On 27 April, Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock MP announced a pause in the implementation of the anti advocacy clause to apply to all Government grants to charities. The Government was considering the comments of all interested parties, he explained. They were committed to some sort of clause but would take more time to decide its form. They have not yet agreed to a formal consultation process.
The Government had already retreated to the extent of exempting research grants awarded through named research councils. As Charlotte Ravenscroft of the NCVO pointed out, this betrayed the ill thought out nature of the policy. It implicitly acknowledged that the clause might well damage a valued contribution to society. But charities were left in the firing line with a deadline of 1st May, as the Government continued to ignore carefully expressed arguments in public and private, pertinent requests for clarification from the NCVO which they could not answer, objections in the House of Lords and from the Opposition, a letter from the Chief Executives of 140 charities, and the demolition of the IEA’s risible sock puppet report that the Government had unwisely cited as an “evidence” base. In truth, it was no more than a Tea Party style polemic, clearly hostile to core policies of the Government itself, particularly on international development, public health, environmental concerns and good equalities practice.
What is wrong with the clause? In brief:
- it is illiberal, seeking to use grants to stifle the voices of grant aided workers
- it is bad governance, because it implies that Whitehall knows best and doesn’t need feedback from grant aided workers or their users. The opposite is true.
- It addresses a supposed harm for which there is no evidence. The Cabinet Office has failed to give even one example.
- It is based on no consultation.
- It breaches the Compact between Government and civil society signed by David Cameron. The Government’s efforts to argue otherwise are unpersuasive casuistry.
- It is so widely drafted as to cause confusion and uncertainty as to what is covered and what not. As such it is grossly unfair to grant aided workers, to other staff in the charity and to Trustees, not sure what they are “allowed” to ask of their grant aided workers in order to fulfil their own responsibilities to their beneficiaries.
- It adds to charities’ burdens as they try to work out what percentage of someone’s time was spent on “influencing” as opposed to other activities and develop other accounting jiggery-pokery.
- It is also bad administration because the clause will in practice be applied inconsistently. Ministers and civil servants in a number of Departments who know the clause is nonsense will be tapping noses, winking and nodding to charities whom they fund, not asking too many questions, and carrying on as before. But other charities will be at the mercy of Ministers or civil servants who choose to make draconian use of the clause to crack down on political irritants.
Apart from that, the clause is an excellent idea.
Three hearty cheers for NCVO, ACEVO and Social Enterprise UK for persistent lobbying and winning the pause.
Look carefully at the Cabinet Office announcement of the pause. There is no longer any mention of sock puppets or the IEA. There is no longer the formulation that lobbying is a diversion from good causes. Let us be grateful for those small mercies. The target is now said to be “improper lobbying for new regulation or for more government funding”. Does that mean proper lobbying is OK? What does it take to be “improper”? And does it mean that lobbying against new regulation or against poor use of government money is OK? Why should new regulation and more public spending be singled out from all other possible concerns being relayed by charities to policy makers? And what if those concerns might typically require a mixture of better practice, different priorities, different attitudes and money: are they banned or not?
The announcement repeats the mantra of protecting taxpayers’ money from being wasted on government lobbying government. Again, we await one single example of this harm from the Cabinet Office. The mantra is anyway subject to these objections:
- independent charities, albeit receiving a government grant, do not turn into “government”. They give their own independent views. That is why they often publicly disagree with the Government.
- charities are prohibited by the clause from influencing of any kind (not just lobbying)
- their influencing of their MPs and other parliamentarians of all parties, and independent regulators, are also banned by the clause, so again the mantra does not fit the clause.
- Government Departments attempt every day to influence other Government Departments and policy makers, using taxpayers’ money for the purpose. The Department of Health argues the case for health, environmental Departments for the Environment, Northern Ireland for the interests of Northern Irelant, and so forth. Is it all a waste of money? What is wrong with the principle of using taxpayers’ money to enable this to happen, whether or not a charity is involved in the argument? It is not clear why Matt Hancock regards this as a “farce”.
- Taxpayers already pay indirectly towards all the activities of charities, including influencing, because of charities’ tax breaks.
There is a wider context to all this. It is not an isolated example of the Executive arm of Government trying to increase its centralised power and shrink the space for criticism. Look at the track record of the Charity Commission on the subject of political activity since late 2012. Look at attempts to increase Ministerial influence over public appointments. Look at the Trade Unions Bill. More widely, Governments and wealthy elites in many different countries around the world are busy shrinking the political space for civil society which poses inconvenient obstacles to their interests and ideologies. The UK used to be a beacon for civil society in such countries, a model for regulation without repression. No longer. But we can become such a beacon again if we resist and fight back.
Each wordly-wise compromise with this unnecessary, illiberal, muddled clause is an extra encouragement to those who want to curtail the contribution of civil society without bothering to consult or justify their policy – in this country and further afield. Yes, it is a matter of principle. So let us stand firm as rocks behind our sector leaders.