Funding: making terms and conditions transparent

As we start a new DCMS funded research project about bullying in the charity sector, ACEVO’s head of policy Kristiana Wrixon talks about anti-advocacy clauses and transparency in decision making.

On 18 February ACEVO announced a new project in partnership with the Centre for Mental Health researching bullying in the charity sector. The project aims to understand the conditions in which bullying occurs in the charity sector, its effects on individuals and why in some organisations bullying behaviour continues for a significant period of time unchecked.

The project is funded by a grant from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as part of a programme of work looking at safeguarding and safe cultures following media reports of abuse in the charity sector last year. This is the first time since I have worked for ACEVO that we have received a government grant or contract, and it is the first time we have applied for government funding since we began campaigning for the removal of anti-advocacy clauses in government grants and contracts.

The month before we started to talk to DCMS about applying for funding for the bullying project, I had spoken at two events about the use of anti-advocacy clauses in government grants and contracts. At those events, I laid out the four reasons ACEVO wanted the clauses to be removed or re-written. The reasons are:

  1. They are anti-democratic
  2. There is a profound imbalance of power between those issuing contracts and the recipients. This means relatively little negotiating power for the grant/contract recipient.
  3. Charities may feel inhibited from campaigning because of a need to preserve relationships with the people whose decisions could result in the closure of a service they provide that is vital to the health or well-being of their community.
  4. They reduce the confidence and voice of less powerful parts of the sector.

In October 2018 ACEVO and 10 other charities wrote to The Times in response to an article it published on anti-advocacy clauses in Department of Work and Pensions contracts. In the letter, we called for the end of the use of anti-advocacy clauses. We also wrote to the then Secretary of State Esther McVey asking for the removal of these clauses in future contracts. We published her response, which said that “it was categorically untrue to say that these clauses stop any contract holders or affiliates from fairly criticising any specific Government department or Government policy.” Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO of NCVO also wrote to the Prime Minister who provided similar reassurances.

These clarifications are welcome but the evidence is that the clauses are restrictive. In a survey conducted by campaigning champions Sheila McKechnie Foundation62% of respondents said they thought conditions of public funding that prevent lobbying, campaigning or advocacy were a threat to the legitimacy of campaigning.

In late November 2018, the Cabinet Office updated the Supplier Code of Conduct to say that it expects organisations “to speak out, without fear of consequences, when a grant-funded project or activity is unlikely to succeed because of our behaviours or a lack of good governance.” However, the wording in the Supplier Code of Conduct is not used by all government departments, and indeed it remains a problem that different government departments have different wording for their anti-advocacy clauses, some of which are more restrictive than others.

These issues were front of mind as we began the process of submitting a formal application for a grant for the bullying project. Being aware of these issues meant we were able to say early to DCMS that should we be successful with the grant we would want a discussion about clauses relating to eligible expenditure. When we received the grant paperwork it contained the following clause:

The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure:

paid for lobbying, which means using grant funds to fund lobbying (via an external firm or in-house staff) in order to undertake activities intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political activity; or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action;

  1. Payment that supports lobbying or activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action;

We expressed a preference for this clause to be removed entirely but if that were not possible then we proposed adding a further clause similar to the contract between Citizens Advice and the DWP. This wording is more in line with the Supplier Code of Conduct and section 6.16 of the General Government Grants Guidance framework. DCMS proposed, and we agreed to, the following addition to ‘eligible expenditure’:

  1. giving evidence to Select Committees
  2. providing independent, evidence-based policy recommendations to local government, departments or Ministers, where that is the objective of a taxpayer-funded grant scheme, for example, ‘What Works Centres’; and
  3. providing independent evidence-based advice to local or national government as part of the general policy debate, where that is in line with the objectives of the grant scheme.

I think the wording could still be improved, and the clause itself is superfluous if its intent is as the Prime Minister said “…to ensure that providers adhere to the high standards we expect” and “…would never be used as a means of stifling debate or [to] prevent legitimate criticism.” However, ACEVO’s right to make independent policy recommendations and contribute to debate is now recognised in the grant agreement and the importance of that protection cannot be underestimated.

Neither ACEVO as a charity, nor the individual services we provide, are reliant on government funding. As a result, we know we have more freedom to call for reform than small charities grappling with decisions that mean keeping the doors open and the lights on. We will continue to campaign for the removal or reform of anti-advocacy clauses across government. No charity should be concerned that speaking out is at odds with the terms of their grants or contracts, or that it could put future funding at risk.

We want to be completely transparent about our decision making and terms of our grant, the grant offer letter and Annex A of the grant agreement which contains details of eligible expenditure are available to view on our website and we welcome any feedback about this decision.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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