Sock Puppet Pressure Groups

A paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs1 (IEA) has been published highlighting the impact of what it calls ‘sock puppet’ pressure groups. What are ‘sock puppet’ organisations? The report argues that ‘sock puppet’ organisations are charities that largely depend upon state funding rather than public donations. The organisations appear to be grassroots movements that are independent from the state but actually have close financial and political ties with it. It is this deception that lends them the term ‘sock puppets’ as they are arguably the state disguised as an independent group.

Why are ‘sock puppet’ organisations controversial? The size and cost of the state is a hugely divisive issue in the UK. Conservatives tend to view the large size of the state as problematic; it results in higher taxes which are seen to have a negative impact on the economy as wealthier individuals subsequently have less money to invest in creating new jobs and enterprises. Therefore, to Conservatives, the fact that taxes provide ¾ of the income of 27,000 charities is another frustrating example of the government and state being too large and costly. However, there is perhaps more concern over the deceptive nature of these ‘sock puppet’ organisations as many members of the public assume they are entirely publicly funded through charitable donations.

Some of these concerns are shared by those who work in the sector. The National Council of Voluntary Organisations was worried as early as 2001 that ‘the voluntary sector may be perceived as little more than an agent of the state’. More recently, the third sector’s Independence Panel warned of the ‘danger that parts of the voluntary sector which deliver public services could in effect become not-for-profit businesses, virtually interchangeable with the private sector’.

The concern is that by selectively funding groups who will actively campaign and lobby, the government can appear to be making policies as a reaction to popular, grassroots movements, giving the public want they want, when in fact the prominence of the group may not come from mass membership and widespread donations but state selection and funding. In theory, any party which is in power for several years could provide funding to build up a powerful group of organisations who can continue to advocate for their policies even after they have lost power. The IEA describes this process as creating a ‘shadow state’ which now operates in opposition to many of the coalition government’s policies.

Another concern is that this ‘shadow state’ could greatly distort the consultation process through which the government seeks the views of the public on new policies. What may appear to be the response from the public through grassroots lobbying could in reality be from state funded organisations that may lack broad public support. For example, in 2008 the Department of Health launched a consultation on future controls over tobacco sales. Almost ¾ of the responses came from organisations that were primarily funded by the Department of Health. This attracted some criticism from the media who argued that the consultation was greatly misleading as a reflection of the views of the public.

Finally, another potential consequence of state funding is that it may limit the extent to which these ‘sock puppet’ groups are willing to act independently of the government. In January 2012 the Independence Panel2 published a report arguing that charities were increasingly afraid to criticise the coalition government’s cuts because they feared they may also lose their funding. Some groups, such as the Child Poverty Action Group, have nonetheless criticised the government’s cuts but with clear consequences. In October 2011, the cabinet minister and welfare secretary Ian Duncan Smith provoked widespread media coverage as he attacked public statements made by the Child Poverty Action Group as “irresponsible behaviour” and a “massive waste of taxpayers’ money” after they criticised his proposals to cut housing benefits. What are commentators saying about this? Defenders of charities which accept state funding argue that campaigning is a vital activity for many charities that seek to defend the complicated range of interests throughout the country. They argue that state funding should not limit the actions that charities can take. Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, argued that the public has shown in polls that campaigning and lobbying are vital and effective actions for charities to perform. He also questioned whether anyone in the UK would be fundamentally opposed to popular charitable organisations such as the London Living Wage Campaign and Campaign to End Child Poverty. However, while it is unlikely that there are many opposed to reducing child poverty in the UK, there does remain a crucial ideological divide in how this is best achieved. As the comments on show, groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group do not have unanimous support. Instead, the website criticises the charity as it views it as seeking to lower child poverty by expanding the welfare state and stopping cuts to benefits and public services. It is the fact that tax payers could be funding groups they are ideologically opposed to that makes the state funding of charities more controversial. The IEA report argues that it is not right that unpopular causes can be supported with public funds as many individuals would likely not opt to fund them if they had a choice. However critics of the report have argued that organisations working on behalf of less popular groups like ex-offenders and asylum seekers need state funding more than anyone else to ensure that the interests of these minority groups do not go unheard. The counter-argument to this is that state funding supports some less popular causes and not others, again making the playing field unfair. The IEA report argues that it is extremely unlikely that the main political parties in the UK and EU would financially support groups who actively oppose their policies. Therefore, it argues that it remains unlikely that pro-smoking or pro-life groups or groups sceptical of climate change will be equally supported and funded. Another criticism from the report is that while funding to charities has increased, this is partly due to the fact that charities are being contracted to provide important services to the public. Many of these services, such as those provided by Citizen’s Advice, are very important to many members of the public. However, the IEA report is still concerned that many groups that are given funding for providing services are also spending money lobbying government.