The announcement of the government’s intention to introduce an ‘anti-influencing’ clause to be inserted into both new and renewed grant agreements not only flies in the face of Compact principles the government have signed up to, but challenges a key role of the voluntary sector.
The Compact, signed by David Cameron in 2010, sets out the government’s commitment to working effectively with the voluntary and community sector. A key principle is for 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.
Many VCSE organisation are grant funded to provide support to vulnerable and disadvantaged people or represent and give a voice to those people. The government is short sighted in introducing this clause as it has benefitted from obtaining frontline intelligence from the VCSE to inform policy and organisations will now be prevented from raising concerns, lobbying and potentially from undertaking research which may influence policy. Voluntary organisations bring the real-world experience of users and evidence-based expertise into public policy debate.
A key word within the clause is ‘influencing’ and it is difficult to see where the distinction will be drawn between ‘informing, advising and raising concerns’ which are key functions for the sector and influencing. Organisations will also not be able to use grant funding to influence the awarding or renewal of grants and contracts. Where does influence begin and end here, does this extend to time spent by managers in seeking continuation funding?
Programmes such as the Department of Health’s Strategic Partner Programme, involving 26 VCSE organisation working at national and regional level (including VONNE) ensure that insight from volunteers, service users and carers informs the development and implementation of health policy. That practice will now be at risk. The clause fundamentally challenges the spirit of co-production and recent legislation to ensure statutory bodies involve and engage service user and carers often via the charities and groups representing them.
Infrastructure bodies who exist to represent and support voluntary action which includes influencing policy and legislative or regulatory action where it impacts on the sector will be severely compromised in an environment where funding for infrastrucure is increasingly hard to find and many organisations are going to the wall. This in turn will impact on the wider sector as the loss of bodies which represent and champion their interests undermines their ability to, dare I say it, ‘influence’ policy and practice in respect of the sector and the communities they serve.
So what are we going to do about it?
VONNE along with many other VCSE organisations across the country have sent a letter to David Cameron stating that
‘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.’
We have also, as part of the Regional Voices Network, one of the Strategic Partners of the Department of Health, signed up to letter to Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health and Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP, and various ministers in the Department of Health urging them not to implement this clause and setting out the possible impact of doing so.
I urge VCSE organisations in the North East to consider how this may impact on your organisation – whether you have grant funded delivery projects, policy development or research projects there could be an impact.
Look out for the information coming from the national organisations such as NCVO, ACEVO, and NAVCA and via VONNE, and make your local MP and others aware of this forthcoming clause. If you tweet can you use the hashtag #antiadvocacy. Shout about it before it’s too late!