Lobbying comes under scrutiny

Brian Lamb on what the 'cash for influence' row means for charities

Brian Lamb, executive director of advocacy and policy, RNID
Brian Lamb, executive director of advocacy and policy, RNID

The recent 'cash for influence' affair, in which four Labour peers were accused of offering to amend proposed legislation in return for cash, has led the Government to consider several ways to curb lobbying activity.

Proposals include a compulsory register of lobbyists, records of meetings between lobbyists and MPs, and a requirement for lobbyists to be completely transparent about any clients they are working with.

The sector has looked on with bemused superiority at these goings-on in the commercial world. Such detachment is unwarranted. Any disclosure of clients is likely to reveal large numbers of charities on the books of commercial lobbying firms. The use of lobbying companies by charities is also likely to come under closer scrutiny from a public that is becoming more sceptical about the lack of transparency in relationships with decision makers.

The sector's campaigning could become tarred with the same brush as commercial lobbying in the eyes of the public. Lobbying is in danger of becoming a dirty word in the public's mind. Concern about a lack of transparency in parliamentary decision making could affect confidence in charity campaigning as much as commercial lobbying.

The challenge is for the sector to define more clearly to the public and its supporters how its campaigning is different. As a sector, we pride ourselves on openness and accountability. We should have nothing to fear from a register of lobbyists, apart from the obvious bureaucracy it would entail. But we do need to be better at explaining to the public what we do and how we do it.

Good campaigns rarely focus only on Parliament: they depend just as much on public engagement and aim to put those most affected at the heart of the dialogue. Campaigning is not just about lobbying MPs; it is also about providing evidence for the need to change.

Many effective campaigns put the people in need in front of the people making the decisions - not just through demonstrations, but in meetings that expose MPs, Lords and officials to the views of the people at the heart of the campaign. This demonstrates the authenticity of the campaign voice as well as improving the skills of the people involved, allowing them to become their own advocates. It also ensures that government has to listen.

If we want to retain trust, we need to get better at demonstrating our impact and explaining how we get results. Only when the public and our supporters see how we achieve our campaigning aims can we afford not to be complacent about the questions being asked of others.

- Brian Lamb is executive director of advocacy and policy at the RNID

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