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Senior Tory MP speaks out against government 'anti-advocacy' grant clauses

Sarah Wollaston
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Senior Tory MP speaks out against government 'anti-advocacy' grant clauses

Governance | Emily Corfe | 9 Feb 2016

The Conservative chair of the Commons Health Select Committee has warned the government that its plans for anti-advocacy clauses in charitable grants could have “serious consequences” for public health.

Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, was among a number of influential figures to have attacked the Conservative proposals to restrict charities from using government grants to lobby the government and Parliament.

"Ending charities ability to lobby ministers would have serious consequences for #publichealth Balance already distorted in favour of industry," she tweeted on Saturday.

Wollaston’s criticism of the measure was echoed by Labour MP for Huddersfield, Barry Sheerman.

“Well said Sarah,” he said. “Absolutely right, this is a seriously silly idea!”

The measures announced by the government on Saturday. The Cabinet Office claimed its decision was based on research by the Institute of Economic Affairs into so-called “sock puppets”, which revealed that taxpayers’ money given to charities and pressure groups was being diverted to fund lobbying rather than the good causes directly.

Yesterday, Matthew Hancock, minister for the Cabinet Office, called for taxpayers’ money to be “spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government”.

Yesterday, independent strategic advisor John Tizard criticised the proposals in a Huffington Post blog.

“Last year, charities were threatened with the Lobbying Act's "gagging clauses", and now we learn that the Government wants to prevent charities using public money to participate in contemporary debates on public policy,” he said.

“This feels like bullying or gagging - I hope that neither is intended but sadly charities will think that they are.”

In response to Tizard’s blog, former MP for High Peak, Tom Levitt tweeted that the move would be a “costly bureaucratic nightmare for charities that receive public funds for contracts”.

Sector leaders have also spoken out against the proposals.

Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England warned that the measure could “erode the fundamental role that the voluntary sector has played in protecting the most essential freedoms and protections we all take for granted”.

In a blog posted yesterday, she said: “This clause makes several dangerous assumptions about how good decisions are made in and for society, and how much-needed improvements in people’s lives come about. Good policy and legislation cannot be made in a Whitehall vacuum, without contribution from the communities affected. It is often charitable and community organisations who are the only voice of vulnerable groups such as children, older people and disabled people, in this process. To expect these organisations to choose between advocating for the vulnerable people they serve or accepting grants that would support but silence them in their work, is a Hobson’s choice.”

NCVO tweeted that the measure was “neither a practical or mature way for the government to manage its funding relationships with voluntary organisations.”

Patrick Murray, Head of Policy & External Affairs Development for the charity think-tank NPC, said there would “no doubt be some confusion over what is covered” by the measure.

“It’s not very clear what this will actually mean in practice for charities who receive grant income from central government,” he said. “What is clear though is that this is an extraordinarily poor way to make public policy—no consultation, little clarity about how it will practically work, and all on the back of some pretty thin, and ideologically driven, research. It is clearly part of a broader approach to charities that is partly informed by a very traditional view of what a charity is… There is a real disconnect between the public’s desire to have more professional charity delivery, and the public’s desire to not have professional charities.”

This morning charity Adnrew Purkis sector veteran chair and  chief executive and current ActionAid trustee, told Civil Society News the move was the “worst Whitehall-knows-best approach”.

“It could prevent grant charities working with people at the grass roots level from putting that experience towards policy-making.

“It’s also a clear breach of the first principle of the Compact which was signed personally by David Cameron in 2010. This couldn’t be a clearer thrashing of that principle – as well as a clear gagging of the charity sector funded by the government,” he said.

Tomorrow the proposals will be raised in the Lords by Lord Harries of Pentregarth. Harries was approached by Civil Society News for but was unavailable for comment this morning. 

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