Sunday 26 January 2014

Eric Joyce on charities

Eric Joyce—one of the few MPs I have time for—has written an excellent blog post about lobbying. The government is in the process of passing the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (popularly known as the Gagging Bill) which will limit political campaigning at election time—unless you're a political party. This is an unnecessary infringement of free speech and has been widely condemned across the political spectrum.

Charities are generally against the Bill, but they are focused on exempting themselves from the legislation rather than scrapping it altogether. What's so special about them? That is the question Joyce asks...

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.

He then explains that (a) charities often have financial incentives themselves, and (b) there is nothing wrong with working for a profit-making company.

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.

The bottom line is that the charities who complain about being 'gagged' are happy to see their ideological opponents gagged.

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 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.

I made similar arguments in the opening pages of Sock Puppets (free download).

Do go read the whole of Joyce's post.

1 comment:

Junican said...

Taking the example re wind turbines. If a nonprofit actively promotes wind turbines, and is partially funded by the makers of wind turbines, is not that nonprofit acting as a kind of sales force? In which case, ought it not to be possible for any company to declare its sales force to be a nonprofit 'charity'?
The solution is actually quite simple, isn't it? 'Nonprofits' lobbying government MUST declare their funding sources publicly, and an assumption must be made that the nonprofit is acting on behalf of its funders, unless it can be proven otherwise. What that means is that 'nonprofits' would have no better status than the 'profits', nor would the amount of money they have available for their lobbying be of importance.
However, and this is a big problem, wealthy 'nonprofits' (like CRUK) can fund surveys and studies, while simple, proper charities have no such strength.
This serious problem becomes even more 'undemocratic' when industries (like the tobacco industry are excluded by decree, as per the BMJ's policy on research funded by tobacco companies. It seems to me to be likely, the BMJ's statement, that The Public Health Industry intends to take unto itself ALL public health research. Thus food companies, sugar companies, salt companies, fuel companies, etc, would be excluded.
Oh - with the possible exception of Big Pharm. After all, Big Pharm is beyond reproach, isn't it? It produces only 'healthy' drugs, does it not?