The Minister for Civil Society has today written in Third Sector magazine, restating the purpose of the anti-advocacy clause from the government’s point of view. In his article, the Minister asserts that the clause won’t harm charities (based on DCLG’s best guess), that it doesn’t contradict the Compact (we disagree, obviously), and that he has no problem with charities speaking truth to power (as long as it’s on government’s terms).
Unfortunately, this intervention leaves unanswered many key questions. Indeed, Third Sector’s editor has said that the Minister did not address a number of specific questions they put to him.
Here are a few of ours – do add more below the line and we will put them to Cabinet Office in due course.
1. Which specific activities are permitted and not permitted?
The Minister suggests that the clause will do nothing to hamper ‘normal’ working arrangements between a grant-funded organisation and its sponsor department. For example, he refers to ‘reporting back to government on the impact of funding’ and offering ‘representations to ministers in private’.
On the surface this sounds vaguely reassuring but in policy and legal terms it is clearly not sufficient for charities to have to rely on the minister’s views about ‘normal’ working arrangements. Indeed, the assessment made by charities already subject to the clause has been that it is drawn so widely that they have had to act with an abundance of caution to safeguard against the risk of their grant being clawed back.
Let’s take an example. If I run a charity with a grant to work with long-term unemployed people and realise there’s a real problem with the Work Programme – what can I do about it?
My grant from the local authority covers delivery staff as well as an overhead contribution. Can I write to a government minister about the failings of the Work Programme to cater for my beneficiaries – knowledge gleaned specifically through the grant-funded project? Can I comment in the press? Can I speak to my local MP? Can I respond to a government consultation on the topic, or give evidence to a select committee? Can I proactively contact DWP officials and try to inform their development of the next phase of the Work programme? Can I go ahead as long as I have some other funding as well? Will I need to account for whether any overheads have been apportioned to this activity? Do I need to seek permission first to be on the safe side?
These aren’t pernickety questions – these are the real questions that organisations will be facing – and it behoves the government to be able to give an answer as to how its policy will be implemented.
2. How will spending be monitored?
Which leads on to questions about how this will be policed. The Minister suggests that charities will need to ensure they comply with grant terms and that departments will monitor this.
As described above, the clause as it stands is so broad that charities are already erring on the side of caution. Not many charities would take the risk of speaking up if this could lead to their funding being clawed back. So in all likelihood, there won’t be much policing for departments to do.
But what if a minister does take umbrage at a grant-funded organisation’s lobbying or campaigning activity – what will be the process for investigation, will they be scrutinising charities’ management accounts, or will they simply be able to withdraw their grant? What evidence will charities need – or be well advised to hold – to demonstrate their compliance?
3. What impact assessment has been done?
As set out in NCVO’s previous blogs here and here, we think the impact of this clause could be far wider than intended and counterproductive to government’s own ability to draw on the expertise and reach into communities of voluntary organisations. This may actually cost the taxpayer more money through limiting the range of insight that policy makers can draw upon.
It seems odd that Cabinet Office are so keen to drive this out across Whitehall without having done a proper assessment of the impact themselves. Relying on DCLG’s best guess that it’s not been a problem – without having done any kind of independent evaluation or formal consultation with those affected – seems a little naive.
We hope that other government ministers will take a more thoughtful view, recognising the contribution that voluntary organisations can make to achieving their priorities.
4. What evidence is there to justify the anti-advocacy clause?
The government has specifically cited research by the Institute for Economic Affairs as the basis for this policy. It is unclear whether ministers were aware of the widespread concerns about the quality of this research – in particular that the IEA won’t reveal who funded it (a telltale sign of dodgy research).
Is there any other evidence to justify this policy shift? Given the concerns of the charity sector – shared by many parliamentarians – that the clause could have perverse effects on the work of thousands of charities and the effectiveness of government’s own policymaking, surely this too is a question worthy of an answer.
5. How is this consistent with the rest of government policy?
In a number of other areas, government has consistently stated its commitment to openness. For example, in public services, where a duty of candour has been implemented in the NHS, whistleblowing protections strengthened, and civil servants encouraged to identify efficiencies. And with its leading work on opening up government data and open policymaking. It seems counter intuitive that government would inhibit organisations who receive grant funding from critiquing and strengthening government policy.
At the very least, we would expect government to consult the sector formally before proceeding with this policy. As it stands, they have suggested that charities speak to their relevant government departments if they have concerns.
There is limited time to act and make your views known. Please see my colleague Chris’s blog about what you can do.