by Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has published its annual report for 2020-21 and it raises interesting questions when it comes to grants funded by taxpayers’ money. Under Section 70 of the Charities Act 2006, ministers are permitted to “give financial assistance” to “charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institutions”.
For 2020-21, MHCLG gave a total of £28.3 million to 47 charities, and the purpose for each donation is laid out in the report. Some notable examples include:
Faith Matters - £841,000
To encourage people to report instances of anti-Muslim hatred via Tell MAMA and carry out community engagement to educate people about anti-Muslim hatred and improve the recognition and reach of Tell MAMA in communities.
Fayre Share Foundation - £1,850,000
To strengthen and support places of worship of all faiths in order to improve governance, increase their capacity to engage with women and young people, challenge intolerance and develop resilience.
Church Urban Fund - £2,710,000
To bring people together in communities that are religiously and ethnically diverse, so that they can get to know each other better, build relationships of trust and collaborate together on initiatives that improve the local community they live in, building well connected inter-faith communities with resilient structures for times of need.
These might sound all well and good but it raises some important questions. With many items of spending, we naturally expect to see some sort of metric that can be used to judge the success of the project. The number of police officers and crime levels, for example, or the number of doctors and GP waiting times. But what about social issues, which are more difficult to quantify?
The causes may be noble indeed, but the project descriptions are vague, to put it mildly. Taxpayers have no idea whether they’re getting value for money or not - particularly when six and seven-figure sums are involved. Michael Gove summed this up perfectly in a speech he gave in July 2020:
“I helped set up National Citizen Service in the UK. It is a noble ideal. But by what criteria do we judge it a success? The numbers who have signed up, and the warmth they feel about the programme, are welcome. But what has society, measurably, achieved for that expenditure?”
More than a year on, some laudable action has been taken to address this, with greater use of data and departmental accountability. But it’s not clear, with examples like these, that the approach has permeated all levels of government.
There’s also the issue of taxpayer-funded lobbying. TPA research has shown that organisations and charities receiving public funds will often call for more money to further their own interests and agendas. As we saw recently, Stonewall (a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity) received over £3 million of taxpayers’ cash, despite its controversial Diversity Champions Scheme facing fierce criticism.
Based on the principles laid out by Michael Gove and others, we should apply the same scrutiny not only to organisations like Stonewall but religious groups as well. Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund schemes and views they may not support, and projects whose effectiveness has not been properly evaluated or empirically proven. As we know all too well, there is no magic money tree. Resources are finite. Wouldn’t it be better to focus this cash on frontline services such as better healthcare and policing, with outcomes we can quantify and understand? That would be a gesture that all taxpayers can get behind.