Sue Tibballs: Is the lobbying act really stopping charity campaigning?

Perception of the effects appear to differ from reality, writes our columnist, which is why her organisation is researching the issue further

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

I listened recently to an edition of Radio 4’s The Reunion, which brought together key players in the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Two comments particularly captured my attention. The first was a recording of John Major talking about the passing of the first Disabled Persons Act in 1986, an unpopular piece of legislation about which he said: "I understand that the people feel very strongly about this and I understand that they wish to lobby, and I think it is perfectly proper that they should do so."

The second was a comment from William Hague, a guest on the programme, and at the time the newly appointed minister who took the legislation through parliament. During the discussion, Hague said of the passing of the act that "it wouldn’t have happened without the campaigning and the various efforts of others on this programme".

Here we have two senior Conservative politicians not just recognising the legitimacy of charity campaigning, but also acknowledging that important legislative change couldn’t have happened without it. Yet today charity campaigning is being actively contested and "lobbying" is almost a dirty word in charity circles.

According to the consultancy nfpSynergy, 51 per cent of Conservative MPs believe that charities in receipt of public funds should not lobby government. New gagging clauses in government contracts have started to make that a reality. The lobbying act now regulates charity activity in election periods.

In the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s most recent campaigner survey, 89 per cent of respondents said they felt government measures such as the lobbying act threatened the legitimacy of charity campaigning. Many charities have expressed their concern about the legislation, and even the government’s own review recommended that it should be amended. Yet we have been told the act will remain, and without change.

It is worth remembering that when the act was introduced by the coalition government the public message was all about bringing more transparency to commercial lobbying. Yet the biggest impact seems to have been on charities and other civil society organisations, not the consultant lobbyists held up as its intended target. Charities are already clearly barred from party political activity. Private companies, on the other hand, may make donations to political parties or candidates explicitly to help them win.

Before the referendum on EU membership, the Charity Commission said that charities should campaign only "in exceptional circumstances". Many backed away from public comment while they struggled to carry out due diligence and risk assessments for jumpy senior managers and boards. In the meantime, business leaders boldly expressed their views across the media.

My own sense is that the public (and most politicians) want charities to shine a light on important issues and support them to campaign, advocate and lobby. So we need to find a way to rebuild legitimacy and confidence across parliament and among charity leaders and trustees.

To try and do this, SMK, with support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, is carrying out new research to understand how the lobbying act is affecting campaigning. Our survey found that the overwhelming majority of people felt charity campaigning was under threat, but only 13 per cent of respondents said they were actually campaigning less. This apparent anomaly – between levels of anxiety about the act and actual changes in campaigning activity – seemed significant to us, so we are delving deeper.

We’ve already conducted telephone interviews and a focus group. Now, based on those conversations, we’ve launched an online survey in partnership with the Directory of Social Change.

Will you help us paint a clearer picture of the Lobbying Act? You don’t need to be an expert. If you are involved in charity or voluntary sector campaigning, this survey is for you. It closes on 30 April 2018.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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