Silent givers: How the government manipulates charity

A recent furore in Scotland has focused on the Foreign Office playing piggy bank to a small ‘anti-fake news’ charity, but State policy is continually puppeteering NGOs in far grander and more insidious ways — and it has recently gotten considerably worse.

Anyone attempting to set up a charity in Britain will have run up against the most straightforward gatekeeping effort which blocks third sector groups from seriously challenging the status quo that gives rise to them — it’s flat-out impossible to register if you have a political aim.

This strongest weapon in efforts to curb Worthy Institutions from interfering in the political-economic sphere was mixed in the crucible of British imperial rule, when an Act for the better Administration of Charitable Trusts was brought forward in August 1853. The Act gave extraordinary powers to government-appointed lawyers to open up account books, investigate and unilaterally fire trustees and officers, call witnesses and ultimately judge whether organisations were worthy to be defined as charitable endeavours.

It essentially acted as a modern method of enforcing the Charitable Uses Act of 1601, an Elizabethan power grab the preamble of which forms the official basis of what “charity” means in Britain today. More importantly however it successfully opened the door to governments modifying the meaning of charity to suit their own ends, which has over time evolved into a presumption that “to be a charity an organisation must be established for charitable purposes only, which are for the public benefit. An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”.

In recent years that power has been abused more heavily than ever before. While charities are technically allowed to campaign on political issues, they have seen this right salami sliced. Under the current regulations for example charities can only campaign on matters which are directly related to their function. So while Crisis can campaign on homelessness, it can’t campaign against the broad sweep of neoliberal policy which has created both a housing crisis and an exponential rise in homelessness. It can’t campaign to overturn a specific law. And it can’t campaign during an election if doing so favours one party over another.

This great silencing was reinforced by the Lobbying Act 2014, also known as the gag law, which specifically barred charities (and trade unions) from responding to manifesto promises that could directly impact on their sectors. The deeply unpopular dementia tax for example would have been a significant strain on the social care sector but, being announced during a campaign, could not be directly criticised in its infancy by the charities which would have to deal with its outcomes.

All charities are bound into this system, which makes them constitutionally tied to patching up the status quo rather than challenging it. The State has no real need to overtly control when it has already defined the role as passively supporting its agenda (though some which are backed by the ruling class can, as always, sometimes get around such niceties).

When economy meets ideology

More insidious in the post-2008 crisis landscape has been the aftermath of another post-Thatcher policy shift — outsourcing.

One of the lesser-considered elements of the long neoliberal autumn of capitalism has been that the drive to “free” markets by flogging off State assets did not just gift a gigantic payday to major corporations. It also produced two other effects:

  1. The number of working class people relying on aid rose dramatically, and kept rising.
  2. Not every service could be comfortably made to turn a profit, so commissioning of services had to find “arm’s length” outlets that didn’t need one.

The latter of these two factors was solved in a number of ways by ministry and council-level government organisations, from setting up “arms-length management organisations” to founding “community interest companies”. Most prevalent of all was the direct commissioning of charities to take on what had previously government functions.

Spread over a period of two decades, these two processes have been catastrophic for the independence of particularly larger charities, which found themselves simultaneously scrabbling around for cash (in an already mature “market”) to alleviate an escalating cycle of poverty and want in working class communities, while having the apple of sustainable State funding dangled in front of them. And such apples of course come attached to the threat that if a charity steps out of line such fruits will up and vanish, along with solvency. 

One of the most egregious examples of this emerged in the 2000s when New Labour laid the groundwork for Workfare, a nasty bit of policy (still rumbling on) aimed at punishing the unemployed during that decade’s pathetic moral panic about “layabouts exploiting the benefits system”. 

Workfare, which aims to “teach the value of hard work” to unemployed people by turning them into a free labour force, was always a solution in search of a problem. It misunderstood that unemployment was not a factor of laziness but of a lack of reasonable available work. The government thus found itself having to foist quite rightly resentful people in a state of indentured servitude onto companies which, it soon became clear, couldn’t use them and weren’t particularly interested in having them.

The follow-up solution, pioneered early this decade, offers a perfect example of the way in which charities are being forced, more or less enthusiastically, into lockstep with even the most regressive of government policies. They started making charities enforce Workfare. Groups which were supposedly founded to help people found themselves instead exploiting them for free labour on pain of ideologically-driven welfare sanctions which the charities themselves would have to pick up after. 

Hostile environment enforcers

The most egregious example of this process however has come out over the last two years — using homeless charities as informants for the Home Office.

Any sensible charitable mission looking after rough sleepers has to contend with a few obvious but very complex problems, particularly around migration. The most obvious factor is that foreign-born migrants are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, because they don’t qualify for help and live under constant threat of deportation if their status is discovered. 

This means that even in the best of circumstances they are less likely to trust institutions and authority figures, making aid a very difficult thing to pass on. Often suspicious of hospitals, they can sometime be dealing with chronic illness, and are deliberately tough to track. A high priority is therefore to be trustworthy.

Here however enters St Mungos, Thames Reach, CGL and government cash. An investigation by Corporate Watch exposed all three for participating in a stunning conflict of interest situation, in which the two charities passed on information about rough sleepers, leading directly to immigration raids. A court victory in December last year was required to make them stop, and the reputation of all three has been plunged into the mire. The full impact of the mess on their grassroots work is described in Freedom Press’s latest book Invisible: Diary of a Rough Sleeper by Andrew Fraser, who describes a confrontation between him and a Thames Reach rep:

“I’m from Thames Reach Charity and I’ve come to help you,” she said
smiling sweetly.

“Oh, so you work for the government deporting East Europeans against their will,” I told her. “You grass them up, right?”

“No we don’t”’ she said.

“Well I happen to know for a fact that you do,’ I told her. So you are not
only a grass but a liar”. I leapt out of my sleeping bag.

“No I’m not. No we’re not,” she said.

This young Polish guy burst through the crowd. “Yes you do,” he
yelled. “You got my best mate deported after he gave you his details”.

That such a mashup was even considered is a testament to the way in which charity has been comprehensively co-opted by government interests. The State didn’t need to be shady about it, no brown envelopes, just official definitions, piled-on pressure from austerity and a bit of contractual leverage.

~ Rob Ray


Invisible: Diary of a Rough Sleeper is available exclusively from Freedom Bookshop and its webstore, and will be formally launched in the New Year.