That was the date and time that your humble Devil first registered the fakecharities.org domain—19th January 2009. I built the first fakecharities.org site that night, using a simple Open Source CMS called WebsiteBaker.
I then populated this simple site with a few organisations that I, and Kitchen contributor the Filthy Smoker, had identified as being particularly egregious specimens of the type we called "fake charities".
A few days ago, and a mere seven years later (!), the work of that night—and the efforts of many grassroots and blogosphere contributors—became a significant victory.
As regards the genesis of Fake Charities, I wrote a retrospective of the whys and wherefores some years ago, in June 2012.
Some years ago, your humble Devil and his Kitchen colleague, the Filthy Smoker, noticed that more and more charities were being cited by news media—and, most especially, the BBC—in connection with government initiatives.In that post, I reiterated what we defined as a fake charity.
These charities almost always reinforced these policies: and these policies were almost always ones that aimed to reduce freedom and liberty in this country.
Out of curiosity, we started to investigate these charities in a very simplistic way: when a charity was quoted as being in favour of yet more grossly invasive legislation, we went to the Charity Commission website and looked up the public accounts.
In the majority of cases, we found that these quoted "charities" were, in fact, largely funded by the government whose policies they were enthusiastically endorsing.
I would like to say that what we unearthed shocked us, but that would be a lie. What did surprise us was just how many of these organisations there were.
People tend to think of charities as being... well... voluntary organisations, doing actual, physical good deeds in the community—whether that be running soup kitchens, cancer hospices or homeless shelters.
But most of these organisations were indulging in little more than flat-out lobbying. And they were using our money to do it. In our view, these charities were being deliberately disingenuous.
And we came up with a name for these organisations—"fake charities".
We define a Fake Charity as any organisation registered as a UK charity that derives more than 10% of its income—and/or more than £1 million—from the government, whilst also lobbying the government. That lobbying can take the form of calling for new policies, changes to the law or increases in (their own) funding.When we were (inevitably) attacked in various articles by the BBC and the Third Sector, they tended to ignore the "lobbying" clause—we were horrible, sweary, libertarian bloggers who wanted to do down the valuable work that charities were doing. Nevertheless, all these protests did was to bring the concept of fake charities to a wider audience—with the phrase becoming regularly used amongst the politically-aware.
The libertarian blogosphere, of course, had already latched onto the term with aplomb, and it gradually began to gain wider recognition. Contributors to the site increased, and repeated submissions made: the Filthy Smoker and I conscientiously reviewed every suggested charity, manually reviewing their accounts on the Charity Commission website. It was hard work, and took up much of our free time, and we were only ever able to cover a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of organisations that qualified. Finally, various technical server issues, and a further reduction of available time, meant that the website went offline (although I still own the domain).
Luckily, we had gained a powerful ally. Chris Snowdon, now of the IEA, had the resources to compile much more comprehensive research into the sock-puppet eco-system. A few of these reports are listed below:
- Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why;
- Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s remaking of civil society;
- The Sock Doctrine—What can be done about state-funded political activism?
Gradually, awareness was raised, and we began to chip away at the fake charities. I heard rumours that the part of the Cabinet Office responsible for charities had had to redraft its rules—awarding contracts rather than grants. A pamphlet, released by Eric Pickles' DCLG, advised local governments to save money by ceasing funding to "fake charities and sock puppets".
Finally, a few days ago, we saw a massive victory, as reported by The Telegraph: Charities to be banned from using public funds to lobby ministers.
Charities in receipt of Government grants will be banned from using these taxpayer funds to engage in political lobbying, The Telegraph can disclose.It seems only appropriate for the article to include a quote from our best supporter (even if they do spell his name wrong)...
A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people's lives and good causes, rather than covering lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding.
It will not prevent organisations from using their own privately-raised funds to campaign as they see fit.
The Institute of Economic Affairs, a right of centre think-tank, has undertaken extensive research on so-called “sock puppets”, exposing how taxpayers’ money given to pressure groups is paid to fund lobbying campaigns on policies such as a sugar tax and the environment.
Officials are hoping that the clause will ensure that freedom of speech is protected, while stopping taxpayers’ money being diverted away from good causes.
Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, told The Telegraph: “Taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government.
“The public sector never lobbies for lower taxes and less state spending, and it’s a zero sum game if Peter is robbed to pay Paul.
“These common sense rules will protect freedom of speech–but people won’t be made to foot the bill for political campaigning and political lobbying.
Chris Snowden, head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA, said: “This is very good news for taxpayers who will no longer be forced to pay for the government to lobby itself.And the precise phrasing to be inserted?
“At every level—local, national and European—people have been subsidising political campaigns that they may not know about and might disagree with.
“Campaigning is an important part of a thriving democracy but charities and pressure groups should not be doing it with taxpayers’ money.”
The exact phrase that will be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements reads: “The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure:- Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action”.Whilst the fight is very far from over—the Left and the charity sector are, of course, kicking up a stink—this is a very welcome development.
This rule was successfully been piloted by the Department for Communities and Local Government over the last year.
It shows that a small campaign, lightly-funded web resources, and a pithy name can change the course of our society. We must fight to ensure that this clause goes through, unamended, and we must keep up the pressure on these fake charities.
In the meantime, let us claim a small victory—and a significant scalp—for the blogosphere. As Chris Snowdon says:
It might seem obvious that the government shouldn't be paying for pressure groups to lobby itself, but the practice has become endemic in recent years. Hats off to Matt Hancock for doing something about it.Your humble Devil will also be sending a note.
Ministers don't get enough credit when they do good things in politics. Hancock will doubtless receive a flurry of complaints from those who see it as their right to use taxpayers' money for their political campaigns, so if you are pleased about him chipping away at the sock-puppet state, do send him an e-mail at email@example.com. I will be doing likewise.
I urge all of the great bloggers and other volunteers who have supported the Fake Charities campaign over the years to do likewise. Thank you—all of you.