At our Spirit of Manchester awards event last month one of the categories was for Most Successful Campaign. We wanted to acknowledge campaigning work because we’ve always believed that it’s the job of charities not just to meet needs but to drive change for the longer term. The history of social change in this country has been driven by the campaigning efforts of groups for centuries.
Most of our public services were established in the voluntary sector. As cuts to public sector budgets hit, it’s increasingly important that voluntary and community groups should speak out about what’s happening in our communities - from the large national groups to the small local groups. At our most recent Voluntary Sector Assembly event we discussed the sector’s role in providing testimony to the impact of poverty on families and the impact of welfare reform: everyone agreed, that's the sort of thing we're all here to do.
So you can understand why I’ve been appalled by the attempts by certain politicians to dismiss campaigning charities as “sock puppets”. We’ve been contributing to the work led by NCVO and others challenging the introduction of a new law which would massively constrain the voices of charities. The “Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning & Trade Union Administration Bill” is supposedly aimed at addressing the transparency of commercial lobbyists. Trouble is, the way the Bill has developed there’s a strong risk that the campaigning role of charities and community groups could be eroded as a side effect of increasing transparency over corporate influence - and it would particularly harm smaller groups because the threshold for the amount of money which can be spent on campaigning before having to register with the Electoral Commission is to be reduced to £5,000. Put alongside the “sock puppet” comments and it does start to feel like an attempt to stifle the legitimate and, I’d say, essential function of charities in seeking to influence policy and decision-making.
One rather telling point emerged this week: an MP has even complained about the campaign against the Lobbying Bill. See the article in Third Sector here It’s the comment "Some of the things being discussed could have been discussed quite quietly without bombardment" which I find particularly aggravating. Had there been a consultation about it, then a “quiet” discussion could have taken place ...but there wasn’t one! The first opportunity to comment so far as I'm aware was when the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee invited people to submit their views. Now that the Bill has progressed to the House of Lords, more and more parliamentarians are commenting that this Bill is being rushed through.
As a consequence of that, it looks to me like nobody bothered to consider the Charities Act and find ways to protect the role (and the democratic right) of groups working on a not-for-profit basis to challenge any institution - political or otherwise – in pursuit of charitable objects which are already defined by law.
In their briefings, NCVO use an example of an anti-smoking campaign. You can imagine how many charities which have the promotion of health as one of their objects might take up this issue. Suppose a political party agrees with the position of the charity and says so in its manifesto – must the charity then stop campaigning and potentially breach its charitable objects? Suppose the party manifesto actually names the charity as an influence? The new Bill would seem to imply that requires additional scrutiny. Why? Isn’t that how a democratic approach is supposed to work?
To be clear, the Bill doesn’t stop charities from campaigning but instead would, if it becomes law, trigger a whole set of requirements about registering with the commission which monitors elections. The problem I have with this is that it turns something which is surely it is just part of the democratic process into something which requires close scrutiny. There is already well-established charity law on this issue and the Charity Commission has standing guidance which can be found here I can’t see what is to be gained by placing further reporting requirements as the new Bill describes: it can only create additional costs for charities to no useful purpose. It seems at odds with the Government’s “red tape challenge” to be imposing more administrative obligations on charities.
Community organisations from informal voluntary groups to large national and international charities need to be able to challenge politicians, ask difficult questions and say what they are seeing happening in communities around them. The ambiguities in this Bill would leave many organisations uncertain over what they are allowed to say and when. Even with the Charity Commission guidance, it’s still important that charities spend time understanding the boundaries around campaigning on “political” issues. The Bill does nothing to address the difficulties of this, rather it makes matters considerably more complex. It seems to me that it will serve only to suppress the voices of organisations working to support some of the most marginalised and voiceless people in society.
Although the Bill seems designed around influence at Westminster, there are local implications of these proposals: in areas where there is a strong majority for one party, it is only by influencing the political processes that any kind of campaigning can be done. The learning and insight from community groups and charities needs to be able to influence the formation of policy, not just the implementation. All of this can and should be done openly and transparently – again, it’s already addressed in existing charity law.
Some years ago, I was involved in supporting the patients and families of the older people who suffered mental and physical abuse on Rowan Ward in South Manchester. What change came about as a result of that was due to the campaigning approach taken by the relatives support group who banded together to air their concerns and demand answers at local, regional and national level. Their cause was taken up by politicians and issues of elder abuse subsequently appeared in party manifestos. I’m horrified by the thought that if these proposals had been in place then, I might have found myself having to tell that group that they were not allowed to spend more than a fixed amount of money before being accused of breaching the laws on lobbying.
A few weeks back, I was at a meeting with groups to look at ways to encourage young people to get on the electoral register and vote in elections. What hope do we have of persuading them that political involvement is part of being an active member of society if the Government is at the same time implementing legislation which stifles a key means of public debate? These campaigning groups are signs that democracy is alive and kicking and not just something we do on a Thursday every five years or so.
Macc will continue pressing politicians to change this Bill before it hits the statute books. If you have any political connections, particularly at Westminster, I’d encourage you to do the same.
NCVO’s policy unit have produced a number of blogs and resources on this topic
• Resources for peers - http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2013/10/21/resources-for-peers-lobbying-bill/
• Resource for MPs and media - http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2013/09/02/the-lobbying-bill-non-party-campaigning-resources-for-mps-and-media/
• Statement - http://www.acevo.org.uk/lobbying-bill-ammendments
• Briefing for public meetings - http://blog.38degrees.org.uk/2013/10/16/gagging-law-briefing-for-public-meetings/