The Lobbying Act did stop charities from campaigning and caused unnecessary cost and confusion, according to a report into its effect on this year's General Election.
The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement released a report today into the impact of the Lobbying Act in this year’s general election, Non-Party Campaigning Ahead of Elections.
It forms the fourth in series of reports from the commission into how the Lobbying Act would, and then did, impact charities’ ability to operate as usual.
Drawing on evidence from UK charities and campaign groups, the commission found that charities were faced with confusion about the “ambiguity of the definition of regulated activity”, and as a result “many activities aimed at raising awareness and generating discussion ahead of the election have not taken place”.
The commission also said that it has seen “no evidence to substantiate the claim that the Lobbying Act was needed to avert undue influence on elections”.
The report is drawn on evidence from charities and campaign groups, coming from two evidence sessions where around 50 organisations attended. A questionnaire was also widely circulated in the sector, and 52 organisations submitted evidence.
The commission is calling for part two of the Lobbying Act, which tightened the spending rules for particular regulated activities by charities and other-groups in pre-election periods, to be repealed “immediately”. It says if this cannot happen immediately, it should be suspended for the duration of the 2016 devolved administration elections “pending further consideration by Parliament of the concerns”.
Speaking in the foreword of the report, commission chair Lord Harries of Pentregarth (pictured), said: “Our findings are very concerning. A significant proportion of charities and campaign groups have stepped back from campaigning ahead of the election, or have needed to divert excessive resources to comply with the unwieldy and overbearing new law.
“Democracy and the right of individuals and organisations to speak out are the bedrock of our free society. Our findings should raise alarm bells about the erosion of democratic debate when it counts most.”
The report found evidence that the Lobbying Act had a “chilling effect” on charities and other organisations.
WWF-UK told the commission: “I think the Act has created an atmosphere of caution within parts of our sector. It has also wasted time in terms of analysis of it, explaining it to trustees, staff etc. It is not (or at least part two is not) a piece of legislation we need.”
Over 50 per cent of the organisations that responded to the survey indicated that the Lobbying Act had delayed the planning of the campaigns, therefore providing unnecessary “red tape”.
Homelessness charity Shelter is quoted in the report as saying: “Harder to account for is the opportunity cost: there are many ways in which we could have otherwise used this resource to advance our charitable objectives and support people in housing need.”
It also found considerable evidence that “spending caps limited campaigning”. An anonymous large NGO told the commission: “The Act meant we didn’t undertake some of the activities we planned. Also, joint campaigning was tough as many organisations were very nervous about the Act and (therefore) watered down their activities, meaning our ability to campaign in the run-up to the election was severely hampered.”
Some organisations withdrew from coalition campaigning that they would otherwise have undertaken because of the Lobbying Act. The rules against “working together”, which are designed to stop avoidance of spending limits, were problematic for many charities.
Greenpeace UK told the commission that it had meant to participate in a cross-NGO campaign, but all but a couple of organisations ended up not participating due to the General Election period - leaving Greenpeace UK with not enough partners to run the campaign.
The report found that 12.5 per cent of organisations surveyed reported taking no part in coalition campaign because of the Act, while a further 12.5 per cent substantially reduced and 31 per cent slightly reduced their involvement in coalition campaigning.
The Salvation Army said that although it is not traditionally a campaigning charity and therefore not in danger of exceeding the top limit, it was still wary of supporting causes that “could be considered coalition campaigning because we felt the administrative cost would be excessive and we couldn't control the level of spending”.
The lack of clarity in the Electoral Commission guidance was also raised with the commission. Concerns focused primarily on the time it takes to read and train staff about compliance with the guidance, and on the ambiguity of meaning in some of the guidance. The commission recommended the Electoral Commission provide “detailed case studies of regulated and non-regulated activity covering all areas of regulation”.