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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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March 2016

The strange end of the Saatchi Bill

In quiet news last week, the "Saatchi Bill" was given Royal Assent on Wednesday 23rd March. It’s the Saatchi Act 2016 now. Except that it isn’t. This is not the legislation Lord Saatchi originally said he wanted. Everything has been stripped out of it except the provision for a database. All the Act does is give the Secretary of State provision to set up a database to capture information about innovative medical treatment, if he wants to. Doesn’t say he should. Doesn’t say anyone should use it if he does. This is the flimsiest Act I’ve seen for a long time. What a waste of time and resources.

Well done to all the people who drew attention to the dangers of earlier versions. The statute books are not a place for parliamentarians to seek therapy or consolation. Thank goodness most don’t raise pointless bills for personal reasons.

Here's a plan to help the government to do better than its anti-lobbying clause

With its anti-lobbying clause, the government is going to restrict publicly funded individuals and bodies, including scientists and research groups, participating in public life. This is not what the government wants to restrict: it wants to restrict gross abuses of funds – councils spending government funding on making self-promotional political material and situations like the defunct charity Kids Company, who spent a lot of the funds on lobbying for more funds rather than actually helping kids.

Some hope the anti-lobbying clause will stop organisations that use public grants to pay for lobbying against the government. (There are, though, also cases of government grants to organisations that make cases that are helpful to government. I’m not sure the clause writers have thought this far.)

Regardless of the intention, the clause places a restriction on everybody who receives government funds, including research bodies. A lot of people, like me, and including some of the harshest critics of the misuses above, think this is ludicrous: society pays for research, and for people to become experts. We want them in public life. But let’s not get too exceptionalist about this: very useful contributions to policy making, and the evidence it draws on, come from advocates, users and providers of services. Why would we want anyone restricted? The government doesn’t really want this either.

So … the government should stop the gross abuses of funds instead of redefining the problem as one of trying to 'influence policy'. It should ask how it in some cases has ended up giving grant after grant to a body that doesn’t do what it says it will. And leave the question of influencing policy well alone.

The clause is fundamentally not the answer to this issue. So this isn't a question of clarifying or better defining it. There is no definition of lobbying that would work here: when even the most dispassionate of scientists submit material to a policy consultation, it’s called lobbying by one side and welcomed as information by the other. Even if you think we can just have an exemption for things we like, such as research, there is no easy definition of ‘research’ either and few government departments where that’s not going to present a challenge.

Let’s be totally clear: any restriction of people’s ability to influence parliamentary, government and legal matters will be over-inclusive and inhibit democratic participation. (It is under-inclusive too – this is science speak, for the policy folk – because it only targets one diversion of public funds. It has nothing to say about lobbying the public or a foreign government for example.) It is also practically counterproductive to what government actually wants. So instead of trying to control participation in public life, the government should simply seek to control whether it gives money to organisations that don’t use it for the intended purpose. I pay Jim for chips, Jim gives me a potato, I don’t pay Jim for chips anymore. I don’t try to stop everyone serving potato. 

The government should drop the May implementation and consult more on what would really tackle the problem, without causing the collateral damage that will result from extending this clause beyond the services sponsored by the Department for Communities and Local Government. 

A Big PS

It’s not okay to say, ah well the clause is dreadful but the government’s not targeting researchers and it will be used sensibly. Its effects won’t just be from formal enforcement. Think on these:

1.     Sure, government is not going to come after researchers asking for its money back. But when a researcher’s contribution to a policy discussion is not on message with government’s position, do we imagine this clause won’t be brought into play?

2.     When a researcher’s contribution to a policy discussion upsets an advocacy group – on energy, use of animals in research, drugs, NHS funding, IVF, badgers – do we really think this clause won’t be used as the basis for a complaint, which must then be investigated by the relevant government department and the research institution, and defended by the individual? (Think of the senior time one complaint will take up, producing accounts of the hours spent on the funded work versus the time taken on policy work, trying to parse the difference between the conduct of the work and how someone has used it to press a point!)

3.     When a government-commissioned researcher provides a report with recommendations that reach further than anticipated, do we think the civil servants won’t have reference to the clause?

4.     Participating in policy discussions can be hard, time consuming and intimidating. Finding a reason not to do it is often attractive. Do we think no-one will use this one?

5.     Many organisations in receipt of government funding are already anxious not to misstep and provide a reason for that funding to be cut. Do we think they won’t err on the side of caution and apply the rule to their grantees and employees in any way at all? (“In order to protect ourselves from this being really enforced, we must enforce it a little bit ourselves” – we know this logic, it’s always in play.)

6.     In every big organisation there are people who want more control over what others do and disagreements between different groups of people. If you’ve worked in one you may have encountered the way that the policy department complains about the activities of the communications department. The clause will be brought into play.

This article was amended on 21.03.16 for clarity.