By focusing just on the implications of the Lobbying Act charities might be missing out on the opportunity to have a broader, more meaningful conversation with politicians and the public, writes Kirsty Weakley.
The Lobbying Act isn’t the only thing that has ‘stifled’, ‘muzzled’, ‘gagged’ or otherwise inhibited campaigning voices of charities and to imply that repealing or reforming it would result in a sudden uplift in campaigning activity is, I fear, naïve.
There is no doubt that the Lobbying Act is in urgent need of reform. It places an often unreasonable amount of red tape on charities that carry out campaigning activity.
Under the act anyone spending over the limit must register with the Electoral Commission and report weekly. A relatively small number of charities have felt the need to register, but all campaigning charities need to make sure that they are recording their spending to make sure that they are under the limit.
The Electoral Commission itself has also promised to take a proportionate and pragmatic approach and Sir Stuart Etherington has written to NCVO members to warn that fear of the act is doing more harm than good, and tell them that there is still scope to speak out on issues.
But confusion about what the act requires and fear whipped up by emotive headlines actually risks discouraging charities from making their voices heard during the campaign.
Charity law stipulates that charities must not be party political in their campaigning, and charities should pay extra attention to this guidance during election periods. This was the case before the act was brought in, and will continue to be the case if the act is repealed or reformed.
After the 2015 general election Lord Hodgson produced a report outlining a number of reforms to lessen the bureaucratic burden for charities, but it has not been implemented. So it is right for charities to continue to press for reform on this, though I question the timing of today’s letter written by 50 campaigning charities to the leading polical parties which outlines concerns over the act and how they have been impacted.
Is anyone paying attention?
The letter comes at the end of the election cycle, when – lets’ face it – politicians, the media and the public have their minds elsewhere. As the campaign enters the final stretch parties are focused on security issues in the wake of another terrorist attack, and on doubling down on their key messages for voters.
While today’s letter has been picked up by the Guardian online, it didn’t make it into the iPad edition of the paper, despite being sent to news desks yesterday afternoon. No other mainstream news outlet appears to have picked it up.
Guardian readers are already familiar with the issues – they have been told no less than four times now in this campaign just how bad the ‘gagging’ law is for charities. I think they have got the message, and they aren’t generally the people that the sector needs to convince of the important role campaigning charities play in shaping our democracy.
In any case, the signatories to the letter note that the Labour Party has already committed to repealing the act and the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party are committed to reforming it. So really it is just the Conservatives they are seeking commitment from.
I’d argue it might actually have been more effective to wait until a new government is in place to present the evidence about the impact of the election.
By focusing so tightly on the issue of the Lobbying Act we risk sideling other reasons that prevent charities from campaigning or lead to self-censorship.
Repealing the Lobbying Act won’t have any impact on the commissioning environment.
Charities carry out much more public service delivery though contracts with government than they have in previous decades.
NPC’s state of the sector report a few weeks ago was just the latest to highlight the way that the contracting environment has altered the relationship between the state and the sector. In this piece I am not attempting to pass judgement on whether this is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing, simply state that there is an increasing wealth of evidence to say that it has.
Instead of being given grants to do what they want, charities are delivering contracts to do what government wants, leading to what Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO, described as a more “instrumentalist” relationship.
This has led to both formal restrictions on campaigning, in the form of clauses in contracts forbidding charities from using government money to campaign, and a certain amount of self-censorship that is hard to quantify.
Charities, particularly medium-sized ones which rely on one or two local authority contracts, are also being squeezed by public sector funding cuts. They are trying to do more with less, and as a result do not have the resource to campaign even if they were able to.
There is also an increasing body of evidence calling for reform of the commissioning environment to make it fairer, and more accessible for smaller charities – for example by increasing grant funding and by adopting longer lengths for contracts.
It is even arguable that putting charities on a more secure and sustainable footing, with a more grown-up relationship with commissioners, would give charities the space and security to make their voices heard.
A proper public debate about the role of charities in modern society and their relationship with the government is needed - please don't limit discussion by placing too much emphasis on one piece of legislation in the aftermath of the election.