Dear Ministers and civil servants of the Cabinet Office,
Your recent announcements about charities rest on the explicit assumption that “good causes”, “improving people’s lives” and “spreading opportunities” are the very opposite of the advocacy activities for which taxpayers’ money may not be used under your proposed new anti advocacy grants clause. That clause bans using Government grants for any attempt to influence Government, Parliament, ones local MP or regulator. Hence, money spent on these influencing activities, according to your public announcement on 6 February, is a diversion from improving people’s lives and good causes.
As you know, however, in the real world, good causes are not limited to practical work alone. I am not in this letter focusing on what is, or is not, the appropriate use of Government money, but questioning your tendentious contrast between “improving people’s lives”, “good causes” and “spreading opportunities”, on the one hand, and influencing policy on the other.
Let us take some real life examples, the one thing that you have refused to do (preferring apparently to rely on the wretched Tea Party polemic that is the Institute for Economic Affairs “Sock Puppets” report).
Can we agree that making life more bearable for the victims of crime is a “good cause” and “improves people’s lives”? If so, providing help and advice to individual victims is only one part of the job. Another is representing to Government and other policy makers what the experience of the criminal justice system is if you are a victim, and how it could be improved to give victims more of a say and more respectful treatment. So victim support charities are giving voice to users and seeking to influence those who have less understanding of the victims’ plight. That is part and parcel of the good work of improving victims’ lives: not the polar opposite or a “diversion”.
Can we agree that combatting air pollution is a good cause and improves people’s lives, particularly those vulnerable through age or inherent infirmity to breathing difficulties? If so, treating those suffering from pollution, distributing protective masks or funding academic research is only part of the job. Another is seeking to influence those causing or regulating pollution, and policy makers, to be aware of the problems and of possible ways to tackle them systematically. Let us recall that deadly pea soupers were only banished from London as a result of the tireless influencing efforts of key charities of the day, inter-acting with policy makers. That is not a dirty “diversion”, but something to be celebrated.
Can we agree that the preservation of the beauty and variety of the English countryside for all to enjoy, including our National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural beauty and nature reserves is a good cause that improves people’s lives? If so, it is good to mobilise volunteers to build dry stone walls, pick up litter, or organise trips from inner cities to the countryside. But that is only part of the job, because there are constant threats to the countryside that require the intervention of the planning system, National Park Authorities, DEFRA and other Departments. Influencing them is again part and parcel of pursuing the good cause and improving people’s lives. Our countryside would be a much poorer place without generations of charity members playing their part in influencing the decision-making process.
Can we agree that reduction of deaths and pain from preventable diseases and accidents is a good cause improving (and prolonging) people’s lives? Helping to care for sufferers is important, along with research and educational materials. But does any thoughtful person suppose that part of the job is not also about influencing and persuasion, to secure effective policy or regulatory responses to the research so that something is actually done about it?
Can we agree that providing low cost community transport, mobilising volunteers, is a good cause that improves lives? Ministers certainly believe so. Why do you think the telephone lines are humming between the Department of Transport and Community Transport Association or its members? Because your colleagues in DoT rely on the expertise and front line experience of those actually providing community transport to assess the implications of all kinds of EU or UK proposals or developments for the community transport sector. Yes, volunteering to drive members of the community around is part of the job. But so is drawing on experience and user views to assist Government, Parliament and MPs to know what is happening on the front line and how their decisions will affect them.
Right across the spectrum of charitable causes, the same point can be demonstrated. The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health want an authoritative review of mental health provision? Send for the National Director of MIND! The Secretary of State for Justice plans a drive for better prison education? Send for the Prisoners Education Trust and associated charities and allies! The Secretary of State for International Development wishes to lead the world in work with women and girls as key to international development targets? Send for a host of women’s organisations and other charities who actually work with many women and girls in communities across the developing world!
From your viewpoint at the heart of Government, you must know all these things to be true. Therefore, it simply will not do to imply that “good causes” and “improving people’s lives” are the antithesis of advocacy. Enabling more voices, more perspectives, more experience and knowledge of those good causes to be made available in the political space, where collective decisions are debated and taken, has always been a crucial part of how charitable causes have been advanced in this country. Rob Wilson, MP, your Minister for Civil Society, has said as much himself. So how can it make sense to treat such a contribution as a diversion from good causes and improving people’s lives?
I offer you this link to a very summary history (which Rob Wilson knows but the rest of you appear to have forgotten) of advocacy for charitable causes that illustrates how important it has been in improving the lives of many generations of English people. Rob Wilson has said some nice things about this, but it has not prevented the false antitheses of your public statements:
This is not a matter of semantics alone. Your statements, making a binary distinction between “good causes” and “improving people’s lives” on the one hand, and influencing policy making, on the other, are destructive. In general, according to nfpSynergy’s research, “The public is very supportive of charity campaigning” (https://nfpsynergy.net/blog/campaigning-diversion-cause). But your recent statements play into a simplistic school of thought that charity should be all about sticking plasters and practical action alone: Florence Nightingale, putting money in the tin for the Red Cross, selling cakes for the local hospice, supporting the local youth club, helping build a school in an African country, putting up bird boxes, dry stone walling, visiting an elderly lady. Many people do feel that charity should be something that unites all of us, nothing to do at all with the more contentious world of “politics”. But then members of the public who hold that view are not at the heart of Government in the Cabinet Office. You know very well that charities advance their good causes by other means as well, not least influencing and enriching the knowledge base for sound decision-making.
So please be honest. Please do not reinforce what you know to be an incomplete stereotype of what the contribution of charities is. Do not speak of influencing as if it were a diversion from good causes and improving people’s lives. In one example after another, it is in truth, and always has been, an integral and essential part of pursuing charitable causes and changing people’s lives for the better.