Lobbying act is stifling us, say charities

30 January 2015

BBC

Concerned: Lord Harries 

Concerned: Lord Harries 

THE voice of charities is being stifled by legislation and an intimidatory political climate, new research suggests.

The Lobbying Act makes it "almost impossible" for charities and campaign groups to work together to speak out on "politically contested issues", a new report from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement warns.

The survey, Impact of the Lobbying Act on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which questioned more than 50 groups, found that 63 per cent of those surveyed believed that compliance with the Act would make their charitable objectives harder to achieve.

Some spoke of feeling reluctant to speak out, for fear of falling foul of the Act, which caps spending on activities "intended to promote or reduce the electoral prospects of a political party or parties", and has expanded the definition of such activities. The report suggests that this law has made it "almost impossible for charities and campaign groups to work together and speak out on politically contested issues as they did before".

Lord Harries told the BBC that he would be "very surprised if, at the end of this election, there weren't a number of legal cases where complaints had been brought against campaigning groups".

Both the Quakers and the Salvation Army have said that they will formally register with the Electoral Commission to comply with the new rules. The Church of England will not.

Reports of a "chilling effect" were echoed in another report this week, Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services, by the National Coalition for Independent Action. Its author, Dr Mike Aiken, argues that "Voluntary services are confronted by implicit, or explicit, pressures to 'say less and do more'; they face gagging clauses in contracts which threaten to stop them advocating and campaigning." He suggests that securing contracts to provide services may "co-opt them into complicity with the machinery of government".

The report draws on case studies. One, Fight Back, a group of activists devoted to campaigning against public-service cuts, reported a decline in the number of voluntary organisations willing to get involved, and suggested that "it would have to be a very confident voluntary organisation today who would support a campaigning organisation . . . or, say, oppose austerity locally."

Direct Help for Poor, a faith-based charity which has declined to enter contracting or commissioning in order to maintain its independence, testified that it had faced "bullying . . . on more than one occasion . . they say: 'be careful' . . . There were attempts to undermine people in our organisation."

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