The affair of the new anti-lobbying clause in government grant agreements marks a new low in relations between the government and the voluntary sector. Those relations have been uneasy, at best, for several years now, because of factors such as the cuts, the lobbying act and intemperate ministerial interventions about fundraising – the Prime Minister’s reference to "rogue charities", for example. Now those relations appear to be heading for rock bottom.
The announcement of the clause came without warning or consultation and was couched in combative terminology, as if a stop was being put to some well-known, widespread and nefarious abuse. But the only evidence adduced by ministers is a tired polemic written some years ago by the right-leaning Institute of Economic Affairs about what it calls "sock puppets" – organisations it accuses of using government grants to campaign or lobby government.
The announcement was made on a Saturday by Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and leaked in advance to The Daily Telegraph. Ten days later, it emerged that Hancock had received donations from the City businessman Neil Record, who now chairs the Institute of Economic Affairs. The Cabinet Office then asserted that the decision to introduce the clause was "based entirely on the advice of civil service officials". This raises the question of why the first line of the press notice dwelt on the IEA report. To a more sceptical outside world, it’s beginning to look as if government policy on the sector is now formulated by right-wing think tanks and promulgated in the pages of the Tory press.
The sector’s commendably robust response was a letter to David Cameron from 130 chief executives, making the argument that the measure could be counter-productive because it would limit the range of insight that policymakers could draw upon, and suggesting that it was in conflict with the Compact. The chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Sir Stuart Etherington, who tends not to criticise the government without good reason and is not usually given to hyperbole, called the move "outrageous" and said it was a bigger threat to government-sector relations than the lobbying act.
It then looked as if there was a desire to mend fences: Rob Wilson, the charities minister, offered an article to Third Sector designed to clear up the misunderstandings he thought had occurred. He stated he had no issue with any organisation "speaking truth to power", provided that it did not use government grants to do so. But generally the tone remained uncompromising, and he dismissed the suggestion of any conflict with the Compact, which guarantees "the right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist".
It was also notable that Wilson’s article, while affirming that "representations in private" about the operation of a grant would not be affected by the clause, did not respond to questions about his definition of lobbying. Did lobbying include contact with MPs or the press about the operation of the grant, for example? The silence on these points speaks volumes about what the government might really have in mind with this new policy.
The point about "representations in private" is that they are easily ignored or dismissed, and as such are tolerated. Articles in the press, or questions from opposition MPs to the minister or in parliament, would consume little or no more of any grant in question, in terms of staff time or other expense, than those private representations; but they would be harder to dismiss or ignore because they would put public pressure on ministers, and that is not so easily tolerated. In some instances, it might even oblige them to change course.
Experience shows that this kind of public challenge is what ministers dislike most. There were instances under the coalition government of Conservative ministers deputing friendly MPs to advise charities in private that their grants would be in doubt if they continued to talk to the press. And this latest clause looks like an attempt to formalise this process – to put the frighteners on charities, in other words.
The issue of the use of taxpayers' money is a bit of a red herring; the notion that charities are running round diverting measureably significant amounts of government grants from "improving people’s lives", as Hancock portentously put it, into pricey campaigns to change government policy is somewhat far-fetched, to say the least. This is why the sector is not exaggerating when it describes the clause as a gagging measure. Opposition MPs and trade unions see it that way too.
The effect, regrettably, is that those charities that do rely on government grants will become even more cautious about speaking up. That will reduce healthy democratic debate and give satisfaction to a government that seems from time to time to be carried away by the unrestricted power it gained unexpectedly at the last election.