Wally Harbert: Why I won't join the resistance to the lobbying act

Large-scale political campaigning damages public confidence in the sector, and small charities might suffer collateral damage, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Once upon a time, charities helped the poor and needy. They recognised that society was unfair and used information that they collected in their work to argue for changes in public policy. The law was unclear about spending charitable funds on lobbying, but the legal advice was that, provided resources devoted to lobbying were negligible compared with overall expenditure, the law would turn a blind eye. De minimis ruled.

But times change. More charity income now comes from corporate donors who are willing to fund lobbying. Their favoured performance measure is growth and their values are those of the market. These values are unacceptable to many small donors, who give because they want to make a difference. A £100 gift once went directly to the needy, but now it might not cover half a day's pay for the chief executive.

Inevitably, this has changed perceptions of charity and charitable giving. Perhaps that is why the latest research reveals rising concern about the proportion of funds that reach front-line services. Small charities, relying on volunteers and hand-to-mouth donations, are suffering collateral damage.

The spend on lobbying by some charities could not be described as de minimis. Tax advantages for charities were not intended to finance political lobbying. That is why, despite resistance, parliament voted to restrict it.

Public confidence in charities could be undermined if they are seen to spend donations on large-scale lobbying. Much can be achieved by publishing reports, newsletters and conference findings. I can send an email to every parliamentarian from my front room at negligible cost, so I shall not join a phoney fight against the lobbying act.

Wally Harbert is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services and UK director of Help the Aged.

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