Focus: Policy and Politics - Commission heads for Westminster

Nathalie Thomas

The charity regulator wants to get more contact with Parliament.

The voluntary sector can expect the Charity Commission to play a more visible public affairs role in future, according to Rosie Chapman, the commission's director of policy and strategy.

This week, Charity Commission board members will consider a public affairs strategy drawn up by the public affairs consultancy AS Biss.

The new strategy, which in the short term will focus on the Charities Bill as it moves through the House of Commons, will see the commission appoint its first parliamentary officer. It will also work with parliamentary and public affairs teams within the sector.

"We realised that we needed to improve the way we engage parliamentarians and key stakeholders," says Chapman.

"What we want to achieve is for those in government - those responsible for policymaking - to have a better understanding of the commission and its work."

According to Chapman, new governance arrangements - the separation of the chair and chief executive roles - will allow the charity regulator to make a greater impact on policy and debate affecting the sector in the future.

She says: "We think we have a very particular voice because we're the only organisation that touches the lives of all 190,000-odd registered charities."

Chapman adds: "There will be occasions when we'll want to work with charities' public affairs and parliamentary officers to make the voice louder."

She admits that the commission has traditionally been restricted in its public affairs activities because its staff are civil servants.

But Jonathan Lomax, public affairs and charities consultant at AS Biss, believes this won't pose a problem for the new strategy.

"There is absolutely no prohibition on civil servants explaining factual policies to public affairs audiences," he says.

"Of course, those limitations mean contact has to be on a strictly factual basis."

Lomax is keen to move away from the term 'lobbying' when describing the commission's public affairs role. He points out that the commission is neither a lobby group nor a charity. Contact will be strictly professional, he says.

Research by the consultancy has revealed that MPs and peers would be open to more contact with the commission, in ways similar to the consultations that took place when the Charities Bill passed through the House of Lords.

The commission held meetings with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and the Voluntary Sector, as well as with peers and their advisers, and intends to continue this work as the Charities Bill passes through the Commons. Comparable public affairs strategies will be applied to other Bills too.

"As well as the Charities Bill, there will probably be other legislation for which we could provide a perspective on what it means to the environment in which charities operate," Chapman says.

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