Brian Lamb: It's right that the proposed lobbyist register should not include charities

Charities already demonstrate they are for public benefit rather than private interest, so there are no issues about them lobbying for private gain, says our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

My first job title in the voluntary sector was 'lobbyist'. I soon got it changed because even then it had connotations not of speaking truth to power but of bending power's ear for unwarranted advantage.

Now the government is consulting on the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists following a number of well-documented scandals. What should the third sector's position be?

The consultation document, published in January, seems to have got things about right on who should be covered. It says the government is minded to follow the Australian definition in which lobbying activity encompasses a person, company or organisation lobbying on behalf of a third party, with exclusions for charitable organisations and other not-for-profit organisations, such as church groups.

Charities are different

This distinction recognises some important principles that separate charity advocacy from the kind of lobbying that has so rightly vexed public opinion.

Charities already have to demonstrate they are for public benefit rather than private interest so there are no issues about them lobbying for private gain. They cannot have a political purpose and cannot be party political, so they can advocate only for their beneficiaries' interests. They are also already regulated by the Charity Commission and have to account to it and the public for their activities with politicians.

Ministers will have to say who they have met, so charity advocacy will appear on the radar. Often they don't need to: charities are the first to shout from the rooftops if they think they have successfully influenced government policy.

There is little moral hazard for politicians because charities don't offer inducements. Instead, they tend to threaten to expose the folly of government policies they are campaigning against.

So including charities on the register would only introduce another layer of bureaucracy and add little to transparency. It would also send out the wrong message to many charities that are already nervous about advocacy being regarded as a dangerous and possibly reprehensible activity.

To some, this may feel contrary to principle: after all, how can the sector argue for greater transparency for others but not for itself? But why argue for inclusion in a solution for which the sector was not the problem? The real transparency issues lie elsewhere.

Appearance of openness

One of the major concerns behind the register is that the political process can be influenced more by who you know than by the quality of argument. What has been so embarrassing about some lobbying firms is how they boasted about their proximity to powerful ministers and their ability to get an audience, irrespective of the power of their client's case.

Shining a light on who is doing the lobbying is a start, but it won't do much to illuminate the relationships and networks of association that exist behind the scenes. Nor will it help that businesses that make representations directly to politicians are not regarded as lobbying, so they will escape scrutiny.

The register might give the appearance of greater openness, but there is a danger it will add a patina of transparency rather than offer real change.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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