Charities and lobbying – what do the Lords think?

The last two days have seen significant discussion of the role of lobbying in the House of Lords, and in particular the role that charities play. Where do we stand now and what do the Lords think?

Increasing transparency of lobbying

Today, Lord Brooke has been putting forward a private member’s bill to repeal the existing register of lobbyists, and replace it with a much more comprehensive bill covering in-house lobbyists, including those who work for charities. The current register only covers ‘consultant lobbyists’ – those who are paid to lobby on behalf of external clients, a narrow range of activity, and requires limited information.

Lord Brooke’s bill defines lobbyists not by their role, but by their activity, so someone in a policy focused role phoning a civil servant to give their view on policy would be carrying out lobbying activity. It’s probably right to recognise that as lobbying, but when combined with extensive reporting requirements, and some slightly confusing thresholds, we’re not convinced the bill at the moment gets the right balance in terms of ensuring lobbying activity is transparent but that smaller organisations are not deterred from attempting to influence policy.

Transparency in lobbying is clearly something we should be seeking, and the bill identifies both the ineffectiveness of the existing register, and the fact that any wider register should attempt to capture the whole range of organisations who lobby government, and so with that principle in place, we’re happy to see attempts made to make the bill work more effectively, rather than thrown out entirely.

A new Lobbying Act?

So should charity lobbyists be, if not manning the barricades, then urgently seeking to engage with and amend these proposals? After all, in the wake of the original Lobbying Act, there is understandably some nervousness among charities about further proposals to regulate lobbying.

In short, the answer is probably not yet. The bill is a private member’s bill sponsored by a Labour peer. Typically private member’s bills originating in the Lords find it hard to get time for later stages unless the government wholeheartedly agrees with the bill, and Baroness Chisholm, the minister responding, made clear that the government is not persuaded of the need for this change.

What would be useful at this stage is positive engagement with those seeking more transparency on lobbying so that they know that charities are committed to transparency within lobbying, and that they work with us to ensure any additional regulation is proportionate and effective. But we can probably hold off on the petitions and the placards for now.

What do peers think of charity lobbying?

Probably the more immediate issue for charities in terms of their lobbying activity actually emerged in a more wide-ranging debate yesterday.

While there was welcome support from many peers for the important role that charities play in improving policy through their advocacy role, it’s clear that there is still concern about the approach taken by some charities in this area.

Lord Patten (former education secretary John, rather than ex-Chair of the BBC Trust Chris – kudos to the Telegraph for identifying the right Patten) took most of the headlines from the debate with some colourful remarks about the National Trust, challenged by other contributors and a reminder that large charities will always attract some who criticise their activities.

That shouldn’t however take away from a number of thoughtful contributions. The likes of Lord Hodgson, Baroness Pitkeathley, Lord Black, Lord Foulkes, Baroness Scott and Baroness Hayter, the originator of the debate, talked about both the valuable role that the advocacy of charities play, but also the need for charities to be transparent and accountable about the way that they operate in lobbying and indeed all their other activities.

In the Lords this week we’ve seen a wide range of contributions examining the role that charities play in campaigning and advocacy. Some have been critical, while others have praised the work we do. When there has been so much criticism of charity lobbying it’s heartening to see support for the role we play, but equally we have to make sure we listen and respond to concerns around transparency while continuing to shape public policy in a way that supports our beneficiaries.

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Chris Walker Chris is a Senior External Relations Officer at NCVO, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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