What does the House of Lords report mean for charity advocacy?

Following the publication of the House of Lords select committee on charities’ report Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society (PDF, 1.7MB), we are publishing a series of posts covering the take-away issues and what charities can do in response, highlighting what we think are the best available resources to help you if you want to take action. Look out for further posts on:

Campaigning and advocacy did not comprise a large part of the recommendations of the recently published House of Lords committee report into strengthening charities, but the report made a welcome positive case for the role of charity advocacy, strongly pushing back against a number of political challenges to campaigning in recent years.

Cross-party support for charity campaigning

Despite some welcome recommendations, probably the most important contribution of the committee is in restating the value of charity campaigning. This isn’t controversial to those of us who see the impact that charity campaigns have every day in transforming the nature of policy challenges, rather than just responding to them and dealing with the consequences. But this type of campaigning has come under greater challenge in recent years from some politicians who feel charity campaigning has become too political.

So it’s refreshing to see a cross-party committee of peers describe charities as the ‘eyes, ears and conscience of any society’ and restate the importance of advocacy to the work that charities do. Charities of course need to ensure their campaigns remain non-party political, but we should be confident about explaining what we do and how we make a difference through campaigning on policy to those across the political spectrum.

The report also noted areas where policy decisions by the government and Charity Commission had made charities feel less able to speak out, a concern that has been passed on to us on a number of occasions in recent years. We know from the way that government has worked with charities and taken up their recommendations that it does value the advice that we can provide, but that has not always been apparent from its actions in regulating campaigning and the interactions between charities and government.

Hodgson recommendations

Just over a year ago, Lord Hodgson completed his review into the Lobbying Act, making a number of recommendations to address the challenges the Act presents to charities, which we welcomed wholeheartedly.

Things have gone a bit quiet on the government side since that review was published, so the Lords committee’s statement that Lord Hodgson’s proposals are ‘eminently sensible and will provide reassurance to charities that they will not face censure for carrying out ordinary campaigning activity during election periods’ and should be implemented in full, seems like the ideal opportunity to restate that case to government.

This isn’t the easiest thing to find parliamentary time for, but a clear statement that the government intends to implement Lord Hodgson’s recommendations and a timetable to achieve this before the next election should be a priority.

Anti-advocacy clause

One area where the new government has shown their intention to develop a more positive relationship with charities is in their decision to drop the anti-advocacy clause and replace it with a series of minimum grant-making standards. The Lords Committee heard evidence on the damaging nature of the original proposed clause, and welcomed the decision to replace it.

Charity Commission EU referendum guidance

The final example of an unnecessarily negative approach towards campaigning cited by the report was the Charity Commission’s guidance on charities campaigning during the EU referendum. Having heard evidence from the sector, the Lords committee noted that the guidance had ‘clearly created a negative impression in the sector in relation to their freedom to comment and advocate on relevant issues’.

The Charity Commission acknowledged criticism of the guidance at the time, issuing an improved revised version, and they again recognised that the initial guidance had been positioned and communicated in the wrong way, when giving evidence to the committee.

What does this mean for charity campaigning?

The committee’s overarching recommendation on campaigning acknowledged the ‘serious unease and disruption’ to charities that issues like this have caused, and have urged that the government reviews its approach to engagement with charities. Of course, we should note that all of these policies were announced before Theresa May became Prime Minister, and significant effort has been put in to reset the relationship with charities, but the committee’s conclusions should at least assure them that in attempting to improve this relationship, they are doing the right thing.

For charities, the challenge will be to make sure our approach to advocacy is constructive, and our campaigning lives up to the high standards that are rightly expected, and proves the committee’s point about our value in democratic society and in shaping the policy agenda. Then, when politicians talk about that value, we will be able to demonstrate what they mean.


How can charities achieve high standards in campaigning?

Get involved in the discussion and get practical tips at our Campaigning Conference on 7 September 2017.

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Avatar photo Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, 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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