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Ben Jackson: We must not become complacent about the state of our domestic democracy

Aid charities champion democracy overseas, but too few are standing up to the threat on their own doorsteps from the lobbying bill, writes our guest columnist

Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson

International development organisations in the UK are used to tackling injustice around the world. Right now, however, we have to stand up to a threat closer to home.

Alongside organisations as diverse as Mumsnet, the Countryside Alliance and Big Brother Watch, many of Bond's 400 members have voiced serious concerns about the lobbying bill, which, in its current form, threatens legitimate campaigning and advocacy activity in the run-up to elections. Bond is the membership body for more than 400 UK non-government organisations in international development

Around the world, international development organisations support marginalised and vulnerable communities. In addition to delivering programmes to tackle poverty, NGOs campaign to protect people’s rights and ensure they are heard by their governments. While our focus is rightly on championing democratic values elsewhere, we must not become complacent about the state of our democracy at home.

This year, a coalition of 200 UK-based charities, faith communities and campaigning groups secured a commitment from G8 leaders to clamp down on tax dodging, helping developing countries recover the taxes they are owed. Such commitments need constant scrutiny by civil society to ensure they are upheld. If passed, this bill could severely constrain our ability to keep the ‘pedal to the metal’ and hold our politicians to account during the period when it matters most: when election promises are being made.

Coalition campaigning is central to the work of most NGOs. It makes sense when pursuing common objectives to join forces, avoiding duplication while ensuring limited campaigning resources deliver value for money. Many of the UK’s best-known and most impactful campaigns were coalitions – think of Make Poverty History or the Jubilee Debt Campaign. All political parties have said that they like NGOs collaborating on campaigns because they can engage with one group rather than many. Indeed, getting the bill ‘paused’ for five weeks and creating the opportunity for the Commission on Civil Society to produce its second report demonstrated the power of a united civil society.

But the bill’s provisions will force many NGOs to stand back from coalitions, because each coalition member must account for the expenditure of all partners. Combined with lowered overall spending thresholds, large and small charities will be discouraged from working together for fear of breaching these restrictive spending limits. Alongside the bill’s other potentially damaging provisions, this is a serious threat to our ability to speak up for those vulnerable communities with which we work .

During the ‘pause’, coalition campaigning has proved to be a sticky issue. The Commission on Civil Society has proposed amendments aimed at reducing disproportionate restrictions on coalition working, and examples of successful coalitions were presented in the Lords debate. However, it was impossible to arrive at a completely satisfactory solution in the five weeks granted by a government that is rushing through this far-reaching and ill-considered legislation.

With the bill soon to enter its report stage in the Lords, when the government has pledged to introduce amendments, it is time for all NGOs and campaigning groups to persuade peers to continue piling the pressure on the government to change the bill significantly.

Talking about its international development work, the government’s own website says: "When people can influence decisions that affect them, through elections or lobbying their MPs, for example, their government can work better to address these problems."

Our members agree. Now it’s time to remind the government.

Ben Jackson is chief executive of Bond, the UK membership body for more than 400 non-government organisations working in international development

- See our Big Issue on the lobbying bill

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