A report laid before Parliament today recommends major changes to the Lobbying Act, which charity leaders say would increase the sector’s ability to campaign.
The report follows a review of the impact of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, conducted by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (pictured).
The Act, which is intended to limit the ability of third parties to influence the outcomes of elections, was heavily criticised by voluntary sector bodies because it threatened to prevent them from carrying out entirely unconnected campaigning.
The report, to be published at 2pm today, is entitled Third Party Election Campaigning – Getting the Balance Right: Review of the operation of the third party campaigning rules at the 2015 General Election. It recommends a package of measures which would reduce the impact of the Act.
Two of its recommendations were particularly welcomed by sector infrastructure bodies NCVO and Acevo.
One recommends scrapping a “purpose test” which says that any activity which appears intended to influence elections could be caught by the Act. This was criticised because charities were forced 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.
The second reduces the period covered by the Act. At present it covers the period a year before elections, but Hodgson recommends reducing this to four months.
The report was laid before Parliament by John Penrose, minister for constitutional reform.
Penrose said in a written ministerial statement: “The government is grateful to Lord Hodgson for his comprehensive and balanced report. We are pleased that he recognises the need for effective regulation of those campaigning at general elections to prevent undue influence and the need for transparency about who third party campaigners are and what they are spending.
“The government continues to believe that the legislation is a necessary check and balance to ensure free and fair elections, and open and accountable campaigning at elections. The checks ensure not just fairness for political parties’ candidates, but also between rival third parties – especially on strongly contentious topics.
“We will now carefully consider the package of proposals. Some involve changes to the existing regulatory regime, some changes to primary legislation and some are recommendations to the Electoral Commission.”
Sector bodies call for immediate implementation
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, said: “Lord Hodgson’s report presents government with a sensible package of reforms. It will be important that these are implemented as a whole in order to ensure that the changes strike the right balance between effective and proportionate regulation and transparency around elections.
“I am particularly pleased that Lord Hodgson has seen fit to redefine the purpose test to ensure that regulations apply only to activity which is intended to influence voters’ decisions. This provides much needed clarity and will remove the regulatory uncertainty that surrounds the current test, providing great reassurance to charities campaigning within the requirements of charity law.
“The recommendations will also provide greater transparency about who third party campaigners are and what they are spending on, by requiring at the time of registration information such as what the purpose of the campaign is and where it will be focused. Transparency was one of the stated aims of the Lobbying Act and one which I believe it has failed to achieve so far, but these changes will certainly address the issue.”
Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: “The Lobbying Act was a legislative and democratic car crash. By gagging charities, the government ensured that the voices of our most vulnerable were stilled during the election. It is the duty of the third sector to speak truth to power, and the government should not have taken steps to restrict their ability to do so.
“Acevo has always advocated the total repeal of the Lobbying Act. It is not just that the freedom of speech of any organisation should be restricted without far greater justification than the Lobbying Act had. That said, the recommendations contained in this report would represent a good first step. By ensuring that only that activity which intends to influence elections is regulated, we can ensure that charities are not unduly silenced.
“As such, we call on the government to implement the recommendations of the Hodgson Review in full, and without delay – and take some steps towards righting the wrongs of their predecessors.”
From 2pm the full report will be available here