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.

12 Responses to Anti-advocacy clause is counter-productive

  1. Andrew O'Brien says:

    This is completely against the government’s own Compact with the sector – signed by the PM.

    The first government undertaking (1.1) says it will:

    “Respect and uphold the independence of CSOs to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist.”

    This was a recognition by the government that the voice of the sector is needed to improve services and stand up for the interests of beneficiaries. This doesn’t change because the government is the source of the funding.

    This change is not in the interests of the public and proper processes have not been followed. The government should reverse this proposal.

  2. Dan Sumners says:

    Odd and flawed thinking. The underlying assumption is that “activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action” is not a good cause and does not improve people’s lives. But I am sure when they need our help to get something right, or – as happens more often – put something right, this clause will be overlooked, even if the outcome is the same as if we had ‘lobbied’.

  3. We need to get this out on a campaign – perhaps through 38 degrees or similar.
    As a disabled person, I do rely on SCOPE and other charities to make the points for the general populace of disabilities that I personally can not. There is weight of numbers, gravitas and research provided by such charities that give vital insight into the impact or potential impact of policies etc for the Govt. For the Govt to cut this off is, as said above, the Govt shooting itself in the foot.
    It is clearly another quick fire response to a bad situation that has not been thought through calmly and strategically by a Govt too focused on publicity and the need to be seen as pro-active. Expect a u-turn later.

  4. Nick Segal says:

    Dear Charlotte ,

    Thank you for your update.

    This can not be lawful to ask anyone to remain silent….

    If this legislation is to have any lawful substance it requires the consent of who ever is being requested to keep quiet.

    Unless they are clearly breaching the peace, which is breaking the law, as is causing any harm, loss or fraud.

    Therefore, the government must be breaking The Law by the above definition and meaning of what Law is, and surely must be accountable for breaking the law, to which they are entitled to a court d’ jure, with a jury of 12, who decide guilty or not. With a judge present only there to observe the following of Law.

    Or ……., If this is an order…… To be quiet, then we all know that bills always follow orders , that is the law.

    Therefore, should said charities, (to which I am not, I am a community interest company with charitable aims and objectives). Be given an order……,they can either say “no thank you I do not consent to servicing that order”. And following up with a lawful notice in writing. Or they can respond with “thank you for your order, post it in writing so it is recorded, and… here is my bill for a billion £, pounds”. of what ever price you deem fitting for a fundamental breach of contract Law, never mind human rights.

    Then use the money to become a community interest company and be the loudest advocate known to humankind, servicing the needs of those marginalised without the capacity to be heard and stand up to the beurocratic bullying tactics.

    Kind Regards,
    Nick Segal

    Care-E-Generation CIC

  5. Angus Gavin Watson says:

    Much expertise in social policy resides with active charities. It is foolish for Government to cut itself off from this source of knowledge and experience.
    Advocacy on the basis of long and deep experience in the field is extremely useful in ventilating ideas, and thus preparing the ground for policy development – even when it appears to run counter (as it sometimes must if it is to be genuinely independent) to ministers’ predilections.

  6. Andy Dykes says:

    If the Government supported our society more effectively we wouldn’t need so many charities in the first place! So now Comic Relief, Sport Relief and Children in Need as well as thousands of local / specific groups are all potentially going to be prohibited from lobbying / promoting ‘their wares’ to those who should be listening and taking ACTION!

    • Wally Harbert says:

      The fundraising scandal has knocked charities off their perch on the moral high ground so this is a good time for the government to do what would otherwise be unthinkable. Politics is a dirty business.

      But charities are inventive. For example, I am not a charity so the injunction does not apply to me. If I receive information from a charity about something it is not allowed to convey to government I can accidently release it to the press.

      The worst thing that can happen to me – until there is a change in the law – is that MI5 will re-open the file it opened on me when I wrote a letter to Reynolds News in 1946 on disarmament.

  7. Sam Sheridan says:

    Come on guys. NOBODY is restricting free speech in any way. If you want to do political lobbying, do it as much as you like, just don’t use taxpayers money to do it. Don’t demand others to pay for you to push your ideologies. Government is right to curtail this merrigoround of lobbying; it is the only responsible thing to do.

  8. Dear Charlotte, do you know how we can get our name added to this letter to the Prime Minister, or is it now too late for us to be included?

    Best wishes,
    Lorraine Prince
    Brighton and Hove Community Works

  9. B Meteyard says:

    If charity CEOs can get themselves invited to Chequers or Dorneywood for some cosy chats over (tax payer funded) dinners with the PM or Chancellor, like those of tax avoiding corporations, they won’t have to spend precious funds on lobbying!

  10. Christine Holloway says:

    Presumably this applies only to grants? So a contract to deliver feedback on the impact of public policy would be legal (though unlikely)?

    Does anyone know if the same ban on “campaigning” will apply to local government grants?

  11. Casimira says:

    Thanks for finally writing about >Anti-advocacy clause is counter-productive
    | NCVO Blogs <Liked it!