A former MP has told charities to be wary becoming involved with all party groups in Parliament because the way they are funded is the next "big Parliamentary scandal".
Graham Allen, former Labour MP for Nottingham North, was speaking at NCVO Campaigning Conference in London this morning.
Allen said that Parliament was not able to provide effective scrutiny of the government, and that the burden of doing so was increasingly falling on the voluntary sector.
“Our politics are not fit for purpose and the burden, due to the failings of the Parliament, will fall in a large way to you in the voluntary sector," he said.
"It’s no longer good enough for you as charities to say ‘we’re not political, we know how to work the system’. The system is actually crumbling and we need everyone who cares about the system to help renew it.”
Allen said that the Lobbying Act had been put forward by the then government as a way to make the voluntary sector “as enfeebled as parliament and make you do what you’re told”.
Allen said that if charities wish to actively campaign, then select committees “can be useful” but he also advised charities to go directly to civil servants and the House of Commons with issues.
However he warned against the use of All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) and said that the funding of such groups “would be the next big scandal” in the media.
“Beware all party groups because the funding of those groups is going to be the next big Parliamentary scandal," he said. "And you don’t want to go down with that ship when they start to run like they did with Parliamentary expenses. You’ll be portrayed as manipulating the Parliamentary process, particularly if you’re being effective.”
NCVO provides the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering.
Opportunities for charities
Fiona Weir, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, was also speaking at the conference this morning about the opportunities for charities.
She said the recent general election results would provide real campaigning opportunities for the voluntary sector moving forwards.
Weir said that the amount of MPs now in parliament with razor thin majorities in their own constituencies meant that those parliamentarians would now be very open to listening to the charity sector on issues that affected their constituents.
“We have real opportunities with a minority government. How many MPs were elected with a majority of less than a thousand votes? It’s a staggering 52 and there are 11 MPs elected with less than 100 votes.
“Those are MPs who will listen very carefully on popular issues they will be prepared to defy the whip, if it benefits their constituents. So there are real opportunities opening up.“
Weir also said that the majority of the public and of MPs, across party lines, were either broadly supportive of, or understood the importance for, charities to be able to effectively campaign on a wide range of issues.
Shape the outcome of Brexit
She said that, with Brexit in particular, charities could play a very important role in shaping the outcome.
“MPs will depend on our expertise and policy people going through the minutiae of regulations in their area [of Brexit legislation], and they will be desperately needed because they will be hearing a lot of alternative views from the industry lobby and the red tape brigade.”
Weir said the sector needs to “shake off” the constraints placed on it by the Lobbying Act, because it has become more a problem of “self-censorship and reaction to climate" by the sector rather than "any actual constraints” being placed on it by the act.
However she said the possibility of the Lobbying Act being applied retrospectively was "appalling", and praised NCVO and the 100 other campaigning organisations who wrote to minister for civil society Tracey Crouch recently.
Editor's note: This article has been amended to show that Fiona Weir is chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The article previously stated she was chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.