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Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
That this House takes note of the role that charities, trade unions and civil society groupings play in a democracy, including the provision of advice and information to government, and of the case for regulating lobbying activities, including those undertaken by business and private interests.
My Lords, I notice that after this debate there will be a “Statement on grammer schools”—spelt with an “er”. Oh, it has been changed to an “ar”—congratulations. I wondered whether it referred to “crammer” schools.
I am delighted to open this debate, during which I predict we will hear amazing stories of the brilliant work done by charities, large and small, local and national, which form part of the rich tapestry of civic life. Britain is well known for the Olympics, the Paralympics, warm beer, cricket, football, weather and the Royal Family, but also for our charities and a major political party having been created by voluntary organisations—that is, the trade unions—which represented manual workers at a time when they had no voice in Parliament. Indeed, well before the unions established the Labour Party, they were lobbying on behalf of their members, their families and their communities.
Likewise, charities have transformed society, often driven by extraordinary individuals such as Lord Rix, whose death we recorded so sadly on Monday, who not only ensured that support was available to families but also campaigned on their behalf. He was a shining example of where not only the individual’s own experience but organisations representing such groups give voice to their beneficiaries.
However, despite the role that charities played in providing education, health, pensions and insurance—before the state took responsibility—and despite the testimony of your Lordships about the current work of charities, the Government have sought to clip the wings of charities, and of government-funded independent organisations such as universities, by restricting their ability to share their expertise with decision-makers, be that Government or Parliament. They similarly set out to curtail trade unions by undermining their funding.
What is extraordinary is that, even as they sought to hamper charities’ efforts on behalf of clients, the Government did nothing to increase transparency or lobbying by big business. Neither commercial interests nor the media are constrained in their attempts to influence government, while charities experience a “chilling” effect on their duty to speak on behalf of beneficiaries, as I am sure we will shortly hear from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries.
I am not against legitimate lobbying by industry. Businesses need to thrive and they are helped in that by having understanding legislative, trade and financial frameworks. However, that lobbying should be open, transparent and regulated, particularly where it may be about international interests gaining secret access to government. However, despite David Cameron’s warning that lobbying was the next scandal waiting to happen, his Government’s so-called register of lobbyists actually omits lobbying by in-house public affairs departments and it ignores lobbying of senior civil servants, Peers, MPs and even chairs of Select Committees completely. We will return to this tomorrow when we debate the lobbying Bill of my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe.
The issue today is how to promote, encourage and enhance the ability of those without access to power, influence or big money to get their voice heard in our democracy. The Government do not seem to share that objective. Their lobbying and transparency Act left the private sector well alone, even as it tied up charities in red tape and served to chill their work. This was quite unnecessary, given that the combined third sector campaign spend in 2015, at below £2 million, was under 5% of the parties’ spend and probably less than the cost of recording and regulating it.
We will also hear shortly from the noble lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, whose own review of that Act concluded it did not have the right balance with regard to charities’ activities and had produced a “chilling effect” on these. As if the Act had not clipped charities’ wings enough, the Charity Commission then warned them off from becoming involved in the EU referendum. Even that was capped when the Cabinet Office proposed that any independent organisation in receipt of public money should not use it to inform or advise Government or, indeed, even the European Union. No academic would be able to give evidence to a Select Committee. No safety charity would be able to work for better EU regulations. No adoption and fostering charity would be able to advise the Government on better legislation or policy to achieve the Government’s own aim of speeding up such processes.
As the animal welfare charities wrote to us,
“We are closest to the issues. Every day, we see the impact of a lack of education and of the mistreatment of animals. It is essential for the quality of public policy that, as the experts in our field, we can shine a spotlight on emerging issues that have not yet been picked up by policy makers. Evidence based on the frontline experience of charities such as ours is an absolutely indispensable part of effective policy development”.
Historic England, the National Trust, Coram, which helps vulnerable children, Save the Children, which works in conflict zones, and charities demining in former war zones or preventing HIV/AIDS all have expert advice to proffer but are threatened with silence by the Government. Sensibly, that particular nonsense has been set aside, but it is against a background of pressure on any charity with public funding to hold its tongue, even when it seeks to further its objective and help beneficiaries.
Civil Exchange, in its review of the voluntary sector in 2016, felt forced to title its report Independence in Question after detailing numerous attacks on the ability of independent organisations to speak out on behalf of beneficiaries—not only the no-advocacy clauses in grant agreements but a flagrant disregard of the compact agreement signed with the voluntary sector, which promised to respect and uphold the independence of civil society organisations to deliver their missions, including their right to campaign regardless of any financial relationship. When the Refugee Council faced a no-advocacy clause in contracts, its CEO protested that it was,
“axiomatic … that any independent service provider should be free to speak out, without fear or favour”.
The head of Nia, a charity working to counter violence against women, said:
“Increasingly, state funding is driving us into a narrow service delivery role … required to act as an arm of the state rather than as an independent NGO”.
Indeed, some charities fear that mission is following money, rather than the other way round, while the Government dictated that housing associations sell off some of their properties, regardless of the long-term needs and underlying missions of those charities.
The value of trade unions from the 19th century was not just in representing workers vis-à-vis employers but in speaking up for workers and their families within the political sphere, leading to the factory Acts, the ending of child labour, free school meals, compulsory education, old-age pensions and unadulterated food and drink. So it is with charities. They do not simply relieve poverty, important though that is; they seek to prevent it and to give voice to the voiceless—be those children here or abroad, in war zones or in famine areas—drawing on their experience to relieve the causes of poverty or distress.
My noble friend Lord Judd, who is recovering from surgery so cannot be with us today, has run or been involved in a host of charities. That led him to become totally convinced of the role that civil society can, and indeed must, play in a healthy democracy. That was demonstrated to him particularly during the bitter conflicts of Chechnya and the north Caucasus, when he saw the Russians harassing and curbing the activities of NGOs. There is, says my noble friend, an overwhelming responsibility for NGOs to be able to speak out with the “authority of engagement”. I could not put it better.
We need the voice of charities and of their knowledge but also the voice of their beneficiaries. I hope the Government will take this need seriously. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am right behind what the noble Baroness said about the importance of charities and I am right behind them—but no charity is beyond scrutiny. During 2016 so far there has been a growing chorus of concern about the lobbying activities and associated behaviour of one charity set up by statute, the National Trust, and particularly the activities and behaviour of those in the regions away from London, with some terrible publicity recently for a once universally revered outfit.
I am not clambering aboard any bandwagons here, for in a short debate I sponsored in your Lordships’ House back on
The distinguished social theorist, the Anglican canon and the London solicitor who set up the National Trust in late Victorian England—and our predecessors in this and another place who passed the statute in Edwardian England—could not have foreseen what a landed leviathan the National Trust would become. The National Trust, indeed, has accumulated holdings that no Whig magnate in our House in the 18th century could ever have dreamed of accumulating. It has more than 600,000 acres of land, close to 600 miles of coastline and about 250 monuments and buildings. Yet the National Trust is totally unregulated, except by itself. Some people say that it is out of touch and increasingly remote. That, perhaps, is simply a function of the scale and size of the National Trust.
I believe that the present scale and organisation of the National Trust is inconsistent with the Government’s modernising agenda, which I strongly support, because devolution and accountability are increasingly part not just of regional rhetoric but of regional reality. Yet in 2016 the National Trust has set off on a totally new course with its additional lobbying activity, producing a new and positive blizzard of lobbying and a maelstrom of demands and advice, in relation to—just listen to the litany—global climate change policy, fracking, wind farms, and then, as if it was Defra, proposing a six-point national agricultural policy for post-Brexit rural times, with farmers, of course, to be denied subsidy or support unless they pursue particular environmental agendas. These environmental agendas may not be wrong but the suggestion is certainly extraordinary.
At the same time, and in lock-step with a change of focus into becoming this new lobbying organisation, the National Trust seems to have developed a new line in what can only be called autocratic and out-of-touch behaviour, whether towards farmers or cricketers. We just heard about cricketers and warm beer from the noble Baroness on the Front Bench. Just listen to what we have seen in the last four weeks. As far as farmers are concerned, there was the gazumping of local farmers in the Lake District, who were all at an auction to bid for a very delicate, upland hill farm area where they have long been active as the last, rather fragile link with our traditional farming heritage, and very welcome low-cost custodians of our man-made landscapes. Up pops some agent of the National Trust, bidding hundreds of thousands of pounds more than any chartered surveyor would suggest the land was worth as farmland, with all the casual insouciance of someone waving the cheque-book of a land-accumulating Ukrainian oligarch.
Let us turn to cricket and football and the National Trust’s attitude to these activities. Just yesterday, as reported in the Times—and therefore it must be true—the National Trust is evicting the local football and cricket teams from pitches in the park of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. They have been there for decades—almost time out of mind: father to son, and, I dare say, mother to daughter—playing football and cricket and occupying just 1% of the 900 acres of the Shugborough estate. This was because, as a National Trust representative was quoted in the Times as saying:
“Football and cricket really are non-traditional activities”.
You could not make it up. Generations ago the aristocrats used to encourage people to play cricket and football there. I suppose that was noblesse oblige, which is not always to be sneered at—whereas the new autocrats of the National Trust want to turf them out. Again, you could not make it up.
The trust needs to be better regulated. It was set up by statute for the benefit of the whole nation and its citizens, not just for the executive and paid-up members of the National Trust. There needs to be someone to whom complaints can be made, whether by an aggrieved tenant farmer or a member of the general public such as me or anybody else who just happens not to be a member of the trust. After that there is an urgent need for a full review, best set up by the National Trust itself, into its own governance since 1907. It has grown and grown in a way that is not its fault or that it could ever have predicted. I urge it to do this. The noble Lord, Lord Bragg—I apologise for not having suggested this to him in advance—would make a splendid independent chairman of such an independent commission into the National Trust. It would look at the trust to make quite sure that indeed acts in the national interest, cleaving to its statutory and charitable origins.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on bringing forward this debate. I begin my brief contribution by underlining the importance of her tribute to Lord Rix who, in his work as chairman of Mencap, inspired by his own daughter’s learning difficulties, is perhaps a shining example of the constructive and enduring purpose of charities. Had Mencap under his leadership not shone a bright light on the circumstances of children with learning difficulties, who were often living with abuse and neglect in long-term institutions for people who were then described as having mental handicaps, we would not have seen the accelerated rate of change that we now take for granted. Nobody now talks about the best care being provided in large institutions, either for people with long-term disability or people suffering the effects of long-term mental illness. That is one example of the extraordinary power of charity, independent of government and with a loud voice to bring about change for the better.
The importance of this debate is that the constituents of civil society, which my noble friend so clearly described, are the fabric of the society in which we live. This central question has been unsatisfactorily answered by the lobbying Act, and to some extent by the now-forgotten initiative of the big society. The balance is wrong between respect and self-confidence in government and the extraordinary contribution that charities can make. Perhaps I should have said at the beginning that I have declared interests in many charities with which I have an association. I was for many years assistant director of Mind; I will come back to that in a moment.
How do we get that balance right between civil society and the publicly accountable responsibility of government? Nobody has put it better than a Gamesmaker who I talked to four years ago during our Olympic Games. She was travelling every day for two hours to get to the Olympic park and two hours home in the small hours of the morning, only to come back again the next day. It was a truly punishing schedule and I asked her why she was doing it. She said, “Because it makes me feel I matter. I have a place here, and I have a contribution to make. To be part of this is something I will remember for the rest of my life”. She said, “I really want people like you to understand that it is important to know how much more people are willing to give if they are not doing so only because government tells them that they should”.
In a way, that was the crudeness of the big society initiative, whose failure can be explained through the clumsiness of that intervention. People, charities and local community organisations felt that somehow the Government were on their back. Suddenly, the supportive relationship between local authorities and local community organisations had been weakened because charities cannot replace the proper responsibilities of an elected Government. That is why it is right to have misgivings about voluntary organisations running custodial institutions and taking on the proper responsibilities of the state.
This takes us to the relationship between civil society and the state at a time when the state is shrinking—the critical recognition of a self-confident Government. I have been on the receiving end of disobliging lobbying as a Minister, and it is at times a nuisance. You wish they would get off your back, but you have to remember that in the end you are going to produce better results. The critical balance is to allow charities the freedom to give voice to what they learn through experience and to do things in ways that are different from the way in which fully publicly funded and provided services are delivered.
In his great book The Gift Relationship Richard Titmuss reminded us about the way we as a society are bound by reliance on blood donation. It is time to modernise the nature of the gift relationship. The new gift relationship is the gift of time, but the gift of time is properly delivered and valued where the relationship between government and voluntary and community organisations is properly worked out in a respectful way that celebrates innovation, is prepared to recognise the risks that many charities face, does not burden them with crushing bureaucracy and enables their independence and freedom.
Finally, last night I was talking to some young men from my former constituency who run the Brixton soup kitchen. It is a wonderful local organisation run essentially on their largely unpaid efforts. I asked what they would say if they were making a speech about this today. One of the young men said, “I think that people like you ought to talk more in ways that people like us understand”. There is still a yawning gap, but the pluralism in our society is the essence of what defines our shared humanity.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has done the House a great service by tabling this debate. I shall confine my remarks to the charity sector and place on record how much I am looking forward to the work of the Select Committee which has been established to look at a range of issues affecting the sector. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust and as a member of the NCVO advisory council.
Over the last 20 years or so, every set of institutions in this country has come under serious question: the police after Stephen Lawrence and Hillsborough, the Government and intelligence services after Iraq; press abuses through Leveson; and Parliament itself after cash for questions and the expenses scandals.
For charities, more recent concerns about fundraising methods and the questionable governance highlighted by Kids Company and others might not be in the same league, but they have clearly had an impact on public trust. The most recent figures from the Charity Commission show a fall, from 6.7 out of 10 people in 2014 to 5.7 this year. For organisations dependent on public good will for their prosperity and survival, this is worrying.
The debate throughout all this is about whether trust and confidence can be rebuilt through creating new legal and regulatory frameworks or whether it is through the actions of the organisations themselves, especially in changing cultures where bad practices have crept in. Of course, the fact is that you have to have both. My view is that self-regulation should be the preferred option, but always with a robust and powerful regulatory regime as a backstop—the last resort rather than the first. I worry that a Government sometimes make problems look far more widespread and serious than they actually are by proposing draconian regulatory measures. A macho style of government has become all too common.
It is almost certainly a forlorn hope, but in this, as in other areas, sometimes it is best to make haste slowly, not in a spirit of pushing reform into the long grass but because hasty, ill-informed change simply stacks up problems for the future which then require further intervention to put right. All Governments have a tendency to overlegislate, but using new laws as a substitute for good management, high-quality dialogue and thoughtful policy-making simply causes trouble.
In the 25 years since I became involved in local government, I have increasingly seen in the public sector organisations and individuals who are fearful of doing anything new or innovative and who spend increasing amounts of time and money on process and measurement rather than actions. It is not surprising that they have become risk averse because, unlike in the private sector, in the public sector the incentives are all for caution.
I would hate the Government to push the charity sector down that same route. Its very strength is its independence, flexibility and ability to innovate. The public are very clear about what they want. The same report from the Charity Commission tells us that two-thirds of the public say that charities are spending too much on administration. The irony is that measures to improve trust could actually make it worse if the administrative and regulatory burden keeps increasing.
The changing role of the charity and voluntary sector and the growth in the social enterprise sector have blurred what were clear distinctions in years gone by. As more public services are contracted out to the sector, and as the advocacy role becomes more crucial, the relationship between central government and the sector becomes much more multilayered and highly complex.
The 2014 Act has highlighted some of the dilemmas involved in the Government’s relationship with the charity sector and exemplified some rather poor process by government. I speak as someone who has some sympathy with the underlying objectives of that law: namely, that voters should be clear about who is seeking to influence their choice at election times. This is particularly important when it comes to campaigning in individual seats, where targeting national resources on small geographic areas can have a significant impact. At the same time, charities must be allowed to advocate, inform and question throughout the electoral process, as they do at other times. I am very struck by the briefings I have received in which there is a clear divergence of view between the sector and the regulators about how clear the guidance is and how the law is to be enforced. This is clearly not satisfactory.
Most particularly, we need clearer differences between the routine advocacy of particular organisations and the intention of influencing electoral outcomes. In his excellent review, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, highlighted this point—and he was right to do so. Governments must be aware that in this area, as in others, charities are simply not going to run the risk of being non-compliant and therefore the so-called “chilling effect” on their activities in the run-up to an election is a real danger. Perversely, a measure aimed at transparency can end up as a gag.
The aspects relating to electoral law with regard to how one defines a member of the public highlight the perennial problem of how we keep regulation up to date. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, points out, the practical realities of how you differentiate between activities aimed at the public and those aimed at committed supporters and members are very difficult in the social media age.
The Act also demonstrates the other hardy perennial: regulatory overkill. By creating a 12-month regulated period, the Government have effectively neutered charities’ campaigning activities for one-fifth of the time and have added significantly to the costs of compliance. I wonder, in parentheses, how we would manage should we move away from fixed-term Parliaments.
In a similar vein, the so-called “anti-lobbying clause” that was proposed and then withdrawn was a classic example of legislation being inappropriately created by government. It really was a sledgehammer to crack a nut, with no real underpinning evidence of the problem it was designed to solve. But the difficulty is that, despite its withdrawal, it has caused a lot of bad feeling and mistrust, and has further undermined what ought to be the proper, constructive relationship between the charity sector and government. However, even more worryingly, and coming back to the point of public trust, it helps to set the tone that somehow the sector is beset with problems which can be managed only when the Government intervene. That is fundamentally wrong.
We are in for difficult times. Recent events have highlighted some very real divisions in our country, which need addressing and which will take a lot of healing. The charity sector is probably better placed than any other to do this, given the centrality of its role in all aspects of our lives. Government needs to work with the sector and not against it.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for this important debate, and draw your Lordships’ attention to my charitable interests in the register.
The noble Baroness pointed out to us that this country has always had an enviable history of charitable activity. Many of the charities extant today have their roots in the 19th century’s epoch of social reform, and some in that era were the response to specific changes in work or living patterns. I had the privilege of being the volunteer director-general of the country’s St John Ambulance Association in the 1980s—I am delighted to see my colleague from those days the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, here in the Chamber. That charity had grown from the requirements of communities to respond to the accidents which happened in mines, on the railways, in road construction and later in the electrical and gas industries.
From their beginnings, these charities were run and manned by volunteers, and over the ensuing century this became an important part of their ethos. Then things started to change, perhaps about 30 years ago. Many large charities started to so-called professionalise themselves, paying larger and larger salaries to ever-growing numbers of employees. Volunteers started gradually to find that their role was now to raise money to pay for these employees rather than to do much of the work themselves. Of course, it is true that fewer volunteers were probably available at that time, as charities had relied heavily on women and retired men for their voluntary workforce. As more women, properly, sought employment of their own, careers imposed more onerous obligations and many more leisure activities became available and part of life, voluntary work became less attractive.
Then Governments of all shades began to see that they could outsource the tackling of social problems to charities by paying them large grants to do the work. This has, on the whole, been a successful strategy, although some problems have arisen from it. First, some charities have distorted their founders’ missions—a point the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made—in order to qualify for government funding and to follow, dare I say it, the latest ministerial obsession, however well intentioned. Others have been obliged to put all their eggs into the Government’s basket, with the danger that, if policies change, they can be left high and dry.
Sometimes there has been an acute failure of financial supervision. We have recently had the debacle of Kids Company; a charismatic figurehead assumed almost total control, and public funds went unaccounted for. Also, government funding for charities is not always smooth. I have come across many instances of grants’ being confirmed for renewal only after the beginning of the financial year, sometimes many months afterwards, with the result that employees have had to be made redundant and have acquired new jobs elsewhere, to the detriment of the continuity of the project.
In recent years, however, there has been a welcome return to voluntary activity, as people realise that they can make a difference by doing it and at the same time gain much personal fulfilment. Labour’s Millennium Volunteers and the coalition’s big society, although neither project was particularly successful, helped raise awareness that our society has an urgent need of voluntary work to supplement the state’s provision in many areas, particularly healthcare.
Every year for the past 16 years I have had the honour of giving awards at the Mansion House to distinguished volunteers, all of whom have given up their time for decades to serve their communities without payment. They work all over the United Kingdom, in hospices, hospitals, health centres, servicemen’s charities, homes for the elderly, and in many other locations, where their efforts are valuable and hugely appreciated. It is iniquitous that a greater part of the twice-yearly honours list is not devoted to recognising voluntary work of this kind. I trust that the various honours committees will bear this in mind. The wonderful work of the Olympic committees has been mentioned, but I very much hope that we will not see too many Olympic athletes adding to their already considerable laurels membership of the Order of the British Empire while hundreds of deserving volunteers have a lifetime’s work left without a sign of the gratitude of the state.
As speakers have pointed out, charities are big business now, but I believe that government departments should insist that charities that receive grants from public funds should have a good mix of paid and voluntary personnel. We are all living longer and longer. We shall need once again to encourage that charitable impulse for voluntary work in our communities to look after each other rather more than we do at the moment.
Charitable work, especially that which is voluntary, is greatly enriching for those who engage in it as well as being immensely beneficial to those served by it. I very much hope that the Government will consider commissioning a review to look at their relationships with charities, especially at those points which previous speakers have made this morning, and how best charities can be helped to continue to serve our society in the coming decades.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for bringing this field of endeavour and experience to the Floor of the House so that we can enjoy a discussion of its various facets and perhaps focus our thinking about the way we would like things to go in the future. In the years that I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House, I have been only too aware of how poorly I have served the work of this place.
Thank you. My noble friend is most generous. This is largely because, having a day job—largely in the voluntary sector, related to so many people involved in charitable work—my field of activity lies there, and I am in no doubt about that. It is, however, a joy to come here when I do, especially on an occasion such as this.
Perhaps I may take up a point that the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, made a moment ago. He correctly said that work in the charitable sector and in civil society often supplements what is done by the state. In an age of austerity and cutbacks, I fear that it is too often becoming a substitute for what ought to be done by the state. The assumption that civil society and the voluntary sector can absorb the outcomes of government policy needs to be checked and tested.
I approach the whole question of charity with very mixed feelings. I am only too aware of how it excites a response on the part of those inclined to be charitable that, if we are not careful, simply maintains people in a position of dependency. Sometimes, of course, such activity is necessary. People who are on the bread line and whose mere existence is under threat need that help, even if they risk becoming dependent on it but, on the whole, I look for activity in the field of charity that introduces the notion of capacity-building, autonomy, an ability to take charge of one’s own life and building those qualities in those on the receiving end, as it were.
Charities ought always in this respect to be free enough to be innovative. The state—even with the finest legislation passed through bodies such as this House—cannot always create the conditions that would impose the right pattern across society, which everyone can then enjoy. In the charitable sector, if there is real freedom to act, some quite startling things can happen, which then become models from which those who provide at a higher level can learn.
Many Members of this House will remember the redoubtable figure of Lord Soper. I inherited responsibility for a lot of his social work for a number of years and have enjoyed after-dinner speaking on the basis of it ever since. I remember my work in a day centre in west London—open 365 days a year and becoming increasingly professionalised in line with modern fashion, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, said. It provided a range of services to homeless people, usually street homeless people, who had nowhere else to go—always over 25 year-olds. Youth work is much easier to fund, I can assure noble Lords, than old lads, as these were. Incidentally, is it not a shame that the work that was done by the previous Government—by Members on this side of the House through the rough sleepers initiative—to provide for the needs of the street homeless is being unpicked? We now see more and more evidence of street homelessness occurring in our day, when we really did think that a solution had been found.
At the day centre, there was one strand missing. We deloused, we fed, we provided advice, housing and all the rest of it—I could give so many stories of incidents and people from those days—but one thing was missing: a psychiatric social worker to help us with the mental problems of so many people living at their wits’ end and on the streets. Eventually, we found the money for that role. My instruction to this long-sought member of our personnel was very clear: “However long the queue of people wanting your services, you will give only 80% of your time to the face-to-face, problem-solving, advice-giving aspect of your work. The rest of your work will be concerned with accumulating notes of the kinds of conditions that you are discovering and statistics about the nature of the problems you are encountering”. I said to her that people like me would need that evidence as the basis upon which we made representations to public bodies and to the Government —it was essential that we did that work and it was integral to her work. I believed that then and I believe that now.
It is so important to give charities the freedom to innovate, to learn and to accumulate experience on the basis of which a view can be brought to Governments—which are often more than one stage removed from the experience of these things—in order that we may form an opinion, frame legislation and take the whole thing forward in a constructive way. I have lots of other experience of institutions where, because they took government money, they found themselves constricted by government pressure to do their work the Government’s way. I regret that, and I want to make a general point at the early stage of this debate. I plead with the Minister—or with whoever is summing up—to give us an assurance that the proper freedoms for charitable bodies will always be respected so that innovation, the accumulation of experience and evidence and a valid point of view put to those responsible for shaping our national life can always be made on the basis of facts that can be proven.
My notes would allow me to speak for another three and a half hours but, at this point, I forbear.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for initiating this debate. As she emphasised, charities and campaigning groups of various kinds play a vital role in our society. The health of our democracy depends not just on political parties but also on organisations which are rooted in the varied experiences of people’s lives being able to bring different viewpoints to bear, not least at election time.
It is absolutely right that all such groups should be regulated and that they should be required to be transparent in what they do. At election time it is again right that they should not be able to spend money disproportionately compared to political parties and candidates. However, Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 was itself disproportionate in the way in which it sought to limit third party campaigning at election time. It was hastily put together without consultation, driven by a fear of American-style political action committees coming to this country—a fear without serious foundation. The evidence of third party groups was, and is now, that it would, and does, seriously inhibit their legitimate activity.
The House was, thank goodness, able to achieve some little improvements in this lamentable piece of legislation, one being that there should be a review of how it worked at the last election. That review, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has now taken place and the report published. We are very grateful to him for it. It bears out many of the criticisms made in this House during the passage of the Bill and urges some significant changes. Many of these were argued for by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which I have the privilege of chairing.
I will briefly summarise some of these recommendations. First, instead of the phrase,
“can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote electoral success” for any party or candidate—which was thought to be too wide and uncertain—the Hodgson review recommends that this should be changed to one of actual intention to procure success in an election, along the lines of the Representation of the People Act 1983. I believe that this change would be welcomed by charities in particular, because it would be aligned with what their status as charities allows them to do anyway.
Secondly, the review recommends that the electoral period for regulation should be reduced from one year to four months—the same as for European and devolved legislatures. All the evidence submitted shows that third parties focus on elections at the most six months before the date. To require them to delineate expenditure relating to the election from normal expenditure a whole year before is an unnecessary, bureaucratic burden.
A third area of concern is how expenditure for joint campaigning should be allocated. It is good practice for charities to work together when appropriate and possible, but Part 2 of the lobbying Act in effect frustrated this purpose. The Hodgson review recommends important changes in this area.
Those are just a few of a number of important recommendations. My first question to the Minister is: when is the Hodgson review to be brought before the House? When would she see these vital changes, if agreed, being made to Part 2 of the lobbying Act? It is deeply flawed and needs to be amended in order to ensure that third party groups can play their proper role without the undue chilling effect that the Act, as it now stands, has had.
My other main concern is the anti-advocacy policy brought in and announced by the Government in February. The Government’s stated intention was to prevent funds paid to charities by government being used to fund lobbying. As has already been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, this has aroused widespread disquiet. The fact is that charities are regularly called upon by officials within departments to bring real-world experience of users and evidence-based expertise into public policy, and to engage with parliamentarians on these issues; for example, through providing evidence to Select Committees.
Clear guidance already exists about what charities can and cannot campaign and advocate on. However, it is critical that charities are able to speak up on behalf of their beneficiaries and are seen to be independent from government regardless of their financial arrangements. Charities are concerned that this clause could be perceived as limiting what they can and cannot say about important issues for fear that this will have an impact on their funding. Therefore, my second question to the Minister concerns this proposed policy—if it is still in place, as there seems to be a great deal of confusion about whether this proposal will be enacted. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that. Does she not fundamentally agree—as put so powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port—that charities that are in the front line of trying to respond to human need are best placed to bring before government the way in which policies can help or hinder the meeting of that need, and that bringing this experience and expertise to bear on government thinking is therefore vital and should not be inhibited in any way?
I was very surprised by the bitter criticism of the National Trust expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. As a member of the National Trust—one of its, I believe, 4 million members, the biggest mass organisation in the country—I am deeply grateful to it every time I walk a nice piece of coastal path that it has acquired. The noble Lord particularly supports farmers who want to continue to graze sheep on the uplands. However, his policy is strongly opposed by people with such disparate views as those of George Monbiot on the one hand and Sir Simon Jenkins on the other, who argue that most of the problems of flooding in the Lake District are caused by overgrazing of sheep in the uplands, and that if it is rewilded, as it is called, the water will be able to seep into the ground and the problem of flooding will be greatly alleviated. It is absolutely right that an organisation such as the National Trust should make that view known and, in so far as it is able to implement it on its own property, that it should be able to do so. Of course, there is the point of view of farmers and others but it is right that the National Trust should also be able to express its important point of view gained from its own experience.
However, my main point is that campaigning groups and charities play an essential role in making our democracy vibrant and living and their ability to do this should not be inhibited in any way.
My Lords, as I understand it, the Government have put on hold the rules regarding the lobbying activities of organisations that receive taxpayers’ money. They are right to do so because their thinking is very confused.
It is not anti-government to seek the best welfare for our fellow citizens. It is not anti-government to seek the highest standards of health and safety. It is not anti-government to seek the highest standards of truth and accuracy in reporting the news. It is not anti-government to have a say in genetic manipulation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who is not in his place, that it is not anti-government to seek higher standards of conservation. These are some of the voices to which my noble friend Lady Hayter referred—the real-world experiences, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, put it—voices which tell us where government policy is failing and where our priorities should lie. These voices want a say in shaping society, not by revolution or violence but by balance—the kind of balance about which my noble friend Lady Jowell spoke. These voices need to be heard. They are not voices that the Government should seek to silence because they are funded by the taxpayer. It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that the very reason these organisations are sometimes funded by the Government is that both seek the same ends. But democracy and the welfare of society are the not the only reasons why the Government should listen to trade unions, charities and civil society. These organisations are also the voices of progress—social, scientific, medical and commercial—based on experience, as my noble friend Lord Griffiths put it.
We are debating the Investigatory Powers Bill at the moment. Technology has given us new ways of communicating—ways that make our lives easier, our communications quicker, more social and more fun. But these ways are also available to criminals and terrorists. This Bill will clarify to what extent our communications can be intercepted and recorded by the authorities. Previously, powers of interference and access to records were created as and when the need arose. However, in debate on that Bill, we hear quite clearly the voices of civil society, reaching a balance between the commercial interests of the communications business, the concerns of our national security and our right to privacy. Without the voices of civil society, charities and trade unions, I doubt whether a satisfactory balance would be achieved on the Bill.
More technology is on the way which will require this kind of balance. Let us take, for instance, the changing world of work. Several million people are now working off digital platforms. It suits the operators to say that these people are self-employed so that the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity pay, training, safety, pensions and tax are nothing to do with them. It is left to the state to pick up these costs through welfare payments and tax credits. I am sure lobbyists for platform operators and internet service providers put a very good case to the Government for their own commercial objectives. But what about fairness and costs to the public? Trade unions, civil society and charities—yes, sometimes even funded by the Government—are the ones speaking up for these things, and fairly soon some sort of balance will have to be agreed. Digital platforms themselves could be required to ensure that users comply with current regulations, and workers could belong to some kind of trade union co-operative. Then neither workers nor users would be vulnerable to exploitation.
In many other areas of new technology, charities are in the front line to achieve balance. We hope that some of our more serious medical problems will be eliminated by genome editing. For some, altering our chromosomes and genes can be a terrifying prospect. It is contrary to the faith of others. Yet it holds out the prospect of quick and relatively cheap medical miracles. Unless charities and civil society set about explaining these issues through some sort of public understanding campaign, to encourage sympathetic public opinion, the benefits of this wonderful medical research will take a long time to be accepted, if ever. I hope the Government are lobbying the charities and giving them donations to help with this work, for the sake of the nation’s health.
Lots more things are coming down the line where a balance will have to be achieved between commercial interests, security and the public good: the internet of things and digital money, to name but two. My noble friend Lady Hayter is absolutely right to move this debate and I congratulate her. Uncertainty on how to respond to the changes brought about by new technologies will lead to inaction and lost opportunity unless the input from society brings about acceptance and understanding, through balance and fairness.
For the sake of progress and the public good, the Government should listen to all these voices equally and not give disproportionate influence to company voices, nor quieten the voices of tax-supported charities. We need them all equally to better inform our decisions.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness for having given us the chance to debate this important topic. As some Members of your Lordships’ House will know, I have prepared a number of reviews of the sector. The work that I have done and the people I have met lead me to associate myself entirely with the noble Baroness’s remarks about the contribution that the charitable and voluntary sector has made to our society, especially as regards social cohesion.
However, there is an important cautionary word, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, who is not in her place, and it is that charitable status is not of itself a guarantee of good behaviour. I fear that there have been too many cases where governance, procedures and approach have fallen short. No matter that the vast and overwhelming majority of charities are doing the splendid job to which the noble Baroness referred; the sector needs to remember that its reputation with the public is as good as the weakest link in the chain. I am confident that the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, will investigate that, to find ways of making sure that the good stories are not driven out entirely by the bad.
I turn to my review of Part 2 of the transparency of lobbying Act. I am encouraged by the fact that a number of speakers so far have seemed to agree with my conclusion that we should aim for the maximum transparency on the issue of how and by whom the general public are influenced at the time of a general election. That must surely be the only way to maintain public trust and confidence in our electoral system. Elections must not be capable of being bought by third parties of whatever colour or persuasion operating behind a green baize door. At the same time, we need to make sure that the system does not constrain vigorous public debate, and that is the difficult balance that we have to strike.
Within the 100 pages of the review—I take this opportunity to thank everybody in the country who contributed by attending meetings and sending in evidence to the debate; I also thank the Cabinet Office team led by Cathryn Hannah and David Rowland, who helped prepare the report—there are perhaps two really critical matters. The first is: what needs to be regulated? I defined that as electoral campaigning— that is,
“activity focused on influencing the choice of the voting public at an election”.
I do not think that that regulation should cover advocacy of an issue that an organisation may carry out on a day-to-day basis—what I describe in the review as “business as usual”. Nor should it cover political campaigning which third parties carry out in talking directly to government, Members of your Lordships’ House or Members of the other place. Frankly, if we and Members of the other place cannot “aim off” to take account of the blandishments of such people, we are less good than I think we should be.
If that broad approach is accepted—of course, these are not absolutely discrete silos; one washes into another—one can safely recommend a shortening of the regulated period. In my view, the general public in the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck become aware of an impending general election only about four months ahead of the date of the election. Therefore, I feel that we can safely reduce the regulated period and thus the associated paperwork to the four-month period, as was mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries.
The second issue is: what constitutes a member of an organisation and therefore someone who can be approached without falling to be included in the cost of any lobbying activity? Historically, membership has been pretty easily defined—you fill in a form or you send in a cheque, a postal order or some money. But nowadays, with social media, these certainties have been blown away. A tick in a box or an email sent to hundreds of thousands of people at very low cost can make you a member. It will be only a matter of time before the concept of a negative pledge is used—that is, if you do not tick the box, you will be considered a member.
In my view, this potentially offers a serious loophole to the whole practice and risks undermining the lobbying activity in a very important way. So I have proposed the concept of a constitutional member who can influence the organisation of which they are a member, and I have laid out a number of tests that should be followed to ensure that that is being met.
However, as other noble Lords have said, third-party campaigning does not itself lead to neat definitions and packages. The continuing rapid rate of change in social media means that there will be a continuing impact on the way that third-party campaigning practices take place. For example, I had an analysis carried out of the use of Twitter in the Bradford West constituency at the last general election. It was a particularly vicious and fiercely fought campaign. Of the 35,000 Twitter users who referred to candidates in Bradford West, only 330—fewer than 1%—marked Bradford as their home address, compared to 12,000, or about one-third, who marked London and 506 who marked Pakistan. So I believe that, increasingly, campaigning will no longer respect national boundaries, and this will represent a challenge to us all.
In March this year, I presented my review to the then Minister, John Penrose MP. The broad conclusions and approach were, I think, welcomed by the sector and by the Government—if I judge ministerial responses at Question Time right. But so far there has been no official response, and I am asked frequently by those who helped me with the review what happens next. We appear to be in a good place. The sector appears reasonably happy and the Government seem reasonably happy. I hope that they will not allow the good will that they have rightly earned to be dissipated by undue delay.
I hope that my noble friend will enlighten the House on progress during her closing remarks. If she is not able to do so, I fear that I may have to intervene to press her a little harder.
I think that most noble Lords would agree that there was much fiction among the arguments put during the recent Brexit campaign. Obviously I am not going to defend the fictitious slogans on campaign buses, one of which stated that Brexit would provide an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, but I am going to stand up for fiction in this debate, the importance of 100% literacy and reading for pleasure as an essential ingredient in our democracy, and the role played by charities and trade unions in achieving this. I declare an interest as a book publisher and from a lifetime’s engagement with most of our literacy charities.
The benefits of fiction have been known for some time. It is associated with high levels of empathy and improved relationships with others. Reading for pleasure has been linked to a reduction in the development of dementia in later life and to helping alleviate depression. Almost twice as many people who have low levels of literacy also suffer from depression. The journal Social Science & Medicine recently reported that cognitive engagement, or deep reading, regenerates the brain, and that people who read an average of half an hour a day—I include in this, I hope, all noble Lords—may well live, on average, two years longer than non-readers.
Studies have shown that visits to libraries improve general health, saving the NHS some £27.5 million a year in England in reduced GP visits. Perhaps we should put this figure on the side of buses. Perhaps we should also put it on the side of mobile libraries and even ambulances, to recognise the value of reading to our health. Sadly, however, our libraries themselves have not been in good health; many have died, and the epidemic continues. We have seen more than one library a week close across England since austerity measures were introduced, and Lancashire just announced that it is about to close 29 of its libraries. We must urgently bring the library network into remission.
Of course, the real patient is our democracy. There has been much analysis of the referendum result but perhaps we can agree on one thing: too many in our society feel disconnected, disempowered and are disengaged from politics, particularly the young. The Prime Minister alluded to this in her first speech in Downing Street when she said that her Government would be not only for the privileged few but for every one of us, and she gave a list of “burning injustices”. If she is to live up to these words, the Government should focus on the lack of literacy, which is at the heart of so many of these injustices. Around 9 million people of working age in England have low basic skills. The proportion of 16 to 19 year-olds who have low literacy is the highest of the 23 countries in the OECD’s 2012 survey. We are the only developed nation where our young people significantly underperform their elders.
I hope the Government agree that reversing this trend would help give people more control over their lives and that in “making literacy and numeracy a fundamental right of all adults” we should begin by harnessing all the innovation in the charity sector. One person in six in the UK lives with poor literacy, as I have said. As a child they will not succeed at school; as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market; and on becoming a parent they will not be able to support their child’s learning, leading to a cycle of deprivation over generations. Lacking these vital skills undermines people’s well-being and stops them making a full contribution to the economic and cultural life of our nation, and it harms our democracy.
If we want to compete in the digital world and the knowledge economy we need to lead in literacy, not trail in it. It makes economic sense as 100% literacy for all adults would boost our economy by some £80 million a year. Sadly, however, many employers still say that they cannot find enough skilled employees. So this does not mean just focusing on raising the numbers achieving entry-level skills but on improving the performance at the very top. Only a quarter of UK graduates have top-level reading and writing skills compared with at least a third of those in other developed nations.
Alongside literacy charities, trade unions are also playing a significant role in helping to meet the skills gap and increasing social mobility. It is 10 years this year since Unionlearn was established. During that time, 35,000 trade union learning reps across the country have helped more than a quarter of a million people improve their functional skills in English and maths. Often training is peer-to-peer, with dinner ladies teaching other dinner ladies, train drivers teaching other train drivers and prison officers teaching other prison officers and prisoners, too, 60% of whom, let us remember, have very poor literacy.
On the literacy charities themselves, we must embrace and value the work of all of them and government should draw on their expertise and innovation. The National Literacy Trust has established ground-breaking hubs to target interventions where they are most needed and partnerships with tailored approaches to meet local literacy needs. For example, three years ago five year-olds starting school in Middlesbrough were 23% below the national average in school readiness. The local hub has transformed this to a gap of just 6% today. In Bradford, over half of its eight to 16 year- olds are encouraged to write something daily which is not for school. They are now almost 10% above the national average, with a transformed attitude to writing.
The Reading Agency—an independent charity, where I declare a particular interest in the Quick Reads initiative—each year commissions major authors to write short books that are specifically designed to engage emergent readers with an average reading age of nine years old. Since 2006, 7.5 million books have found their way to emergent readers, including outreach work via hospitals, prisons, community centres, factories, army bases, libraries and adult education centres.
For many of our most disadvantaged citizens, Quick Reads has been a lifeline, inspiring confidence in more than 90% of emergent readers and encouraging more than 55% to be confident enough to address further learning needs. In Camden in north London, for example, Quick Reads was used in a pilot scheme with white working-class mothers in a book group to address their sons’ underachievement at school, another injustice highlighted by our new Prime Minister. The mothers sped through their first books and quickly became avid readers, taking an interest in their children’s education, often for the first time, with a marked improvement in attendance, confidence and school results.
My last example comes from the Learning and Work Institute’s groundbreaking Citizen’s Curriculum, which teaches the core capabilities needed for life and work in the 21st century. As a result of this training scheme, Rochdale council has found increased take-up of public health services, such as drug and alcohol support, and a 14% decrease in call-outs to police. The latest pilots suggest that public services overall save £3 for every pound invested. This, I argue, is a model for civic engagement. My point is that charities are the seed beds of innovation in our fight against illiteracy and inequality of opportunity and while the Government have assisted literacy charities with funding in the past, over the last five years that funding has been dropping. Surely it is in all of our interests for these charities to be well funded. The private sector plays its part but private money can often be withdrawn, leaving important initiatives in limbo. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths has already so eloquently argued, we also need to ensure that the best and most effective charity pilot schemes are adopted and scaled up by government in a move to achieve a once in a lifetime goal—100% literacy. This is my plea to the Government.
I have one final point. Literacy charities may help many of those without a voice to gain one through improved skills. This helps our democracy to survive and thrive. However, just as the people they help need a voice, so too must the charities be allowed to campaign. They must be able to challenge and lobby government for change. Any attempt to reduce that ability would take us a further step away from the desperate improvement needed in literacy, improvement that is essential to the health of our nation, our economy and our democracy.
My Lords, I, too, want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and I want, in the nicest possible way, to take for granted what she said, because it was very important and I agree with it absolutely. I want to invite us to look at the last three words, “in a democracy”, as a very important context for this discussion and debate, not least for the role of charities, trade unions and civil society.
Democracy works through two very important elements. One, of course, is the offer of ideas and suggestions about what to do to best order society. It is about answers to problems. The lobbying industry and the contribution that charities make to that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and others have shown, is very important—“From our experience, here is the answer to this kind of question”.
However, democracy also requires space for those answers to be debated and other options to be looked at, which is the role of a body like Parliament. I want to invite us to recognise that, in our culture, there is an enormous deficit of spaces for lobbied answers to be examined and alternatives explored in a mature and participatory way. Not least that is because a lot of our media offer answers from pretty entrenched ideological positions, and therefore stoke up the lobbying side of democracy rather than provide space for genuine debate and the looking at alternatives.
From my own experience, I can testify to the hunger people have to participate in debate and discussion and not just swallow ready-made packages from whoever is putting up the answer. In the city of Derby a couple of years ago, I set up a commission for the city, and in eight public meetings hundreds of people came to look at education, unemployment, policing and various things. From that has come all kinds of on-going work, where people got engaged in our city about what citizens, charities, the local authority and others can do in these areas to better improve the quality of life. There were no smart answers; there was an invitation to engage in a process of asking the questions and exploring options and partial solutions. With MPs in our county, I regularly organise summits on things like immigration, refugees and slavery and invite citizens to come, from all kinds of persuasions, and look at the options and not just the answers.
Some of your Lordships may think that, of course, I stand for a Church that is always criticised for not having any answers on anything at all and is always prevaricating on the big questions. But if you are to be a broad church, which a democracy needs to value, you have to take seriously a variety of experiences and aspirations, and create a space for them to feel that they have been taken seriously. In a way, that is what my Church tries to do, and I think good politics needs to operate like that, too.
I want to point to three areas that the Minister might like to comment on that might allow us to take seriously the needs of our democracy, which I think at the moment is overloaded with answers but provides very little space to discuss questions and a variety of possibilities which people would be drawn into to participate.
The first area is the potential of trade unions, which the noble Baroness referred to in her opening speech and about which we have heard a couple of other mentions. Trade unions can easily be caricatured as lobbying machines for particular things. In fact, we know from their history and their present practice, as the noble Baroness just said, that they have enormous skill and wisdom in inviting people—in the contexts of work, their communities and broader life—to engage from the micro to the macro. That is a very precious part of our democratic ecology. We need to foster an attitude towards trade unions and what they can bring that is positive and encouraging. There is too much negativity based on a narrow view of what trade unions are about. It will be interesting to hear what the Government think about the potential of trade unions to grow this skill they have to enable ordinary people with ordinary experiences to participate in looking at the questions and not just the answers.
The second area that I invite the Minister to comment on, if we want to take seriously the health of democracy, is that, quite rightly and commendably, the Government are always conducting reviews and consultations, often online. I suggest that these reviews and consultations could be not just a platform for lobbyists to chuck in all the answers but designed for a more participatory exploration by citizens of what options there might be and how new ideas might emerge from the collision of some of the pre-packaged solutions. A great deal of creative work could be done in this whole culture of review and consultation that the Government rightly spearhead to engage citizens in the democratic process and not just indicate that they need to choose between one answer and another.
Finally, I am sure that the Minister will comment on not underestimating the value of churches, civil society and charitable spaces, where actually, as other noble Lords have said, volunteers have passion and commitment and want to explore options not just for particular sectors but for the well-being of the whole of society.
I think that democracy is in danger of being distorted by an oversupply of answers. I hope that this Motion can also be interpreted, therefore, as looking at some of the potential sites and sources to recognise that, besides answers, we must value the importance of questions.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to debate such an important issue. I join with her and the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell, in paying grateful tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rix.
I spent almost 20 years in public affairs and campaigning in the charity sector, so I will confine my remarks to charities. I count myself privileged to have seen first-hand the vital role that they play in our democracy. Throughout my time in the charity sector I have seen that being able to demonstrate a clear connection between donor support and the tangible benefits of the campaigns that their time and support helped fund was crucial to building trust. It is that trust that underpins the success and sustainability not just of charity campaigning but of the sector itself. Trust is our charity sector’s life-blood, and right now it is in urgent need of a transfusion.
Sadly, I witnessed a serious breach of trust, which underlines that urgency. I bring it to your Lordships’ attention out of the same sense of public-interest duty that first drove me to stand up and be counted on what I still regard as a matter of honour. The duty to speak truth to power without fear or favour is surely all the greater because of the privilege and responsibility that go with being a Member of your Lordships’ House.
The situation I found myself in as head of public affairs at the Royal British Legion underlines the compelling need for far greater protection for whistleblowers brave enough to raise legitimate concerns about ethical issues or mismanagement in the charity sector. Whistleblowers are often dismissed as disgruntled former employees, but I know I will only ever be a proud former employee of the wonderful organisation that is the legion. Happily, the charity is now under new management. Moreover, the excellent new director-general, Charles Byrne, was not there when this situation arose.
If helping to win the campaign to save the chief coroner, with the essential support of your Lordships’ House, was my proudest moment at the legion, being bullied by a then senior director at the charity in an attempt to get me to sign off payment of an invoice that I had advised was of dubious legality—and moreover, to learn subsequently that the then director-general had nonetheless approved payment—has to count as the saddest moment of my career. The fact is that I was unable to prevent his approval of payment of donors’ money to an individual who should never have received one penny of legion charitable funds that were donated in trust. It still haunts me that this happened on my watch as the legion’s head of public affairs and could happen again today at any charity.
I can never forget my disbelief at what happened: the invoice from a parliamentary researcher, on paper giving his Westminster email and phone number, and his personal bank account details; a parliamentary researcher, who, unbeknown to his boss, demanded payment for meetings arranged, briefings drafted and Parliamentary Questions prepared; my written advice that no payment should be made, given that any parliamentary researcher who demanded payment for such services should not be trusted, notwithstanding that a second version of the invoice was submitted by email omitting reference to preparing Parliamentary Questions, but for good measure attaching a list of Parliamentary Questions tabled; the bullying emails sent to me by the then director of welfare at the legion, who is now the chief executive of Combat Stress, asking me to process payment of the invoice now; and the email from the then director-general of the legion belatedly informing me that he had approved payment of the invoice.
I have no reason to believe that the email from the then director-general, confirming that he had approved payment, was a lie. I must take his word at face value and assume that he wrote the truth. But even if he did not tell the truth and payment was not made, it would surely be missing the point entirely if we accepted that somehow that makes such behaviour all right. Either way, if he did not tell the truth, lying to one’s colleagues, quite apart from permitting an environment in which a senior director thought it okay to bully a junior colleague on an ethical issue, is no way to lead a charity. How could such behaviour be in any way deserving of the trust that millions of donors rightly place in the legion year after year? If there is no wrongdoing, why did the then director-general, as I discovered only subsequently, neither consult nor even inform the charity’s then national chairman about such a sensitive issue? Would the trustees of Combat Stress have appointed their new chief executive had they known of her bullying behaviour and involvement in this serious matter? I assume that she did not tell them. Had anyone told me that such behaviour was possible at the legion, I would never have believed them—but for the fact that I experienced it myself.
In closing, surely the main lesson to be learned from situations such as this—to which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has already alluded—is that just because charities do good things does not mean that bad things do not happen in them, that some people in power do not abuse that power, or that some people in positions of trust do not betray that trust. If such behaviour is to be prevented, the integrity of our fantastic charity sector needs to be defended by far greater protection for whistleblowers. Only then will a strengthened charity sector once again enjoy the trust that is so essential to the success of its vital campaigning and policy-influencing work.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on securing this important and timely debate. I thank her, too, for giving prior notice to the House that we will have a debate tomorrow on a Private Member’s Bill that I have introduced. The Bill seeks to repeal the Government’s pale imitation of a register of lobbyists that came in in 2015, and to replace it with a credible register that will allow genuine scrutiny of the activities of professional lobbyists in a wider range of organisations than hitherto, including charities and trade unions. I reserve for tomorrow’s debate the reasons why the current system has failed and what a sensible register would look like, such as the new one in Brussels, the good one in the United States, the one in Canada, or the one our neighbours and friends in Ireland have. Shortly we will also have a new register in Scotland. I will endeavour to set out how we can achieve this in a straightforward and cost-effective manner.
The problem with lobbying in this country has long been recognised, including by the previous Prime Minister. In 2010 he described it as,
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
He also rightly identified it as an issue that crosses party lines. My party has experienced its fair share of scandals. Indeed, it was a sting by Channel 4 in March 2010 featuring predominantly ex-Labour Ministers offering to help companies lobby in return for payments that prompted the 2010 incoming coalition Government to promise to shine a light on lobbying.
In recent weeks we have heard rumblings of a new potential source of scandal: the oncoming bonanza arising from the UK’s exit from the EU. When commercial lobbying firms are promising to connect clients with critical Brexit decision-makers so that they can shape the post-Brexit regulatory and business environment, it will not be long, I suspect, before we read more tales of back-room dealings in our press, unless we take action to avoid it. With every lobbying scandal, public trust in politics is eroded. We must do everything we can to raise our trustworthiness, and, where we can, to persuade those with whom we do business to act accordingly.
Many in this House, myself included, will argue that lobbying is an essential part of good governance. It ensures that outside interests are listened to and it leads to better decisions being made. However, it can also pervert our democratic system by allowing those with the loudest voices—and often those with the deepest pockets—to dominate the discussions, and also, in turn, to influence the key decisions. As David Cameron said,
“we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way”.
Those are the former Prime Minister’s words, not mine, even though you might have expected them to be coming from me. Given the Times article of
The ease with which people revolve out of Westminster and Whitehall and into the lobbying industry only adds to the widespread perception that access and influence can be bought, and that companies have a structural advantage over the wider public. I particularly welcome, therefore, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is in dire need of an overhaul, to ensure that trustworthiness is high on our agenda.
When it comes to lobbying, the solution is not greater restrictions but more sunlight. David Cameron, again, rightly identified the problem as one of transparency. He said:
“We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence”.
Six years after this speech, we still do not know the answers to those questions. A robust register, of the type that I will propose tomorrow, would tell us precisely this and no more: who is lobbying who, about what, and—if my Bill succeeds—how hard; in other words, how much money is being invested in those lobbying efforts.
Unfortunately, the introduction of the Government’s fundamentally flawed lobbying register was at the time overshadowed by their efforts to clamp down on charity campaigning, as we have heard so much about today during previous contributions. It was pushed through at unnecessary speed, and attempts by this and the other House to improve it were brushed aside. That is why I will return to it tomorrow: to give ourselves time for proper, serious debate over an issue that has not been solved, has not miraculously gone away and will continue to do damage to British politics and our way of life until we act.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on securing this important debate and for the clarity and conviction with which it was introduced. It is wide-ranging in its scope but, like others, I propose to speak in support of the role that charities can play in a democracy, and explain how they can reach the parts which government sometimes cannot. I do this by sharing the story of one particular charity, NOAH Enterprise—New Opportunities And Horizons—of which I am privileged to be a trustee, as recorded in the register of interests.
I offer the description of its activities as evidence of the need to promote the importance of charities’ campaigning as well as their role in service delivery at the sharp end. I join those who argue for the rejection of barriers that place restrictions on charities, preventing them imparting their experience and pressing policy and funding issues on government, central or local, if for no other reason than that it would otherwise be a tragic waste of their experience and learning, often gained in the most difficult circumstances. It would be letting down the very people who these charities exist to serve.
NOAH is a charity that, out of Christian conviction, seeks to support the most disadvantaged members of the local community, particularly those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse or sleep rough, who have fallen into poverty, or who are otherwise marginalised and socially excluded. It endeavours to do this in a number of ways, but fundamentally by a holistic offering of services. It offers street outreach, persuading people to engage with the services on offer, including welfare—essentially food, clothing and personal hygiene—access to a GP surgery, mobile dentistry and a mental health clinic. It will seek accommodation for its clients and give advice on budgeting. It will further provide basic training in life and vocational skills and can provide work experience. Part of this activity is funded from a social enterprise involving furniture restoration, as well as from traditional charity shops. This enables work experience to be offered in such ways as warehousing, drivers’ assistance, woodworking, administration and retailing.
To give all this some context, in the year to
For NOAH, this level of support is vital to its continued existence. The motivation for the volunteers might be varied but many undoubtedly develop an understanding of the challenges of the most disadvantaged, which encourages them to give a voice to those without one. Many become unofficial champions of NOAH, spreading the word and building the support network—campaigning about what NOAH does and what needs to change. In a sense, they are like the “Games Makers”: for them, it is a chance to matter. NOAH has also been the recipient of the CSR efforts of a number of corporates, large and small, to the mutual benefit of all. This has been a two-way process whereby a few corporates have taken work placements.
The focus of NOAH is to assist and support the poorest in a journey out of destitution and towards a sustainable future. As the NCVO says, it addresses the causes of social problems and not just their effects. Its approach is to provide a pathway from living on the street to temporary accommodation and daycare, through to settled accommodation, training, work experience and preparation for employment—and then into employment. This pathway can be joined at any point. For individuals on that journey, there is the benefit of its components being delivered under the one trusted umbrella of NOAH, much of it delivered on behalf of the state but not by the state.
As with many charities, the era of austerity has meant pressure on its finances, particularly from statutory sources and at a time when needs are greatest. However, its income sources last year included grants from statutory bodies for programmes such as Single Persons Homeless, the street drinkers project and Jobcentre Plus. Continuity remains a difficulty. Thirty-one foreign nationals were repatriated at their request last year, through a fund financed by Luton Borough Council. It also continues to get support from the Irish Government under their Emigrant Support Programme, which has been commendably sustained despite the recent recession.
Although there are, reasonably, always grant conditions, so far as I am aware nothing has yet emerged which prevents the charity raising public awareness and campaigning, particularly on poverty and homelessness. NOAH’s second annual conference took place in February with the theme of working together to address poverty in Bedfordshire. It was focused on statutory and third sector decision-makers in the county.
If I had to summarise NOAH’s benefits as an example of what a locally based charity can deliver and why it should be encouraged, I would list that it is driven by a clear and consistent vision; that it might be buffeted from time to time by the policy and funding swings of the statutory sector, and may have to adapt sometimes, but its focus is clear; that it can join things up in a manner which we know that government, local and national, finds difficult; that it is anchored in the community through its many partnerships and participation in local life, and through its proactive and articulate chief executive; and that it has the capacity to build trust among its service users and the wider community. It can reach the most excluded in our community, to offer hope, and seeks to recognise the fundamental dignity and worth of every individual.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for initiating this most valuable debate. I declare not only my register of interests declaration; like many Members of this House, I suspect, I have spent much of my life involved in charities, trade unions and other voluntary bodies. It is a part of the rite of passage into this Chamber for virtually everybody.
Charities have a very soft image but that is not necessarily the whole image. Near the beginning of the debate we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about his views on the National Trust, which have been well aired in the Times recently and probably in other papers as well. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, is not here because he wrote a powerful letter to the Times which I found very convincing. I would have liked to have heard his side of that story. The sad truth of the matter is that, as with many institutions in society, charities have also faced their problems. They are facing a loss of trust.
I cannot remember which noble Lord mentioned the fact that the charities were not allowed to campaign during the Brexit debate. My prediction is that if charities had been campaigning in that debate, they would probably almost all have been on my side and campaigned for remain. But the most significant lesson of the Brexit debate is how out of touch we were; the fact of the matter is that many charities today are out of touch. There are well paid chief executives, in the name of professionalism, but apparently accountable to no one. They are less accountable than a trade union general secretary or than a chief executive officer in a FTSE-listed company. They often exist in an area where there is no apparent democratic structure. Can anyone tell me what the democratic structure is of the Red Cross, Oxfam, the British Heart Foundation or the many charities that we see in our high streets? I do not believe that there is one—but there should be and, as such, it might well be time for this area to be revisited.
I do not subscribe to the philosophy that there are fewer people. There are in fact more people living longer and far more, particularly in my generation, who are available, fit and working. My wife holds a position in the U3A in Cambridge, which has 3,000 members in that one city. Admittedly, Cambridge is probably an exception but there are 3,000 retired people taking part in just one body in one city. There are a lot of people out there but there is a need for some control.
Chugging has been dealt with to an extent but it is still apparent on our streets. We should revisit the need for an extension of the Freedom of Information Act to the charitable sector. Why should what the charities do not be accountable? They are, after all, spending money raised from the public sector or volunteers. It is not, in large part, private money. Why should they use government money to lobby the Government? I do not believe that they should. I think the policy we have on this is quite right. I also believe it would be useful if we knew what some charities do. For instance, I have been told that the NSPCC does not inspect any children any more, but is purely a lobbying organisation. I am told that Barnardo’s no longer runs homes but lobbies. This is probably a useful thing, but the reality has gone a long way away from the image.
My noble friend Lord Shinkwin outlined a very serious and worrying case in which there was no apparent easy redress. It would be useful if the rigour which we apply to the trade union movement, with the forthcoming introducing of a new, beefed-up Certification Officer, was applied to the charitable sector. Perhaps charities should have a certification officer.
I shall make one aside to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on lobbying. I am appalled at the way in which people leave comfortable government positions, in which they are largely underpaid, and immediately go into very highly paid positions in which the only reason they are there is because of who they know from the other side of the case. It appears that the most the body we have for regulating the transition from public service to private service ever does is to send somebody on six months of gardening leave. I have been unable to find an instance of any senior politician or civil servant being prevented from taking a well-paid job on the other side. That is not good service to our democracy.
I shall finally say a word or two about trade unions. Trade unions exist at the other end of the system. They spend far too much of their time lobbying for things that are of no interest whatever to their members. One-third of their members vote for the Conservative Party, which shows a good deal of common sense among average trade unionists. Most trade unionists join a trade union to be defended at work, to be looked after and to be protected in difficult circumstances. They do not join in order to be lectured politically. I am proposing not that we should do anything but that perhaps the unions themselves should take a more careful look at what they do. Every day I get emails from the TUC, and I see that Frances O’Grady has today sent a message to the Labour Party to get its act together ahead of the TUC in Brighton next week, which I shall be attending. I will be looking around, but I do not think it will do that. I look forward to the TUC sending messages to the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party and others expressing the needs of working people. I say to the TUC: butt out. It is not your fight. Let the Labour Party and the Conservative Party sort out their own politics while you fight for the rights of working people, which is what you were set up to do in the first place.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Hayter for introducing this important debate and bringing to your Lordships’ House such a powerful analysis of the issues arising from the Government’s action and inaction in this area. My noble friend’s Motion is wide in its span of civil society as a whole and is focused on the specific area of lobbying and the inequitable and illogical approach the Government have taken to its regulation between charities and the corporate sector. I could not have made the argument on the question of lobbying better than my noble friend, and I wholeheartedly support what she said.
I shall speak primarily about the role of charities more broadly in society and the economy. I therefore draw your Lordships’ attention to my position as a trustee on both the grant-making and operational sides of a number of non-profit organisations which are set out in the register of interests.
The coalition Government launched with the then Prime Minister’s grand idea of the big society, a crude distancing of himself from Mrs Thatcher’s supposed nihilism combined with a convenient and hoped-for piece of sticking plaster for the injuries to be caused by the Government’s doctrinaire public expenditure cuts. The current Health Secretary made his pitch for political advancement from what was then his position of Culture Secretary—look where that got him and us—by rapidly agreeing with the Treasury large cuts to the DCMS budget while assuring the country that the arts would not be adversely affected as philanthropy could replace the lost statutory funding—a wholly unrealistic and implausible assumption, as we have now seen.
We then moved from big society to silent society, as the Government introduced, despite your Lordships’ best efforts, the arbitrary and prejudiced restrictions on lobbying by charities at the centre of today’s debate. Charities and civil society organisations, like the children or servants of a Victorian duke, should be seen but not heard the Government seem to be saying in response to the independent views and campaigning properly pursued by charities large and small. Lying behind this, apart from a thin-skinned unwillingness to allow the Government’s prejudices and actions to be challenged, there was also partisan paranoia within at least parts of the Government and the media by which they are so influenced that because some of the best and brightest of the Labour Government and their advisers had chosen to work for charities after losing office—a continuation of their public service—the voices of those organisations should be restrained.
There is a new Prime Minister and a new era. What, then, after the big society and silent society, does the new Prime Minister and her Government see as the role of charities? The very first decision is unusually difficult to interpret. The Prime Minister moved the Office for Civil Society and responsibility for charities policy from the logical and effective location given it by the Labour Government in the Cabinet Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. “I wonder what he meant by that”, said Talleyrand about the death of the Turkish ambassador and Metternich about Talleyrand’s own death. I wonder what the Prime Minister meant by that. She and the new Culture Secretary have both suggested that the work of the Office for Civil Society fits perfectly with the DCMS’s mission to enrich lives. Hmm—it is hard not to suspect that pressure on Cabinet Office resources as a result of the Brexit vote may be the driving reason for this change.
Front Benches in your Lordships’ House are, of course, famously versatile, so perhaps we should not read too much into the fact that the Minister is, I am sure to your Lordships’ delight, spared long enough from her Cabinet Office brief to cover the subject for which the Cabinet Office is no longer responsible. Yes Minister. As the Prime Minister, following the statement of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union about the single market, has ruled that Ministers can apparently express personal views that are not necessarily those of the Government, it may be unreasonable to ask the Minister to say how the Government now see the role of charities, particularly in the light of this apparent ambiguity of departmental responsibilities, but I look forward to her response very much none the less.
In the meantime, I can end only by trying to reinforce the points made by, among others, my noble friends Lady Jowell and Lord Griffiths and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that charities cannot and should not be seen as a substitute for the proper responsibilities of government and should be allowed and encouraged to lead, innovate and, as a consequence, take risks.
I have quoted Bill Gates on the role of philanthropy in the past, but the authority that he brings justifies returning to his argument. From a perspective drawn from founding the largest grant-making foundation in the world, from a base in a country where philanthropy has been deeply embedded for over a century and where, across the political spectrum, the role of government is seen as smaller than here in the UK let alone elsewhere in Europe, Mr Gates has been clear: philanthropy cannot substitute for supra-national, national or local government spending. He has argued that it should take more risk than either government or business. That risk should not be uncontrolled or unsupervised. I agreed strongly with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that self-regulation should be the first line of defence and statutory regulation the second.
While there have been regrettable high-profile failures of governance in the charity sector, the general trend at the micro and macro level has been positive. In that context, I strongly welcome the establishment of the Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship at the LSE as the latest and most significant initiative to help enhance the effectiveness and impact of non-profit organisations.
There has been unanimity today about the key role of civil society within our overall society and economy. I hope very much that the Prime Minister, whatever the other pressures on her, will in due course set out her vision for civil society alongside her welcome and well-flagged commitment to industrial strategy. It need not—indeed, should not—be grandiose and overambitious like the big society, but should demonstrate her Government’s recognition of the proper role of civil society.
My Lords, I add my voice to the well-deserved, growing chorus of thanks to my noble friend Lady Hayter for giving us the opportunity to discuss this today. I have sat through every speech and am a regular attender in this House, as some noble Lords know. I have found it one of the most interesting debates that I have ever sat through. It has not been repetitive. We often have debates where people say exactly the same as the person before them, and the same again. This has been really fascinating, not least the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Chandos—I hope we will hear a lot more from him, because it was tremendous.
Following the speech by my noble friend Lady Rebuck, I am going to rush out and get some books after the debate. That reading is going to do me a lot of good, I now know. I will not just enjoy it, it will actually help me to live longer—so I am looking forward to that. This has been a really fascinating debate. I am very pleased to have sat through it and to be a member of the Select Committee on Charities, which has been mentioned. It is most ably chaired by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley, who has vast knowledge of this area. She is chairing our committee with great skill, expertise and insight into the sector. I hope the committee will come forward with some positive recommendations. I think that my noble friend, when she speaks, will confirm that we are already being inundated with lots of recommendations, evidence and submissions.
However, as I have said to the committee—my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley knows this—I do not want us to have just the usual suspects: the ones who regularly give evidence on this subject. Otherwise, we will not get the new, innovative ideas. We have been trying to encourage people to come forward with new ideas and with things that they have tried and that have been successful or not. I think we can learn from that. I am really looking forward to the further formal evidence sessions when we come back in October.
I should have declared at the start—it is in the register of interests—that I am now chair of Age Scotland. Before I was elected to the other place in the 1970s, I was director of Age Concern Scotland, so I have been involved in that area for a while. When I was asked to become a trustee of Age Scotland a few years ago, the current chief executive, my successor, said, “We want you on, George, because we knew you would have an interest in it, having been director of Age Concern Scotland”. But he said, “You’ll have more of a vested interest in the subject now”. I swore at him and said, “What a—something—cheek”. But he was right; I do have an interest in it and I understand the issues much better by being on the wrong end of the age spectrum myself.
I have found the debate fascinating, but I refute almost everything that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. I do not think that he understands the charitable sector at all. He said that we are not accountable. That is rubbish. We have an annual general meeting coming up later this year at which all the members—we have more than 1,000—will be represented. They will decide to re-elect or not the officers of the organisation. In Scotland, we are also accountable to the OSCR, the Scottish Charity Regulator, and in England to the Charity Commission. That is a great deal of accountability.
Having become a trustee, I have great piles of paper about the responsibilities of trustees. The grave responsibilities are putting people off becoming trustees. If they get it wrong, they are in trouble. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe—I was going to say “Comrade Balfe”—should understand that. Trustees are accountable, and certainly more accountable than any member of this House at the moment. It is really important to recognise that.
Most of the debate has been about lobbying. I am not going to say very much about it except that it is a pity that it has become a dirty word because of some of the scandals. There is absolutely nothing wrong in a democracy with any body, organisation or individual making representations, particularly to elected Members in the other place. That is what it is all about in a democracy. They are supposed to take account of the views of all the organisations working in our communities and in society. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it; it is democratic accountability—representation at work. That is all I want to say about lobbying.
My main point is that we on the Select Committee are already finding, and I am finding at Age Scotland and I know other people in other charities are finding, that charities are currently between a rock and a hard place, to use that old phrase—the upper and lower grindstones of the mill—and are being really squeezed. Charities are expected to do more and more. The need is growing, particular among the elderly. The number of old people is growing almost exponentially. As we live longer, the needs become greater. Loneliness is a huge problem that we are having to tackle. I echo what my noble friends Lord Chandos and Lord Griffiths said earlier: charities should not be taking on the responsibilities that should rightly be carried out by statutory bodies. That is clear, but we are still being asked to do more and more of the work that is rightly done by voluntary organisations.
At the same time, it is becoming more difficult to raise the money to do the work. We heard earlier about chugging. That is being questioned and challenged—and rightly so. Philanthropy is not as widespread as it ought to be. Sometimes, it is the poorer people who are giving more—and certainly a larger percentage of their income and wealth—to charities than anyone else. It needs to be recognised that raising money is becoming more difficult. I hope that we will take account of this when we look at it in the Select Committee.
I have one last thing to say. We have three hours, so the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, should not worry too much—or indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, for whom I have great respect, whether she is responsible or not, as my noble friend Lord Chandos said. I want to say a positive word about trade unions. I am a member of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union, and did a bit of work in this place for USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Again, this comes back to what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. USDAW asked me to take up an issue because its members were being attacked in shops, particularly when selling alcohol, and were being threatened; they were under tremendous pressure. I took up the issue and moved an amendment here. That is exactly the kind of thing that trade unions do to look after their members, so I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, will listen carefully when he goes to the Trades Union Congress next week. I think that he will find a message there that he ought to take account of, just as he ought to take account of the message that charities are democratic, are accountable—and, equally, are doing a damned good job.
My Lords, I join all other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness very much for initiating this debate and allowing us an opportunity to talk about one of the brightest jewels in the crown of our national public life, which is our charities. I should declare that a number of the bodies with which I am involved as a trustee are registered charities, and these are listed in the register.
For me, as we have heard so often during this debate, there is one golden thread which links together all those organisations which make up the rich tapestry of Britain’s charitable sector, and that is the care they give to the vulnerable and the needy and the voice they give them. I want to talk about one specific group that looks after perhaps one of the most vulnerable in groups our society—our pets and animals. I welcome this opportunity to pay a heartfelt tribute to the vital work of the UK’s animal welfare charities. I was delighted that the noble Baroness, in her opening remarks, was able to put over some of the vital points that they have made to her. A great deal of the work they do, and how they deliver it, is highly relevant to this debate and to the important issues that have been raised.
We are a nation of animal lovers and pet owners. More than half of homes own, between them, 9 million dogs, 11 million cats and many other types of pet, including a growing number of exotic animals. I am an unabashed cat lover, and there is nothing my husband or I would not have done over the years to look after the seven cats who have been in our care. Indeed, the vast majority of the UK’s pets are looked after extremely well, but not all are so lucky. We have a real problem with stray animals and with pets being abandoned, often due to economic circumstances or because owners failed to do research about caring for a pet before buying one online. Tragically, there is the ever-present horror of animal cruelty.
Those are the cases where our nation’s animal charities—to quote the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I think—go to the places that government cannot go to. That is where Cats Protection, Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust, PDSA, the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home step into the breach. The scale of the challenges they face, and of their achievements, is huge. Dogs Trust estimates that 100,000 stray dogs a year are handled by local councils, and it cares for a significant proportion of them—more than 15,000 last year. With cats, neutering is a real problem, and Cats Protection helped neuter 159,000 cats and kittens last year, in the largest companion animal neutering programme in the world, as well as rehoming 44,000 cats. For those pets in need of urgent medical attention, the PDSA provides more than 2.7 million treatments to pets every year, delivering wonderful care alongside the RSPCA and the Blue Cross.
For me, all these great organisations share five things in common which are central to the issues we are debating today. First, they are all civil society organisations that rely hugely on the tremendous, selfless support of volunteers—highlighted so well by my noble friend Lord Lingfield earlier on. Cats Protection, for instance, has 9,700 volunteers, the stalwart volunteers at Battersea Cats & Dogs Home last year gave 73,000 hours of service, and the PDSA saves £12 million each year thanks to its voluntary workers. Those are fantastic achievements.
Secondly, all the animal welfare charities are major providers of independent advice, information and education, helping people look after their pets responsibly and preventing neglect and cruelty. Blue Cross and Cats Protection last year spoke to more than 100,000 children and young people about responsible pet ownership, while the Dogs Trust ran more than 6,000 workshops in schools and youth clubs. That work would be much enhanced if young people were also to learn about these issues at school. If the Government could do one thing to help these very hard-pressed charities and their volunteer armies, it would be to make animal welfare part of the national curriculum in primary schools. Would my noble friend perhaps be able to look afresh at that?
Thirdly, these organisations all provide services that government cannot provide and which otherwise would not exist, including Blue Cross’s Pet Bereavement Support Service, Cats Protection’s Paws to Listen helpline for those struggling with the loss of a cat, and the Dogs Trust’s Hope Project, which helps the dogs of homeless people—all important services provided with no burden on the taxpayer.
Fourthly, these charities are an invaluable source of data and information for government, and also provide front-line services which help deliver on public policy. The best example is probably compulsory microchipping of dogs, where charities campaigned for the change—and it was absolutely right that they had the ability to do so—and have now undertaken to deliver much of the chipping. Hundreds of projects nationwide are now involved in implementing this policy. Such has been the success of the initiative, I believe there is now a case to make microchipping of cats compulsory, too.
Another area where the sector works in partnership with government is in making online pet advertising more responsible, with excellent results. Thanks to the work of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group, more than 100,000 irresponsible advertisements—for instance, those advertising pregnant animals—have been removed from websites. Provision of data which government does not or cannot collect, for instance the PDSA annual benchmark about the well-being of companion animals, is also crucial in informing the development of policy and shaping future legislation.
Finally, perhaps the most important characteristic that all these charities share in common is that they provide a vital independent voice speaking out for animals and making sure they remain on the political agenda, and we must ensure they continue to have the ability to do just that. That message has come through loud and clear in the debate today. They all have skilled advocates researching issues, advising government, pushing for change and indeed holding us all to account for the delivery of policy. That is a hugely important role, and one we should cherish and encourage. We should not add any further regulatory burdens on to them.
We all know that our pets provide pleasure, companionship and a unique form of unconditional love which enriches our lives. We should do what we can to repay that. So let us salute the work of all those charities which, in advising and working with government, providing vital services at no cost to taxpayers, helping to educate young people and, above all, acting as champions for the voiceless, are a crucial part of the fabric of our civil society. These organisations do so much to care for some of the most vulnerable creatures in our society.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing forward this debate today and declare my interests as set out in the register. I am speaking today in my capacity as chair of the recently established Select Committee on Charities. I also thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for his kind remarks—I will pay him later. The committee was established in June of this year to,
“consider issues related to sustaining the charity sector, and the challenges of charity governance”.
This is a broad remit, but one we will endeavour to tackle.
The charitable sector in this country has a long and proud history, as your Lordships know only too well. However, it is clear to me and my committee—and, indeed, I think to your Lordships’ House as a whole—that the sector is under pressure. In fact, in 40-plus years of working in and with the sector, I have never known it under such pressure. I know that none of this will be news to any of your Lordships, but it is worth reflecting on those pressures.
The scandals of recent years mean that the sector is under intense scrutiny. The impact of that scrutiny has been for the general public to start thinking more carefully about where its money is going. There is no doubt that there has been a decline in levels of trust in the sector, and though recent research suggests that trust is on the rise again, the sector can never be complacent. We know that the worst stories do not represent the best of the sector, but, equally, we know there is work to be done about regulation.
Of course, anyone who has anything to do with the charitable sector cannot fail to be aware of the huge financial pressures it faces. We are a very long way from the heady days of the early 2000s, when we all felt flush, when government money was being dished out to all sorts of strategic partners, to many different initiatives, and when local authorities were keen to go into partnership to deliver innovative schemes for tackling deprivation. We even had an advisory body in what was then called the Office of the Third Sector, now called the OCS, which I had the honour to chair. What is more familiar now is the winding up of charities, their disappearance rather than their expansion and innovation. At the same time, the demand for charitable services has increased with rising levels of poverty and deprivation and the results of austerity, as noble Lords have said.
To add to these pressures, there is the current political and economic uncertainty in light of Brexit. Your guess is as good as mine on what will happen next, but even the risk of instability is a challenge for the sector. We know that, as the country adapts to a post-Brexit landscape, the charity sector will be expected to adapt and evolve. I have every confidence that it will do so because the sector’s record of adaptation and initiative is well documented, but the road ahead may be hard.
We also have the new Act. I hope that the Charity Commission powers will be used cautiously and proportionately. The powers to make social investments are also an important step forward for charities, and I hope they will prove to be of benefit—I should declare my interest as chair of the Big Society Trust, which is set up to keep the Big Society Capital true to its mission of supporting the social sector. We should not, however, be deluded into thinking that social investment is a panacea for the money problems of the charitable sector. It is an important element but an element only.
Noble Lords know that the sector has had its share of both positive and negative parliamentary attention in recent years, but there was an appetite to look more widely at the challenges faced by the sector and how it can be most effectively supported in its important work. I acknowledge the hard work of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, in bringing this to the attention of the Liaison Committee and for its decision to set up the ad hoc committee. The committee wants to help and support the sector and for this to be a positive engagement exercise which truly reflects the problems for everyone working with charities.
I have described the pressures, but part of what the committee wants to understand is the opportunities, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has said, that exist for charities to thrive. We are clear as a committee that what must not be allowed to happen is that the excellent and essential work of so many charities should be blemished by the actions of a small minority. If we encounter complacency and poor practice, we will of course challenge them, but we are seeking to celebrate success and innovation more than anything else.
I am delighted to say that we have received more than 150 submissions to our call for evidence, the deadline for which was last Monday—but of course we are being flexible about that. Of those submissions, 112 were from charities themselves, and, of those, 28% were from charities with a turnover of less than £1 million. I think it is particularly important for the members of my committee to hear the voices of small and medium-sized charities. My committee and I have a busy few months ahead and some big questions to consider. We are up to the challenge and committed to making sure that the right policies and support systems are in place for the sector to continue to be such a valuable part of our society.
I turn now to the issue of lobbying. It is inevitable, when we think about charities, that we tend to focus on the services they provide, because that is what we are most familiar with. I am delighted that the title of our debate today includes the issue of lobbying activity because, to my mind, this lobbying, this voice, this representative function is one of the most important functions which charities perform.
I was proud to be, for more than 10 years, the CEO of Carers UK, whose sole function was to advocate on behalf of carers and to bring to the attention of government, the media and the general public the contributions made by carers and to ensure that they receive support in the important but stressful role they play. When I first worked in this area, the very word “carer” was unknown—indeed, it was nearly always misspelled as “career”. Now carers are out of the closet, and that is almost entirely down to the work of carers’ organisations enabling carers to make their case and gain support. There is still not enough support, of course, so the work must go on. Therefore, anything which in any way restricts the ability of vulnerable groups to lobby or put their case must be resisted at all costs.
I have spoken on this issue all over the world. Our tradition of charities being funded by Government to lobby Government is the envy of the world. It is the envy of many countries which are not so fortunate as the United Kingdom is to have that philosophy. I know many noble Lords feel as passionate about this as I do, and I hope the Minister will assure us that she does, too.
My Lords, what an extraordinary debate—absolutely fascinating. I wish to declare an interest: I have a daughter who is a director of Hanover Communications, though I have to say we speak mainly about babies rather than lobbying.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for tabling this fascinating debate, and take a moment to pay a tribute to Lord Rix, who was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell. He is going to be hugely missed for the extraordinary work he did with Mencap—and in the theatre. My first theatre experiences were going to the Brian Rix farces, which brought so much joy to us all. I also say that we wish the noble Lord, Lord Judd, a very speedy recovery.
The richness of the debate highlights the breadth of civil society expertise in this House and demonstrates the importance we all place on preserving and championing the vital roles of charities, trade unions and civil society within our democracy. I therefore welcome the efforts of the Lords Select Committee on Charities, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. I know that many other of today’s speakers will continue to make a valuable contribution to the future work of this committee.
The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, mentioned the role of the Office for Civil Society versus the Cabinet Office. I think this is the moment to say that this debate is focused on issues that cross departmental boundaries. The Cabinet Office remains responsible for grant-funding policy and the Transparency of Lobbying Act. It is the Office for Civil Society that has moved to the DCMS, where there are clear synergies, but obviously we all work in a joined-up way.
This Government are committed to supporting a healthy, diverse and sustainable civil society. Civil society is uniquely placed to respond to many of the social challenges we face and occupies a special place in our national psyche. Certainly, from the right reverend Prelate’s speech, it is clear how much the Church does in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, said that the Government need to pay heed to the voices of charities. Other noble Lords also mentioned this. The Government remain absolutely committed to engaging with and listening to charities. By way of one example, earlier this week, the charity sector leaders were invited to a round table with three Ministers to discuss the implications and opportunities for charities of exiting the European Union. I think that many charities feel anxious about how this is going to affect them, and it is very important that we engage with them from the beginning.
Charities fulfil many different important roles, from delivering public services, to supporting those in need, to raising awareness of particular issues. All these roles are important, and we are very keen to make sure that we are fully engaged. It is for this reason that we have recently reformed charity law with the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016 and have supported sector-led changes to fundraising regulation. A sound legal framework provides the essential space in which charities operate. These changes are strengthening charities’ protection from abuse and helping to rebuild public trust and confidence in charity fundraising. I know that several noble Lords speaking today made important contributions to the development of these changes and I put on record my thanks for their involvement and commitment to supporting that vital work.
My noble friend Lord Patten mentioned problems with the National Trust. It is important to remember that members of the public, and indeed noble Lords, should raise these issues directly with charities where they feel that there are problems. Noble Lords have heard what my noble friend has said today about the National Trust; it is important that they engage with him on these subjects.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned that charities need freedom to innovate and to provide evidence of what is happening on the front line. Certainly, charities are independent and the law recognises that. They are free to innovate and campaign to further their charitable purposes. There are many good examples of charities innovating with great success and where charities’ evidence has been heeded in government policy.
We work in close partnership with civil society to make sure that we deliver our vision for a bigger, stronger society. We are working together and there have been a number of significant achievements. I will highlight just a few of these successes. Last year, 3 million more adults volunteered than in 2010—a tremendous increase in the number of people giving up their time to support good causes. More than 200,000 young people have taken part in the excellent National Citizen Service. They are volunteers; they are not forced to take up these roles. Volunteering among 16 to 25 year-olds is up by more than 50% since 2010. Our social economy is thriving: 200,000 social enterprises now employ more than 2 million people and the UK is recognised as a world leader in social investment and social impact bonds. Social action contributes £34 billion each year to public services, reducing the pressure on public services such as the NHS and schools. We have recruited more than 6,500 community organisers, who act as local leaders bringing people together to take action on the things they care about.
Despite what some may think, the number of registered charities has risen since 2010; their income is up by almost 35% to more than £71 billion and their workforce has continued to grow. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about NOAH; this shows just what a local charity can do. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned the importance of giving and philanthropy. The CAF World Giving Index 2015 ranked the UK as the second most generous nation in the world, up from eighth in 2010. This is indeed quite an achievement.
We will continue to support civil society with our ambitious agenda for the remainder of this Parliament. At the heart of this is our expansion of the National Citizen Service, guaranteeing a place for all young people and progressing with the NCS Bill. We are committed to scaling up social impact bonds in areas such as youth unemployment, mental health and homelessness and have launched the new £80-million life chances fund. This fund will catalyse many more social impact bonds, tackling complex social issues locally, including drug and alcohol dependency. We have proven the concept of social investment—the task now is to scale up the model, so we can help even more of our fellow citizens. To this end, we have built a five-year partnership with the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University to create a government outcomes lab. This will become a centre of expertise for SIBs and innovative government commissioning, by increasing the information, data, evidence and technical support available to commissioners to develop more SIBs locally. We are working ever more closely with businesses to support and enhance their socially responsible activity, with the particular priority of promoting employee volunteering in large companies.
My noble friend Lord Balfe mentioned charity accountability. Charities are publicly accountable through their annual accounts and trustees’ annual reports. These are publicly available on the Charity Commission’s website.
I turn to third-party campaigning, which was mentioned by several noble Lords, including the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, my noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. We need to strike a balance between the freedom to campaign and increased transparency of third-party campaigning during election periods. I think that we can all agree on the need for effective controls that limit the opportunity for groups to exert an undue or improper influence on government and help to make the political system more accountable. Lobbying plays an important role in ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard in Westminster, but lobbying must be transparent.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 is about giving the public more confidence in the way that third parties interact with the political system. Importantly, and quite rightly, the rules prevent any individual or organisation exerting undue influence on an election outcome. The Act was never intended to restrict the freedom to campaign by charities and other campaigners but instead to make the political system more accountable. Remaining above the party-political fray in all forms of communication is vital to maintaining public trust in charities and the important work that they do. Under charity law, charities have the right to undertake campaigning and political activity where it supports their charitable aim, where trustees consider it to be an effective use of charitable resources, and provided they do not engage in party politics.
I move on to the excellent and thought-provoking review done by my noble friend Lord Hodgson. The review clearly set out the need for regulation of third-party campaigning and recommended that some of the existing regulations be tightened—as my noble friend noted in his report, these recommendations interlock and are to be seen as a package. The report recommends some strengthening of the regulatory regime, such as clarifying the exclusion for supporters of the organisation and requiring campaigners to submit more detailed information to the Electoral Commission regarding their planned activities. My noble friend Lord Hodgson’s report is one of a number of reports that have been received following last year’s general election, including the Law Commission’s interim report and reports from the Electoral Commission with recommendations for change. It is obviously important that the Government consider all these reports carefully. I am sure that my honourable friend the Minister for the Constitution will pay close attention to the points raised in this debate as he considers the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Hodgson’s third-party campaigning review.
My noble friend wanted to know when the Government would respond to his report. I cannot make any promises but there are new Ministers in the post who will need to carefully consider everything. I am sure that they would be very happy to meet my noble friend to discuss his report; I will ask the Minister for the Constitution to provide an update to him.
I turn to the regulation of lobbying activity, which I know excites a lot of noble Lords in this House. We will of course discuss this in greater detail tomorrow. It is obviously the regulation for the activity of businesses and private interests. The statutory registry of consultant lobbyists is designed to shine the light of transparency on those who seek to influence the Government. It complements the existing transparency regime whereby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries publish details of their meetings with external organisations. Before the lobbying register was established, it was not clear from diaries alone whose interests consultants were representing. The register requires people who are paid to lobby the Government on behalf of others publicly to disclose their clients. The register also has enhanced scrutiny on consultant lobbyists, who must declare whether they subscribe to a code of conduct. Our aim was to avoid unnecessary regulatory burdens, not to establish top-to-bottom regulation of all who lobby. That is why we set up an appropriate and pinpointed way to ensure high levels of transparency in the specific areas of the lobbying industry where they were needed.
We believe that a statutory register of consultant lobbyists is a proportionate and appropriate approach to the identified issue—that it is not always clear whose interests are being represented by consultant lobbyists. Calls for extending its scope would duplicate a transparency system already in place. The lobbying industry has welcomed the continuation of self-regulatory codes of conduct and, to date, 130 lobbying companies have registered with the registrar. We will be talking about this further tomorrow, so I am not going to go into huge detail now.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, brought up the proposed anti-lobbying clause in government grants. The Government are committed to ensuring that taxpayers’ funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than on improper lobbying for new regulation or for more government funding. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned, the anti-lobbying clause in grant agreements was never targeted at charities. The voluntary sector, which includes charities, makes up less than 7% of all government grant recipients. The collaborative process we built into the development of the anti-lobbying clause has enabled us to understand further its impact on the many and varied recipients of government grants. That led to a decision to pause the implementation pending further consideration of the wording of the clause and its effects. We are continuing to work with departments, academics, research organisations and the voluntary sector to ensure the effective implementation of this policy. This is taking time and changes will be announced and communicated in due course.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned the chilling effect. It was never the intention of the grants clause to stop charities providing independent, evidenced-based advice to government policy through either giving evidence to Select Committees, or meeting with Ministers or officials to discuss the progress of taxpayer-funded grant schemes. The aim is to ensure that grant funding is used as intended.
The noble Baroness also mentioned that the grants clause stops charities from lobbying and from speaking out on behalf of beneficiaries. Restrictions in grant terms and conditions are not new. Existing terms and conditions limit the use of grants to activities set out in the grant agreement. Such restrictions do not stop charities from using other funding to support lobbying or political activity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also referred to the chilling effect. She said that charities were unsure about what compliance means in grants’ terms and conditions. It is robust, and mutually agreed that the grant agreements make clear to charities what delivery entails.
The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, mentioned ineffective grant funding management. The Government are focused on improving its effectiveness and efficiency. This will ensure that we work more effectively with charities to deliver value to the taxpayer.
My noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned trade unions. The Government recognise the role that trade unions have played and can play in developing the economy, maintaining positive industrial relations and supporting employers in upskilling their staff and in participating. However, we are determined that we must balance their rights with those of working people and businesses. They have their own right to expect that the services on which they rely are not going to be disrupted at short notice by strikes with the support of only a small proportion of union members.
Before I finish, I want to highlight the positive relationship between charities, wider civil society, trade unions and Government. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby mentioned this. Joined-up thinking is so important and the round-table discussions that he started in Derby are interesting. This is often the way forward. They get people together. It may not be with a specific charity, but it gets them thinking about how we might help people in their various neighbourhoods.
Looking to the past, there are many examples of where the Government have responded to the voice of the voluntary sector. I shall give just one. Towards the end of the last Parliament the Office for Civil Society launched a £20-million local sustainability fund. It came about as a direct response to concerns voiced by the sector—that small and medium charities were struggling more than many others to respond to the challenging operating environment. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley mentioned that charities are finding it difficult. The launch of this fund will certainly help particularly the medium and small charities. It is now helping more than 260 charities to reform and secure the future of their services. I am sure there will be many more such examples of collaboration between the Government and civil society in the future.
I look forward to debating and discussing with your Lordships what more can be done to continue our support of civil society in the months and years ahead. In a debate such as this, it has been almost impossible to answer every point, but I assure all noble Lords who have spoken that I have made a note of what has been said and will take all these points back to the department. We will discuss and make sure that your voices are heard and I hope that we will have another debate where we continue the important work that has been mentioned today.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and all the speakers. I obviously regret that the response to the report from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was not forthcoming. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the meeting and I hope that it might be transmitted to the whole of your Lordships’ House.
I also regret that the Government are only pausing the anti-advocacy clause. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Black, who said that charities provide care and voice. That has been the overwhelming view of those who have spoken today. The front-line experience—that day-to-day contact that charities have—is essential to feed back into the legislative process, adding a voice that would not otherwise be heard. My noble friend Lord Chandos may be right when he says that the Government seem to want a silent society. It is no good saying that charities can find other funds for their policy and advocacy work. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths said, that is fine if you are running a charity looking after children, or indeed animals. It is very easy to raise money then. However, it is much more difficult if you are doing it for unpopular causes. Those of us involved in those areas are highly dependent on public funds and there is not necessarily other money available to look after those broader interests.
I should have declared my interest as a charity trustee and, indeed, as a proud member of the National Trust. If every organisation were as popular as that, we should all be very grateful. We have heard today about the extraordinary work being done by NOAH, Unionlearn, St John Ambulance, the Cat Protection League, Quick Reads, Carers and all sorts of organised charities, the stress on their potential for innovation and about the fruits of their experience that otherwise are not discovered. Therefore, I hope that the Minister’s final words about listening and taking back our comments to whichever department they concern will happen. I think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said that these charities are a precious part of our democratic ecology. To continue their work they need a relationship with the Government which is not where it is at the moment. At present, they feel that the Government want to tie them up in anti-advocacy clauses and prevent them lobbying. That surely is not good for any of us.
On behalf of the whole House, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who have taken on particular roles. We look forward to the future work of the Select Committee. Charities are much loved by this House. We hope that we can trust the Government to be a great help rather than a hindrance to them.