Why civil society must be free to speak truth to power

26th February 2016 / United Kingdom

The new ‘anti-advocacy’ clause, to be included in grant agreements from May, will state that charities like ours will not be able to use government funding “to attempt to influence” parliament, government, legislation or regulation. In creating the clause, the government seems intent on constraining charities’ activities.

The ensuing debate raises major questions about the role of charities in the UK and whether they should be able to challenge government when receiving grants to deliver services, support policy development or conduct research. These questions are thrown into sharp relief by the contrasting treatment of corporate lobbyists.

Charities should of course be able to receive grants from government to help people directly and individually. But they should also be able to receive grants for strategic work that helps to develop policy and practice on a larger scale. When charities deliver research for a government department to address specified questions, or when they are funded to work with their stakeholders to develop policy proposals – and they routinely do both – they must be able to respond with challenging findings, to advocate on behalf of their constituencies and to make critical suggestions.

This anti-advocacy clause could stop important messages getting through about the pitfalls of proposed legislation. Take just one recent example: the need to exempt kinship care families from the tax credit cap, which washighlighted by the Family Rights Group, a charity grant-funded by government to support kinship carers.

Following advice from this distinguished charity with 50 years’ experience, will help the government save billions of pounds and keep many children out of the care system. As a letter to the Prime Minister, signed by over 130 charities points out, the clause goes against the spirit of open policy making, which is promoted by this government and aims to ensure policy is developed collaboratively and transparently, with openness to challenge.

To stop charities challenging and advocating is to turn them into mere flunkies, with the narrow role of doing the government’s bidding and affirming its policy decisions.  This is the very knitting to which Brooks Newmark, former Minister for Civil Society, said charities should stick.

Yet it flies in the face of much of what NEF stands for: preventing harm by identifying and dealing with the causes of problems, not just coping with the consequences; co-designing and co-producing decisions and activities with people whose first-hand knowledge of problems and opportunities can provide invaluable insights; building from the bottom up to make sure that policies are firmly rooted in lived experience. Charities are not beyond reproach. But their work with many of Britain’s most disadvantaged and voiceless groups gives them a vital role to play in a strong and vibrant civil society.

Contrast this new clampdown on charities with the government’s approach towards corporate lobbying. At the same time as charities are being increasingly shut out of the political process, trade lobbyists are being actively invited into it – through initiatives such as ‘focus on enforcement’, which, in the government’s own words, “allows trade associations and representative business groups – instead of civil servants – to bid to review how enforcement operates in their business area”.

Successful bidders have the chance to run a review, and to present their findings and the case for change directly to relevant regulators and Ministers. The initiative has led to several trade bodies evaluating the regulation of their own sector, in a manner which threatens the democratic process.

The essential difference between charities and corporations is that the latter represent private interests, while the former are constitutionally mandated to uphold the public interest. At NEF we are transparent and open about who funds us: we are a registered charity and rely on a broad cross section of individuals, charities, companies and public sector funders to enable our work.

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Combined with the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act on charities, and the recent investment and procurement boycott ban, this new advocacy clause appears part a trend towards shutting the public out of policy making and in favour of unaccountable private business influence.

The government needs productive dialogue with the charity sector, set up by members of the public in the public interest, with its wealth of experience and grassroots connection to citizens. It should not use clauses to prevent charities from thinking critically and systemically, or advocating for change based on robust research and public engagement.

Instead, grant-funded research must be publicly available, and a diverse set of charities and others should be actively and openly engaged in policy development. Shutting out public criticism in the name of transparency, while quietly opening the door to shadowy private lobbies undermines and threatens our democracy.

By neweconomics.org – As if people and the planet mattered

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