The impact of the think tanks
Nearly 100 UK think tanks or organisations from across the political spectrum are listed on Wikipedia, all hoping to make their mark on the government with their own particular solutions to political and social issues.
The organisation that seems to be having a fair amount of impact on government thinking at the moment is the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA). The TPA was launched by its present chief executive Matthew Elliott and its non-executive chair, Andrew Allum, in early 2004.
Some Conservative MPs have links to the TPA. Last month, for example, disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox, who was forced to resign his position last year, delivered a speech to a meeting organised by the TPA on “Britain, the Euro and the EU”.
According to the TPA website, transparency “has always been at the heart of our campaign”. Yet some might call this “transparency” into question when it comes to the TPA’s own accounts (see box on page 16).
In 2010 and last year, the TPA started focusing on trade unions. In September 2012, it held a campaign day in Tameside centred on facility time for local government union officials.
In November last year, much to the delight of anti-union elements in the Conservative Party, the TPA followed up its 2010 research with a second report showing trade union funding of £113 million a year for facility time for full-time public sector union officials.
These self-appointed guardians of the public purse were quite happy to use Freedom of Information requests to get the information at who knows what cost to the public purse.
The TPA’s thrust on union facility time found a welcome in Parliament with some Conservative MPs who set up the Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC).
Trade Union Reform Campaign
TURC aims to reform “the laws and funding arrangements relating to trade unions”, and believes that “when trade unions take action which affect the wider public it should have a greater element of democratic legitimacy”.
At the time of TURC’s official launch in January, Len McCLuskey, general secretary of the general union Unite, said: “The group’s sole aim is to undermine ordinary workers’ access to justice and support in the workplace.”
So who are some of the players in TURC? Aidan Burley, the Tory MP for Cannock Chase, is TURC chair. In December last year, he was sacked as an junior aide to the transport secretary Justine Greening after it was revealed that he had attended a stag party in France where guests dressed as Nazis.
TURC also has a 12-strong parliamentary council, which includes Liam Fox and Dominic Raab. Raab has a previous history of attacks on trade unions.
Last year, he unsuccessfully tabled a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the Commons which argued that emergency service and transport unions should be required by law to ensure that strike votes receive 50% support of union members.
Centre for Social Justice
Another think tank with ready access to Whitehall is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). It was set up in 2004 by current work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith after he stood down as Conservative Party leader. Its stated aim is “to seek effective solutions to the poverty that blights part of Britain”.
The CSJ has the government’s foreign secretary William Hague as an advisory council member, along with Tory peer and party donor Lord Magan, and Tory MEP for London Syed Kamall. Labour MPs David Blunkett and Frank Field are also advisory council members.
Earlier this year, the CSJ backed the government’s plans to limit the level of benefits for households to £26,000 a year (which takes no account of how many children there are in the family).
CSJ director Gavin Poole thinks the cap is about “life-changing intervention for families” currently receiving more than £26,000 in benefits and, undeniably, families being thrown into even greater poverty, would certainly find this “life-changing”.
In London, for example, families could be displaced from their neighbourhoods and dispersed elsewhere as the cap cannot meet London housing costs.
However, not all senior Conservatives are united behind the positions of the think tanks, and this particular issue is a case in point. For example, in October 2010, Tory London mayor Boris Johnson made clear he did not want to see poorer people forced out of the capital because of the cap.
“What we will not see, we will not accept, is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing,” Johnson said. “You are not going to see on my watch thousands of families being evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots.”
Johnson backed down after he was criticised by government ministers, but nevertheless stressed that London had “specific needs”, adding that “it is my job as mayor to make the government aware of these”.
Centre for Policy Studies
The Centre for Policy Studies is a well-established think tank having been set up in 1974 by Sir Keith Joseph, who went on to serve in the cabinet of its co-founder, Margaret Thatcher.
Nowadays, the CPS has a 19-strong advisory council of which seven are sitting Conservative MPs and one a former MP. They include David Willetts, a junior education minister in the coalition government, and John Redwood, the former Secretary of State for Wales in John Major’s Cabinet and an unsuccessful challenger for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1995.
Another council member is Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the House of Commons Treasury select committee which recently singularly failed to nail Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, over its rigging of the LIBOR rate.
Howard Flight is another. He briefly lost the Conservative whip in 2005 before being deselected by his local party and losing his Arundel and South Downs seat in that year’s general election.
In 2010, just after prime minister David Cameron had appointed him as a peer, Flight was forced to issue an “unreserved” apology for saying child benefit changes would give every incentive for the poor to “breed”.
As a limited company, the CPS has a 15-strong board whose chair is Lord Saatchi. It was the advertising campaign run by the agency owned by Maurice Saatchi and his brother Charles that helped put Margaret Thatcher into power in 1979.
Another right wing Tory Lord on the board is Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who as Michael Forsyth MP, was a cabinet minister in John Major’s administration before losing his seat in the Labour Party’s 1997 landslide election win.
Last year, CPS research fellow Michael Johnson said that concessions by the coalition in respect of the public sector pensions negotiations, verge on an unconditional surrender to the unions. He said that this was “perhaps on a scale unprecedented in the history of public sector labour negotiations”.
By agreeing to exclude those within 10 years of retirement from any deal, as well as increasing the pensions accrual rate, the coalition has wiped out, for the next 10 years, any scope for meaningful cost savings, Johnson argued.
He credited the trade unions with outwitting the coalition in the media war, but reverted to style, saying that any victory may ultimately be Pyrrhic, with the “price being subsequent job losses to exert some control over the cost of future pensions”.
Finances of the think tanks with influence
The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) has been calling for the transparency of other organisations over their finances, but transparency does seem to be lacking with the TPA itself.
It has registered as a limited company but uses company law to claim exemptions on the amount of information it has to file for public consumption.
So there is not information on how much income it receives or where it comes from.
And while they have highlighted how much others earn, for example, publishing a list of union leaders’ pay in 2011, the TPA accounts do not reveal how much it pays chief executive Matthew Elliott. One source of the TPA’s income has been investigated by the Charity Commission.
Politics and Economics Research Trust
The Politics and Economics Research Trust (PERT) is a registered charity and its 2010 accounts revealed that it gave out a total of 18 grants totalling £325,000, all of which went to the TPA.
The charity itself has no employees other than the four trustees — one of whom is Matthew Elliott.
There are rules over what sort of organisations a charity can give to, and the Charity Commission investigated PERT, particularly concerning its relationship with the TPA and whether the charity was used as a vehicle to channel funds enhanced by Gift Aid (in effect taxpayers’ money) to the TPA. However, the commission reported that it saw no evidence to support this allegation.
Trade Union Reform Campaign
As yet there is also no indication of what funding the Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC) is getting, if any. It set itself up as a registered limited company in December 2012, but only documents relating to its establishment have been filed for public inspection.
Centre for Social Justice
The Centre for Social Justice opted for setting up as a limited company when established in 2004. The latest accounts for 2011 show a total income from grants and donations of just over a £1 million but it posted a pre-tax loss of nearly £77,000.
Centre for Policy Studies
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) also steered clear of the charity route when it was established and set up as a show it had a turnover from goods and services supplied, including sales of its publications, of just £122,484 on top of which it received £458,100 in donations and grants, giving it an income of under £600,000.
That was down on the 2010 figure of almost £630,000. However, where the donations and grants came from is not revealed in their accounts, except for a brief note that certain directors made donations and contributions towards sponsorship of events totalling £57,000 in 2011 (£20,883 in 2010).