Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Lobbying Bill: psychological priming

Andrew Lansley's speech on the Lobbying Bill yesterday made it clear where charities fit in to the government's agenda.

Psychologists know that telling someone truly terrible news - even if it's actually made up - softens the blow of merely 'bad' news.

The same goes for politics. Provoke outrage from society on one topic, and people's attention is diverted from other, also important questions.

And that is exactly what the Lobbying Bill seems to do. It is quite deliberate and a brilliant bit of politics. After a year's silence in response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's Report on Lobbying, the Government sprang the current Bill on Parliament one day before summer recess. The summer made the opposition slow to materialise. But when it arrived it was quite unanimous. QCs, charities, campaign groups, trade unions, the Electoral Commission, MPs of all sorts and many others have been up in arms together. 

Interestingly not a word from the Charity Commission though. The Chair of the Commission has been free with his views on a range of subjects; from political correctness to the welfare state. You might have thought a Bill that goes to the heart of the role of charity in modern society would have worried him enough to add his voice to the groundswell of opinion on the Lobbying Bill. Still, there is time. Support from our regulator on a matter of such import would be hugely welcome as the debate goes on.

For now though, no-one supports the Bill.

In response, the cracks are already starting to appear. Lansley hinted he would consider concessions on Part 2 of the Bill - the section about non-party campaigning.

But one must ask what is the effect of all of this outrage? It is too easy to jump on a bandwagon that should with any luck rescue charities and civil society from gags on free speech. But in the shadow of civil society's clamouring, the government has space to push through its pathetic lobbying restrictions largely unchanged. All the while its 'concessions' to charities make it look generous.

So the real issue the debate must return to is corporate, for-profit lobbying. Charities are trusted by the general public - as ACEVO's YouGov survey yesterday showed - because we work and campaign for public good not private profit. If the Charity Commission regulates properly there is no ethical problem with charities campaigning on policy issues, since we know this is in furtherance of their charitable objectives.

Charities will be protected from the worst effects of this Bill. But don't get carried away and distracted from what the Bill should be tackling - private, opaque lobbying. Charities and the rest of society will benefit if it reaches the same transparency as the third sector already has.

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