The sector bodies Navca and the Directory of Social Change have cautioned against rushing to praise the publication of new standards for grant-making by the Cabinet Office, which was hailed on Friday as a "victory for free speech".
The umbrella bodies Acevo, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Social Enterprise UK all welcomed the government’s announcement on Friday that it was replacing the "anti-lobbying clause" it proposed in February.
Asheem Singh, interim chief executive of Acevo, said the move was a "victory for free speech" because it showed that the government explicitly recognised the role of charities to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries.
But in a statement released today, Navca said it queried "the haste with which the standards have been welcomed in some quarters without the implications being fully understood".
It said: "Navca believes that the standards certainly improve on the original anti-lobbying clause, but believes they fall short of what charities and grant-makers might expect"
Neil Cleeveley, chief executive of Navca, said: "The key question that needs asking is will the standards tackle and ease the ‘chilling effect’ of the anti-lobbying clause? I am worried that the standards are worded in a way that means it is still possible for charities to be attacked for legitimate work to help people and communities have a say about their services."
Cleeveley said he was disappointed the government did not consult the sector before announcing the standards, although the government says it carried out "detailed work with government departments, research organisations and the voluntary sector" over the past 10 months.
"There would have been a huge benefit in testing out these ideas with charities, particularly smaller ones, to see how they work in practice," Cleeveley said. "We think that the intentions behind the new standards are good but the reality is a bit of a muddle."
Ciaran Price, policy officer at the charity training and publishing body the DSC, told Third Sector the NCVO deserved credit for securing a better approach from the government than the original anti-lobbying clause – but he said it was not enough.
"There are still huge issues with government grant-making that need to be overcome," he said. "Some of the standards are a cause for alarm – for example, promoting payments in arrears, which would be very bad for charities, especially smaller ones."
The new standards state that it is "expected that grant funding payment models will reflect need and avoid paying significant portions of funding up front". Nacva said it was also concerned about this, saying that for smaller charities, which often have limited funds, "up-front payments are vital".
Navca said that the prohibitions on grants being used for "attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action" and in-house lobbying still appear to restrict the activity of charities, and it has expressed dismay that no indication has been given as to whether or how the standards will be reviewed.
The body has also criticised the new requirement for government departments to review all grants at least once a year, saying that this implies long-term grant agreements are undesirable when evidence suggests the stability created by longer-term funding improves outcomes.
It has also been critical of the introduction of mandatory training for grant-givers, saying the training is not standardised and there does not appear to be any expectation that voluntary sector organisations will inform this training.
Similarly, the body is concerned that the government’s new Grants Advice Panel, created to consider "high-risk, new and contentious" expenditure, does not harness charity expertise.