A letter from over 50 different charities outlining their “deep concerns” about the effect of the Lobbying Act has been sent to party leaders ahead of Thursday’s general election.
The letter says that a number of charities have “altered or reduced campaigning activities before the election as a result of the act”, and is calling on the next government to repeal the act. It said: “Voices are being lost at this crucial time, and our democracy is the poorer for it.”
Bond, the umbrella body for organisations working in international development, has also been collecting case-studies on the effect of the Lobbying Act on charitable activities.
The letter states that charities which continue to campaign to further their charitable objects are “subject to an enormous and unreasonable administrative and financial burden”.
It adds that this is compounded by the “retrospective year-long regulated period which requires us to go back and assess campaigning from before we knew a general election would be called”.
The Lobbying Act means that even when a snap election is called, the election period still starts one year before. In this case it meant the period started on 9 June 2016, despite the announcement of an election not taking place until April 2017.
The letter said that the charities backed Lord Hodgson’s review of the Lobbying Act, which said that there was a disproportionate regulatory burden for campaigners, and that current regulations failed to strike the right balance between preventing undue influence before an election.
The charities said: “Charities are being weighed down by an unreasonable and unfair law which restricts our ability to contribute fully to a democratic society.”
‘Cost of legal advice unaffordable for smaller organisations’
Tamsyn Barton, Bond’s chief executive officer, said: “Campaigning during election time is a critical and legitimate part of what our members do. This is how charities ensure those who are vulnerable and marginalised have a voice. But the level of red tape involved in complying with the act is excessive and the cost of legal advice is unaffordable for smaller organisations – especially at such short notice.
“Shockingly, many organisations have felt unable to speak out during this snap election on issues which affected the people they aim to represent – and our democracy is all the poorer for it.”
Friends of the Earth coordinated the letter which was sent to the major political parties.
The charity’s chief executive, Craig Bennett, said: “The problem with the Lobbying Act is that it seriously damages charities’ ability to do their job, and that job is to work for the greater public good.
“From environmental, to international development, to social care sectors, charities are united on this.
“The government’s own report has called for the Lobbying Act to be reformed. This is the right thing to do because important civic voices that speak for the most marginalised are being lost.
“If the Lobbying Act is not reformed, democracy will ultimately suffer.”
Friends of the Earth, along with Greenpeace, became the first charities to be fined under the Lobbying Act for breaking campaigning rules during the 2015 general election, it was announced in April.
Impact on individual charities
One example collected by Bond of a charity impacted by the Act is that of Christian Aid, whose Christian Aid week takes place annually in May. The snap election meant that it was in the middle of the campaigning period, and because of the Lobbying Act Christian Aid said it created “a huge amount of additional bureaucracy to monitor activities, to make sure Christian Aid Week was not seen as political”.
As part of its activities for Christian Aid Week, the charity petitioned the government about the plight of refugees. The charity said it spent a “huge amount of staff time managing and recording all of this, just in case there was an accusation of being party political”.
Christian Aid said that the administrative burden caused by the act has had a significant impact on its work, with a member of staff having to work almost fulltime auditing its campaigns for the last year, and providing internal advice and guidance to ensure the charity continues to speak out on its campaigns, while remaining in the law.
Friends of the Earth said the administrative burden caused by the Lobbying Act has had a significant impact on its work, particularly regarding concerns over one of the charity’s biggest events of the year, Basecamp, which this year takes place the weekend before the election.
The charity said that although the Electoral Commission has tried to be helpful, but said that it seemed as though some advisors did not know the regulation well enough.
The Labour Party, The Liberal Democrats, The Green Party and The Scottish National Party have all committed to repealing or revising the Act.
In the letter, the 50 charities call on all parties to overhaul the Lobbying Act as a matter of urgency after the general election.
It asks that they:
- Changing the definition of regulated activity in line with the recommendations of the Hodgson Review;
- Reforming the rules for charities and campaign groups working together;
- Reducing the regulated period from one year to four months;
The full list of charities to sign the letter are:
- ActionAid UK
- Age UK
- Amnesty International UK
- ARTICLE 19
- British Institute of Human Rights
- Camphill Village Trust
- CARE International UK
- Children's Rights Alliance for England
- Christian Aid
- Client Earth
- Core Coalition
- Detention Action
- Discrimination Law Association
- Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)
- Friends of the Earth
- Greenpeace UK
- Health Poverty Action
- Help Refugees
- Humanists UK
- Malaria Consortium
- Medical Justice
- Migrants Organise
- Migrants' Rights Network
- National Star
- ONE Against Poverty (UK)
- Race On The Agenda (ROTA)
- Refugee Council
- Results UK
- Runnymede Trust
- Share Action
- Small Charities Coalition
- Student Action for Refugees (STAR)
- Sue Ryder
- The Wildlife Trusts
- Traidcraft Exchange
- UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group
- United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK)
- VODG (Voluntary Organisations Disability Group)
- War on Want
- Welsh Centre for International Affairs
- Welsh Council for Voluntary Action
- Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)
- Women's Aid