A follow-up on the UK charity speech ban: impact on university research

by Chris Bertram on February 8, 2016

I posted the other day about the UK government’s proposal to ban charities from using government funds to try to influence policy. Many commenters thought “nothing to see here, no big deal”. Now it appears that the clause applies quite generally to organizations receiving government grants, stating:

The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.

The implementation guidance then includes the following:

Q12: Where departments use third party organisations (either public, private or charity sector) to administer grants on their behalf, will the clause need to be included in the T&Cs between the third party and the grant recipient? A: Yes. Departments will need to ensure that the clause is included in all grant agreements that the Department ultimately funds, subject to exceptions signed off by Ministers. This guidance should be shared as necessary.

Unless ministers grant specific exceptions then, government grants to bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to conduct research into policy, must not aim to “influence legislative or regulatory action”. The same would go for university-based researchers in receipt of government money vie HEFCE or the Research Councils. Still more absurd than this is the picture that emerges when the clause is combined with the government’s own “Impact Agenda” which forms part of its “Research Excellence Framework”. Under this, university researchers who apply for grants are required to demonstrate “impact” which may include influencing government policy, but it will now be a contractual condition that you may not do this thing that you must do.

Given that this is so irrational, I’m tempted to conclude there must be a misunderstanding here. The alternative is that the clause will be enforced selectively against bearers of unwelcome news.

(Alerted to this by Martin O’Neill on FB).

{ 23 comments }

1

Brett Dunbar 02.08.16 at 9:22 pm

If a charity is commissioned to provide policy advice then, by implication, it has been given permission to use that grant to provide policy advice. So provided that the grant has ministerial approval then any activity that is required to fulfil the contract has permission. It doesn’t state that the permission must be explicit, implicit permission should cover that sort of things.

2

engels 02.08.16 at 9:31 pm

Holy cow. On the first thread I suggested this possibility as a rather sick joke. So I definitely won’t now joke about applying it to MPs.

3

Chris Bertram 02.08.16 at 9:32 pm

@Brett Dunbar I’m sure you’re right. No need to worry. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

On the other hand … the policy covers all contracts with outside bodies (not just charities) and applies whether or not they’ve been contracted explicitly to give policy advice. So researchers into the causes of poverty, who haven’t been contracted to give policy advice, may well find that when they opine in their published findings that some government policy is having bad effect, will be in breach of the terms of their grants. But, you’re right, this would never happen, fuss about nothing.

4

nick james 02.08.16 at 10:29 pm

those in receipt of benefits no longer allowed on demonstrations against the govt!

as for the think tanks, I’m all in favour of them being independent of government. it’s going to get interesting with universities…

5

Phil 02.08.16 at 11:13 pm

OK, this stinks. As much as I agree with the “sock puppet” arguments being cited here, a blanket ban on the Wrong Kind Of Impact goes way beyond them – it’s not a call for universities to stop doing anything but an attempt to control *how* they do it, without advertising that it’s being controlled.

6

Brett Dunbar 02.09.16 at 1:34 am

A lot depends on how the policy is interpreted. If a charity has substantial income not from central government then it can use that for lobbying. The policy has actually been trialled the Department for Communities and Local Government inserted a similar clause into its grants some time ago. It doesn’t seem to have stopped Shelter for example from lobbying of housing regulation.

While I don’t think this is a good policy I don’t think it is likely to do much more than unnecessarily complicate the accounting practices of some smaller charities.

7

Peter T 02.09.16 at 4:21 am

It is so very easy for a particular sort of liberal to persuade themselves that torture is just surgery with some hard-nosed decisions about the cost of anaesthetic.

8

Collin Street 02.09.16 at 5:26 am

> A lot depends on how the policy is interpreted.

Or, “The same words said by different people mean different things”. Your post-one interpretation is valid and reasonable, but it’s not the only possible “way the policy is interpreted” and you shouldn’t presume that it is.

[incidentally, your “how the policy is interpreted” is a somewhat-misleading misconception: policies are first constructed as actions and outcomes, with the words-to-describe-them coming afterwards. The policy is manifest as outcome; the words are a description of the intent and action, and are posterior. The thing that’s “interpretation” is the expression of the policy in words, not the other way around. Subtle, but important.]

9

reason 02.09.16 at 8:44 am

Perhaps as this is subject to discretion, the discretion should belong to an independent statutory body. After all this is not exactly without precedent (e.g. most significantly monetary policy).

10

Chris Williams 02.09.16 at 9:16 am

reason talks of a role for “an independent statutory body” This could give grants according to certain general criteria, and require grant holders to account for what they did with the money: clearly, if they merely used it to fund party political activity rather than to do research, they’d be in breach of their grant conditions. This seems like a good idea. We could call the bodies something like ‘Research Councils’.

11

Sebastian H 02.09.16 at 4:18 pm

I agree that it is troubling. This is a great moment of learning about when other people complain about broad language with reassurances that of course it won’t be interpreted in silly ways. It’s still scary isn’t it?

12

Chris Bertram 02.09.16 at 4:47 pm

Hmm Sebastian. That came up in another context recently when my city of Bristol proposed by-laws that forbid people from removing plants or parts of plants from the city parks. Cue outrage from people who claimed it would outlaw blackberry picking followed by recirculation of “Bristol bans blackberry-picking” by national media. No such ban was actually intended but it is hard to draft laws with the requisite precision. I don’t think vague and general wording is always wrong. So, the requirement that an aircraft be “airworthy” need not spell out what precisely that entails in the particular case. The differences in the present case are (a) that this is a contractual term rather than an law (b) that the government are plainly bent on restricting the expression of some people, it just isn’t clear how wide the net is intended to go (or whether they’ve really thought it through) (c) unless the term is clarified then it is highly likely that risk-averse bureaucracies (such as university managements) will interpret it strictly and conservatively rather than risking that their judgement doesn’t coincide with civil servants.

13

Jonathan Mayhew 02.09.16 at 5:29 pm

Why should a government give a grant to someone who will turn around and use that money to hire a lobbyist to lobby the government? Then the government would essentially be paying someone to lobby it. It seems to me like you’d want the lobbying part of the charity’s budget not to be supported by government funds. What kind of independent voice could you have, anyway, if all your support is governmental?

14

Sam Dodsworth 02.09.16 at 5:35 pm

Why should a government give a grant to someone who will turn around and use that money to hire a lobbyist to lobby the government?

Why should a government give money to someone who will turn around and use that money to send a letter to their MP?

15

Chris Bertram 02.09.16 at 5:40 pm

to hire a lobbyist to lobby the government

The clause is considerably broader than banning the hiring of lobbyists, but also bans any activity which aims to influence legislative or regulatory action. That’s quite a lot of legal, medical and economic research for starters. Since government also requires researchers to demonstrate “impact” there’s a problem right at the heart of policy-making quite independently of the academic freedom and free speech issues the clause raises.

16

Brett Dunbar 02.09.16 at 6:22 pm

I think you are probably wrong on the intent of the clause. The more limited use of a similar clause by the Department for Communities and Local Government doesn’t seem to have had much practical effect. Research into the effect of government policy has authorisation to produce possible policy recommendations. The intent seems to have been to deal with a small number of sock puppet campaigns, such as the minimum alcohol pricing campaign, rather than anything more sinister. Ministerial statements tend to indicate that it is activity intended solely or primarily to influence policy or funding that is affected. So in any ambiguous cases a court would tend to use that to guide a decision.

17

Chris Bertram 02.09.16 at 7:06 pm

Did you even read the implementation guidance?

18

C Godwin 02.09.16 at 7:12 pm

Peter T at 7, +1!
Naked Capitalism linked to this today.

19

Keith 02.10.16 at 3:08 am

Government lies are to be the only information to influence policy. Typical of the far right tory party.

20

engels 02.13.16 at 3:48 pm

And the invisible hand behind it…

21

TM 02.13.16 at 4:26 pm

Link malfunction.

22

engels 02.13.16 at 4:51 pm

23

Blissex 02.14.16 at 6:15 pm

One interesting detail about this is that the law apparently does not say explicitly “directly influence”, the omission of that “directly” is a pretty huge thing. Even worse, the words “support activity” cover a pretty huge category, including for example funding general expenses of the recipient, like rent or accounting. Therefore the law essentially requires recipients to split in two, in order to make sure that government grant money is never used in any activity that might “support activity” that could be seen “attempting to influence”.

Universities will probably not split in two, they will just ensure “compliance”. The effect if not the purpose of the law of course is not going to be enforcement, but as an incentive to self-“discipline” for all those entities that depends significantly on government funding.

«The alternative is that the clause will be enforced selectively against bearers of unwelcome news.»

Indeed, “influence” can mean either “support” or “undermine”, and it is pretty difficult to imagine, enforcement being discretionary, any recipient of a government grant getting into trouble for *supporting* government policy. So obviously “influence” here must be read as “undermine”.

As to those people who think that the draft is drafted with the widest possible wording but it will only be used in the most obvious and narrowest cases, there have been plenty of laws in the recent past which have been so described and then then have been used in ways that stretched even the very wide wording they were given.

Anyhow the instant topic is pretty obvious: it is the dread of tory taxpayers for the possibility that their own tax money will be used to fund socialist agit-prop.

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