An amendment to charities’ freedom in how they use Government grants has set many hares running in higher education. But, asks Andy Westwood, what does it mean and do we need to panic?
Hancock’s half hour
Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister has introduced a new ‘anti advocacy’ clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements. In his words: “’taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government. The public sector never lobbies for lower taxes and less state spending, and it’s a zero-sum game if Peter is robbed to pay Paul.”
The clause is quite specific in what it rules out and Hancock’s recommendation is that it should be included in the terms & conditions attached to all grant agreement letters: “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”.
Anti-lobbying and higher education
It isn’t a new suggestion, building on the so-called ‘anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppets’ clause first proposed by Eric Pickles for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in 2014-15. This had been prompted by the revelation that a number of Local Enterprise Partnerships – introduced by Pickles, when Secretary of State – were paying public affairs consultancies to campaign and lobby MPs and Ministers on their behalf.
But what has it got to do with higher education? Or what might the unintended impact be on universities and researchers? Did Matthew Hancock think about universities, and the policy evaluation that the Government directly commissions, from academics, think tanks and consultancies? Almost certainly not.
Ironically, the clause appeared the same week that HEFCE released their draft consultation on the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), designed to assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. In it they asked whether the current impact component for assessing the quality of research should rise from 20% to 25%. See James Wilsdon writing for WonkHE .
Research impact has become a major part of the REF. In the most recent exercise, the majority of impact case studies related to the influence that research has had in parliament and amongst policy makers. And rightly so. Lord Stern has recently been commissioned to review the process and to look at how impact is measured, rather than to curtail or rule it out as a condition of funding. It will be interesting to see what he makes of Hancock’s presumption that this new clause is always included in all grant letters.
So far, so worrying. But there are important caveats that will provide comfort to universities and to individual researchers. The clause states specifically that ‘Grant recipients are still free to engage in lobbying but should not fund this sort of activity from government grants unless it is specifically part of the terms of the grant itself.’ Organisations that still want to actively influence policy and other ‘excluded activities’ can ‘raise and use separate funds to do so.’ So in other words, if it can be demonstrated that other funds are used to support policy influence or lobbying then it’s ok. For universities, that means that any wider revenue sources – including income from tuition fees, alumni donations or commercial sponsorship for example – can justify what we want to do.
Furthermore the clause also states that departments and agencies don’t even have to use it at all. ‘With explicit agreement from ministers, departments can in exceptional cases remove the clause or make qualifications that best reflect the nature of the grant purpose’. If BIS, HEFCE or the Research Councils don’t wish to use this clause then subject to Jo Johnson’s or Sajid Javid’s agreement, they won’t have to (although according to Cabinet Office guidance they may still have to report exemptions to the ‘Grants Efficiency team’ and may be published in ‘transparency returns’.
Poor policy making
Whilst universities – and the vast majority of charities for that matter – should now be able to breathe a sigh of relief once they’ve read and understood this detail, they should still be concerned by such poor policymaking. All universities and most voluntary organisations will be able to point to sources of non-government funding that will allow them to work with and to try and influence the shape, detail and nature of government policy. If they wish they will still be able to employ lobbyists to do it for them. But frustratingly they may have to lobby their own departmental ministers, deal with the ‘Grants Efficiency Team’ or help provide evidence for departmental ‘transparency returns’ in order to do so.
Pointless legislation, ineffective policy and unnecessary bureaucracy? A waste of time and money? Probably. Something that any researcher or campaigner could have told government, if they had been asked? Certainly. Matthew Hancock might have spared everyone’s effort if he had spent more time thinking about what an effective policy might look like. Or he might have listened to Francis Maude, his predecessor at the Cabinet Office, who appearing on a recent Radio 4 documentary explained that too much policy and legislation comes from a flawed thought process: ‘Something is wrong, something must be done. Here’s something, therefore we must do it’, Francis Maude – In Defence of Bureaucracy – Radio 4, 12th March 2013.
Matthew Hancock has identified a problem and crafted a solution that doesn’t really work. It might sound momentarily convincing (and worrying for institutions possibly caught out by the clause) but only for about half an hour.