A new law on lobbyists, promised by the government at the last election and finally published as a bill last week, has been a difficult question for charities and sector umbrella bodies, not least because the scope of the proposed register has become progressively narrower.
In the early days, when a wide and comprehensive register of lobbyists still seemed on the cards, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations thought charities should be on it. Many of them are, after all, involved in meeting ministers and officials to promote their charitable purposes.
But in March last year, the NCVO sensibly changed its position as it became clearer that any register would not be universal but would exclude in-house lobbyists and organisations involved in other activities as well as lobbying. And sure enough, the Transparency of Lobbying Bill does little more than set up a list of lobbying consultancies that, according to the Association of Professional Political Consultants, carry out only a small proportion of political lobbying. Charities fall well outside its scope.
The NCVO, keen for the sector to provide a gold standard of transparency, now proposes drawing up a code of practice for charities involved in lobbying and will consult on this in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the question of a universal register has become academic, at least for the time being. There is little prospect that Labour will succeed in widening the scope of the bill as it goes through parliament. But the sector should be clear about the underlying principle: there is no way that charities should ever be on the same register as commercial lobbyists, whether in-house or in agencies. Such lobbyists work for private gain or party political advantage, and those in agencies are just guns for hire.
Charities, by contrast, are required to demonstrate public benefit, can advocate only for their stated charitable objects, cannot have a political purpose and cannot support a political party. They are regulated by the Charity Commission and have to follow its guidance on campaigning and political activity. Do we really need anything more?