News analysis: 'Why shouldn't we shape policy?'

Nathalie Thomas

Charities have rushed to defend their involvement with all-party parliamentary groups.

Last week, several voluntary organisations were forced to respond to suggestions that they were 'paying their way in Parliament' after a newspaper report revealed that the RNID and the Skin Care Campaign were making financial contributions to separate all-party parliamentary groups.

But Third Sector has discovered that this was only a scratch on the surface of the sector's involvement with these supposedly independent gatherings of cross-party MPs, which examine subjects of special interest.

It turns out that at least 80 voluntary bodies make some form of contribution to one or several of these groups and that, in at least one case, voluntary sector support for an all-party parliamentary group is undeclared on the register of such groups on the House of Commons website.

'Administrative' support

In most instances, voluntary bodies contribute administrative support.

But this form of assistance can involve a financial donation of as much as £24,000 per annum, as in the case of the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the All-Party Human Rights group.

Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, added fuel to the fire when he told the BBC that such contributions from outside groups, whether administrative, research-based or writing reports, could influence public policy over time.

All of the voluntary organisations contacted by Third Sector refuted the suggestion that they are 'paying their way' in Parliament. However, most made no secret of the fact that they are trying to influence policy through their involvement with the groups.

Ian Wilmore, public affairs manager at Ash, which was listed in The Times for providing non-financial support to the All-Party Group on Smoking and Health, admits as much. "We are trying to influence public policy," he says. "But what do they expect? As the campaign for Action on Smoking and Health, we are using the group to try to influence policy on - guess what - smoking and health."

The Christian housing charity Housing Justice receives a grant of £20,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to provide administrative support to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness and Housing Need.

Robina Rafferty, the charity's chief executive, suggests this is part of "normal charitable activity".

"Providing it is up-front, I feel that a lot of chief executives of charities servicing the all-party groups are doing it as part of their normal charitable activity," says Rafferty, who acts as clerk to the group. "We are doing it to try to influence MPs on the requirements of people in housing need."

Both Wilmore and Rafferty can see the potential conflict in commercial interests funding groups supposed to be independent, but Rafferty believes voluntary bodies fall into a separate category. "There are no private sector profits to be made out of it," she says. "I would make a distinction between groups that are run by charities and those run by companies that stand to make some money if, for example, a certain drug is approved."

This distinction is supported by Sukhvinder Stubbs, chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which contributes a total of £38,000 a year to two different all-party bodies.

"Not-for-profits aren't usually selling anything, but they do try to improve circumstances for their beneficiaries," she says. "It is therefore a legitimate activity for them - they shouldn't be put in the same category as their business counterparts."

But not everybody in the sector feels charities have a special status that should allow them to be considered differently.

"Charities need to be thoughtful and principled about their involvement in all-party parliamentary groups in the same way as commerce," says Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief. Cardy also warns that parliamentarians "need to be aware of whose messages they are endorsing".

Leaving aside the ethics of charities donating sometimes significant sums of money to all-party parliamentary groups, Rafferty believes there is room for streamlining the system - which could have cost benefits for those involved.

"There is a very large number of groups, of which some might profitably be merged," she says.

"There is room for somebody to look at the sheer number of groups that have arisen," she adds. "Some of them seem to be very specialist."

This is certainly the case with one registered group, the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of Cafod, which was set up to raise awareness about the overseas development charity and its work. At least when it comes to transparency, the relationship between its lobbyists and the group's MPs is crystal clear.

- See Peter Cardy, page 24.

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