Charities and the Lobbying Act: the Electoral Commission’s view

Ben WilkinsonBen Wilkinson is head of external communications for the Electoral Commission, overseeing its media relations and public affairs activity and its public information service. Ben joined the Commission earlier this year having previously worked in central government departments.

If you were to believe some of the media coverage over recent days, you might worry that a drive had been launched to silence charities and voluntary organisations. ‘Charities may face criminal sanctions under gagging law’, a Guardian headline reported, for example.

What prompted this fear, and this coverage, is the upcoming general election. Since 2000 under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as soon as an  election is announced, rules kick in regulating the spending of campaigners that are not political parties. Charities are included in the definition of ‘non-party campaigners’ and it is therefore important that they are aware of the rules.

But, as is often the case when matters are communicated through the prism of the press, how much charities are actually affected by the rules has been exaggerated. Charities and other non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation during campaign periods. The rules do not prevent them from campaigning and engaging in public debate.

Our interest at the Electoral Commission is on how much is spent on campaigning that can influence voters’ decisions and the outcome of the election: where a significant amount of money is being spent on this type of campaigning, the rules require those individuals and organisations to register with us and declare their spending. Surely nobody can disagree that it is right that voters can see who is spending that money and what they are campaigning for.

What the non-party campaigning rules say

This is how it works: any individual or organisation is entitled to campaign at the general election, but parliament has put rules in place which mean non-party campaigners that intend to spend above a certain amount must register with the Commission.

Not all campaigning is relevant. For example, services provided by volunteers are not included.  This law also does not regulate forms of campaigning such as lobbying ministers for changes to government policy.

To count towards relevant spending for these rules, the money must be used on:

  • campaigning activities that could be reasonably regarded as intended to influence people to vote for or against particular political parties, or for any particular category of candidates
  • campaigning activities that are public facing.

Money spent on campaigning activities such as adverts, websites and public events that meet both of the above tests is considered to be ‘regulated spending’.

The regulated period and the snap election

The period of time over which spending total is calculated – known as the ‘regulated period’ –  always starts 12 months from polling day for a general election. This is a provision in the law, so the Electoral Commission doesn’t have the discretion to make it shorter, even in the case of a snap election such as this one. We have to apply the 12 retrospectively: so for the purposes of the general election on 8 June, the regulated period started on 9 June last year.

We recognise this means the situation has suddenly changed for many campaigners, including charities. Those who were expecting the next general election to be in 2020 may not have anticipated six or 12 months ago to be having to assess their spending in this way now. We appreciate that, for some, this retrospective regulated period will present a challenge.

That is why we are taking a pragmatic and proportionate approach. In particular we recognise that, as a UK general election was not due until 2020, many will not have been running campaigns that could reasonably be regarded as intended to influence people to vote in a particular way.

Do you need to register?

If you represent a charity or voluntary organisation that you think might be affected then what should you do?

If you have spent money on regulated activity prior to the announcement of the election, which now falls within the regulated period, you should determine whether that spending is close to, or already in excess of, the threshold for registering with us at the Electoral Commission. You should then consider whether your planned spending between now and the election will mean you exceed the registration threshold.

If that is the case, we advise you to register. Registering will ensure that your spending is reported and therefore transparent, and that there is no risk of you beginning or continuing to spend in excess of the threshold without being registered. And once registered, nothing stops you from carrying on your campaigning.

Because of the particular difficulties that a snap election entails, we also understand that some organisations may register having already spent in excess of the registration threshold. We are unlikely to consider enforcement action against them, provided they have taken prompt steps.

If you are not sure about whether spending is regulated, you should consider whether registering will remove the risk of you breaking the spending rules. At the general election in 2010, some organisations decided to register pre-emptively as a precaution. They then went on to deliver successful and effective campaigns. You can see examples at the registration page for non-party campaigners on our website.

Most importantly, if you have any questions please contact us – wherever possible we are happy to provide assistance and advice to help you understand and comply with the rules. Or take a look at our online guidance (pdf, 326KB).

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