Charities leaders have said they are "dismayed" after Cabinet Office has today indicated that there are no plans to amend the Lobbying Act, after pressure from the sector to do so as soon as possible.
Sector leaders are concerned that this amounts to a rejection of the recommendations made by Lord Hodgson following his review of the Act at the 2015 General Election.
After this year’s General Election, a coalition of sector leaders wrote to the Cabinet Office outlining how the legislation had discouraged charities from engaging in debates around the election, and calling for the implementation of changes outlined by Lord Hodgson in a review of the Act.
In response, the Cabinet Office has now said it has no plans to amend the Act. A spokesman said: “The rules on third party campaigning in elections ensure that activity is transparent and prevent any individual, company or organisation exerting undue influence in terms of an election outcome.
"We recognise and value the role that charities play in our society and are keen to work with voluntary bodies to ensure the rules are well understood."
The Lobbying Act was introduced in 2014 and Hodgson was appointed to review how it worked after the 2015 General Election. Hodgson’s review, which was completed in March 2016, recommended a number of major changes including scrapping the “purpose test” which means that any activity which appears intended to influence elections could be caught by the act. Charities are concerned that they have to guess how the Electoral Commission might interpret their activities, rather than simply being able to say that their campaigning was not intended to be political.
Other recommendations include reducing the regulated period from one year to four months. His conclusions were backed by the House of Lords Committee on Charities.
Charities have repeatedly called for Hodgson’s reforms to be implemented. Last month over 100 leaders signed a letter to Tracey Crouch, minister for civil society, calling on her to intervene.
Tamsyn Barton, chief executive of Bond, said: “It is absolutely deplorable that the UK government is on the one hand attending the Communities of Democracy gathering in Washington to discuss the importance of civic space, whilst at the same time refusing to take any of the recommendations made for reform of a flawed piece of legislation which is diminishing civic space in the UK.
“How are charities supposed to speak up for the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society, both here and globally, when they are at risk of being penalised by the Lobbying Act? The government is legislating the sector into silence at a time when our voices are needed the most. This is a terrible day for British democracy.”
Vicky Browning, chief executive of ACEVO said: “Charity leaders will be dismayed by the Cabinet Office's decision to ignore wholesale Lord Hodgson’s recommendations to reduce campaigning restrictions. This decision is in direct contradiction with the views of not only Lord Hodgson but the cross-party Lords Select Committee on charities and over 100 charity leaders from across the country."
"Lord Hodgson insisted that his reforms would ensure the clarity and definition of campaigning boundaries. Without them, the Lobbying Act's restrictions remain deeply intimidating. If these restrictions remain in place they risk dampening the confidence and ability of charities to speak out about the biggest social, political and economic changes this country has seen for over half a century.
“The prime minister has time and again stressed the importance of civil society to our country. In making this decision, Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore has also said he wants to convey a clear message that the government is not anti-charity or against civil society being involved in the democratic process. However at the moment actions are speaking much louder than words."
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, said: “The failure of the Cabinet Office to address this issue is unacceptable. The government made a clear commitment to reviewing the impact of this law, and to now reject any changes out of hand can only weaken the voice of those that charities serve. These reasonable and considered recommendations were recently endorsed by politicians from all parties in the House of Lords, and the government must reconsider.”
Ben Russell, director of communications at CAF, said: “CAF has consistently warned that the Lobbying Act is preventing charities from fulfilling their vital role in a democracy and risks a chilling effect on charities. These proposed reforms would have mitigated some of its worst effects, and the government’s refusal to implement them is very disappointing.
“It’s essential that the government now works with the Electoral Commission to make it very clear that charities are free to speak out on behalf of the causes and people they support.”
Minister for civil society responds
Tracey Crouch, minister for civil society, has issued a statement emphasising that she intends to work with the sector on issues surrounding the Lobbying Act and make sure that charities feel confident to campaign.
She said: "Charities play an essential role in our democracy. Non partisan campaigning helps raise awareness and funds for important issues and I will work with voluntary bodies and the charity sector to ensure that rules are well understood and that they have complete confidence to continue non-party political campaigning."