Lobby Bill Exposes Charity Weaknesses

The ‘Lobbying Bill’ threatens to limit how charities can lobby political candidates and parties at election time. In this article for the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network I argue that the challenges of the Bill would have been less threatening if charities had informed MPs better on what it was to be a 21st century charity…


The chaos, confusion and misunderstandings that have emerged on both ‘sides’ of the Lobbying Bill debate are symptoms of a greater problem of misunderstanding about exactly what charities are and what they are for.

Every charity should only have one aim: to put itself out of business by seeing the goals it was established to achieve achieved, putting a perceived wrong irrevocably right. In precious few cases – and none that I can think of relating to national causes – can the charity ever hope to achieve its goals alone. To achieve change they must create change in others, changing the law, common practice or public opinion. Persuasion must therefore be a tool in any charity’s campaigning armoury. And persuasion is another name for politics, albeit with a small ‘p’.

In a recent survey for the researchers nfpSynergy not a single Conservative MP thought that being ‘political’ was a positive trait in a charity and over three quarters thought it was a no-no. A quarter of Labour MPs and almost 4 in ten Lib Dems also did not accept that charities should be ‘political’. Only a tiny minority of MPs regarded political engagement as a positive role for charities – despite the fact that over half of the public (60 per cent) think that it is legitimate for charities to try to influence politicians.(1)

So why are politicians so out of touch with charities and with public opinion on this issue? Because charities have not done their lobbying job properly.

I acknowledge immediately that charities do a great job for their causes: Shelter, Macmillan and Oxfam are household and High Street names, NSPCC have effectively raised awareness of child abuse and charities and voluntary organisations lead the way on human trafficking, climate change, fair trade, animal welfare and many other good causes. But, as a result of this, do politicians know better what a charity is and how it works? No.

In the 1990s I was on the Management Committee of my local Citizens Advice Bureau. No organisation in the country knows better than CAB how changes to the benefit system impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in society and yet, 20 years ago, there was a very real possibility that campaigns ‘attacking government policy’ could have been effectively banned, even when based on the most solid of facts and evidence. With the change of government in 1997 those fears subsided but they rose again during the course of the Lobbying Bill through Parliament.

For 13 years from 1997 I was a Member of Parliament and every postbag brought messages from charities, local and national, about their causes, their purposes, their concerns. Precious few, if any, ever raised issues of how charities operate, the pressures (apart from financial) that they work under, what their legitimate role should be. The cause has always been more important than the practice and quite right, too: the cause is what brings people together in the first place.

But today, as some form of muddled compromise emerges from the restrictions threatened by the Lobbying Bill, the failure of our leaders to understand what it is to run a charity, and why, is clear. Political engagement is not an option for charities: it is their bread and butter. We are paying the price for not having had a debate on why charities exist and how they should properly behave in the best interests of the causes which it is their purpose to pursue, so letting down the millions of supporters who are behind them.