In February this year, the Cabinet Office announced that a new clause would be attached to government grants, whether issued directly or through third parties, stating that the funding could not be used to ‘support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties … or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action’.
The Cabinet Office said that the new clause would be inserted into new and renewed grant agreements and was aimed at making sure that taxpayers’ money was spent on doing good and improving people’s lives, rather than lobbying ‘for new regulation or increased funding’.
It made clear that the ‘anti-lobbying clause’ does not prevent charities from using privately raised funds for lobbying campaigns, and has pointed out that when trialled in grants provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government, it had not curtailed the ability of charities such as Shelter from lobbying on housing legislation.
The move follows work conducted by the right-of-centre think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) into so-called ‘sock puppets’, where taxpayers’ money is handed to pressure groups which then campaign for policy changes or extra money. However, the effects of the clause, which will appear in grant agreements from May 2016, looks likely to be far more wide ranging. And it has raised concerns and arguments, not to mention a sense of bewilderment, amongst not only charities, but the academic sector – not least because of uncertainty on how the rules will be enforced, and where they will apply.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, told the BBC that it was an ‘insane policy’ that would not work in reality. It was, he said, a ‘draconian’ move that was ‘tantamount to making charities take a vow of silence’. Added to which, ‘if you’ve got mixed funding, how are you going to know which is the Government’s and somebody else’s?’
An equally baffled Lord Harries, who chairs the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement which has looked into charity lobbying, said that ‘charities on the “front line” could often best identify where government policy was failing’, and are surely morally bound to tell the Government if they could improve their work to help, for example, children in poverty.
Nor is this arguably a move popular with the general public. Third Sector, a publication aimed at the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, reported in March 2016 that six out of ten people think that charities should be able to criticise the government that funds them. The publication reported on research from the think tank nfpSynergy which showed support for charities’ right to campaign, whether they received money from government or not, with 66% of respondents agreeing that it was acceptable for charities to campaign to change the law, and 64% agreeing that it was acceptable for charities to campaign on issues that affected their beneficiaries.
Separate research carried out in 2014, also by nfpSynergy, found that 63% of respondents thought it acceptable for charities to challenge government policy with only 8% finding this unacceptable.
There are also concerns from some MPs. Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, for example, who chairs the Commons Health Select Committee has posted on Twitter that ending charities ability to lobby ministers would have serious consequences for public health, given that the balance is ‘already distorted in favour of industry’.
And an Early Day Motion sponsored by Tommy Sheppard MP and signed by 43 MPs expressed concerns on the impact of the clause, particularly on the ‘ability of voluntary organisation[s] to bring real-world experience of service users and evidence-based expertise into the public policy debate… or even from giving evidence if called by a select committee, and that the clause may therefore have a far broader impact than originally intended’.
A theme echoed in concerns raised by the academic sector.
Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, expressed apprehensions in her correspondence to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, warning that the new clause could hamper evidence-based policymaking and may mean that academic researchers become unwilling to take on advisory positions in Government or Parliament, and may even feel uncomfortable speaking at conferences where policymakers are present.
The March Editorial of Nature, an international science journal, also picks up on the unintended consequences theme, although it pointed out that as it went to press, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, responsible for billions of pounds of research funding, ‘could not say … whether the rule would apply to science grants and university funding,’ and the research councils and Higher Education Funding Council for England, which distribute the funding, were ‘equally in the dark’.
As Nature points out, ‘Academic input has enlightened discussions of climate change, pollinator declines, biomedical ethics and many other issues of crucial importance to the future of the United Kingdom and the wider world’. Moreover, the ‘clause does not even limit itself to activity that tries to influence the United Kingdom’. If taken to extremes, it could mean that some of the world’s leading climate scientists will be prevented from contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Summary for Policymakers because they are dependent on government money.
Researchers can be forgiven for feeling bewildered by the development, given that the government-funded research councils have spent recent years promoting the ‘impact agenda’ (which will also be familiar to the charitable sector) and which encourages scientists to make sure that their work has reach outside their own academic disciplines, including influencing policy and legislation.
From the evidence then, the anti-lobbying clause does seem to contain strong elements of throwing out the baby with the bath water. As Nature puts it: ‘Only a fool ignores well informed advice. And only a very foolish government demands not to receive it in the first place’.
Given the current uncertainty over the implementation of the clause, we can only wait and see.
By Sharon Pryke, Idox