John O’Connell

Stonewall and the problem with taxpayer funded campaigning

Stonewall and the problem with taxpayer funded campaigning
(Photo: iStock)
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Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, is reportedly keen to see government departments withdraw from Stonewall’s ‘Diversity Champions’ programme. The scheme, which around 250 departments and public bodies have signed up to, sees quangos and other public sector bodies pay for guidance on issues such as gender-neutral toilets, pronouns, and transgender inclusion.

Debates rage about the efficacy – or even legitimacy – of such programmes. But underpinning that discourse is the fact that huge sums of taxpayers’ money have been handed over to what are undoubtedly controversial campaigns.

As well as receiving cash for the Diversity Champions programme, new research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance shows that Stonewall also pocketed direct government funding. The organisation received at least £2.6 million in government grants between 2015 and 2019.

The lion’s share of the grant funding we know about came from the Department for Education, which gave Stonewall £934,424 between 2015 and 2019. This was likely from the Government Equalities Office, which the DfE was responsible for until 2018. The education department wasn’t alone though, with the Foreign Office providing funding to the tune of £660,028 – some of which was handed over while Boris himself was in charge of the department.

It’s not just Westminster of course. Groups seeking public funding know there are plenty of other ways to find taxpayers’ pockets. The Welsh government was quick to cough up a whopping £552,326 in grant funding for Stonewall. The Scottish government found another £390,000 from their notoriously stretched budgets. And keen not to be left behind, even NHS Scotland got in on the act, handing over almost £80,000 in just two years. All in all, Stonewall’s accounts reveal that in one year (2018 to 2019), almost three quarters of its grants came from the taxpayer. It beggars belief that they have enjoyed these kinds of levels of support under successive governments, not least under Conservative prime ministers.

The controversy around Diversity Champions has led the government to finally question the value for money actually offered by these schemes. But it ought to bring into sharp focus the much more widespread problem of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning. Stonewall should of course be free to make whatever arguments it likes by any means allowed within the law, because after all it is clearly a campaigning organisation. It lobbies MPs, runs events and hands out leaflets. That’s understandable, and fair enough.

But when an organisation is receiving almost three quarters of its grants from the very policymakers it’s trying to influence – with all the resources, legitimacy and access that provides – something is going wrong.

Though this situation is far from unique, it is totally unacceptable. As we’ve pointed out before – with other organisations like the Runnymede Trust, New Economics Foundation and Bright Blue – the government practice of publicly funding campaigning organisations is deeply damaging to democracy. It distorts decision-making in favour of the interests and ideological preoccupations of a narrow political elite. It slows adjustments in the direction of policy in reaction to new evidence or circumstances. It increases political apathy among the public. And perhaps most unethically of all, taxpayers are forced to help groups with which they may seriously disagree.

It’s a vicious cycle, with recipient groups better resourced to go back and demand even more cash for themselves and their pet projects. Which makes it unsurprising that the groups in receipt of taxpayers’ money tend to argue in broad terms for higher spending, higher taxes and a bigger, often more nannying state. Not many will argue for a leaner government or point out the benefits of a low tax economy – after all, that might mean their own government funding is reduced.

Too much taxpayers’ money sloshes around civil society groups, most of whom are way out of step with the mood of the nation. Many, like Stonewall, are unashamedly activist campaigning organisations. They should be able to make whatever case they like, of course – but the maddening merry-go-round of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning must end.