It’s not often that you see the entire sector come together with a united voice. Yet on Tuesday, that is exactly what happened. What’s everyone reacting to? It’s the Lobbying Act.
When the Act was brought into force in 2014, it was said that the aim was to tackle unfair lobbying by big corporations. But the effect in practice has been that the Lobbying Act has significantly limited charities speaking out on a wide range of issues such as discrimination, poverty, inequality, health and social care, climate change and animal welfare, to name but a few.
Organisations which are part of the fabric of British society, such as Girlguiding, RSPB and Action for Children, have put forward one common message to Tracey Crouch, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society: Civil society has a right to speak out, and attempts to silence charities are detrimental to our vibrant democracy. A democratic government has a duty to ensure and uphold this right. This means that the Lobbying Act must be reformed urgently.
The recent snap election was a stark reminder that elections are not necessarily predictable even in the era of fixed-term parliaments. The Lobbying Act, in its present form, has not allowed for this. This means charities could be penalised for campaigning at any time over a whole year prior to an election they couldn’t possibly anticipate. When the snap election was announced, some charities found themselves going back through all of their spending on campaign activities over the past year to check they hadn’t inadvertently been caught out by the Act. I’ll leave you to imagine the cost of doing this, at a time when funds are scarce.
Other organisations have found themselves seeking legal advice to ensure their proposed activities cannot be interpreted by the Electoral Commission as an attempt to influence voter choice unintentionally. This is an expensive and often unaffordable option for smaller civil society organisations, so they are not able to speak out on behalf of the people they work with who will feel the impact of changes to the UK’s domestic and global policies.
Bond’s members would argue that they never try to influence voter choice during an election. They are simply trying to inform public policy around issues where they have expertise. But their activities could be caught by the act if they are ‘reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters’ – an incredibly vague criterion.
Tweets, Facebook posts, any comments at all made public are now being vetted against the rules and regulations outlined in the Lobbying Act. Charities we hear from now find that they have to scrutinise their own campaign activities all the time, as well as activities carried out by their supporters.
Regulations to prevent corporate lobbying and wealthy pressure groups and individuals from influencing election result are of course important, but the changes made to the Lobbying Act have clearly had a disproportionate negative effect on charities. As the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson stated in a Government commissioned review of the Lobbying Act, the right balance has not been struck.
Three changes would help redress the balance:
- Changing the “purpose test” which states that any activity which appears intended to influence elections could be caught by the Act.
- Reducing the regulated period prior to an election covered by the act. At present, it covers the period a year before elections, but Hodgson recommends reducing this to four months.
- Reforming complex rules on joint campaigning, which effectively requires charities who are working together to double-count their spending on campaign activities.
Ultimately, organisations are being forced to waste money and time trying to decipher unclear rules. This is time and effort which could be used to help tackle climate change, poverty and humanitarian crises.
Based on the 2015 election, we know that the Act created widespread confusion, which resulted in charities withdrawing from the debate. And the number and range of charities who have signed the letter to Tracy Crouch tells you that this is a huge and widespread concern.
Tracy Crouch is undoubtedly a welcome appointment and we are confident that the sector can work closely with her to reform this draconian piece of legislation. The minister has worked with charities before and values the vital contribution they make to a healthy, democratic society. We hope she will use this new position to release charities from these extreme restrictions – revisions to the Lobbying Act could not come soon enough – who can be sure that we will not see again that an election is called before there is a chance to reform it?