Councils will be permitted to leave the forthcoming anti-lobbying clause out of grant agreements with charities if they have generated the money for the grant themselves, talks between Cabinet Office officials and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have revealed.
A meeting between the two organisations this month also revealed that giving evidence to parliament at parliament’s request would not be seen as lobbying under the clause, but submitting written evidence could be.
The two bodies met to discuss some of the questions charities have raised about the anti-lobbying clause, which will be included in all new and renewed grant agreements with central government from 1 May and will prevent charities from using such funds to lobby government or parliament.
The clause will cover central government grants and those that are given by local authorities and other public bodies on behalf of government - but not those funded by local authorities' and public bodies’ own resources.
But the inclusion of the clause in grant agreements using local funds would be recommended by the government as best practice, the NCVO was told.
The secretary of state for each department would also be able to grant exemptions to the clause – but only very few exemptions were likely to be made and would have to be reported to the Cabinet Office, the discussions revealed.
When asked what activities would count at influencing, officials reportedly told NCVO that the clause was not designed to prevent any specific activities. But, as an example, it said submitting written evidence proactively to parliament could be included, but giving evidence to parliament at parliament’s request would not.
Officials said that as a rule, organisations must use funding sources other than government grants if they carry out lobbying or influencing activities. Funds could be clawed back if government believed the clause had been broken, with no right of appeal except by means of judicial review.
In a blog post outlining the results of the discussions, Charlotte Ravenscroft, head of policy and public services at the NCVO, criticised the Cabinet Office’s responses as vague and only somewhat helpful.
"It strikes us as very difficult for charities to have to rely on the interpretation of different ministers (in whose gift it will be to grant exemptions) and officials," she said.
She said the NCVO was concerned the clause might mean that some charities were able to respond to the consultation while some were not, which as well as being "patently unfair" would mean parliament would be unable to draw on the full range of evidence available.
"The overall message this clause sends to charities is a negative one," she said. "It implies that government will take a critical view of any campaigning or lobbying activity and that you could risk losing your grant funding if a minister or official believes you have crossed a very vaguely drawn line about how it was to be spent."
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said officials had confirmed the NCVO’s comments were "generally reflective of the conversation".