Lobbying Act: Reviewed and improved

Yesterday I attended the publication of Lord Hodgson’s review of the Lobbying Act: it felt like a momentous occasion, especially after so much concern about how the Act would stop charities from campaigning, and calls for it to be scrapped.

The report ‘Third Party Election Campaigning – Getting the Balance Right’ does exactly that: it ensures a much more effective and proportionate framework. I would go further and say that the recommendations not only address most of the key challenges and difficulties caused by the Lobbying Act, but improve what we had under the previous PPERA.

What are the changes recommended?

Lord Hodgson recommends a number of important changes to the Act, all of which are carefully linked to each other almost as part of a puzzle. So it is very clear that the recommendations are to be seen as a package: you cannot pick and choose.

These are the recommendations:

  • The test of what counts as ‘controlled expenditure’ should be changed from the broad wording of what ‘can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote electoral success’ to the actual intention of influencing voters.
  • The vague definition of ‘committed supporter’ no longer holds as an exemption, and needs to be tightened. So unless someone is a ‘constitutional member’, ie with direct influence on the organisation, they are to be considered as a member of the public.
  • The regulated period should be shortened from 12 months to four months. This is to reflect that the majority of campaigning by third parties happens in the period closer to polling day.
  • The rules on joint campaigning should be changed in a number of ways that make it clearer how expenditure is shared and accounted for, and what are the responsibilities of the lead campaigner.
  • Registration with the Electoral Commission should provide more information such as the purpose of the campaign, where it is planned to take place and how much it will cost. This is to ensure that transparency, which was one of the stated aims of the Act, is actually achieved (something that it hasn’t really done so far).

What doesn’t change

  • The types of activity the expenditure of which is regulated: these continue to be not only election material but also media events, public rallies, etc.
  • Staff costs will continue to be accounted for and contribute towards the expenditure.
  • The registration thresholds remain the higher ones introduced by the Lobbying Act.
  • The spending limits also remain the same.
  • The new constituency limits also continue to apply.

So why is this better?

A tighter test and greater clarity as to what is caught by the rules will surely provide much reassurance to the majority of organisations that struggled last year with trying to guess how some of their campaigning activities could be seen. This is perhaps the most welcome change.

Add to that a shorter regulatory period, yet the same registration thresholds, and it seems that the puzzle really has come together in a way that provides a much neater and proportionate framework.

The challenge is to press government, which has accepted the recommendations, to act upon them and drive the necessary legislation forward. There can be no excuses of parliamentary time: the Lobbying Act was pushed through at breakneck speed because of its importance. Surely the same priority needs to be given to ensuring the Act strikes the right balance.

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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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