David Cameron called it “the next big scandal waiting to happen” and described it as “arous[ing] people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works...”1 but after nearly a year of debate, the government’s new plans to make lobbying more transparent are facing widespread criticism for not going far enough.
Lobbying, or the act of informing and influencing political decision makers, is a key part of the political process and, in theory, yields better, more informed policies that reflect the needs and interests of key stakeholders. However, ask the person on the street about what they understand lobbying to mean and you’re more likely to hear about expensive agencies rolled in by major corporations to schmooze politicians with dinners and VIP events in order to get favourable deals or relaxed regulation. Lobbying, however, is a tactic employed by more than corporations - charities, trade unions and various interest groups also access politicians in order to inform and influence decisions that represent their members’ interests. So, as the spotlight is turned on lobbying, how will this affect charities working to influence political decisions? Here we examine this both in terms of the direct impact of the register and the indirect impact of attitudes towards the practice of lobbying more generally.
What is the Government proposing?
The Cabinet Office launched the consultation on ‘Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists’ on January 20th with the intention of making lobbying more transparent by providing easily accessible information about who is lobbying whom and on who’s behalf. The consultation, which runs until April 2012 asks the lobbying industry and public who they think should need to register, what they should declare and who would oversee and enforce the register.
The main criticism so far has been around who will be included on register. Currently, the proposals just stipulate that agencies lobbying on behalf of third parties should be made to register. However, information about lobbying agencies and their clients is already available and critics say that such a restricted register would be a waste of time. Most say the register should adhere to a wider definition of lobbying to include in-house lobbyists for companies, charities or trade unions.
The consultation paper also outlines what would be included on the register: names of lobbyists, lobbying firms and the names of their clients. However, the Government proposals would not demand details of the content of the meetings or the finances behind lobbying or enforce a statutory code for lobbyists. The proposal recommends an independent body runs the register and that it would be self-funded from the costs of lobbyists registering2. A survey by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) of 41 of its members found that a fifth (21%) think there should be no charge to join the register and of those who would be willing to pay, the majority would like to pay under £1,000 annually3.
How will the register affect charities?
At present we don’t know exactly this register will mean for charities working in Westminster. The consultation will explore definitions of lobbyists, which will in turn determine whether organisation such as charities will need to register. The consultation paper highlights examples of other lobbying registers worldwide, including an Australian register that does not include ‘charitable, religious and other organisations or funds that are endorsed as deductible gift recipients’ or ‘non-profit associations or organisations constituted to represent the interests of their members’. In the United States, lobbying is more regulated in terms of disclosure, but the definition of a lobbyist excludes any organisation that spends less than 20 percent of its time in lobbying activities over a three month period4. Tamsin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency says that there must be caution about excluding not-for-profits from the register as these could be set up as a front for corporate/industry lobbyists5.
Charities, along with others in the lobbying industry, have been quick to embrace a register that includes everyone. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are two of the charity members of the Alliance for Transparent Lobbying which supports the wider definition of lobbyists for the register. And Chief Executive of NCVO, Sir Stuart Etherington, also backs charities being subject to the same rules and regulations as other lobbyists. However, he does warn that small charities may be excluded from lobbying if the register becomes too bureaucratically burdensome. The NVCO will consult its members on an ‘appropriate model’ that includes the Third Sector4.
Will the debate influence perceptions of lobbying more broadly?
While we have to wait and see whether the register will directly affect charities, it is worth keeping in mind the indirect effect a debate on lobbying may have on all those who seek to gain access to political decision makers. The register proposal follows in the wake of several high profile lobbying scandals, including the resignation of Defense Secretary Liam Fox over his close ties to Adam Werrity6 and, more recently, stories of the heads of public affairs agency Bell Pottinger bragging about their access to Government7.
Interestingly, the lobbying industry’s reception of the register has been very positive, perhaps revealing their desire to use it to repair the industry’s reputation by dispelling some of the more harmful ideas around the practice, without having to submit to full disclosure about meeting content or costs. Recasting their image will be difficult, however, given the widespread negative perception of lobbying. To quote David Cameron again: “[lobbying] has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money."8 But how does this critical view on lobbying reflect upon charities, who employ similar tactics, albeit to further charitable, rather than corporate interests?
How does the public perceive charity lobbying?
It is difficult to be sure how the public defines charity lobbying, principally because the terms charity campaigning and lobbying are often used interchangeably. Campaigning is a key part of most charities’ jobs: taking action on specific issues with the aim of changing policies or behaviour of larger groups/society. Often a key part of a campaign, however, is political – creating or amending the law to further the campaign aims. So lobbying, or accessing politicians to inform and influence their decisions is a tactic often employed as part of a campaign. The Charity Commission’s Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activity outlines what political activity charities can and cannot do. It stipulates political campaigning by charities must further/support the charitable purposes, benefit the public and not be the sole activity of a charity9.
Data from nfpSynergy’s Charity Awareness Monitor shows that the public are generally quite positive about charities campaigning on political issues, with only 5% of the public saying it is one of the top five things that puts them off charities (March 2011)10. Furthermore, 57% agree that charities should have the right to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to their work and 48% say it is a ‘worthwhile’ charity activity. However, there is evidence of a decline in support of charity lobbying in recent years, with levels of those finding it a worthwhile activity down 12 percentage points since 2009 and those agreeing charities should have the right to campaign to change policies relevant to them down 8 percentage points in the same period.
Much of the decline in support has actually been a rise in uncertainty around charity campaigning – particularly among younger age groups. In 2011, over a third of the public (35%) said they didn’t know if a charity could support a political party – far more than were uncertain when asked the same question about businesses. The public is also unsure how lobbying fits in with a charity’s work. While 41% of the public identify ‘a person campaigning to change the law’ as contributing to a charity’s ‘cause’, 20% see it as administration, 12% think of it as fundraising and over a quarter just don’t know. While it is encouraging that campaigning is most associated with the ‘cause’ - the public’s preferred area for charity spending - the figures demonstrate that more could be be done to clarify how campaigning benefits a charity’s cause and how and why money is spent in this area10.
How can charities separate themselves from the perceptions around corporate lobbyists?
The proposals for the register will push lobbying into the limelight, and charities will need to be prepared to defend their work in Parliament and illustrate how they differ from the publically reviled corporate lobbyists. As well as proving the value of charity lobbying to the public, charities will need to win over the politicians themselves. An nfpSynergy Insight from March last year ‘That’s almost bullying to be honest: the nature of charity campaigning in the new parliament’ quoted MPs saying certain charities were ‘too political’ – a sentiment we have seen increasing in our recent Parliamentary research – particularly regarding charities campaigning on party-political issues like the welfare reforms and changes to the NHS11. So charities will need to be prepared to come up against hostile MPs who feel charities should not be ‘interfering’ in politically sensitive topics, or that lobbying on government policy is outside of a charity’s remit.
One potential way of winning over MPs is to ensure that charities are the best lobbyists out there. James O’Shaughnessy, David Cameron’s former policy director, outlined his three golden rules for lobbyists: keep it brief; be relevant/show how your agenda can fit with the governments; and bring solutions12. So as the heat gets turned on lobbyists, charities working in Westminster should be prepared for more scrutiny into their Westminster activities but stay open to the idea of registering because, as Jay Kennedy of the Directory of Social Change says, “there is no reason why any charity should be afraid of being on the register.” 13
- 1. Cave, Tamsin (Dec 6th 2011) ‘Cameron is damned by association’ Spinwatch (Accessed February 2012 http://www.spinwatch.org/blogs-mainmenu-29/tamasin-cave-mainmenu-107/5468-cameron-is-damned-by-association)
- 2. Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists – A consultation paper (January 2012) http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm82/8233/8233.pdf
- 3. ‘Register Quiz begins’ (February 2012)Public Affairs News (page 3)
- 4. a. b. Wiggins, Kaye (23 January 2012) ‘Lobbyist register must not deter political engagement’ Third Sector (Accessed February 2012 http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/news/1113304/Lobbyist-register-must-not-deter-political-engagement/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH)
- 5. ‘Time for a Robust Register of Lobbyists’ (!9 January 2012) Spinwatch (Accessed February 2012 http://www.spinwatch.org/blogs-mainmenu-29/tamasin-cave-mainmenu-107/5476-time-for-a-robust-register-of-lobbyists)
- 6. ‘Defence Secretary Liam Fox quits’ (14 October 2011) BBC News Online ( Accessed February 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15300751)
- 7. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/caught-on-camera-top-lobbyists-boasting-how-they-influence-the-pm-6272760.html
- 8. ‘Newman, Melanie & Wright, Oliver (6 December 2011) ‘Caught on Camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM’ The Independent (Accessed February 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9026295/Register-of-lobbyists-will-shine-light-on-influence.html)
- 9. ‘Speaking Out: Guidance on campaigning and political activities by charities’ (March 2008) Charity Commission (Accessed February 2012 http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/Publications/cc9.aspx)
- 10. a. b. nfpSynergy CAMEO: Campaigning (May 2011)
- 11. nfpSynergy Charity Parliamentary Monitor Executive Summary November 2011
- 12. ‘O’Shaughnessy hits Out’ (February 2012)Public Affairs News page 7
- 13. Wiggins, Kaye (23 January 2012) ‘Lobbyist register must not deter political engagement’ Third Sector (Accessed February 2012 http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/news/1113304/Lobbyist-register-must-not-deter-political-engagement/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH)