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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.