Wouldn’t it be brilliant if government admitted that it didn’t have all the answers? If, when faced with a knotty problem, it commissioned high quality advice from outside the civil service, drawing directly on the thinking, evidence and insight of external experts in order to provide ministers with a broader and more radical range of options than they would receive internally.
It was such a good idea that the last government did just that, setting up the Contestable Policy Fund. How things change…
A retrograde step
The government’s decision to insert an anti-advocacy clause into grant agreements has been justified on the basis that taxpayers’ money is being “diverted to fund lobbying rather than the good causes or public services.” ‘Lobbying’ is a fairly evocative word, conjuring images of swanky meals at Michelin-starred restaurants and executive boxes at Premier League football games. No doubt such activity does take place (as evidenced by a recent NAO report) but it is not the approach taken by charities.
The reality of charity ‘influencing’ is far more prosaic, comprising the provision of information, giving of advice and raising of concerns. This may be why all of the press releases, briefings and interim guidance released by government on the clause, have included not a single example of the type of activity that they are trying to prevent.
It is not hard, however, to think of the kind of helpful advocacy work that will be prevented by this measure. My colleague Charlotte has already written on why the anti-advocacy clause is counter-productive. Governing and legislating are hard. With the best will in the world, we can’t expect those in Westminster or town halls across the country to have a deep understanding of all the issues on which they are required to make decisions about. The expertise of those at the coalface should be welcomed.
The clause is already causing problems
The government has claimed that the DCLG clause, which has been inserted into grant agreements over the past year, has not prevented grant funded organisations from informing public policy. But how would they know? This is the whole problem. How can government bodies truly understand the impact of any of their policies if charities have been warned against telling them?
In the case of the DCLG clause, charities have been affected. Over the last few days we have spoken to a number of organisations subject to the clause who told us that it had a real impact on their ability to influence. For example, that they had not been able to share the findings of research and would not have been able to use the research in response to government consultations. It has also prevented some expert staff from speaking to the media. Overall, they reported a strong pressure to self-censor, in part due to significant uncertainty about what the clause actually means in practice due to poor or vague wording.
It is true that charities can still campaign using their own funding. The crucial point though is that, whatever the stated policy intent, the clause will change behaviours in what is a very unequal power relationship.
Below are three categories of grants which will be affected by the extension of this clause to all government departments.
Grant funded delivery projects
Many government departments and local authorities grant fund charities to recruit and train volunteers, provide specialist support to vulnerable groups and pilot innovative delivery models. In doing so, they will inevitably pick up valuable insights on how public services are working on the frontline. In many cases they will have a far better understanding of the needs of those unable to advocate on their own behalf.
A recent example of this is the decision by government to exempt kinship carers, who voluntarily look after children in cases of neglect or death, from the two-child cap on benefits. It was only thanks to children’s charities, a number of which received statutory grants that this change was made after they highlighted to government that it could create a financial disincentive for potential carers, with knock-on costs for the taxpayer. The clause would have prevented those in receipt of grants from raising this concern, leading to worse outcomes for the effected children and tens of millions of pounds of additional costs for government.
Grant funded policy development
Government has increasingly recognised that the best policy and legislation will be developed in partnership with the communities affected. Doing so identifies problems before they arise and enables policy makes to harness the assets already available. Voluntary sector organisations have often been grant funded to facilitate this process on the basis of their deep roots in and understanding of particular communities.
This is why, for example, the Department of Health grant funds a strategic partner programme: to ensure that insight from volunteers, carers and service users informs the development and implementation of policy. This is the best way guarantee that services are good value for taxpayers and effective for the full range of service users.
Shared Lives Plus (formerly NAAPS UK) received grant funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department of Health to identify barriers to creative enterprise in support for older and disabled people. This resulted in the production of a ‘map’ outlining significant reductions in red tape which the government subsequently implemented, including:
- Amending guidance to make clear that social care workers who use their own cars as part of their support to disabled and older people should be freed from the unnecessary and costly process of being licensed as minicabs
- The Food Standards Agency reviewed advice to local authorities about official controls on micro-enterprises, which make use of ordinary domestic kitchens to provide ‘meals without wheels’ services, to ensure that inspection was proportionate and in line with the government’s intention to unlock the creativity of people who find creative ways of supporting people in their area
- Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), tax and legal rules were helpfully clarified for a growing number of people using flexible employment and self-employment models to bring highly personalised support to older and disabled people
Grant funded research
In many cases, there is not a strong evidence base for policy making. Government may therefore fund organisations to undertake research on the topic. This research can then be used to inform legislation and public service delivery. The clause could put at risk such research.
For example, the Race Equality Foundation was funded by the Home Office, to undertake research on effective parenting interventions for black and minority ethnic parents. This research led to the development of the Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities programme which has been part of every Government-led initiative to support parenting since 2004, including the CANParent trial launched by the Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Institute for Development Studies has written an excellent article highlighting the potential implications of the clause for research bodies.
The wider impact
We’re trying to build up a broader picture of how this will affect charities. If you receive grant funding and think you may be affected by the new clause, please contact me with further details.