Friday, 23 August 2013

The Lobbying Bill; the threat.

Over the centuries the United Kingdom has been proud to host the greatest charitable tradition in the world. Whether delivering public services or campaigning for beneficiaries’ civil society makes for a stronger democracy.

What is of the most importance for our democratic institutions is that we work and speak for the most vulnerable in our society. Sometimes this voice is welcomed, at other times it's uncomfortable for governments and we are criticised. But speaking truth to power is etched across the hearts of charity CEOs.

This is an honourable history. Campaigning against slavery in the 18th century or against cruelty to animals or children in the 19th or against smoking and world poverty in the 20th or fuel poverty and homelessness in the 21st our role in highlighting wrongs and seeking change is unquestionable. Just think of the brilliant campaigns in the 60s on homelessness that led to changes in the law to outlaw Rachmanism. Or on racial justice. Or the work of the development charities on making poverty history.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is debated in the Commons next week, could pose a real threat to our charities’ freedom to operate.

What I hear from members is that it this has united all parts of civil society in condemning the proposed limits on charity campaigning. Charities will now be regulated not only if they intend to influence elections in favour of one party – as charity law already forbids – but if the Electoral Commission decides their engagement with policies has an (unintended) effect on people’s decision to vote. That's sinister.

The Cabinet Office stated, on 19 August, that the Bill does not intend to obstruct charities in the pursuit of their objectives.
But lawyers tell us differently. And frankly I suspect some of those behind this Bill do realise the effects and intend them. I'm told it may even affect Blogs and heaven forfend they silence mine?

Our ability to influence policy making by political parties makes for better policy and better laws. And it’s crucial to charities’ pursuit of their charitable objectives. Articulating the needs of disabled people, or the homeless or demanding changes to energy or transport policy is helpful to the political parties.

Before the last election ACEVO held a very successful "Tory Summit", where we had a wide range of the opposition front bench to talk to members about policy and their plans for Government. We held similar sessions for the other 2 parties. It would be madness if we were not able to do this again, or if the Parties then felt they had to approve the "cost" of these (as would be required for expensive projects), which would use up most of our spending limits in one go.

This could dull or even silence the voices of millions of the UK’s most vulnerable people. And at election time that is precisely when those voices should be raised. And listened to.

All political parties gain from a strong and well articulated voice. This Bill is a classic case of a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Of course we all want to limit private firms’ lobbying, when it is for their profit not society’s. But it’s drafted in a way that will cause damage to charities. Let’s get it changed. ACEVO will be working with members to help do just that.

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