The Equality and Human Rights Commission: Time to stop dishing out cash to lobbyists

By Sam Packer, media campaign manager 

Last month, the TaxPayers’ Alliance released a research paper detailing how every year, tens of million of pounds of taxpayer money is spent on grants to lobbying and political campaign groups.  Unsurprisingly, many of these grants went to big state, high-tax campaign groups. 

Government cash makes these organisations more powerful. Not only does it boost their coffers, but government funding adds a degree of prestige. Often this results in invitations to appear as “expert” witnesses at select committees and on the BBC, further boosting their influence and giving them a far wider audience. Guido Fawkes published insightful research showing how left-wing campaign groups that advocate for higher public spending get many times the amount of coverage in national media as free-market ones. It’s worth noting too that these appearances very rarely if ever come with health warnings that said groups are in receipt of taxpayer funds.

The sources of the funds were many and varied, from departments to quangos. The public body which handed out the highest number of grants to groups appearing on our taxpayer-funded campaigning list was the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The EHRC has been in the news lately owing to the controversial suspension from the Labour party of its former chairman Trevor Phillips. So, which groups has “Great Britain’s national equality body”, whose “job is to help make Britain fairer” (according to their website), been handing taxpayer money to? 

In total, from 2016-17 to 2019-20, the EHRC dished out just under £1.6 million to lobbying and political campaign groups. Our report focused on 2018-19 spending and discovered grants given to a giant array of pressure groups including Race on the Agenda, Diverse Cymru, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Engender, the British Institute of Human Rights and Amnesty International. Several of these groups campaigned against the recent home office deportation flight and nearly all have warned of the ‘dangers’ of Brexit. 

The three-year list is too large to be covered here, but other notable recipients of grants included the former Labour leader of Stirling council and anti-Brexit twitter champion, barrister Johanna Boyd; NEF consulting, the consulting arm of Corbyinte think-tank the New Economics Foundation and the Women’s Muslim Network UK, who accused the now Prime Minister of “putting muslim women in danger” with his comments on the Burka in 2018. Whilst the trend was overwhelmingly towards funding left-wing groups, it should be noted that the Conservative party supporting think-tank Bright Blue did receive £12,000.

These grants are an issue for much the same reason that quangos being filled with left-wing politicos is a problem. Taxpayers are paying for people, in the case of quangos, and organisations, in the case of these EHRC-funded campaign groups, that they have had no say over and no influence on. Even if these grants were broadly being dished out to groups that campaigned on points the public agreed with, there would be a democratic deficit. The public elect ministers to head up government departments. Even quangos like the ECHR have some minor degree of scrutiny from ministers. But when those quangos dish out money to external groups, there is a disconnect between taxpayers and their tax money. Given the public pay for all government spending, they should have a say in where their money goes. The funding of external lobbying contrary to the public’s will also slows down the pace of changes in government. These are all issues which we pointed to as long ago as our original 2009 paper on the topic

The reason that non-governmental public bodies exist is meant to be for high-quality, independent research, advice and decision making. There are examples of this happening, often in areas away from the political to-and-fro, that focus on complex issues with a genuine diversity of viewpoints. But when nearly all of an organisation’s awards are going to a particular type of political group, that independence becomes less clear-cut. 

We are by no means calling for the government to start handing out money to right-of-centre groups instead. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, as a rule we don’t take government grants. We are firmly of the view that the best way to avoid this problem is for the government and its agencies to stop dishing out money to private campaigning organisations to fund their work. If there were no lobbying grants being given, then there would be no case to answer. 

A government announcement at the next budget in the autumn that funds to third party campaign groups would be wound down as a matter of policy would be both a handy saving and symbolically significant. It would show that to fund their huge spending commitments the government was reallocating wasteful spending, and ensuring that money was going to the places that really needed it. Taxpayers would certainly be grateful. 

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