C'mon.... seriously?

This weekend saw another attempt by government to restrict lobbying by charities. Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock, announced that, from now on, any charity getting a government grant will be banned from using the funds to lobby government.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations does a good job of why the policy is unjust and likely to be counter-productive. It is ‘tantamount to making charities take a vow of silence,’ says CEO Stuart Etherington.

Not true, says Hancock. Government is merely ‘standing up for value for money’ and protecting the public purse. Taxpayers shouldn’t be made to foot the bill for charity lobbying, he says. It’s just a ‘common sense’, anti-waste measure.

A quick examination of the source of the policy – the impetus behind it –  suggests otherwise.

The government’s press release begins by citing research by the free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) into ‘so-called sock puppets’. The 2012 report by the IEA’s Christopher Snowdon, Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why argues that, when government finances the lobbying of itself, it is subverting democracy.  

Government funding creates ‘sock puppet’ versions of civil society’, the report suggests, which ‘give the illusion of grassroots support for new legislation’ where there may be none. ‘State-funded charities and NGOs usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public,’ claims Snowdon.

Which charities and NGOs could he be referring to? Top of his list are likely to be public health advocates that lobby the government to take action on junk food advertising, smoking, and alcohol.

In Snowdon’s mind, the state-funding of such campaigners is anti-democratic. It skews the pitch. It also disadvantages those that lobby for the opposite... like Snowdon.

Snowdon runs something called the ‘Lifestyle Economics’ unit at the IEA. It is in the business of defending industries that face government action to curb the harm caused by their products. The ‘increasing focus by the government and general public on the issues surrounding alcohol, tobacco, gambling, sugar, fat and soft drinks, has made the formation of the unit timely and necessary’, it says.

Who funds this work is anyone’s guess. The IEA refuses to disclose who bank-rolls it. It does, however, have a history of close collaboration with the tobacco industry. Weknow, for example, that just one tobacco giant, BAT, has given the IEA over £70,000 since 2011. We know this not from the IEA, but because the tobacco giant gave in to pressure and released the figures.

Snowdon is a long-term pro-smoking activist. He is author of Velvet Fist, Iron Glove: A History of Anti-Smoking, and a prominent supporter of Forest, the pro-smoking lobby group: he was a speaker at Forest’s 2012 Conservative Party Conference fringe event.

Snowdon doesn’t like public health advocates. ‘Gobshite’, ‘deranged’ and a ‘clueless clown’ is how he described Stan Glantz, the US public health professor who has probably done more than anyone to expose the tobacco industry’s deceptive lobbying campaigns. Linda Bauld, a UK public health professor and a leading expert on smoking, who served as the UK government’s scientific adviser on tobacco control is, according to Snowdon, a fantasist who promotes voodoo science. He has called Simon Chapman, a public health professor at the University of Sydney, with over 400 peer-reviewed articles and seventeen books to his name, a ‘scrotum-faced head-banger’.

The government’s latest attempt to silence charities should be seen in this context. Snowdon and the IEA don’t like public health charities, or the public health measures they lobby for. They like even less the fact that public health charities receive public funding.

Health select committee chair and Tory MP Sarah Wollaston tweeted at the weekend that ending charities’ ability to lobby ministers would have “serious consequences” for public health. The “balance (is) already distorted in favour of industry,” she wrote.

Which is just how Snowdon, the IEA and its industry backers like it.