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01 November 2012

Amandine Courtin, senior researcher at nfpSynergy, sets out why the relationship between charities and MPs needs Moving On Up

As a researcher on Parliamentary matters, I am only too aware of the importance of the relationship between charities and MPs. But three separate events suggest a worrying new direction in the way MPs view charity lobbying.

The first is that Lord Hodgson, the man commissioned by David Cameron to review the 2006 Charity Act, stated at the Charity Law Association conference in London that “Members of Parliament come to me and complain that charities are getting involved in areas which are the work of MPs.” He then mentioned a recent proposal made in Queensland, Australia, suggesting that charities which get more than 50% of their income from the state should not campaign.

The second is that earlier this year, a report called ‘Sock puppet: How the government lobbies itself and why’ was published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). This report takes a rather radical angle on charities engaging with political campaigning and warned that "lobbying by charities and private individuals might advance narrow and unpopular goals" while "commercial lobbying exists to advance the interests of an industry, but these interests are often shared by its customers and employees".

Their case study denounces the fact that the Department of Health directly funds organisations like ASH, which played a key role in the introduction of a smoke-free workplace. As a reminder, it was measured that this would prevent 40,000 deaths over the next 10 years and that smoking costs the NHS £1.7bn a year.

Lastly, at the last Conservative Party conference, the IEA and the radical new Free Enterprise Group were hosting a panel discussion to look at ideas for 2015 to help transform Britain. I worry they will use the ideas from the report mentioned above in planning Britain's future, with consequences for the charity sector.

Are these assessments fair? Are charities going too far? I would argue they are not and I’m really concerned. My view is that the sector has to be aware and position itself to deal with these extreme opinions.

Working for UK charities at Westminster and having a passion for politics, I see it every day in my job. Public policy is shaped by the constant ongoing dialogue between politics and charity. They work hand in hand. MPs need the expertise of charities and charities need MPs to highlight issues and create legislation to improve or change society.

We live in a time of low political engagement. Only 42% of the public say that they are ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ interested in politics and only 23% of the UK population say they tend to trust their parliament. The need for politics to listen to civil society is as important as ever.

Would the fight against AIDS/HIV have been so efficient without organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust raising awareness and holding the Government to account? Would climate change have become a reality, not just for citizens but also their representatives, without environmental organisations raising awareness?

The UK charities are professional and managed to achieve real social change - other Europeans charities should probably learn from them. A few days ago, the European Commission backed the European Union Financial Tax (EUFTT), supported by French and German governments but seen as a threat to the City by the current UK Government. This tax could potentially raise £46b a year for the EU. The EUFTT has its roots in the 'Robin Hood Tax', an idea launched by a coalition of UK charities in 2010.

So rather than limiting charities to service providers, MPs should make the most of their expertise. They should not be afraid to engage with charities and keep the discussion open. As the former head of Emmaus said, "Political parties and politicians never had monopoly over political ideas."

 

This blog was first published on the nfpSynergy website which you can visit by clicking here.

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Amandine Courtin

Amandine is a senior researcher at nfpSynergy. Here she works with charities to assess the effectiveness of their campaigning and lobbying work. She is a skilled researcher with an in-depth knowledge of good practice in charity communications and public affairs. Her research specialism is designing and analysing surveys, but she is also skilled in project management and business development.

She manages two of nfpSynergy’s regular surveys – the Charity Parliamentary Monitor (surveying MPs) and Charity Media Monitor (surveying journalists) and ensures a good working relationship with the thirty UK charities subscribed to these surveys, including Amnesty International, Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, NSPCC, and Save the Children.

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