Editorial: A significant climbdown on the anti-lobbying clause

Sector umbrella bodies have been right to push for a pause to this potentially draconian government policy, writes Stephen Cook

Now that a Conservative government is in power without a strong and respected opposition or the restraining influence of the Liberal Democrats as partners in coalition, it tends to stick to its declared policies, no matter how contested or controversial. A case in point is its determination to turn all schools into academies, no matter what the teaching profession or other experts and interested parties might say.

But occasionally ministers do change course because they realise they will otherwise encounter humiliation in one form or another – a backbench rebellion, for example, defeat in parliament or an adverse judgment in the courts. The most recent high-profile example is the decision to row back and accept unaccompanied child refugees from the Calais jungle because more Conservative MPs were becoming restless about the ban.

Less high-profile nationally, but of immense importance to charities and the not-for-profit sector generally, is the decision last week by the Cabinet Office to pause in the implementation of its plan, announced in February, to include a widely drawn, catch-all no-lobbying clause in all grant agreements. This is a significant climbdown by the author of the policy, the minister for the Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock, and the charities minister, Rob Wilson, who has argued strongly in favour of the clause.

The climbdown is the result of determined pressure by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Acevo, Social Enterprise UK, the Charity Finance Group and others. They have argued consistently and with good evidence that the clause is a breach of the Compact, which guarantees the sector the right to campaign "regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist". They have pointed out that the clause is so widely drawn that it could even prevent a charity giving evidence to a select committee. And they have asked for evidence that the government has carried out an equality assessment of the policy, as required by law. In response to a parliamentary question, Hancock said on 21 April that an equality impact assessment would be done in time for implementation of the clause on 1 May. Six days later came the pause.

Neither party has been willing so far to be specific about the precise aspect of the correspondence that has prompted ministers to think again, and sector leaders have resisted a triumphalist tone in favour of measured appreciation of the move and a call for a full consultation before any implementation or – better still – abandonment of the clause. Reading between the lines, it seems more than likely that this hasty and unevidenced policy decision was potentially vulnerable to judicial review and that the pause for further thought comes on the advice of government legal advisers.

What this will lead to is hard to predict. One possibility, given Hancock’s apparent fondness for the policy, is that all the boxes will be duly ticked and the clause will be enforced, although it might have to be more tightly drawn. The version of the clause introduced some time ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government, for example, was aimed more specifically at preventing the employment of paid lobbyists by grant recipients.

Another possibility is that the delay will cause the whole business to become entangled, as will so much else, with the EU referendum and its fallout in six weeks' time. Whatever the result of the referendum, there is going to be considerable upheaval and reshuffling in government and this clause might end up where it belongs – kicked into the long grass and then forgotten. It is a misguided, authoritarian and anti-democratic measure, and one of the best objections to it comes in the latest letter to Hancock from Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the CFG: "We are not just silent, service-providing machines. Charities have a duty to speak up for our beneficiaries and make sure their needs are being considered by government."

Stephen Cook is contributing editor at Third Sector

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