Why the anti-lobbying clause is effectively a requirement that good people do nothing

Guest blog by Fiona Ellis, Trust Manager, Millfield House Foundation

Irish philosopher Edmund Burke famously said that, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. If that is not an exhortation to campaign, advocate and work relentlessly for policy change, then I am a duck-billed platypus. The new anti-lobbying clause in government contracts is surely an attempt to silence critics – even benevolently disposed critics – of government policy. It is effectively a requirement that good people do nothing.

Have I exaggerated by referring to the triumph of evil in this context? Well yes and no. Some government policy is good, well thought through and effective. Some is ill-conceived and inefficient but not evil in intent or result. But some is evil in the eyes of the recipients – ask victims of the bedroom tax, ask refugees refused asylum and left to scavenge a living, ask people with disabilities facing yet another benefit cut. Where policy is less than perfect it matters that all citizens, especially those with experience and knowledge, strive to make it better. It is in the interest of the whole society that we all take this task on and help our elected members do the best possible job with our money. After all we employ them; we provide the resources for them to do their jobs. We should manage them properly and guide them when they are wrong.

Much has been written about the probable effects of the new clause. Its few words have been analysed and rightly condemned by VONNE’s Jane Hartley, NCVO, NAVCA and sympathetic journalists. It is based on thin and ill-researched evidence and naïve in its failure to consider the consequences for ministers who actually need and welcome VCSO advice. History will judge it as a piece of poorly conceived nonsense.

So what is going to happen after May 2016 when the clause becomes compulsory? Millfield House Foundation, which funds only policy and campaigning work by NE organisations, discussed this at a trustee meeting at the end of February. Some trustees were concerned that VCSOs would be daunted by the clause, not so much by the fear of repercussions if they break it, but of the sheer bureaucratic nightmare of segregating finances and demonstrating compliance if they so much as squeak a mild criticism of a government contract and want to suggest a revision. Others were strongly of the opinion that VCSOs should carry on as normal, using other funds for campaigning and refusing to be muzzled. Both sides are right – one predicts, the other exhorts.

We must hope that the predictors are wrong and that the sector is still strong enough to stand up for beneficiaries, to point to better solutions, to continue to work with willing politicians to make better, more effective, fairer government policy. After all is it not a fundamental part of the sector’s role to stretch boundaries, to try new solutions, to test, to experiment and then to communicate what has been learned for the good of the whole public? Is not that what independence so valuably enables us to do?

Burke got it right again when he wrote: ‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle’. The good in this case can come from any sector - voluntary organisations, independent grantmakers and wise politicians. We at Millfield House Foundation urge them all to step up.