Transparency of Lobbying Bill – unintended consequences or Trojan horse?

Since the Transparency of Lobbying Bill was introduced to Parliament before Summer Recess, most of the attention has been on the proposals to regulate lobbying and to set up a register of lobbyists.

Bemused by how narrow in scope and ineffective these provisions are likely to be, most of us didn’t carry on reading and decided to go outside and make the most of the sun. (Though for the record, NCVO is in favour of a register, charities included.) Little did we realise that Part II of the bill, which introduces new rules on ‘non-party campaigning’ during election time, is a real cause for concern.

Crucially, the bill introduces a definition of ‘activities for election purposes’ which is so broad and unclear that it could capture a range of the day-to-day activities charities carry out, entirely legitimately, as part of their campaigning and advocacy work.

Furthermore, the limits of expenditure for carrying out such activities have been drastically reduced, in some cases by up to 70%. Staff costs are to be included in these amounts, even though political parties are not expected to do the same.

Charities are already bound by charity law and therefore cannot be party political. But these changes would be likely to put the frighteners on charities that campaign on important issues and may want to use election time as an opportunity to raise awareness. This is mainly because, according to the explanatory notes, the rules apply not only if the intent is to promote the view of a particular candidate or party, but also considering the effect of the activity.

Given a political environment in which a number of politicians have questioned charities’ right to campaign, it is understandable that some have seen the bill as a deliberate threat to the role of charities in public policy debates. The more prosaic reading of events is simply that the bill was never intended to be so far-reaching: in the sudden rush to legislate in this area, the full consequences of these proposals were not properly considered and normal charity work has unintentionally been brought into its scope.

You can read the detail of our concerns in our briefing on the Transparency of lobbying bill. We will be talking to officials at both the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission over the next couple of weeks, and we will also be briefing front-bench teams and coalition backbenchers on the bill as soon as possible.

Plus:

  • on the morning of second reading (3 September) we are hosting a drop in session for MPs in Parliament so that they can speak to organisations affected;
  • we are in the process of collecting case studies of campaigning activity organisations either did in the run up to the 2010 election or are planning for 2015 to see how it would be affected by the new rules.

If you are able to get involved, joining us for the drop in session on 3 September or sending us your examples, please get touch with me at Elizabeth.Chamberlain@ncvo-vol.org.uk

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Avatar photo Elizabeth was head of policy and public services at NCVO until 2020.