This week, along with 137 other charity chief executives, I signed a letter to the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, regarding a proposal by the Cabinet Office aimed at preventing the use of funding to inform public policy and bans organisations from discussing issues related to the work funded by the grant with government officials or parliamentarians. I wrote about this earlier in the week.
Here is the text of the letter we signed:
Dear Prime Minister
We are writing following the publication of Cabinet Office guidelines to prohibit organisations in receipt of grant funding from influencing government or parliament. The proposed guidance would prevent the use of funding to inform public policy and bans organisations also from discussing issues related to the work funded by the grant with government officials or parliamentarians.
You have long recognised that voluntary organisations play a much needed role in policy development and regulatory reform. Facilitated by the open policy making approach you have championed, voluntary organisations bring the real-world experience of users and evidence-based expertise into public policy debate.
We support the principle that taxpayers’ money must be well spent. And it is because of this that these proposals are flawed in principle, for they may actually cost the taxpayer more money through limiting the range of insight that policy makers can draw upon.
Organisations funded by government have helped to reform and improve public services. They have held providers to account and brought to public attention failures that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Much of this work can and does save taxpayers money, contrary to the assertions of the report cited as evidence for the introduction of the proposals. The clause itself (published on 8 February on Gov.uk) is drawn incredibly widely and could have a far broader impact than your original intention.
For example, in October 2015, you announced a £5m grant fund for charities as part of the government’s counter-extremism strategy. As currently drafted, the new clause will undermine the ability of these charities to feed in valuable insights that may help government – those working on programmes receiving any grant funding would be prohibited from speaking to MPs about developments in their local area, suggesting improvements to policy or legislation, responding to your government’s own consultations, meeting ministers to discuss broader issues and evidence from their programme or even from giving evidence if called by a select committee.
Another example is that of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Awareness of FGM, and the action which has subsequently been taken against this, has occurred primarily due to the work of key charities which, thankfully, were in receipt of government funding. This clause would almost certainly have prohibited that vital initiative.
In your first speech as leader of the Conservative party you set out how you wanted to ‘set free the voluntary sector and social enterprises to deal with the linked problems that blight so many of our communities, of drug abuse, family breakdown, poor public space, chaotic home environments, high crime’. You have repeatedly reiterated your commitment to social justice, which depends upon building alliances of grassroots organisations. To say to those organisations that government will work in partnership with them but if they do, they will not be heard, is surely contrary to those commitments. And only this week you set out your ambitions for the reform of the prison service. Charities have been at the forefront of campaigning for such reforms for decades. It would be a tragedy if in future such critical advocacy work were inhibited.
Both Parliament and government play an important role in addressing these issues, and it is important that they remain well informed about how policies and programmes are making a difference on the ground.
As Prime Minister you have recognised that voluntary organisations play a crucial role in our democracy. Indeed, these proposals are at odds with the entire framework under which your government has sought to develop sound working relationships with voluntary organisations.
The Compact, which you signed in 2010, remains an important signifier of government commitment to working effectively with the voluntary and community sector. In signing it you committed government to:
‘Respect and uphold the independence of civil society organisations to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist.’
We believe that a strong, effective working relationship between voluntary organisations and the state, based upon mutual respect and understanding, is beneficial to the people of this country and beyond. The ability of voluntary organisations to campaign, regardless of any financial relationship, is a defining characteristic of this relationship. Abandoning this protection is surely not the intended consequence of these proposals, as their impact runs contrary to the relationship you have sought to develop. As such, we urge you to reconsider them and work with the voluntary sector to find a constructive way forward.
Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive, Acevo
Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive, NCVO
and 136 other chief executives of charities.