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Lobbying: Government Grant Agreements

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have considered the effect on scientific and medical research, the arts, campaigning organisations and other bodies of the anti-lobbying clause in government grant agreements to be introduced on 1 May as a condition of public funding.

My Lords, grant recipients can continue to discuss the findings of publicly funded research with government or Parliament, whether that be by giving evidence or in an advisory capacity. The clause in question is about making sure that taxpayers’ money is spent as intended and not diverted from good causes to fund political campaigning and lobbying.

My Lords, does not the Minister believe that a healthy, open society not only allows but actively encourages the use of public money given out as grants to question the status quo, to challenge the Government over policy when felt necessary and, indeed, to make constructive recommendations for new policy? This is an essential aspect of the national public debate. This clause threatens that, will damage democracy and should be scrapped.

My Lords, I fear that there is a fundamental point of principle on which I cannot agree with the noble Earl, who I know holds passionate views on this subject. This is about making sure that the many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that go to grant recipients are spent on the original allocation of the grants and do not find their way into political lobbying and campaigning.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many charitable organisations falling within the purview of this Question are fearful of voicing their opinion in the context of the referendum on the European question? Will he make it clear to all such organisations that they will not be penalised under any circumstances for voicing their opinion, on whichever side that may be, in the context of the referendum?

The noble Lord makes a good point. The Charity Commission has published guidance for charities that may wish to participate in debates on the forthcoming EU referendum. The commission’s guidance reflects the existing legal position that charities can undertake campaigning and political activity where it is in support of their charitable purposes and where the trustees consider it to be in the interests of the charity.

My Lords, is it not important that we err on the side of freedom? And is not it true that, almost universally, what the Government intend to do is seen to be a bar to freedom of expression? Should not the Government think again before they get a reputation of being a bit lily-livered about opposition?

I am very sorry to say that, on this point, I disagree with my noble friend. As I said, it is not about curbing freedom of speech; it is about making sure that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively and goes where it was meant to go.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that this anti-lobbying clause is going to have a serious impact on research, since most people do research in order to influence policy and make it more evidence-based? Is it not odd that this in fact does not apply in any way to commercial lobbying and restricts only government-funded lobbying? Should not its real emphasis be on the control of the abuse of funds, as with Kids Company? Would it not be wise in the present circumstances to postpone the application of this new agreement until after 1 May so that further consultation can take place on this very important threat to the freedom of research and speech?

I heed what the noble Lord is saying. I have certainly received concerns, as have other Ministers, from the research and academic community. Clearly, the implementation of this clause as regards science and research is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Let me tell your Lordships that it is not the department’s nor the Government’s intention for research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council or the national academies to be covered by this clause. Ministers in BIS are continuing to engage with the academic research community and they will outline more detail by 1 May.

My Lords, could the Minister tell this House at what point in the process the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, was consulted about the impact on scientific research? Could the Minister also inform the House of Sir Mark’s response?

I am sorry to say that I cannot go into great detail on that, as I am not furnished with that information. However, obviously there have been conversations with Sir Mark and others in the scientific community.

My Lords, the press release that announced this said that it was as a result of research done by the IEA—so that lobbying led to this, with no consultation either with the academic world or anyone else. If I have understood the Minister, he is now willing to exempt academic research but not research carried out by other organisations, be they charities, the Marine Management Organisation, English Heritage or any others. Will the Minister consult with them before they are restricted from giving information to Parliament, government and, under the rules, to the European Union?

My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness is saying. Her concerns have been heeded in the sense that the consultation on the implementation of this clause began the minute that the clause was announced in February. As regards curbing freedom of speech by charities, that is not the case. Let me remind your Lordships that charities make up only 7% of grant spend. Charities can continue to use any other funds to lobby government. Indeed, in the DCLG, where this clause has been in place for the past 18 months, Shelter, which has been receiving a grant from the DCLG, has continued to lobby this House and the other place on the contents of the housing Bill, for example.

My Lords, could we remind the House that this public money has come from taxation of well-off people, poor people and other people throughout the kingdom? The money is there to be granted for useful purposes; it is not there to pay for campaigning and lobbying. It is public money. If people want to campaign or lobby—I have lobbied and given money for lobbying—it should not be done with public money.

It will not surprise your Lordships that I agree with my noble friend. As I said, £130 billion is paid out in grants, and it is absolutely concomitant on any Government to ensure that that money goes to where it is meant to go.

My Lords, would the Minister not consider something which occurred in this House? The hybrid embryo Bill, an area with which I am particular familiar, was an example of a piece of science and legislation for which this kind of lobbying and consultation was really important. It depended hugely on the advice that we got from research councils and other experts who lobbied. Even I, who have a detailed knowledge of much about science, learned from that process. Therefore, it greatly helped our debate and decision on the process, which in fact turned out well. It would be a mistake to ignore that.

I completely defer to the noble Lord’s considerable experience in the scientific community. I say again that, if the grant is used to fund a public campaign to seek legislative or regulatory change, that would be in breach of the clause unless specified in the terms of the grant agreement. However, organisations are free to use their own funding to publicise their research. It is therefore perfectly legitimate for the recipient of a grant to appear on the media or write press articles so long as that does not incur costs to the public purse.