Being a witness at a parliamentary select committee hearing can expose you to issues far beyond the topic of the inquiry. While giving evidence on the Disability Discrimination Act, I learned far more from former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit about the propensity of modern jet airframes to disintegrate when exposed to animal urine than I ever wanted to know. Guide dogs on planes turned out to be the cause of his unjustified concerns.
In last month's Public Accounts Committee meeting on the Charity Commission's excellent new campaigning guidelines, the issue that came out of the blue was how charities should approach MPs in their campaigning work.
Some MPs appear to be vexed by the implications of charities using lobbying agencies and intermediaries. Judging by the questions they asked, some members of the committee had clearly been on the receiving end of some clumsy third party lobbying.
It would be churlish not to recognise that, whatever the concerns about large public affairs agencies, they are staffed by experts from across the political spectrum, often with acute understanding of government and business and large contacts books. When it chimes with your own agenda, support from other commercial agencies can also add weight to your case. For third sector organisations, the promise of being fast-tracked to influence and insider status must be attractive.
Organisations must, however, be careful. To give the impression that the sector is buying influence rather than persuading is especially dangerous. If there is one sector that should be confident of its cause and the ability to represent itself, it is surely ours. MPs and ministers alike can be suspicious of organisations that arrive shadowed by commercial lobbyists.
The sector needs to do more to make sure it is growing its own talent and expertise without recourse to agencies. At a time when trust in the sector is such a hot topic, the last thing we need is to look unconfident.
Umbrella body the NCVO and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation have already made great strides in professionalising campaigning. Now it's time to use the help promised by the Office of the Third Sector to support a campaigning voice. We should be developing an apprentice scheme to engage and train the next cadre of third sector lobbyists and campaigners. These people would be an investment in the sector's future, increasing participation and allaying the fears of MPs that we cannot represent ourselves.
- Brian Lamb is the executive director of communications at RNID .