The ‘Lobbying Bill’ came through the House of Commons yesterday (here are the explanatory notes – you can navigate from there to the actual bill if you fancy it). The government says the aim of the bill is to make lobbying more transparent. Naturally, some opponents think the government’s true intentions are not what it says they are, and others simply think the bill is poorly put together. There’s a lot to be said about a contentious bill like this, but for my own part I think it’s worth flagging something obvious yet that receives very little debate as far as I can see. It’s not a detail of the bill, but an unquestioned assumption made by the people and organisations opposed to it. This is that campaigns conducted by charities are imbued with a moral superiority compared to those conducted by for-profit organisations. This moral superiority extends from the apparent motivation of those engaged in charitable activities and should lead, according to those who oppose the principle of the relevant part of the bill, to charities being given special treatment when it comes to political campaigning.
The same thinking is evident when public service organisations give special privileges to charitable organisations while not doing so to for-profit organisations. By way of example, a constituent came to me today to complain that the local authority only allows the promotion of certain services in schools by not-for-profit groups on the basis that “it wouldn’t be fair to allow some for-profit providers access but not other”. This rationale takes it as read that the exclusion of for-profits isn’t itself ‘unfair’ on such organisations as a whole, and beneath that notion lies the same assumption that charities have a special moral status and should derive some benefit from that.
I’d like to advance two quick arguments here; the first a pragmatic one, the second more ideological, I guess.
First, many charities work in conjunction with for-profit organisations. Google ‘environmental charities,’ for example, and search for revenue sources. You’ll find that companies that make their money making and selling, say, wind turbines, often help to fund charities and campaigns that argue for policies that serve those companies’ interests. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Quite the opposite. We live in a democracy and everyone should have the chance to advance world views and arguments in the hope that they’ll influence public policy. What seems fairly clear from this, though, is that ‘charity’ lobbying per se cannot be easily and neatly separated from ‘commercial’ lobbying and ascribed a superior moral value.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, most of my constituents make a living through ‘for-profit’ enterprises. I mean, we do live in a market economy, right? There’s nothing dirty about working in the private sector, is there? Meanwhile, a lot of people who work in charitable or not-for profit sectors do so simply because that’s where they’ve happened to get a job. And charities, big ones notably, operate in highly competitive environments (watch the World Wildlife Fund chomping its way into the environmental NGO market, for example. And have you ever watched high street ‘chuggers’ writing down the bank account numbers of pensioners caught off-guard?). Like the private sector, some charities are rubbish and others have aims a lot of us would profoundly disagree with. It’s really very hard to see a moral distinction of an activity simply on the basis of whether it’s being done on the basis of projected profit or not.
And when it comes to public benefit, it’s outcomes that count, surely? I mean, there’s no doubt that charities often carry out enormously important roles where markets might not want to play (some might call this a kind of market-failure, others might say it’s a policy choice) or, say, where public services just aren’t very good for some reason (some might call this public service failure, others might not), but where a charity and for-profit organisation want to carry out the SAME activity, in this case political lobbying, what is it that makes the charity effort superior?
Charities have been calling the lobbying bill ‘the gagging bill’ because they want to be free to influence public policy at election time in ways not open to for-profit organisations. That is, they want to be free to speak while gagging the private sector ‘lobbyists’. But isn’t that a profoundly undemocratic notion in itself? Charities, private sector companies, even the government and local government sector themselves, are all lobbyists to the same greater or lesser extent. They all want their world view to prevail, and they all want influence over public policy. Tesco wants to sell us chipolatas and make a profit and you can be sure there’s a load of charitable sector organisations out there who want to affect the way that’s done, how they’re sourced, the way they’re packaged. Chipolata-consumers should all be entitled to assume that they and their policy-makers get to hear all sides of the arguments, whether those arguments are put out by wealthy (or poor) for-profit organisations or wealthy (or poor) charities, shouldn’t they?
I’ve a weather eye for big corporations taking the mickey, of course. But as a politician I’ve also noticed that most private enterprise owners are paid a fraction of what the bosses of large and powerful charities are. One famous charity this week explained, possibly quite reasonably I really don’t know, why it pays a quarter of a million pounds a year to its CEO and send his children to private school. We should be very wary when charities bosses claim moral superiority for their enterprises and, by extension, themselves. People who campaign on behalf of charities on that basis might want to keep a weather eye on that, too.