The government’s lobbying bill is intended to promote transparency and enhance the UK’s political integrity. It is meant to bring an end to underhand tactics by clearly setting out what organisations can and cannot do to support political parties, including how much they can spend. These are laudable aims which we understand and support.
But the government has been forced to defend a piece of hurried legislation so broad that the likelihood is it will restrict the ability of charities and community groups to speak up on matters of public interest. Under the sloppy wording of the proposed legislation, charities are at risk of being silenced.
On Tuesday evening, the law inched closer to being passed. This promises to be devastating for charities and community groups, and anyone who believes that in an open, liberal democracy everyone should be able to have a say. Of course, it is always necessary to have some restrictions on election conduct in order to ensure a level playing field. The new lobbying bill, however, will effectively broaden the definition of what constitutes political campaigning such that a charity could be deemed to have assisted a candidate despite the fact they had no intention to.
Say your neighbourhood group wants to campaign for a windfarm in the local area. If a candidate in a local election takes the same stance, you could be deemed to have assisted their campaign, even if you never mentioned their name. You’d be subject to burdensome regulation – and that’s if you’d seen the problem coming; the legislation says you’re meant to predict in advance what will happen. If you get it wrong you could go to jail.
Under the proposals put forward, any group that spends more than £5,000 a year and whose work crosses over into anything vaguely political will have to register with the Electoral Commission. Unless amended, charities risk being collateral damage in the government’s clampdown on political campaigning.
The government refuses to believe this will happen. But NCVO, our expert lawyers, and the Electoral Commission see it as a real risk. You know something must be wrong when 38 Degrees, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Owen Jones and Guido Fawkes all agree with each other. It is time for a rethink.
If approved, the bill will foster a climate of uncertainty, where the normal work of charities may suddenly become subject to regulation in the period leading up to an election, regulation so vague in its phrasing that it will be a battle for charities to follow.
Due to the bill’s lack of clarity, charities will have no certainty over when they may be accused of having inadvertently assisted a candidate or a campaign. Charities will be deterred from adding their voices to public debate and our democracy will be poorer for this. The Royal British Legion, for example, explains that its 2010 campaign to get politicians to ‘do their bit’ for military personnel would have fallen under these burdensome regulations. A large charity might just about manage to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy, but a small volunteer-run community group would stand little chance.
While I welcome greater political transparency, if the UK is to have a healthy civil society, it’s vital that the government rethinks the wording of the lobbying bill. The current rules in this area are perhaps not perfect, but they are limited in scope, broadly understood, and working quite well. This is a classic case of fixing something that isn’t broken. Andrew Lansley has indicated he will consider amendments to clarify how the bill would regulate what campaigning MPs can do – I hope he will do the same for us.
Sir Stuart Etherington is the Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which represents the interests of more than 10,500 charities and voluntary organisations.Tags: Andrew Lansley, Lobbying, Lobbying Bill, Stuart Etherington, Transparency of Lobbying