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30 July 2018

The IEA’s “Brexit-influencing game” shows think tanks are open to abuse

If think tanks won’t be open about their donors, they shouldn’t be allowed charitable status.

By James Ball

If you’re lucky enough to have £42,500 you might be surprised at what it may be able to buy you. Though it would barely be enough for a ten per cent deposit on a one-bedroom flat in Zone Two, it could be enough to help a business lobby to swing UK Brexit policy in its favour.

According to an undercover sting published by the Guardian and Unearthed – Greenpeace’s investigative journalism unit (see disclosure at bottom of article) – that sum is enough to influence the content on a think tank report and likely secure access to ministers to discuss its findings.

The think tank at the heart of the sting is the free-trade promoting Institute of Economic Affairs – known for its close ties to several key Brexit cabinet ministers, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – and it’s their director-general Mark Littlewood who was caught on camera wooing a reporter posing as a potential funder for a report on “green Brexit”.

While saying that a donor could not change the “conclusions” of a report, Littlewood is recorded as saying he doesn’t “mind our donors affecting us on salience” of what they look into, and assured the repoter that if they funded the report it would have “substantial content” covering their area of interest – in this instance the reporter was posing as an investor in US beef, which is currently banned in the UK due to its hormone treatment.

The funding would also include a private dinner with the report’s author and a minister – though that couldn’t be “absolutely guarantee[d]”– with Littlewood adding “probably Gove”. But perhaps most damning for the IEA – which is registered as a charity and thus governed by strict rules on its conduct – is Littlewood’s claim, to who he thought was a would-be donor, that the organisation is in “the Brexit-influencing game”.

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It is for the Charity Commission and perhaps other regulators to decide whether the IEA conduct uncovered by the investigation is in breach of its rules, and it has robustly denied wrongdoing.

But for many people reading the revelations, the reporting will seem to confirm, or at least further a suspicion, that think tanks, rather than being a clearing house for ideas, are serving as a relatively low-cost ways for people to secretly influence government policy and gain access to ministers – which for many would serve to undermine, rather than improve our democratic system.

Most think tanks are registered as charities for a variety of reasons, both principled and pragmatic. One key motivation for the registration is that it enables donations to be tax-efficient for those making them, and therefore a better investment. But the broader motivation is an understanding that helping inform policy-making – ideally in a non-partisan way – can be a public good.

Think tanks can definitely play a positive role in our society. Sometimes political parties need an outrider to help shift the window in the direction of a policy not yet ready for today, such as Universal Basic Income. Sometimes a faction not currently in fashion wants to show it has ideas that could appeal to the electorate. Other groups – such as the Institute of Fiscal Studies – try not to advance their own agendas, but inform others by explaining the implications of spending decisions.

But these latest revelations on the IEA confirm people’s fears that the system is also open to abuse, and remind some of us that the supposed “non-partisan” nature of many think tanks is a fiction. Far more significant than that is that we have no idea who funds many of our think tanks – a situation the IEA has vocally defended.

These latest revelations on the IEA’s attitude towards its donors, coupled with its total lack of transparency on them, and its privileged charitable status is too much – it will not hold, and it does not deserve to.

Think tanks have a privileged position in our political life, and so must be held up to a standard that merits it: at the very minimum they should be required to disclose their donors, on a similar basis to political parties. If they are unwilling to do this, they should be stripped of their charitable status.

This doesn’t deprive any organisation of its freedom: if it must work in secrecy, let it pay a price for that decision, and let it also be a distinct type of organisation to its peers who are willing to be transparent. Savvy think tanks should do this voluntarily right away – several already do – but legislation should be imposed on the others.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a say on the policy direction of the UK, and there is nothing wrong with revealing who you’ve worked with, who’s paid you, and what your biases might be. People will naturally have a suspicion that you’re hiding something if you won’t disclose those, and they’re right to do so – especially when disclosure is so easy to do.

Declaration of interest: James Ball worked as a paid freelance journalist and advisor to Unearthed for three months, and occasionally acts as an informal advisor to its team.