Debra Allcock Tyler: Charities are already accountable - so why drag them into this awful bill?

The lobbying bill, back in the Lords this week, will make it harder for charities to speak up for their beneficiaries, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

The lobbying bill is, basically, legislative rubbish. At the minute many of us are busy trying to make it slightly less awful; but it still stinks. Sadly, it's typical of what we so often have to do in the charity sector - campaign to make flawed regulation less bad.

Here's why we're we making all this fuss. It's not only that there was inadequate consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and that the bill is, in the words of the cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, "an object lesson in how not to produce legislation".

It's not only that, as drafted, it will potentially subject thousands of charities to unnecessary bureaucracy and pointless costs. It's also that it's potentially seriously damaging to our ability to serve our beneficiaries.

I can't argue with the government's broad aims - achieving greater transparency and accountability in our politics. Unfortunately, this isn't going to achieve either. What exactly are they actually worried about? That the people who vote for them might have a say in how they run the country? That some groups of citizens - from either end of the spectrum - might oppose their policies?

When charities campaign they are, unlike business, doing it for their beneficiaries and within their charitable objects. If they aren't, they're not acting within the law. There is no way they can profit personally. Further, it is already clear in charity law that you can't be a charity and have political purposes. Neither can you pursue your charitable objectives by encouraging people to vote for the party that supports your campaign.

So I don't understand why charities are being swept up in this loop. The bill amends previous legislation in such a way that it brings many perfectly legitimate campaigning activities into the scope of electoral regulations. This is despite the fact that since 2010 we've been through not one but two reviews on charity red tape, intended to free us up from unnecessary regulatory burdens. This bill just adds more red tape for little discernible benefit to the public, charities, their beneficiaries and donors, or the taxpayer.

But it's not really designed for the public - it's to protect politicians from themselves. It saddens me that politicians can't be trusted to act with integrity when it comes to money and power, so we need legislation to prevent them being unduly influenced. Harold Macmillan said: "A man who trusts nobody is apt to be a man nobody trusts." Politicians don't trust each other and, sadly, they don't trust us either.

Fortunately, not all in parliament are blind to this, and Lord Phillips of Sudbury, a Lib Dem peer, is currently tabling an amendment to remove charities from the bill.

It boils down to this: this bill will make it harder for charities to speak up for their beneficiaries. Our society needs charities to play this role. If we don't stand up for our beneficiaries, who will?

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of SocialChange

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