Sue Tibballs: Yes, it matters that the government is ignoring Hodgson

Which is why Tracey Crouch's comments on the lobbying act have been very welcome, writes the chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

So the government has announced it will not be making any amendments to the lobbying act. It is to go against the advice of its own review, conducted by Lord Hodgson, against the advice of the House of Lords and despite the significant body of evidence showing the damage this ill-conceived and badly drawn legislation has inflicted on the voluntary sector. Brexit is understood to be the primary reason for not making the amendments.

Does it matter? Emphatically, yes. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents in our Campaigner Survey, conducted this summer, said they believed that measures introduced by the government, such as the lobbying act, had threatened the legitimacy of campaigning. They say these measures have made their senior management teams and boards more cautious and made it harder to get funding. It is largely because the guidelines are so hard to interpret and apply that many organisations have pulled back. Others have wasted precious resources taking legal advice, training staff and collecting data. With this in mind, the comments from Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Civil Society, are very welcome. She says she will do all she can to ensure charities understand the rules and "have complete confidence to continue non-party political campaigning".

But there is a wider problem. New research from NfpSynergy shows that a third of Conservative MPs think "preventing charities from lobbying" is a priority, rising to more than half for publicly funded charities. (The figures on the Labour benches are 9 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.) Whatever those MPs understand by the term "lobbying", it is clear that there is still a very significant level of resistance within government to charities campaigning. We’re not talking about party political campaigning, which everyone understands is prohibited, but the campaigning that seeks policy change in line with charitable objects.

The recent article in Third Sector by Rob Wilson, the former Minister for Civil Society, seems to capture this sentiment. He says charities should get closer to government, but should stop campaigning on issues where government is not receptive, such as fracking. So Friends of Earth should stop campaigning on fracking, even though this is what its supporters pay it to do? By the way, the majority of the public don't support fracking either. So what they're saying is please do come to talk to us, but don't tell us you disagree with our policy programme.

So what should we in civil society do? I think we have to continue gathering evidence of the ways in which civil society voice is being constrained (conditions of funding are arguably an even bigger threat than the lobbying act) and talk about this with our members, supporters and the wider public. We need to work with Crouch, and our own boards, to rebuild confidence in charity campaigning and ensure organisations are supported to understand the rules. In terms of our message to government and the wider Conservative Party, I would urge the sector to assert its right and duty to campaign and keep going. We need to make friends with those who support us and seek to build relationships with those who don't. In other words, from a position of strength, take on the argument and seek to win, as we campaigners are very adept at doing.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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