Tag: Charities

Charities not allowed to criticise authoritarian government ministers

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Charities and groups contracted to deliver the government’s new Work and Health Programme have been told they must not be critical of the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey.

A clause in the contract for those delivering the programme stipulates that signed-up charities must “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of McVey and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). However, such contracts that prevent charities from speaking out do not align with government claims of  “transparency”. 

Turning Point, the RNIB, the Royal Association for Deaf People, and the Shaw Trust are among charities that have agreed to act as providers of services under the programme – which focuses on supporting disabled people and other disadvantaged groups into work in England and Wales. It does not operate in Scotland.

There are currently at least 22 organisations – covering contracts worth £1.8 billion – that have been required to sign the clauses as part of their involvement with Department for Work and Pensions programmes.

The existence of an extraordinary clause was revealed through a freedom of information (FoI) request by campaigning website the Disability News Service (DNS)You can read the report on the disclosure in full here.

DNS says the clause states that the contractor “shall pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of DWP and ensure it does nothing to bring it “into disrepute, damages the reputation of the Contracting Body or harms the confidence of the public in the Contracting Body”.

The contract defines the “Contracting Body” as the work and pensions secretary – Esther McVey, who was criticised and heckled last week in the Scottish Parliament as she attempted to make a defence for Universal Credit and the hated rape clause.

All of the disability charities contacted by DNS have insisted that the clause – which DWP has been using since 2015 – will have no impact on their willingness to criticise McVey or the Department.

Shaw Trust said the “publicity, media and official enquiries” clause had been present “in previous DWP contracts” and “does not and has not impinged on our independence as a charity”.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The department did not introduce this clause specifically for the Work and Health Programme contract.

“It has been used in DWP employment category contracts since 2015.

The contract is the framework which governs the relationship with DWP and its contractors so that both parties understand how to interact with each other.

“The clause is intended to protect the best interests of both the department and the stakeholders we work with, and it does not stop individuals working for any of our contractors from acting as whistle-blowers under the provisions of the Public Interest “Disclosure Act 1998, nor does it prevent contractors from raising any concerns directly with the department.”

So how do charities raise concerns about the impact of draconian Conservative policies, without being “critical of the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey,” or get around the problem of “paying the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the DWP, exactly? 

The UK government has “systematically and gravely” violated the human rights of disabled persons, a fact that was verified by the United Nations (UN) investigation, the findings of which were published in 2016. The UN report documented multiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund, in addition to the cuts made to the welfare safety net.

The government have dismissed these findings in their entirety. Yet a truly democratic, accountable and transparent government would have monitored and assessed the impact of their punitive policies, and launched an inquiry to explore the correlation between their policies and practices and the distress, harm, premature deaths and suicides that have been well documented and evidenced over the past few years. 

This authoritarian gagging clause emphasises a toxic oppressive culture, and an intention of the government to silence its critics. However, it is unenforceable insofar as it purports to preclude a worker or group from making a protected disclosure, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Whistleblowing legislation has been amended since the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 and the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015.

The 2013 Act, among other things, introduced a public interest test. In order to benefit from whistleblower protection a disclosure must “in the reasonable belief of the worker making the disclosure” be “made in the public interest”. 

The 2015 Act created a power for the Secretary of State to impose reporting requirements on prescribed persons (bodies to which whistleblowers may disclose information).  It is claimed that these requirements would cover matters such as the number of whistleblowing disclosures received and investigated. 

In an era of  outsourcing and public sector commissioning, most contracts issued by NHS trusts, local authorities and central government departments, or by their prime providers, now include such restrictions on providers speaking freely or releasing any information without permission.

The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector included in its 2014 report a specific request to the government that such clauses be outlawed. Nick Hurd, then the Minister for Civil Society, said in a priceless Orwellian response that it was the government’s ambition for the UK to be “the most transparent and accountable government in the world”; but he said it had a duty “to ensure all publicly released information is accurate and validated, and contracts with providers are designed to reflect this”. 

That’s a government denial clause, by the way. 

Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity chief executives body Acevo, said in 2014 that gagging clauses are unacceptable and charities and social enterprises should challenge them.

“There is no doubt that many confidentiality clauses in government contracts are designed to protect not the public but the department or the ministers concerned,” he says. “We need an open, transparent system where data is freely shared. We have reams of data protection legislation that is designed to protect the vulnerable. Contractual confidentiality clauses that aim to prevent ‘bringing a department into disrepute’, as one example puts it, merely protect officialdom.”

Exactly.

However, the right to whistleblow if individuals believe there has been serious wrongdoing remains. If it’s in the public interest, there is a right to disclose and be protected from any consequences, and that is the law.

You can read about the laws and protections regarding whistleblowing and gagging clauses here.

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Update 9 October 2018

The media has finally decided this issue is newsworthy.

At least 22 organisations – covering contracts worth £1.8 billion – have been required to sign the clauses as part of their involvement with programmes getting the unemployed into work, The Times  has reported.  

Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) denied they were “gagging clauses” intended to prevent criticism of ministers or their policies, insisting they were just “standard procedure”. However a spokesman confirmed that the contracts did include references to ensure both parties “understand how to interact with each other and protect their best interests”. The signatories to contracts must undertake to “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the Work and Pensions Secretary, the newspaper reported, adding that they must “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” to her, damage her reputation, or harm the public’s confidence in her. 

The disclosure comes after McVey confirmed that some people would be worse off as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit, saying the Government had taken some “tough decisions”. However, this was contradicted by Downing Street

Former prime minister John Major called for a rethink of the planned roll-out of UC to more than two million claimants of existing benefits, warning the Government risked a poll tax-style backlash if the policy was seen as unfair.

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that from April 2019 Citizens Advice (CA) and Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) will receive a total of £51 million to help people with universal credit claims. This move in itself shows how unfit for purpose the Universal Credit (UC) process is, as people need support in simply claiming it. 

CA and CAS  have been given a role in supporting  claimants through every step of making a UC claim and ‘managing their money when it arrives.’ The main focus will be on budgeting advice and digital support. 

£12 million is being provided to CA and CAS to set up the service by April 2019, with a further £39 million being paid from April onwards.

The government funding has understandably raised concerns about the freddom that CA and CAS will have to campaign in relation to the failings of UC.

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey said:

“This brand new partnership with Citizens Advice will ensure everyone, and in particular the most vulnerable claimants, get the best possible support with their claim that is consistently administered throughout the country.

“Citizens Advice are an independent and trusted organisation, who will support people as we continue the successful rollout of Universal Credit.”

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

We offer independent and confidential advice to millions of people every year, and have already helped nearly 150,000 people with Universal Credit. We’ve seen first-hand what can happen when people struggle to make a claim and their payments are delayed.

“We welcome the opportunity to provide even more people with the help they need with Universal Credit, and deliver a consistent service through the Citizens Advice network across England and Wales.

“Delivering this service will give us even greater insight into the Universal Credit system. We’ll continue to share our evidence with the government to help make sure Universal Credit works for everyone.”

The problem is that’s what he thinks.

Related 

Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

 


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Osborne criticises the government’s manifesto, while charities are silenced by ‘gagging act’

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George Osborne, the architect of many an omnishambolic budget, has called the Conservative manifesto “the most disastrous in recent history” in a suprisingly critical editorial

The London Evening Standard derided the Tories’ campaign attempt to launch a “personality cult” around the prime minister. Osborne attacked Theresa May’s handling of Brexit as marred by “high-handed British arrogance”.  He said the campaign had “meandered from an abortive attempt to launch a personality cult around May to the self-inflicted wound of the most disastrous manifesto in recent history”.

He has already mocked May’s net migration target as “economically illiterate” and branded Brexit a “historic mistake” since becoming the London paper’s editor.

The editorial then mockingly suggested the current conversation among Downing Street aides would likely be along the lines of: “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.”

The Evening Standard has also criticised the government’s manifesto meltdown over the  highly unpopular “dementia tax”, saying: “Just four days after the Conservative manifesto proposals on social care were announced, Theresa May has performed an astonishing U-turn, and bowed in the face of a major Tory revolt over plans to increase the amount that elderly homeowners and savers will pay towards their care in old age. 

There will now be a cap on the total care costs that any one individual faces. The details are still sketchy but it is not encouraging that the original proposals were so badly thought through.” 

In another article titled U-turn on social care is neither strong nor stable”, it says: “Current Tory leaders should have been ready to defend their approach. Instead we had a weekend of wobbles that presumably prompted today’s U-turn. The Pensions Secretary Damian Green was unable to answer basic questions in a TV interview about who will lose their fuel payments, and how much extra money will go into social care.

“Either the Government is prepared to remove these payments from millions of pensioners who are not in poverty, and don’t receive pension credit, and spend their substantial savings on social care; or they chicken out, target the tiny percentage of pensioners who are on higher tax rates, save paltry sums and accept the whole manoeuvre is a gimmick. Certainly, if the savings are to pay for a new care cap, then many pensioners will lose their winter fuel payment. This isn’t for consultation after an election — it’s an issue of honesty before an election.”

With the Tories’ poll lead diminishing, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has warned that the proposed “dementia tax” would become May’s version of the poll tax which led to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.

Whilst Osborne is free to speak his mind, it’s an irony that many charities have complained they have been silenced from criticising the Conservative social care plans despite the fact they will be hugely damaging to elderly and disabled people across the country.

One chief executive of a major charity in the social care sector has told the Guardian that they felt “muzzled” by the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill – a controversial legislation introduced in 2014  which heavily restricts organisations from intervening on policy during an election period.

The charity said May’s decision to means test winter fuel allowance would “inadvertently” result in some of the poorest pensioners in the country losing the support, adding that “will literally cost lives”.

The charity also claimed that the so-called “dementia tax” on social care in the home would stop people who need support from seeking it.

“We are ready to speak out at one minute past midnight on 9 June,” the charity leader added, but stressed they were too afraid to do so now.

Sir Stephen Bubb, who runs the Charity Futures thinktank but previously led Acevo, an umbrella organisation for voluntary organisations, said it was notable how quiet his sector had been about the policy.

He went on to say: “The social care proposals strike at the heart of what charities do but they should be up in arms about them but it hasn’t happened. It is two problems: there is the problem of the so-called “gagging act”, but also the general climate of hostility towards charities means there is a lot of self censorship.” 

“Charities that once would have spoken out are keeping quiet and doing a disservice to their beneficiaries. They need to get a bit of a grip.” 

He cited the example of the Prime Minister hitting out at the British Red Cross after its chief executive claimed his organisation was responding to a “humanitarian crisis” in hospitals and ambulance services.

May accused the organisation of making comments that were “irresponsible and overblown”.

It’s not the only time the Conservatives have tried to gag charities for highlighting the dire impacts of Tory policies. In 2014, MPs reported Oxfam to the Charity Watchdog for campaigning against poverty. I guess the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had better watch it, too. What next, will they be reporting the NSPCC for campaigning for children’s welfare?

'Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm - and it's forcing more and more people into poverty' tweeted Oxfam
Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm – and it’s forcing more and more people into poverty.

The Oxfam campaign that sent the Conservatives into an indignant rage and to the charity watchdog to complain was an appeal to ALL political parties to address growing poverty. Oxfam cited some of the causes of growing poverty in the UK, identified through research (above).

Tory MP Priti Patel must have felt that the Conservatives are exempt from this appeal, due to being the architects of the policies that have led to a growth in poverty and inequality, when she said: “With this Tweet they have shown their true colours and are now nothing more than a mouthpiece for left wing propaganda.”

I’m wondering when concern for poverty and the welfare of citizens become the sole concern of “the left wing”. That comment alone speaks volumes about the attitudes and prejudices of the Conservatives.

Bubb said: “That was a warning shot. So many charity leaders do feel that if they do speak out there will be some form of comeback on them. The Charity Commission has been notably absent in defending charity rights to campaign – the climate has been hostile to the charity voice.” 

There is some fear that charities face a permanent “chilling effect” after the Electoral Commission said they must declare any work that could be deemed political over the past 12 months to ensure they are not in breach of the Lobbying Act. 

Another senior figure also said charities were too afraid to speak out on the social care proposals. “We are all scared of the lobbying act and thus most of us are not saying much during the election. There was the same problem in the EU referendum – if you criticise the government then you are being “political”.

During the referendum a row broke out after the Charity Commission
issued guidelines that some charities interpreted as preventing them from making pro-EU arguments. 

Head of the organisation, William Shawcross, dismissed the charge by Margaret Hodge MP that his Euroscepticism was to blame for the issuing of the advice from the commission on when charities could intervene on the issue.

Steve Reed, shadow minister for civil society, said the Labour party would scrap the lobbying act because it had “effectively gagged” charities.