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Why aren’t more charities engaging with the lobbying bill?

I took three major steps in preparing for my interview for my new job at Third Sector at the end of last year.

I polished my shoes, dug out a newspaper interview with Lord Heseltine – he who founded our publisher, Haymarket – and decided I’d try getting my head around the lobbying bill. It was getting a fair few column inches, I couldn’t help but notice. 

Digging out some personal contacts and a bit of cold calling got me through to three people from relatively diverse corners of the voluntary sector.

The first was the founder of a very small, specialist charity. What, I asked him, did he make of (looking down at my notes) the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill?

“The what?” he replied.

“The lobbying bill,” I said, sure that the shorthand would ring a bell. It didn’t.

My second victim leads a slightly larger and more established charity, had heard of the bill, understood the major sticking points, but knew little of the ins and outs. “It’s not likely to affect us, I think,” I was told.

Third time lucky, the policy chief at a higher-profile charity (they get London marathon places) told me he had read through the proposals, that too much of a fuss was being made, and that his organisation for one could comply with little sweat.

At the beginning of 2013, when I was in my old job at recruitment industry title Recruiter, we reported the launch of a ‘Consultation on reforming the regulatory framework for employment agencies and employment businesses’. Important stuff if you’re a recruiter, in short.

Had I taken a similar glance across the recruitment industry, I am pretty certain I would have come across much the same spectrum of engagement: (blissfully?) ignorant minnows, mid-sized players feeling unable to to give it much thought, and the prominent minority of well-resourced big boys.

The above survey is very slapdash, yes, but I’m confident it reflects the rough lie of the land for many a previous consultation – and predicts it for future iterations.

Not to participate in a democratic process is an important freedom, but should we not be just a little disappointed in those who refuse or fail to engage? Or should we ask if government has done enough to get those people involved? Shouldn’t the digital age make for higher than ever engagement in such matters? Answers on a (likely very large) postcard, please.

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t get the chance to show off my prep during my interview. But my shoes did look immaculate, so it wasn’t all in vain.

  • Andy Gregg

    Really worrying – indeed shocking – how few charities are taking this seriously. many are trying to keep their heads down or think it won’t affect them. How wrong and how parochial they are!
    Andy Gregg CEO, Race on the Agenda

  • Jay Kennedy

    Plenty of reasons for lack of engagement (which isn’t necessarily the same as lack of concern), but I think the biggest reason is that the Bill is so complex that you need to devote a lot of time just to get your head round it. DSC is campaigning to exempt charities from Part II of the Bill. For a quick brief see this: http://www.dsc.org.uk/PolicyandResearch/Research/main_content/DSCbriefingontheLobbyingBillFINAL2.pdf

  • catflap

    There are of course 2 reasons why the Lobbying Bill should be a cause for great concern: 1 the potential effect on freedom of expression by charities and other third parties during “regulated” election times and 2. the completely undemocratic way it is pushed though Parliament. We hear even less about this second aspect, but if you look in some detail at what actually has been taking place in the Commons, it is a textbook example of how our supposedly democratic legislative system is completely dysfunctional and the executive feels it can push through any old badly prepared and poorly drafted rubbish leguislation, for which there is not even a demonstrated factual need, on the basis of whipped MPs voting like zombies for bills they don’t understand, and probably haven’t even read, let alone debated. It is all a bit technical and works through long established custom and practice, but this Bill, and the way it was presented, is so bad that you can only have contempt for MPs on all sides that it allowed it to happen. It is a constitutional outrage. Frankly, at the First Reading, the opposition ought to to have saved the honour of the Commons and have walked out and should have refused to take any part in this farce at all.

  • Ian Chisnall

    I agree that many are unaware, or unconcerned or finally (and in most cases) do not see it as the most important piece of legislation to be responding to. I chose to review the response from all 16 Sussex MPs, one of whom voted against and one abstained. Of the other 14 3 ignored my correspondence altogether including one Govt Minister. Four responded with their view about the Bill and how I needn’t be concerned and one agreed to a meeting which was not entirely useful but he did at least meet with me. The rest told me they would only correspond with constituents (I pointed out I work for their constituents!). This from a Govt who were supposed to be consulting on the Bill! I thing the only thing that will disturb these people will be if we actually attempt to challenge their legitimacy in May 2015

  • PhilMorcom

    I share your concern Sam. As co-chair of the National Union of Journalists Public Relations and Communications Council I have endeavoured to wade through the appallingly worded Bill and make sense of it. While that may be good practice for the day job of turning specialist language into plain English, it does little to inspire enthusiasm that there is proper understanding of the potential legislation by those voting it through. Our most recent NUJ response is here: http://www.nuj.org.uk/news/government-amendments-to-the-lobbying-bill-are-inadequate/
    I raised this issue at a recent #wonkcomms gathering in York, and though there was awareness, I felt there was insufficient alarm from many attendees.Of course, as a trade union member I am also very aware trade unionists are a particular target for the legislation, and that adds extra importance to the need for the bill to be either thrown out or radically rewritten important too.
    Lobbying needs to be clean and ethical and seen to be clean and ethical and this bill does not provide for that. Hopefully our legislators will put their principles before pressure from the whips office and vote it down.

  • Gethyn Williams

    Much as I adore Andy and Jay and spend much of my time hanging off their every word, I think I disagree on this one. My guess is that if (and it’s a big if) the Bill becomes law, one high profile legal challenge from a major charity will quickly render the thing meaningless in practice.