Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:33 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Viscount Chandos Viscount Chandos Labour 1:33 pm, 8th September 2016

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.