Campaigning, and more specifically lobbying, is an important activity for many charities. After all, if government policy is exacerbating the issues a charity is fighting to solve, lobbying government to change this is an entirely logical move.
However, new regulations will forbid charities from spending grant money from central government departments on “activity intended to influence – or attempt to influence – Parliament, government or political parties”. Since the announcement, debate has been fierce. Supporters of the bill claim taxpayers’ money ought not to be spent on lobbying, whilst opponents say the rules amount to a gagging order for charities.
Whilst it is good to see the issue being debated, a worrying number of arguments in favour of the new regulations seem to be predicated upon elementary misconceptions about the purpose of charity campaigning, how charities spend their money, and even the nature of charity itself.
Campaigning vs Helping People
In a declaration of support for the new rules, Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock said, “Taxpayers’ money must be spent on improving people’s lives and spreading opportunities, not wasted on the farce of government lobbying government”. Former MP Michael Portillo echoed this sentiment on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, claiming “campaigning is really a different activity from charity”. These arguments completely ignore the concept that successful lobbying can and does improve lives, spread opportunity and quite simply helps people. For example, if a homelessness charity uses a government grant to successfully lobby the government to improve measures to prevent people losing their homes, is that a ‘waste’ or ‘farce’? It would surely be a far greater waste to use government funds to rehouse the homeless, if that homelessness is caused by government policy.
The arguments in favour of the restriction on lobbying also undervalue the depth of insight and the level of expertise that charities engaged in lobbying can bring to political discussion. When Minister Matthew Hancock points to examples of “government lobbying government”, he misses the point entirely. A charity lobbying government for constructive change is more than just a group of people criticising a government’s opposing political view. It is an organisation with an unrivalled knowledge of particular social issue sharing their expertise and insight, making a convincing case for policy change and presenting government with the evidence to make an informed decision for social change.
Equality of influence
Multiple panellists on Radio 4’s Moral Maze stated that although they were against government money being spent on lobbying, they made little objection to lobbying financed by money from other sources. Are we to accept then, that anyone can attempt to influence politicians, as long as they can afford to? It is not difficult to see the problem with this situation; without charity lobbyists to advocate for them, the disadvantaged and those at the fringes of society, who are often those with the least money, simply would not have their issues heard. In a system where large private sector industries spend unimaginable sums on lobbying (it is reported that the financial sector spent £92million on lobbying in a single one-year period), it is vital that the charity sector has the ability to campaign to government for real social change on behalf of society’s most disadvantaged. Is it really a waste of taxpayers’ money to ensure that policy makers are acting in the interests of society?
There are credible arguments for widespread reform of lobbying, to limit the influence that private concerns can have on political decisions, with many people rightly concerned about the disproportionate influence large organisations are able to exert on the political system, simply by virtue of wealth. However, imposing limits on charity campaigning with government funds whilst allowing privately funded lobbying to continue unchecked is a move that will exacerbate the imbalance of political power between the private and voluntary sectors, the latter of which exists to serve the public benefit.
This issue comes back to the role of charity in contemporary society. Charity is about more than reactively helping the needy. Vicky Browning of CharityComms recently wrote that charity is about “giving time, voice and money for social good and change”. It is therefore vital that charities have the tools at their disposal necessary to bring about this change; one of their most valuable tools is the ability to campaign effectively. As Giles Fraser accurately described it, “It’s not just about pulling bodies out of the river; it’s about making sure they don’t get in there in the first place”.
All views expressed are representative of the author only.
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