Repealing the lobbying act isn’t as simple as it sounds

Labour’s announcement that it will repeal the Lobbying Act if it wins power has been met with a great deal of enthusiasm by campaigners, both charities and NGOs.

This is certainly an encouraging move, considering the strength of feeling on this issue and the amount of concern within the sector about the impact of the new rules on campaigning. The level of confusion and uncertainty surrounding Part 2 of the Act remains high, even following a number of updates for non-party campaigners published by the Electoral Commission. Our own FAQs, whilst praised by many as helpful, only address the top level questions.

Having attended a number of consultation events with interested organisations, I am overwhelmed by the number of questions asked about how things will work in practice. How do you calculate staff costs, even by way of an ‘honest assessment’? What’s the difference between members and committed supporters? What about communications through social media such as Facebook and Twitter? How do you account for the constituency limits? What about organisations that have a federated structure?

And most of all, what can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a particular party or candidate? One person’s reasonable view may easily be another’s completely unreasonable one. Even before the new rules come into force, we have seen how all it takes is one complaint about alleged party political activity to cause massive problems for a charity. Even though the Family & Childcare Trust was found to have not contravened the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity, it is possible that public perceptions of its independence could have been adversely affected.

In the immediate enthusiasm generated by the announcement, it is important to bear in mind that some of the amendments made to the Act actually represent an improvement from the previous PPERA legislation. For example, the Lobbying Act added an option to the rules on working together, by allowing organisations campaigning towards a ‘joint plan’ to nominate a lead campaigner. This means that only one organisation has to take responsibility for registration and reporting. And of course the registration thresholds were considerably increased.

So let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Most of the outstanding problems campaigning organisations face, such as:

  • the vague and potentially all-catching definition of ‘controlled expenditure’, and
  • the inclusion of staff costs stem from the previous rules.

So as ever, the devil will be in the detail. The debates while the law was passing through parliament highlighted how difficult it is to devise a legal regime that guards against undue influence in elections without hindering legitimate campaigning. What we all want to see is a sensible and proportionate regulatory regime that upholds freedom of expression and respects the sector’s right to campaign. Labour’s promise to thoroughly consult charities and other voluntary organisations is therefore very welcome. But the most important challenge will be what they do next.

Whilst much about this post – and my previous ones – has been about Part 2 of the Act, NCVO has long been of the view that the regulation of lobbying needs a thorough review. As part of our wider agenda towards encouraging more transparency, we are in favour of introducing a universal register of lobbyists that would cover all professional lobbyists, including those working within charities.

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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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