Last night on the Moral Maze (BBC Radio 4), the panel debated a subject which I am particularly interested in, that of the current relationship between the media and the Government with Charities. The views expressed were fascinating and could no doubt fill several blogs. One particular line of thinking that for me stood head and shoulders above all the rest came from Michael Portillo. He was arguing with Debra Allcock Tyler who is the CEO of a charity network known as DSC. Michaels argument was that charities did not need to spend funds on campaigning on issues such as how Government policy might be inadvertently frustrating their work when their Chief Executives could simply arrange to meet with Cabinet Ministers, an action that would cost them nothing. It is disturbing that someone with Michaels obvious intellect and links to the current Government can be so out of touch with how Governments do actually operate. Assuming he was not simply telling a big fat lie, there are two matters of concern. The first is that some people do apparently manage to get meetings with Cabinet Ministers with very little fuss. The second is that most charities or businesses do not have this level of access. If there is a two tier arrangement then it is time for the A list to be identified so that people like Michael can revise their understanding and the Government can be held accountable for the exclusive access they offer to certain people and charities at the expense of the rest of us.
I know that government agencies can get access to Cabinet Ministers. I have been involved in several delegations from local and regional governmental bodies to a Ministers office. My experience is that these meetings can be frustratingly brief and depending on the Minister and their agenda, they can be entirely useless or very significant. In that sense just attending meetings may not resolve the matters as Michael suggests. However change can result from such meetings.
I have also been involved in numerous failed attempts by charities and other civil society groups to get access to Ministers and even local MPs. Even persuading a Minister to answer a letter with anything more than a standard response can be incredibly difficult, let alone getting in front of them. I am not alone in my experience. I know for example that the Trussell Trust were unsuccessful over many months to gain access to Iain Duncan Smith, and that it was impossible at one point to get any Minister in the DWP to visit a foodbank just to see for themselves how these agencies operated.
I believe there are two ways for the Government to confirm if Michael’s point of view is accurate or not. The first is they should publish a list of meetings held with charities over the last 2 years when the meeting took place as a result of a request from the charities rather than because the Minister wanted a convenient photo shoot. The second is for the Government to inform charities as to how to gain the access that Michael boasted about on last nights programme. One challenge for many charities is how to gain access to these powerful but elusive people.
It should be noted that of the 165,000 charities in England and Wales, that the vast majority do not have enough income to pay anyone a wage. The total number of charities with incomes below £100,000 is 133,000. That suggests that not all charities would be able to meet with a Government Minister even if it was requested. However if as Michael had suggested that CEOs were constantly in and out of No 10 when he was a Minister, it may be that the number of selected friendly faces was very much in the minority of the remaining 32,000 charities.