In recent months the lobbying bill has dominated the news agenda for the sector, and now the opposition to it has resulted in the government conceding a six-week pause in its parliamentary journey.
Some critics have suggested the voluntary sector was slow to catch up and present a coherent voice after the introduction of the bill, which some fear could restrict charities’ ability to campaign.
But John Lehal, managing director of the PR consultancy Insight Public Affairs, believes that this criticism was misplaced. His company’s sector clients include the Atrial Fibrillation Association, the Elephant Family, Melanoma UK and the National Literacy Trust.
Lehal says that in August, when charity chiefs wrote to Chloe Smith, then the political and constitutional reform minister, the letter raised the sector’s concerns but offered no specific alternative suggestions. "However, subsequent National Council for Voluntary Organisations briefings for parliamentarians have been clearer, with proposals and amendments to the bill," he says.
"The sector has been successful at handling news of the bill, with great leadership from the NCVO in particular, and important support from the chief executives body Acevo."
Lehal cites the sector’s presence at this year’s political party conferences as an example of this success and says charities have made good use of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry into the bill in order to create a "head of steam" in opposition to it.
He believes the sector’s experience and its plethora of professional campaigners – who have worked on issues such as disability, children’s rights and older people’s services – give it the muscle to get results. He points to Oxfam, the Royal British Legion and the Salvation Army as examples of charities that have been actively working on the bill in their own right.
"It is one thing for the NCVO to be lobbying on the bill, but when individual charities that would be affected are engaging, then that can be more powerful," says Lehal.
"Oxfam in particular should be singled out for its activity: it had a great advocate in Stephen Doughty, Labour and Co-operative MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, who was head of Oxfam Cymru before becoming an MP in 2012. He articulated compelling arguments on behalf of charities." Lehal says that Oxfam prepared its own "particularly compelling" briefing for the House of Lords.
Another good example, Lehal says, was Chris Simpkins, director general of the Royal British Legion. "He wrote a piece in The Daily Telegraph before the bill’s second reading in the Commons," Lehal says.
"The article set out how the charity’s job as the voice of military personnel, veterans and their families would be inhibited by the unintended consequences of what he called the ‘badly drafted definition of electoral purposes and regulation of a broader range of activities’."
Lehal believes that the NCVO’s role as a coordinator has been particularly effective, ensuring that the industry’s case has been spoken with one voice. Sir Peter Bottomley, Tory MP and a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering, accused the umbrella body of leading a "massive over-reaction" against the bill – which shows that its voice is being heard.
"Looking at the parliamentary debates so far, the NCVO has been quoted 70 times – that’s the sign of a campaign getting cut-through," says Lehal.