The Department for Work and Pensions has been accused of “gagging” charities and other organisations involved in universal credit on the front page of today’s newspaper.
Today's front page story is headlined "Charities gagged by ministers over universal credit".
Although gagging clauses have appeared in DWP contracts, the charities specifically mentioned in the article have said their right to speak out has not been restricted.
Earlier this month DWP announced that it was giving Citizens Advice £51m to help with the roll out of universal credit. This prompted a fresh wave of concern that this would prevent the charity from speaking up. Earlier this year, Disability News Service revealed that DWP suppliers had a “publicity, media and official enquiries” clause in their contracts, which means contractors must have “regard to the standing and reputation” of DWP.
There has been mounting criticism of universal credit and the Times highlighted that the Shaw Trust has not joined a group speaking out. It suggested this was because of its funding from DWP.
The Shaw Trust told the Times: “We have had this clause in previous government contracts and it does not and has not impinged on our independence.”
Citizen Advice received a grant and not a contract, meaning it has not signed the “publicity” clause.
In a statement, Gillian Guy, chief executive said: “Nothing in the grant agreement we have with the DWP prevents us from continuing to raise our evidence publicly about Universal Credit.
"We also have a core grant and other sources of funding which we use to fund our public advocacy and campaigning work.
“We’ve already helped 150,000 people who have struggled with the new benefit. This funding will allow us to support even more people make a successful claim.
"We are, and always will be, totally independent from government."
A DWP spokesperson said: "It's completely untrue to suggest that organisations are banned from criticising Universal Credit. As with all arrangements like this, they include a reference which enables both parties to understand how to interact with each other and protect their best interests. This is in place to safeguard any commercial sensitive information for both government and the organisation involved."
The Charity Commission said it had been in touch with DWP and been assured that charities are not being prevented from speaking out.
Sarah Atkinson, director of policy, planning and communications at the Charity Commission said: “The public rightly expect charities to put the interests of those they help first, and that will sometimes mean speaking truth to power. It is vital charities are free to do this. We have sought, and received, assurances from DWP that charities in contracts to deliver elements of the Universal Credit programme are not prevented from speaking out about any challenges that recipients may be facing.”
The issue of “gagging” clauses is particularly sensitive for charities as the government previously tried to introduce an “anti-advocacy” clause into its standard grants contracts, which would have made it difficult for charities to speak out. But the clause was watered down after lobbying from the sector and others.