Ministers ditch anti-lobbying proposals for charities and universities

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian, written by Patrick Butler and Matthew Weaver, and can be seen here.

Ministers have dropped controversial plans to gag charities and universities as a condition of receiving public money after widespread alarm from academics and the voluntary sector.

The government announced the “anti-advocacy clause” without consultation in February, presenting the proposal as a ban on taxpayers’ funds being used for political lobbying.

The move prompted a furious reaction from charities and scientists, who said it was an attempt to muzzle criticism from experts on political issues from climate change to changes to the welfare system. Ministers responded by announcing a partial U-turn and now the idea has been abandoned.

Outlining its new standards on its £117bn annual grants budget, ministers said universities and charities could not use grants to pay for professional lobbyists, but they could continue to advise and inform government policy.

The original anti-lobbying proposals had prompted fears experts would be banned from advising ministers and MPs.

The new guidance spells out that this is no longer the intention, and reaffirms the right of charities to campaign. It says: “The new approach includes clear guidance for research grant managers that activities such as responding to select committees and consultations are appropriate for inclusion in their research grant terms.”

An advice panel will be set up to ensure grants are spent appropriately by recipients.

Charities see the latest move as the official demise of a policy that was already in tatters. In April, ministers bowed to intense pressure from scientists and academics by announcing that the clause would not be inserted into most academic research grants, effectively providing an exemption for universities.

Shortly afterwards the then cabinet office minister, Matthew Hancock, said the clause, which was due to be implemented from 1 May, was being “paused” while the government – which had not consulted on the policy beforehand – considered representations from the charity sector.

Announcing the full climbdown, Rob Wilson, minister for civil society, said the new system would “better protect the role of charities to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries whilst ensuring taxpayers’ money is used as intended”.

Chris Skidmore, the minister for the constitution, said the standards had been developed “through a constructive and collaborative process”.

Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations head Asheem Singh welcome the climbdown as a “victory for democracy”. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations chief executive, Sir Stuart Etherington, said it came after “robust” discussions with ministers.

Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who organised a petition against the original plan, said: “I am glad that the government has backed down over its threat to prevent researchers from using grants to inform policymaking.

“There were many within the academic community who recognised that the draconian new rules would have [in effect] gagged researchers, damaging academic freedom and the public interest.”

The anti-advocacy clause, which ministers claimed was introduced after extensive research, was based on three slim pamphlets published by the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) thinktank. It argued that many charities were “sock puppets” in effect paid by government to justify the introduction of new policies.

 

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, welcomed the climbdown.

But the clause was attacked and ridiculed by opposition politicians, charities and academics. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, at the time the chair of the public accounts committee, said the clause “smelled of Stalinism”.

Ward called for an inquiry into how the thinktank persuaded the government to float the gagging idea. He said: “The research community was shocked by the original proposal in February to prevent research grants from being used to inform policymaking, after the Cabinet Office was lobbied by the IEA.

“I am glad that the research community has petitioned and overturned the wrong-headed regulations. There should now be an inquiry into why the Cabinet Office drafted such poor regulations in response to a campaign by a group of free market fundamentalists who keep their sources of funding secret and whose research is nothing more than propaganda for their extreme ideological agenda.”

In a blogpost on the change, Etherington said: “Our principal concern with the original clause was that it was counterproductive and would have meant grant-funded charities were unable to provide policymakers with crucial insight that improves legislation, regulation and public services.

“This fundamental flaw has been recognised by government and the new guidance is crystal clear in saying that activities such as raising issues with ministers and civil servants, responding to consultations and contributing to the general policy debate are not only permitted but actively welcomed.”

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