NCVO met Cabinet Office officials in the grants efficiency team last week to raise questions about the scope and implementation of the anti-advocacy clause. While we are still waiting on a response to our joint letter to the Prime Minister, I hope this update may be (somewhat) helpful.
What do we make of these answers?
Let’s start with the positives: it’s helpful clarification that most LA grants will not be impacted by the clause. This will be welcome, given that much of the sector’s grant funding comes via local government.
However, these responses also reflect a limited understanding of the sector and the potential impact of the clause on organisations that are subject to it. They also prompt further points for clarification (I’m waiting for more on overhead contributions, for example). Our key areas of concern remain as follows.
It’s all a matter of interpretation
It strikes us as very difficult for charities to have to rely on the interpretation of different ministers (in whose gift it will be to grant exemptions) and officials (eg ‘consult your grants officer’ before submitting evidence to parliament).
Already we’ve heard of a situation in Whitehall where officials raised the prospect of discontinuing a ministerial policy forum, because some of the charities in the room wouldn’t be allowed to participate in future. This may have been an overzealous interpretation of the clause by officials, but such vagueness lends itself to this.
Under the circumstances, we are concerned that some charities may get the go-ahead to respond to a consultation, while others don’t. This would seem, at the very least, to be patently unfair. More significantly, it could mean parliament or government is unable to draw on the full range of evidence it needs. In another sphere, researchers have similarly asked what it would mean for some scientists to be ‘approved’ by government to influence them and others not.
The chilling effect on charities is likely to remain
The overall message this clause sends to charities is a negative one. It implies that government will take a critical view of any campaigning or lobbying activity and that you could risk losing your grant funding if a minister or official believes you have crossed a very vaguely drawn line about how it was to be spent.
Hence, as we’ve already heard, charities subject to the clause already are erring on the side of caution. We continue to believe that this clause will be counterproductive to government’s own aims by deterring charities from engaging in the policy process.
There are workability issues
With exemptions needing to be approved at ministerial level and then reported to the Cabinet Office, it could cause significant delays in decision-making about grants. Such delays are already a major headache for charities who are often left waiting (sometimes with staff at risk of redundancy) for individual LA or departmental budgets to be settled before their funding can be confirmed.
Meanwhile, other questions remain
- What is the evidence base for this policy? Beyond its very visible references to the IEA ‘research’, the government has produced no evidence to support its case. In answers to written parliamentary questions, the government has also said it does not hold information on charities influencing and does not hold information on charities acting in breach of their grant agreements. Clearly there has been no impact assessment or cost-benefit analysis of this policy at all.
- Furthermore, it’s clear that individual ministers across Whitehall do know and value the input they receive from charities. For example, DfID secretary of state Justine Greening said so in a thoughtful speech last month. So why tie their hands with a blanket rule?
Most ministers and parliamentarians of all stripes welcome the informed insights of those with on-the-ground experience. This clause still says the opposite and should be dropped.