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Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 1:42 pm, 8th September 2016

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.