Electoral Commission guidance on the Lobbying Act – some key questions answered

After what I understand must have been a hectic six months, the Electoral Commission has published its final guidance on the new Lobbying Act rules for non-party campaigners.

This could not have happened at a better moment, as many organisations are eager to start planning their campaigns for the following months.

The guidance is fairly comprehensive, ranging from a:

It also includes a specific section on non-party campaigning for charities.

This in particular states that:

  • campaigning in support of policies that are also supported by a political party or parties or by types of candidates may be covered by electoral law
  • a campaigning activity can be regulated even if the intention is to raise awareness of an issue.

So if a charity is advocating and campaigning on the same policy that is very publicly associated with one or more political parties, the spending on the public and media events and leaflets may be regulated by the Electoral Commission if these activities can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voting choice.

This continues to be one of the most problematic aspects of the law and of the Electoral Commission’s interpretation, and will no doubt cause many headaches for charities wishing to campaign and raise awareness on the causes that matter to them.

On a more positive note, the guidance also provides some reassuring clarifications…

Manifestos

If a charity produces its manifesto outlining a series of policy asks to be taken forward by the next government, provided the charity does not make reference to the views of different parties or how they match against the recommendations put forward in the manifesto, and the subject does not represent a major or identifiable diving line between the policies of political parties or categories of candidate, spending on the manifesto will not be regulated. More information is in the section on manifestos.

Hustings

Spending on hustings will not be regulated provided they are organised in an impartial manner (ie the charity does not selectively invite candidates or parties). More information is in the section on hustings

Joint campaigning

Recognising the complex nature of charity campaigning and the different ways in which many organisations work in partnership, the specific section on joint campaigning

illustrates some cases where organisations would not be considered as working together. These include:

  • having informal discussions with other campaigners that do not involve decision-making or coordinating plans
  • speaking at an event organised by another campaigner, but not participating in any other way
  • not consulting with other campaigners about campaign messages and tactics.

It’s likely that organisations would be considered to be working together if:

  • they have joint advertising campaigns, leaflets or events
  • they coordinate regulated campaign activity with other campaigners – for example, agreeing that each cover particular areas, arguments or voters
  • another campaigner can approve or has significant influence over your leaflets, websites, or other campaign activity.

Definition of members and committed supporters

Activity is regulated only if it is aimed at the public, and an organisation’s official members or ‘committed supporters’ will not be considered part of the public. Committed supporters include: regular donors by direct debit, people with an annual subscription, and people who are actively involved in the organisation.

However, people that the organisation regularly communicates with, such as people who have signed up to social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, or have signed up for email updates, will be considered members of the public (unless they are also members or committed supporters of organisation).

This again is likely to cause many problems, since people following the organisation on social media or signed up to its email updates will be a mix of both general public and members, and the majority of organisations won’t have the tools to separate the two.

So what’s the verdict?

It is still too early to give an overall judgement of the guidance, and over the next couple of weeks we will continue to analyse it in more detail and provide information. It would be unrealistic to expect the guidance to answer all questions, but it is important to provide as much clarity as possible so charities can plan their campaigns with confidence.

If you have any specific questions about the guidance, please email me at Elizabeth.chamberlain@ncvo.org.uk or leave a comment below.

We will also be discussing the new rules of the Lobbying Act and the Electoral Commission’s guidance at NCVO’s Campaigning Conference in September, so please join us then.

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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