Why new anti-lobbying rules leave small charities out in the cold

A need to report back from the frontline. Volunteering by Shutterstock

Charities will no longer be able to use public money for lobbying activities according to new rules. The anti-advocacy clause in government contracts announced by the Cabinet Office stated that “taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government”, adding that it was “a zero sum game if Peter is robbed to pay Paul”.

There are structures for local communication between the public and voluntary sectors, such as Local Strategic Partnerships, but these do not connect charities with the national policymakers that regulate their work. This is particularly true for small and medium-sized charities who already lack channels of communication, despite the value of their experience working closely with service users. The clause may therefore result in a political problem.

So if the government is serious about not stifling debate, but rather to ensure money is spent on services, then it should demonstrate this through creating other venues for critiquing policy and transmitting knowledge gained from frontline service delivery.

Feedback from the frontline

The new clause has been criticised by umbrella charities such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and others, although charities such as Shelter, cited in the government announcement as an example of using private funds for lobbying, have been (officially) quiet. Those who have criticised the government’s regulation have expressed their concern that knowledge from frontline service delivery, which should inform better decision-making in policy, will go unused.

For these critics, the “farce” is a political construction that in practice undermines the aim of government funding to address social problems. John Tizard, an adviser and commentator on public policy, wrote that his “experience suggests that mature and confident politicians welcome informed debate and campaigns, even when they disagree with them”.

A joint letter from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and NCVO also said the clause “may actually cost the taxpayer more money through limiting the range of insight that policy makers can draw upon”.

Deep cuts

Yet it’s the issue for smaller charities that cuts deepest. Both the local charities and government-funded consortia that bring together community-based associations working in the same area (such as public health), and the community activists the government now depends on to fill the gaps created by cuts, risk becoming more distant than ever from the political elites instigating those cuts. These groups operate job clubs, advice networks, food banks, lunch clubs, and other activities that are often replacing or compensating for reduced local public services.

Sharing knowledge. Shutterstock

Large charities such as Shelter, with diverse sources of funding, will continue to pressure the government over poverty-related issues like housing and likewise receive recognition as a representative of the sector. But smaller charities or government-funded local consortia, which already lack a voice because of their size and diversity, may find themselves even more financially and politically marginalised in a climate that will discourage open, public discussion.

This marginalisation may affect both local charities and policymakers in three specific ways:

• It will exacerbate the mounting frustration and workload among many local charities facing daily the personal consequences of policies like sanctions, the bedroom tax, and cuts to public services, but unable to leverage this responsibility for greater access to policymakers.

• Likewise, there will be an increasingly visible tension between local charities striving to be “safe spaces”, where service users can trust that someone will listen and try to help, and the policies that affect their work. Policies like the anti-advocacy clause implicitly convey a lack of trust in the intentions of charities and demonstrate the unwillingness of policymakers to listen to what charity staff have to say.

• Community-based associations that serve particular ethnic and religious groups may have little or no capacity to express the impact their projects have on integration, undermining policies aimed at inclusion.

Smaller charities (and bigger ones too) must be able to transmit knowledge and findings from the frontline to those making policy. If the government keeps the anti-advocacy clause, then it must provide alternative ways for charities to voice concerns – or share ideas. These forums should include charities dependent on government funding or which lack the resources to develop a policy position so that they have the opportunity to have genuine influence over policymaking. They should include a range of charities from diverse local communities, not just the large national charities that can afford to lobby using private funds, in order to gain the broadest understanding of the social impact of current policies and the policy reforms needed to improve this impact.