Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:26 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 1:26 pm, 8th September 2016

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.