THE Lobbying Act has a “chilling effect” on how charities spend money during elections; and there are “essential” changes that need to be made before the next election, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, has said.
In a speech in the House of Lords last week, Lord Harries told peers that “there are important things to be done irrespective of Brexit, and one of them is improving the ill-thought-out and chilling legislation of Part 2 of the Lobbying Act”.
He quoted a Christian Aid statement on the impact of the act on Christian Aid Week in 2017, which fell in the middle of the General Election campaign. He quoted the charity as saying: “As the Lobbying Act unexpectedly swung into force because of the snap election, it created a red-tape nightmare to cover our largest communications and fund-raising activity of the year.
“We faced difficult calculations about whether the costs of certain materials counted in the regulated period, and whether those would have to be withdrawn or replaced at short notice and great expense. We had to create a huge amount of additional bureaucracy to monitor activities, to make sure Christian Aid Week was not seen as political. . .
“The Lobbying Act is allegedly not intended to prevent normal charity campaigning activity, but, in practice, we found that it is cumbersome, unclear, high-risk, and had a definite chilling effect — and thereby prevented our normal activity from being carried out.”
He also gave the example of Friends of the Earth, who had to spend £17,000 to ensure that staff complied with the requirements of the act during the snap General Election last year.
Lord Harries, who chaired the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, continued: “There is a similar story from the Quakers, who say that they had spent over the threshold limit for registering six months before the snap election was called; so, when it was suddenly called, that expenditure became non-compliant. It is nonsense that the legislation is retrospective in that way.”
In 2015, the commission said that the act made it “almost impossible” for charities and campaign groups to work together to speak out on “politically contested issues” (News, 30 January 2015). In 2016, Lord Harries also criticised new rules that forbid charities that receive government grants from using that money to lobby MPs, the Government, or political parties (News, 12 February 2016).
Lord Harries gave six recommendations to improve the act last week, which were based on a report by the Conservative Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.
They are: “Revise the purpose test, so that only spending on activities intended to influence voter choice are regulated, making it easier for campaigners to work out whether their activity is regulated; reduce the regulated period from 12 to four months; change the retrospective nature of the rules so that they come into force only when a snap election is called; improve the joint working rules so that no organisations have to report total costs; remove all indirect staff costs, so that campaigners have to count only activity that is wholly or mainly engaged in the campaign; and consult seriously with third parties on how, in the age of social media and GDPR, ‘membership’ can best be defined in a way that does not further inhibit or burden third-party campaigners.”
Lord Young of Cookham, a Government spokesperson in the Lords, told peers that the Government “recognises the invaluable contribution of third-party organisations, and will continue to provide support and guidance to ensure that such organisations can meet their charitable aims. . . In a nutshell, the 2014 Act did not target charities, and has never prevented charities or other organisations from campaigning in line with the law. . .
“We need to strike a balance between, on one hand, the rights of people and organisations to campaign, and, on the other, maintaining the integrity of the electoral process by having transparency of expenditure.”