I’m writing this blog to mark something of a victory for the third sector. The Cabinet Office has announced changes to the UK Government’s planned anti-advocacy clause, the one designed to prevent grants being used for political activities such as lobbying.

SCVO outlined its opposition in a position statement in February. We said that charities are already under enough checks to stop them campaigning on behalf of political parties, and that voluntary organisations have a duty to lobby government.

Following a decision in April to put the clause on hold, it has now been rejected in favour of new minimum standards for UK Government Grant Making. This marks a more sophisticated approach. However, it falls short of what we wanted.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at what the standards mean for charities in Scotland.

What about Scottish Government Grants?

The changes don’t apply here. If your organisation only receives grants from the Scottish Government, the new standards won’t affect you.

What do they apply to?

Grants made by UK Government departments and arm’s length bodies. They don’t apply to formula grants or grant-in-aid. The UK Government’s Standards document has more detail.

What do the standards mean for UK Government grants?

The standards relate to the UK Government’s £117bn annual grants budget, which covers some 2000 schemes. Here are some key points:

  • The creation of a Grants Advice Panel to consider “high-risk, new and contentious expenditure”, as well as significant increases in funding to existing grant schemes.
  • Grants will be reviewed annually at a minimum, resulting in a decision to continue, discontinue or amend funding. This goes against evidence that shows longer-term funding makes for more stable organisations and better outcomes. This is bad for the third sector.
  • Those involved in the development and administration of grants must do training in grant management best practice. We have a number of questions around this standard. For example, will this training be standardised? Also, we think it’s important that the experience of charities informs the training.
  • Grants should be open to competition, although exemptions may be approved.
  • Grants will have outputs agreed and longer-term outcomes defined to enable active performance management.

Does this mean that money can be used for campaigning?

The standards reaffirm the right that charities have to campaign. However, the accompanying Cabinet Office press release states:

“standards would put an end to grant money being wasted on activities not specified in the grant agreement, such as political lobbying.”

Further, the standards ban:

“using grant funds to fund lobbying (via an external firm or in-house staff) in order to undertake activities intended to influence or attempt to influence parliament, government or political activity”.

In some ways, then, they water-down the original anti-advocacy clause.

We need to monitor how this develops. At present, there is scope for confusion on what can, and cannot, be funded from Government grants. Neil Cleeveley, chief executive of NAVCA, says the wording of the standards means it’s still possible for charities to be attacked for legitimate work to help people and communities.

What happens next?

The Cabinet Office will support departments with the introduction of the standards through a pilot in 2017.

SCVO will watch how this develops. In the meantime, if your organisation applies for, or receives, grants from the UK Government, it’s worth thinking about how these standards might affect your future grants.

We believe the expertise and knowledge of the third sector is vital in promoting strong policy and outcomes. A healthy, thriving democracy requires a strong civil society to both inform and challenge policy. I’m not sure the UK Government recognises this role for the sector within these standards.

While the standards perhaps alleviate some of the chill of the anti-advocacy clause, I would still advise you to keep your scarf on. We’ve not thawed out yet.