Earlier today I gave evidence to the Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who are looking at the lobbying and transparency bill. I told them that we and many other charities and voluntary organisations are very concerned about the potential impact on our work. Now we urgently need you to help show them what the problems are.
The new rules, we believe, mean that many normal campaigning activities could suddenly fall under ‘non-party campaigning’ rules. You can read more about this in Elizabeth’s blog from last week, when we wrote a letter to Chloë Smith, the minister responsible for the legislation. Our letter was backed by many of the country’s best-known charities, and we’ve had support from many more NCVO members since.
Today, the Electoral Commission published their briefing (PDF) on the proposals, which they said:
“create significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues… and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations”
They add that the legislation is so unclear that it may be impossible for them to enforce reasonably.
The Cabinet Office don’t seem to share our and the Electoral Commission’s assessment of the proposals. They don’t think there’s a problem. The committee of MPs this morning invited organisations which fear they might be affected to submit evidence to them, in order to help them come to a view on this. We really need you to come forward and tell them that you are concerned. You can give them real life examples so that they can see what the problem is.
If you’re concerned the bill could affect you – and you don’t need to be sure, much of the problem with the bill is its lack of clarity – please email the committee as soon as you can. They need to hear from you by Monday morning at the latest.
You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let them know that you are concerned about the impact on your organisation and your ability to speak up about the people and causes you support. Feel free to copy or forward a copy of your email to us - email@example.com. You can read the written evidence we submitted to the committee. Here are some examples we used in our letter to Chloë Smith:
- A health charity could publish a leaflet highlighting the dangers of smoking. If smoking legislation became a party political issue in an election this activity could be deemed to have the effect of supporting a party’s campaign, and be subject to regulation.
- A local community group could campaign for or against a proposed bypass road. If local candidates subsequently express a view on the issue the campaigning activity could be deemed to assist candidates’ election campaigns. The community group would become subject to regulation, even if it had acted apolitically and had no intention to support any candidate’s campaign.
- A children’s charity calls for a statutory inquiry via the media in response to a major abuse scandal at the same time as one of the major political parties. This could leave them open to claims that they have inadvertently benefited that party’s election campaign.
And these are examples the Electoral Commission have used in their briefing for MPs of situations in which the new law would be unclear:
- A small community organisation in Wales intends to campaign about a local planning issue in the year before the election. The organisation has a part-time employee whose work includes organising meetings, writing publicity material and liaising with the media. How much of this person’s work will count as ‘for election purposes’? The organisation will need to register with us if its regulated spending exceeds £2,000 and must keep within spending limits of £24,000 within Wales and £9,750 within any one constituency.
- A voluntary organisation is seen as having expertise in a policy area on which several political parties make policy announcements in the run-up to the election. The media frequently ask the organisation for its views on the issues and the parties’ policies, and sometimes invite it to provide interviewees for broadcast coverage. Will the cost of reactively setting out the organisation’s views count as ‘for election purposes’? If so, a proportion of the salaries of the organisation’s press and policy teams would be regulated and will require the organisation to register with us.
- Three national organisations plan a protest march and rally to draw attention to concerns about a policy issue on which political parties have different positions. Will the event be judged to be ‘for election purposes’? If so, the associated costs (including publicity, transport, media work, and infrastructure costs such as policing and first aid) could easily exceed a national spending limit for the year before the election, and the total spending of all the organisers could count against each organiser’s individual spending limit.
If you can identify with any of these situations, please get in touch with the committee as soon as possible with a brief statement about your own scenario.
You can watch today’s committee session back here if you like. My evidence comes after the TUC’s, so scroll forward to 13.43 if you just want me. I’m not quite as animated as the TUC gentleman is, but I hope I got your concerns over nevertheless.