Bridging the gap: How to engage with the new government

How can charities seek to form a better partnership with the new government for more effective results?

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Lobbying restrictions, gagging clauses and funding cuts have typified charities’ increasingly rocky relationship with government in recent years. Understandably, many in the sector feel abandoned by politicians and are reluctant to campaign. Brexit hasn’t helped. This all-encompassing policy has dominated MPs’ time since 2016, taking them away from the wider social issues at the heart of charities’ work.

The Conservative Party’s landslide general election victory in December could be seen as another barrier, due to the party’s controversial track record on charity sector policy in recent years. As part of the coalition government (2010-2015) it brought in the 2014 Lobbying Act, which requires charities spending significant sums on lobbying to register with the Electoral Commission. This has been widely condemned by the sector since, citing concern over its chilling effect on charities’ willingness to campaign.

In contrast, The Labour Party’s general election manifesto sought to repeal the Act to “free the voices of civil society”. An increasing use of gagging clauses, under recent Conservative-led governments, on charities involved in public service delivery contracts is another barrier.

Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at Acevo, is among sector leaders who want to see these clauses removed or rewritten but “that hasn’t happened yet”. “From what I’ve heard, there is poor practice in a number of different departments and I think it is more dependent on the grant manager or civil servant you are dealing with rather than the department as a whole,” she says.

New opportunities?

But despite these threats to charity campaigning under the Conservatives, could Boris Johnson’s large House of Commons majority present opportunities for the voluntary sector to influence policy and work better with ministers and MPs?

A key change in 2020 is more certainty around Brexit, with withdrawal from the European Union taking place in January and the government now entering a new phase of negotiating its future relationship.

The NCVO’s Road Ahead 2020 report, released in January, says that while Brexit will continue to consume Whitehall resources, charities may find “greater political space to push forward their campaigns”.

“The government is keen to move on from Brexit monopolising public debate and this gives the sector an opportunity to push other issues higher up the agenda,” says Sarah Vibert, public policy director at NCVO. “We also need to hold the government to account for the spending promises of the election and push for this to translate to more money at community level.”

This window of opportunity looks vital for charities especially. As research by nfpSynergy suggests, there is considerable public appetite for charities to campaign and lobby politicians. More than two-thirds (68%) of the public approve of charities campaigning and (56%) back charity’s lobbying of MPs, the research found.

nfpSynergy founder Joe Saxton acknowledges that in terms of political campaigning “it’s been a pretty poor time for charities”, citing the dual challenges of Brexit and “a government that isn’t particularly interested in charities”.

“If you look back five years earlier, you had the Big Society and the National Citizenship Service and you had a number of things that looked charity-friendly; whether they were is a separate issue,” Saxton says. “Under the last Labour government, the relationship was the equivalent of beer and sandwiches at Number 10 for a lot of charities.

“Now it’s a much more fragmented picture and not at all clear, when the government thinks of social care or NHS changes, whether charities are particularly part of that picture.” But the government’s large majority and impetus to move on from Brexit means “we are starting with a reset here”, he says.

Heather Sturgess, nfpSynergy senior researcher, says a practical step for charities in 2020 is to build relationships with the 140 new MPs elected in December 2019. “These new MPs may not have as much knowledge about charities as their predecessors. It is also useful in terms of signposting charity services to their constituents,” she says.
Saxton adds that it is “very issue dependent”, when targeting backbench MPs. “If you have an issue, such as helping owls or hedgehogs that is non-political, then the humble backbencher becomes very useful. It is up to charities to be astute to know the issue and who their natural allies might be.”

Given the government’s large majority, backbench MPs are unlikely to have the same clout they had during the minority and coalition governments of the last decade when every MP vote counted. This presents opportunities for other groups to take the reins as influencers of policy.

Wrixon believes that targeting members of the House of Lords could become an increasingly effective way to influence policy. “The fact that it is a large majority will change the way charities campaign. I think the Lords will become more important in terms of building relationships,” she says.

“We have already seen around some of the Brexit legislation, with the Lords voting against the Commons. I’m not sure how that will play out long-term but that is something to look at with interest.”

She adds that backbench MPs are still able to influence government, through select committees, all party parliamentary groups (APPGs) and their relationships with ministers.
Simon Francis, chair of the Public Relations Communications Association (PRCA) and its charity group, believes the majority government is good news for political campaigning as “you may not agree with what the government is delivering but you know where you stand with it”. “From the point of view of lobbying it provides some certainty,” he adds. “A lot of organisations are going to be clear where they stand. You can work within those parameters.”

The government’s large majority means that for the first time in recent years, manifesto commitments provide a realistic blueprint for future policy, he adds.

Charities are advised to study the Conservative’s manifesto to see how ministers’ aims can tap into the objectives of charities. Working in collaboration, with other charities and other sectors, has proved effective in recent years and will continue to be a useful strategy, Wrixon says.

An example she gives is CLIC Sargent’s campaign to create the Child Funeral Fund, to help grieving parents cope with funeral costs. This started in 2018 and saw the charity link up with others in the voluntary sector as well as Co-op funeral directors.

Another to impress Wrixon is a campaign spearheaded by bereaved parent Lucy Herd and supported by the charity Sands, to give grieving parents the legal right to leave and pay. In January, the Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Act became law.

“That is where charity campaigning is really effective, where it is based on the direct needs and experiences of the community,” Wrixon says. These campaigns were particularly successful as they also showed ministers how charities “aren’t party political”.

“Nothing we do is party political. We are proud and clear about that. We deal with things from poverty to the environment to bereavement to medical care; they are human issues,” Wrixon explains.

Sophie Walker, chief executive at Young Women’s Trust agrees that campaigns need to ensure they swerve party politics to help attract wide political interest. The trust’s work to extend the minimum living wage to the under 25s is an example she gives. Here her team focused on showing politicians evidence of support from the public and stakeholders as well as offering personal testimonies on how low pay is affecting lives.

“I start with creating policy that speaks about the lived experience and needs of the young women whose lives we are seeking to change,” Walker says. “In doing so, we present solutions that are better for everyone, in which everyone thrives.”

She also believes charities can help alert politicians if their beneficiaries have “lost confidence in them” and offer ideas to improve the relationship between people and their elected representatives.

A strong social media presence can help influence policy, but “faceto-face” meetings between charities and their service users with politicians “is where you get an honest and meaningful conversation”, Walker adds.

Many in the sector hope an end to gagging clauses and reform of the Lobbying Act will also form part of those conversations in 2020.

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