils have found ways of circumventing the code – employing agencies for “strategic advice” rather than lobbying or campaigning work – or simply ignoring the guidelines.
Perhaps more worryingly are the vast number of taxpayer funded charities/NGOs/campaign groups, spending untold £millions of government cash, with the primary aim of lobbying government. Many of these groups are totally opaque on their websites as to what proportion of their income comes from government departments, government agencies, other government quangos or combinations thereof. You have to be damned determined and have a great deal of spare time on your hands to get to the bottom of just how much taxpayer money some receive. And even then you are often left scratching your head. Some government cash gets passed from department to agency, from agency to quango, and from quango to campaign group. It must be near impossible for the originating department to know exactly how its money was actually spent. No wonder government lobbying government is alive and well in Britain.
In just one example, during a public consultation, a staggering £450,000+ was recently spent by just one government funded group on the sole activity of persuading parents (and especially mums) to add their signatures to a campaign supporting a proposed government policy. Worryingly, nowhere on the campaign literature, web site or advertisements, nor in the script used by the agency temps out on the streets across the country collecting signatures, did the campaign explain this was a taxpayer funded campaign. Indeed so secretive was the funding source of this campaign that it took several Freedom of Information requests from bloggers to expose exactly where the funding came from. And did the group running this campaign apologise for its lack of transparency ? No it did not. It took to the airways complaining about being inundated with FOI requests. In the end the campaign raised a colossal number of signatures lobbying government to introduce the erm proposed government policy.
So it is refreshing to hear from Chris Snowdon over on The Free Society that Australia is seeking to tackle this problem with action rather than words. The State of Queensland is stopping NGO’s using government funds to lobby for special interests. The new rule that says NGOs who rely on taxpayers’ money for more than 50 per cent of their income “must not advocate for state or federal legislative change”. We agree with Chris when he says:
“Any political action in this area must be mindful of the threat to free speech, but the Queensland ruling is not really about censorship, rather it is about how public money is spent. Any of these groups are free to campaign on any issue, but in the future they will not be able to force the taxpayer to subsidise the bulk of their activities.“
“If a lobby group cannot attract non-governmental funding for at least half of its income, it cannot properly be called a non-governmental organisation and they should accept that they only ever had a voice because the state gave them one. If these groups are providing public services then they are effectively part of an extended bureaucracy and should behave as such. Civil servants are expected to remain politically neutral, but nobody seriously alleges that this is tantamount to them being “gagged”, let alone that it is “a hallmark of a totalitarian regime.”
Click here to read the rest of his excellent piece.
But I for one would go further than Queensland. Not only would I say that NGOs who rely on taxpayers’ money for more than 50 per cent of their income should not be allowed to lobby government, but that every NGO receiving any government money should state clearly on the landing page of its web site exactly how much taxpayer money it receives and what proportion of total income this represents. This is a simple plea for transparency. Many NGOs are currently calling for food and alcohol to have clearer information on the packaging about the contents; percentage of fat/salt etc; health warnings; consumption guidelines etc. I think it reasonable to ask NGO web sites (i.e. their packaging) to provide information on funding. They would of course then be at liberty to detail exactly how that breaks down if they feel that information would be useful.
These two simple moves would help ensure that taxpayer money given to NGOs is spent in the way was originally intended; encourage NGOs to seek wider public support if they wish to engage in lobbying government; clean up government – stopping government using taxpayer money to pave the way secretively for (often unpopular) policies it wants to introduce; and gives the consumer landing on any charity/NGO/campaign website clear information on how it is funded and so inform how they then view the information contained.
Tick box better use of stretched taxpayer money. Tick box better democracy. Tick box transparency.
Angela Harbutt is currently running the campaign “Hands Off Our Packs” funded by Forest.
, Eric Pickles
, government lobbying government
, Local Government
, sock puppets