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Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:04 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 12:04 pm, 8th September 2016

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.