On Friday the government announced that it will not be taking forward Lord Hodgson’s recommendations for reforming the Lobbying Act. What does this mean for charity campaigning and what should we do next?
The Act is flawed
Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (for understandable reasons more commonly known as the Lobbying Act) has occupied the thoughts of many campaigners in recent years.
NCVO was at the centre of efforts to improve the legislation as it made its way through parliament, and secured significant concessions along the way.
But the Act that was eventually passed remains flawed, and has created confusion and uncertainty for charities.
The legislation itself specified that there should be an independent review of how it worked in practice, which was subsequently carried out by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson, who made a number of recommendations. These included changing the definition of controlled expenditure, a shorter regulated period, a tighter definition of supporters and clearer rules around joint campaigning.
Change is needed
While we continued to encourage charities to speak out during the election, and there were many examples of excellent campaigning, we also know that others were uncertain of what they were able to do, and so took a cautious approach.
Campaigning during elections is always likely to throw up challenging situations for charities, where the need to remain non-party political when their area of policy generates political controversy can sometimes require a delicate balancing act. So when additional rules are unclear and add to this complexity, it’s not surprising that some charities are risk-averse.
This is why the Hodgson recommendations have enjoyed broad support from charities, even when some would like to go further and repeal the Act. And earlier this year, the recommendations were backed by a cross-party committee in the House of Lords.
Given the challenges that many faced in interpreting the law, we hoped that the government would recognise the need to sort this issue out quickly. There has been widespread backing for the Hodgson recommendations as the way to do this.
Which is why it is so disappointing that the government has rejected this approach. Change in some form is clearly needed, and we will now have to reflect on whether there are non-legislative options that will improve the situation. However, we continue to believe that the Hodgson recommendations are a workable response to these concerns and are urging the government to reconsider.
Should we be pushing for repeal?
A number of charities and politicians have argued that what we really need is to repeal the Act. We don’t think this is the answer, unless it’s clear what the replacement will be. The Lobbying Act itself built on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 which contains much of the law in this area, so we would need to take into account how that would function without the Lobbying Act.
The growing potential for third parties to improperly influence elections by spending lots of money on advertising means that we do have to regulate non-party campaigning. You only have to look at the situation in the US to see that a regulatory wild west when it comes to election campaigns won’t necessarily make life better for charities. The law that can make things harder for a charity is the same law that stops those who disagree with it from spending large amounts of money to directly influence the way people vote.
So while we may need to look for alternatives to make the law work for charity campaigners, there are no easy answers in repeal.
But you shouldn’t stop campaigning
But despite this setback, and the fact that the Lobbying Act has concerned charities, this doesn’t mean we should stop campaigning during election campaigns. As we have previously noted, most charities are unlikely to need to register under the Lobbying Act because of the spending threshold, and the likely nature of their interventions. We provided some practical advice for campaigners on the Lobbying Act which is worth being aware of.
The voice of charities and those they support is vital all year round, and it is unacceptable for that voice to fall silent during election time. So while the government must think again on the Lobbying Act, it would be even more disastrous if we self-censored unnecessarily.
And in their letter to NCVO and other charities, ministers have said they will work with us to ensure charities feel able to campaign. While the news overall is disappointing, this is a welcome indication that the government understands our concerns. We’ll be making sure they are doing all they can to fulfil this promise.