Interview: Stephen Doughty

The Labour MP says the lobbying bill fails to meet its declared original purpose

Stephen Doughty
Stephen Doughty

"A dog's breakfast" - that was the blunt assessment of the lobbying bill by Stephen Doughty, Labour and Co-operative MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, in a debate in the House of Commons in September.

Three months on, his views on the proposed legislation have changed little, despite some concessions by the government and its agreement to pause the Lords debate on its most controversial aspects until next week.

"I think that the government needs to go back to the drawing board," says Doughty. "There wasn't the pre-legislative scrutiny or the engagement with the groups that it would affect - and that's why many concerns have been raised."

He also points out that the bill is being guided by a minister who had similar difficulties over reforms to the health service two years ago. "The record of Andrew Lansley is not a glorious one," says Doughty. "We have a situation where he has been asked to pause and amend a second piece of major legislation."

Charity campaigning is an area Doughty knows well, and the bill contains proposals that charities fear could harm their ability to campaign in the run-up to elections. It reduces significantly the spending limit for campaigns and requires charities to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more on campaigns than £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Before winning his seat in a by-election in 2012, Doughty spent much of his career working for charities including Oxfam and World Vision, predominately in campaigning. He argues that the bill before parliament is not the one that had been discussed for years.

"There was quite a large cross-party consensus on how to deal with some of the more malevolent interests in lobbying and influencing government," he says. "But the bill has morphed into something else. You have a section about regulating lobbyists that won't actually deal with most of the big problems, and another section that could stymie the efforts of those who most people would like to see raising issues."

Sir Peter Bottomley, Conservative MP for Worthing West, has accused the charity sector of leading a massive over-reaction to the lobbying bill, but Doughty believes it has been right to make a stand. "It's all very well for large charities, such as Oxfam, that have legal departments that deal with charity law - but many smaller ones would look at this law and think that some parts were unclear," he says. "What charity would take the risk of having legal action taken against it?"

He says there is "a sinister element" in the Conservative Party that would like to stop all charities engaging in political activity. He doesn't think this is the government's intention, but says it "clearly wants to introduce a climate of fear and caution that will prevent charities speaking out on a whole series of issues".

He thinks, however, that charities should be more intelligent in the way they lobby politicians. "The reality is that MPs have a small number of staff who receive hundreds of bits of correspondence every week," he says. "We need to talk to charities about practical ways that information can be amalgamated. For example, it would be good if they could provide a database of concerned constituents instead of encouraging every supporter to send an email. It becomes unmanageable."

Bluntly, he says, the political awareness and judgement of charities is sometimes off the mark. For example, too many charities focus on MPs, but often haven't discussed matters with officials, a minister or a special adviser. "Sometimes there should be better analysis of how a decision is made," he says. "Some battles can be won easily without a full-scale assault."

He is also uncomfortable with the salaries that some charities pay their senior staff. Before entering parliament, he earned about £40,000 a year as chief executive of Oxfam Wales, which he describes as fair, even though he was managing a multi-million-pound budget. "At a time when charities are raising issues with government about their funding and the challenges they face, the pay levels of some senior executives doesn't sit well," says Doughty. "When you hear people are earning £150,000 a year, the public quite rightly asks questions, and some self-reflection would be helpful."

But he continues to view charities as playing an invaluable role in the UK political system and as a source of independent advice and information. "One of the great things about the charity sector is the level of contact that charities have with beneficiaries. Often they can expose some shocking experiences or bring to people's attention problems that we haven't quite realised yet. The information they provide can not only be useful to opposition MPs, but also help government MPs challenge official positions."


2012: Elected Labour and Co-operative MP for Cardiff South and Penarth
2011: Chief executive, Oxfam Wales
2010: Head of essential services campaign, Oxfam International
2009: Special adviser to the Secretary of State for International Development
2006: Head of UK and EU government affairs, Oxfam GB
2004: Policy adviser/head of campaigns, World Vision UK

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