The debate over The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (or the Lobbying Act) is heating up as we draw closer to the upcoming elections in 2015. Opinion is divided between the Act being enforced “to improve openness and transparency” as stated by David Cameron, or a complex piece of legislation that will make it difficult for charities to campaign for issue-based causes.
According to the government the Act has been introduced as a measure to improve transparency during elections. In response to recent criticism David Cameron has assured that the Act will only apply to organisations and charities who use their resources solely for the purpose of ensuring electoral success of a particular political party or candidate. In short it is made for the purpose that it “regulates more closely election campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties”. However the regulatory body of the Act, the Electoral Commission, have suggested that campaigning activity could be regulated even if an organisations intention is to achieve something else such as campaigning on a certain issue that coincides with a party or candidate.
The majority of criticism of the Act has been dismissed as dramatic and usually presented by ‘left-leaning’ individuals. However, both of these arguments show the very problem that may be caused for charities. Firstly, that there is no clear definition of what the Lobbying Act will mean for a range of organisations causing confusion. Secondly, the Act can cause serious disruption to issue-based campaigns led by charities due to the fear of what may happen if these issues are closely tied to a current political candidate or party. These are but some of the concerns that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has raised in a recent briefing aimed at government. The NCVO is the largest membership organisation for the voluntary sector in England with over 10,000 members.
According to the NCVO a range of organisations have raised concerns over the Act. Some of the main concerns include the fact that the Act is complex and unclear; it adds bureaucracy issues with the Electoral Commission as a regulatory body, spending limits are being placed on organisations, and there is uncertainty as to when and how the rules will be applied. Groups such as the Joseph Roundtree Foundation, Oxfam, and British Legion have all spoken out against the act in its current form.
Not only is there problems with clarity of the Act and how it will be administered but there are sincere concerns that it will stifle the charity sector’s voice. A proponent of this view has been Sir Steven Bubb, the CEO of ACEVO. He has claimed that a range of charities abilities to speak out in behalf of their beneficiaries has been restricted. He recognises the need for an open and transparent system, but not if it gives them the right to “muzzle charities…and chill democracy”.
This is not just hyperbole by Sir Bubb. Take the example of a small community group or voluntary organisation. If they were to campaign for a local cause that affected their beneficiaries’ lives and this coincided with a local politician or wider election campaigns, they could be subjected to regulation even if the group is apolitical and not affiliated with any one party or campaign. When one considers the work of a range of charities, this would not be restricted to few groups as many are invested in a range of campaigns for the improvement of policy.
Surely, especially around the time of elections, the general public should become aware of such issues to make an educated vote. It is particularly concerning that the Bill gained Royal Assent on the 30th of January, making it an Act of Parliament (and UK law). Considering the impact it could have on the general public’s knowledge of important issues during election time, it is astounding how little mainstream media coverage the Act has had.
The Lobbying Act is now causing concerns about a fair democracy. One can only speculate whether this is the true intention of the current government, but my guess would be that it has more to do with stifling lobbying by trade unions for the Labour party during the upcoming elections. None the less, in its current form it causes fair concern over what it means for a range of charities and voluntary groups who only aim to support disadvantaged groups. A funny turn of events when one considers the current government’s emphasis on civil society engagement proposed throughout their Big Society Agenda. It certainly sends a negative message at the moment, the government wants the general public to become involved and of service to the country through volunteering and participating in civil society, but when it comes to giving a political opinion through campaigning with these groups they don’t want to hear it.