Shaun Spiers: 'The lobbying act is as clear as mud'

The chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England tells Stephen Cook that politicians should not be trying to stop charities from speaking out

Shaun Spiers
Shaun Spiers

It was in the year before Shaun Spiers was appointed chief executive that the Council for the Protection of Rural England changed its name to the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

But Spiers, who took over in 2004, makes no apology for the word "campaign" in the charity's name – even at a time when some Conservative MPs are arguing that campaigning and charities should be mutually exclusive.

More than that, he is one of the few charity chief executives prepared to put his head above the parapet, declaring in a recent blog on the CPRE website that there was something "deeply illiberal" about the way politicians have been sniping at charities.

In the case of his own charity, he asserted – in a memorable phrase that no doubt holds good for many others – that "if we did not campaign, we would not be able to fulfil our charitable mission".

He says the current political mood music about charities and campaigning is worrying – not only the criticism from "a few publicity-hungry backbenchers", but also real measures taken by the government. One such measure is the lobbying act, he says; another is the proposal by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to make it more difficult for charities to support judicial review of government actions.

Feeling defensive

Articles in the right-leaning press suggesting that it's improper for people who were previously involved in Labour policy to work for a charity also make people feel defensive, he says: "One Conservative MP pointed out at one point that I'd been a Labour MEP in the past – nudge, nudge."

It is also worrying, says Spiers, when some politicians suggest that charities providing outsourced public services should not be allowed to hold government to account by speaking out about those services.

"In fact, to say that you can't be a charity and campaign is a fundamentally un-Tory way of looking at things," he says. "It's actually quite revolutionary – Edmund Burke would have a fit. On that front, the clarification by Brooks Newmark was reassuring." He is referring to the recent statement by the new civil society minister that charities should not campaign – amended the following day to say he meant that they should not get involved in party political campaigns.

But Spiers thinks the really significant question is not what Conservative MPs think but how the lobbying act will work out. "Charlie Elphicke and a few backbenchers hardly amounts to a groundswell," he says. "If we were hearing the same talk from ministers, we would be crossing a dividing line – as when the Tea Party in the US began to gain influence.

It's as if we're being told that free debate is available only to politicians and newspapers

"On the lobbying act, one view is that we should abandon all hope because it's going to muzzle us all, and that was its intention. The other, which I've heard from people I know and respect in the government parties, is more reassuring: that it's all innocent and it's just to keep big money out of politics and stop the formation of things such as political action committees to unseat MPs they don't like.

"But I've heard confusing advice. Another charity of which I'm a trustee, Sustain, is preparing to decide whether to register with the Electoral Commission, but it really is as clear as mud. The CPRE is unlikely to register – we're not trying to influence the political outcome in any sense."

In the past, Spiers says, if a political party adopted a charity's policy, it would think about how to leverage that. Under the lobbying act, it might mean the charity would have to account to the Electoral Commission for any spending on the promotion of that policy, making for extra expense and bureaucracy.

And he says that if a successful election candidate had, during the campaign, backed a policy that building should take place only on brown land, not in the green belt, the losing candidate might contest the result by claiming that the win was because of the CPRE's support for that policy.

"Who's to say – the Electoral Commission or someone protesting after the event?" he asks. "Our staff and volunteers know all about avoiding endorsement, but we can't control what candidates do. We will have to see how it all works out, but it does feel as if we're treading on eggshells.

"It doesn't feel to me how an open society should work, and other organisations will be affected as well as charities. It's as if we're being told that free debate is available only to politicians and newspapers."

When the coalition government came to power, he says, it was thought to be sympathetic to the CPRE. But differences soon emerged over the government's proposed national planning policy framework, which weakened protection for the green belt.

At one point, some Conservative MPs criticised the CPRE's opposition to the policy on the grounds that the charity, which is not routinely funded by the government, was receiving public money for a one-off, two-year project to promote neighbourhood planning. "One of our biggest successes was working with Conservative and Lib Dem MPs to get a letter about the planning proposals to the Prime Minister, signed by more MPs than the government majority," says Spiers. "Was that party political? Not really."

A duty to be a pain in the neck

He also takes some comfort from a remark by the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, who said that the CPRE was a pain in the neck but it was its duty to be so. "That's a mature way of looking at it," Spiers says.

He also notes that most MPs – Conservatives included – like to work with charities on campaigns that they support, such as the one backed by the actor Joanna Lumley to improve residency rights for Gurkha veterans.

"One of the MPs who's been having a pop at charities has been working with a CPRE branch in his constituency: it's possible that he doesn't think of us as a charity," says Spiers. "So there are all sorts of contradictions going on."

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