It is widely feared that the new Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (‘the Lobbying Act’), which comes into force on 19 September 2014, may cause the curtailment of legitimate campaigns. The aim of the Lobbying Act is to prevent external bodies campaigning on behalf of political parties and thereby evading the existing rules on campaign expenditure. Under the Lobbying Act third-party campaigners will be regulated by the Electoral Commission if they spend over a specified limit on campaigning for issues that are associated with political parties and that can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters at the election.
The specified amount is £20,000 in England, and £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However a wide range of activities will be subject to the new rules on spending by non-party campaigners. Spending on election material distributed to the public is already regulated but the Lobbying Act will also cover spending on:
The third-party campaigners will have to register with the Electoral Commission and will have to account for the money they spend on any campaigning which is caught under the definition. Unfortunately as the definition of ‘campaigning’ is extremely wide it means that charities may potentially fall under this regime if they were to support a campaign which then became a political issue being supported or not supported by a particular party or candidate. This is the case even if the campaign itself is perfectly justifiable and is being carried out to further the charity’s objects without breaching any of the general charity law rules.
The Lobbying Act therefore is at serious risk of undermining the essential elements of democracy by significantly limiting the right of organisations to voice their opinions on some of the most prominent issues effecting society. Lobbying is seen as a tool which allows charities and campaigners to be heard and stand up for the issues they want to fight for, therefore any restrictions imposed are bound to be unpopular.
The rules under the Lobbying Act apply in the run up to certain elections known as the “regulated period”. The regulated period for the UK Parliamentary General Election will start on 19 September 2014 and will end on polling day, 7 May 2015, thus meaning that charities will need to tread very carefully when voicing opinions on potentially political topics over this period.
The biggest problem for charities is likely to be knowing when they need to register with the Electoral Commission and when they do not. The Electoral Commission has agreed to provide sector specific guidance in July but as many charities are already planning their campaigns and approach for the new financial year this guidance may come too late.