Brian Monteith: Civic society shows its dark and corrupted side

Chancellor George Osborne. Picture: PA
Chancellor George Osborne. Picture: PA
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SOME charitable institutions are a lot more interested in government hand-outs than our good, writes Brian Monteith

In modern life you can always tell when the government’s budget is approaching. Suddenly, out of nowhere, all sorts of demands start being made from what is ostensibly called civil society. Groups of people that have, over the years, established charities, campaign bodies and trusts for the betterment of our welfare and education – in the broadest possible sense, so they cover anything from the need for pavements to reduce road accidents to the research of cancers or the improvement of prison conditions – will seek to lobby the Chancellor for a change that they believe is of benefit to our society.

Usually they want a penalty or an allowance – or in plain, but more honest terms, a tax on what they do not like or a generous subsidy for what they approve of. Often the taxes will hit the poorest, but will have the “benefit” of educating people to alter their behaviour, or will subsidise the wealthiest – but will be argued as a “public good” for us all. Taxes on smoking and subsidies on wind farms are an example of this.

There is nothing wrong with such activism, most of which originated through great self-sacrifice and stoic perseverance by the founders of such groups. Indeed our nation would be all the poorer if it did not happen. It is a mark of our community values that a day does not pass without another privately-funded body being formed to improve our safety, our health, and our general awareness of issues that threaten us individually or our families or society.

So important is the benefit that comes from the voluntary and non-governmental effort of civil society considered to be, that our British state seeks to help such organisations take root in many of the developing countries that have poor records for sustaining democracy. Without a healthy “third sector” it is felt there is nothing between the military and the politicians that will help democracy take root and be nurtured.

Notwithstanding all these positives there is, however, a dark side to civic society, one that is both corrupting of its voluntary nature and which intrinsically undermines what the various bodies seek to achieve – and that is how some organisations have been captured by the state to the point that they simply would not exist if big government did not fund them to fight on its own behalf.

We have in the last decade ended up on occasions in the grotesque and ridiculous situation where governments fund charities to lobby ministers for bigger government, greater intervention, higher taxes and more regulation.

One such occurrence of this corruption of the voluntary sector occurred last week when the “better food and farming” charity, Sustain, called on the Chancellor to introduce a levy on sugary fizzy drinks amounting to 7p on a can of Irn Bru or 20p on a litre bottle of Tango.

The policy was simple enough: the tax would act as a discouragement to young people drinking too many of these drinks that are castigated for being a contributory factor in the growth of obesity. Better still, the income – estimated (handily) at a round £1 billion a year – could then be used to fund either free school meals or packs of vegetables and fruit to improve the nutrition of our children. Oh, and let us not forget, it would also fund the establishment of a non-government agency (a quango to you and me) to oversee the administration of this largesse, checking for the biodiversity and organic quality of the apples and celery that Jeremy and Jemima would be chomping on.

What a pity then that Sustain’s argument dissolved in a pool of Vimto when drinks manufacturers explained that in the last ten years, when obesity levels are claimed to have risen by 15 per cent, the consumption of fizzy drinks so often blamed as the cause had actually fallen, yes, fallen, by 9 per cent.

Not that this unhelpful evidence will necessarily prevent the Chancellor from making an intervention, after all the consumption of alcohol is in steady decline, but the Prime Minister and Alex Salmond don’t let such inconvenient truths get in the way of advocating a minimum price for alcohol that will punish all drinkers, no matter how moderate or excessive they happen to be.

The drinks manufacturers have not been sitting on their hands. Leaving nothing to chance, they have already started reducing the sugar content in their products and now boast that over 60 per cent do not have added sugar and that most products will see their recipes change – with Irn Bru expected to become 5 per cent less sweet, with others following suit.

So who does Sustain speak for? Are there groups of mums marching on Whitehall demanding a tax on cans of Coke? Have they joined together with Sustain to demand we all pay more? If there are such parents I cannot say I’ve noticed. But we do know that ministers welcome such pressures that they can respond to.

A consideration of the so-called charity reveals that of its income of £2.3 million in 2011-12 only £53,337 came from voluntary donations, less than 3 per cent of the total. Meanwhile there were sums of £559,498 from the Greater London Authority and a total of £793,621 from various Big Lottery sources in pursuit of its assorted campaigns.

Sustain’s lobbying of government for what, in effect, would be the feathering of its own nest, is a nonsense – for if on the one hand the tax were to have the effect of discouraging children from drinking fizzy drinks (but not of course sugary fruit juices made from organic pineapples or oranges) then on the other hand there would be little revenue to fund the free school meals or the quango with its London offices.

But then these taxes are never pitched high enough to discourage the drinking of alcohol or pop. The levels advocated are always at a scale that they will in bring much-needed revenue but leave the “problem” still in need of attention.

Sustain’s behaviour is as good an example of parasitic rent-seeking – advocating a policy from which your organisation benefits – as I have seen in many a year. We shall have to wait until 20 March to see if Chancellor Osborne falls for Sustain’s overtures.