In a previous blog post for VAHS in January 2013 about predicted charity closures, I pointed out that historically the fortunes of the voluntary sector have ebbed and flowed. I argued that the flexibility and adaptability of the sector was one of its key strengths and that it would reconfigure on this occasion too. In that instance I was talking about financial constraints being put on the sector in the face of cuts and increasing demand, but a new challenge has since emerged.
This article from the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog on the Lobbying Bill contradicts my previous optimism, and reading what detail is available, it paints a bleak picture on what might happen to many NGOs if the Bill goes through. While I stand by my comments on the flexibility and versatility of the voluntary sector, this legislation poses a big challenge to one of the core roles of some organisations. I think it is fair to say that my optimism is dampened, though not extinguished in the face of this new challenge. Hopefully the Bill will be amended to lift potentially severe restrictions on NGOs continuing to campaign for their causes. If not, perhaps a work-around will be found or new organisations will spring up to fill the gap.
Overall, the Bill is a blunt instrument. Initially it was championed as a way for clearing up opaque and complex lobbyists’ activities which have been mired in suspicion of being controlled by corporate interests. A prominent BBC Panorama programme was just one exposé which made it look like a Lobbying Bill was necessary. However, it looks as though instead the Bill may make it harder to hear the voices of organisations campaigning on behalf of vulnerable groups. There are wider implications for voluntary organisations though.
What could the Bill mean for voluntary organisations?
Firstly, I would point to the wealth of voluntary activity outside of the campaigning and lobbying role. Much of the work of voluntary organisations in still in service provision and at least in the short term this work seems set to increase. For a large proportion of organisations, especially at local level, their core role will remain though their ability to communicate about it may be constrained. Because much of this provision is at the local level, this means that small local organisations are less likely to be affected by the terms within the proposed legislation. We do not yet know how local branches of larger voluntary organisations will be treated i.e. whether their local spending on campaigning will count towards the parent organisation’s total.
Secondly, while it is yet to be confirmed precisely how the Bill will require recording and reporting of lobbying activity, it will mean an increased administrative burden on voluntary organisations. This will cost time and money, increasing the basic running costs of NGOs to whom the Bill applies. This in itself is going to be a challenge for voluntary organisations. Yet higher running costs have the potential to alienate donors who wish as much of their donation as possible to end up helping a cause, and as little as possible to go on paid administration. It could also be the case that the overall effectiveness of organisations is compromised by the extra work required to comply with the proposed legislation.
Thirdly it is clear that the relationship between government and the sector will be changed by the Lobbying Bill. The tone of the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog linked to above shows divisions within the sector but hostility towards the Government. While not every reaction has been phrased in quite the same way, discontentment is widespread.
It has been made clear that the state sees the sector as a servant and not a partner. While it is happy to award contracts to the sector on a competitive basis and work with organisations as it chooses, it expects voluntary organisations to know their place, and via this bill, quite frankly, to keep quiet. In the history of voluntary action this is not particularly new. I see it in my own research on youth clubs. But this approach undervalues voluntary effort and I would go as far as to say, potentially undermines democracy.
The Bill, if passed, will also mean bringing the Electoral Commission in on regulating the activities of not-for-profit organisations. The Charity Commission, in its regulatory role, has faced criticism in the past, and it was the first to cast a critical eye over the political activities of several charities in the 1960s. In response to criticism of charitable funds being used to finance political activity, some more prominent NGOs set up sister organisations not registered with the Charity Commission to carry out this work, Amnesty International being just one example. Under the new system, this would all now be included, possibly on the same balance sheet. Furthermore it is unclear how the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission will work together and what enforcement will look like.
Like many others working in this area I am concerned about what curtailing charities’ ability to campaign in this manner will do, not only to the charities, but to the people these charities exist to help. Therefore, despite my tempered optimism about the sector’s ability to bounce back, I remain concerned. I am concerned about the casualties of such an approach; not only those who benefit directly from the work of large charities and in whose interests NGOs campaign, but the whole of society, which will suffer if public debate can no longer hear the contributions of its voluntary organisations.
I sincerely hope the Bill will not pass without amendments which will allow charities to continue to have a significant voice in public debate. If it does become law, the 2015 General Election will be an important test run in seeing how charities cope with the new regulations. This leaves me wondering: will future historians of voluntary action look back on the Lobbying Bill as a turning point in the sector’s fortunes? Honestly, in some ways, I hope not.