Anti-advocacy clause is counter-productive

Today’s government announcement of an anti-advocacy clause being put into charities’ grant agreements is an extremely unwelcome development for the voluntary sector.

This has been brewing for some time – it builds on a clause implemented by DCLG last year (that was itself based on a rather thin IEA think-tank report called ‘Sock Puppets’). Our Chief Executive has spoken out and written previously about the principles at stake –  a blog post well worth re-reading today.

We have already reiterated to government that this clause is unjust on points of principle: that charities must always be able to speak up for their beneficiaries, campaign within the law, irrespective of their funding arrangements. We have asked government to provide evidence of the problem it is seeking to solve – with little forthcoming so far.

Moreover, there are many reasons why the clause could be counter-productive for government itself. I will set out some of our further thinking here.

Let’s remember why government gives grants

Grants are routinely used to support charities’ engagement in policymaking – for example, health charities advising government on person-centred care (now adopted as key plank of NHS strategy) or children’s charities on supporting families and vulnerable children. Not only is it vital that charities are able to speak up for their beneficiaries, but this clause would shoot government in its own foot if it prevented departments seeking important advice and expertise of charities. The proposal also runs counter to this government’s previous, positive work on open policy making.

Grants are also routinely used to support service delivery, often where the specialist expertise of a charity is required, where innovative ideas are sought, or niche provision that would not be economical to procure as a contract. Charities across the country are delivering important services, often for disadvantaged groups who can be hardest for the state to reach otherwise. In these cases, it is hard to believe that government would not want to hear feedback from the frontline that could improve policy and public service delivery across the country.

Grants may even in some cases also be used to support campaigns, such as public health campaigns or raising awareness of key issues in communities. There is nothing wrong with this if a government department believes it will help them engage the public in a way that might be difficult for government. Charities are already subject to charity law and must not be party-political.

In all of these cases, it is not in government’s own interest to pursue an anti-advocacy clause. They would risk losing timely insights from the frontline and the ability to draw on charities’ specialist expertise and reach into communities. Thus we can only assume this is not what the clause is intended to curtail and there would need to be a long list of exemptions to ensure these normal activities are not affected.

If it’s all about the money?

The elephant in the room is perhaps Kids Company. Through a combination of media appeal and personal influence, the charity was able to secure £42m in government funding – a sum unimaginable to the vast, vast majority of the charity sector. The finding of two parliamentary inquiries was that successive ministers were offered detailed advice and due diligence reports, and chose to overrule their officials in awarding funding. Ministers were also provided with what now look to be completely inadequate audit reports from external audit companies.

None of this is the fault of the rest of the charity sector. Indeed, the latest parliamentary report’s first recommendation was that the Kids Company case should not tarnish the rest of the sector. From our vantage point at NCVO, charities have been appalled by the case that is completely unrepresentative of how the rest of the sector operates.

Yet for all of this, we don’t believe such a clause is practical or mature way for government to manage its funding relationships with voluntary organisations either. Sometimes charities need to be able to discuss funding with government. What government needs are proper processes for considering grant applications, detailed due diligence on the organisations applying, and greater transparency about its decisions and grant awards – of which the recently announced Grants Information System will be a welcome step forward.

Please speak up for our right to speak up!

Our understanding is that the guidance published today has not yet come into force. Each government department is being tasked with working out the detail for their own departments by 1 May 2016 – which will include (we trust) consultation with organisations that may be affected.

We would urge our members and others interested in the health of the voluntary sector and government policymaking to make their views known in the weeks ahead.

Arguably, the DCLG introduction of this clause was the thin end of a wedge – it behoves us all now to speak up for charities’ right to speak up for their beneficiaries.

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Charlotte Ravenscroft was NCVO’s head of policy and public services. Charlotte’s wrote about funding, public service delivery, and strengthening the evidence base for voluntary action. She has also worked at The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Education.

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