The Transparency of Lobbying Act, dubbed the ‘gagging act’ by opponents, has been criticised by charities who claim it prevents them from campaigning on key issues, but what does the new legislation mean in practice for voluntary organisations?

Passed on the 30th of January 2014, the Act applies to groups who are not candidates or political parties, for example charities, voluntary groups and faith organisations. The limits apply for the pre-election period of eight months, which began on the 19th of September2014 and will run until the date of the General Election, set for the 7th of May 2015. During this period, if spending over £20,000 in England, or over £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Island, on a campaign which ‘can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success’ for ‘one or more particular registered parties’ or candidates, the group must register as a recognised third party with the Electoral Commission or face prosecution.

Expenditure covers any fees, including employee wages and social media costs, associated with materials made available to the public and the organisation of press conferences, media events or public rallies. Additionally non-party campaigners are forbidden from spending more than £9,750 in one constituency during the designated pre-election period. These limits also apply to groups of charities who wish to collaborate on certain issues. Greater transparency is also required of non-party campaign groups who must submit a quarterly report of donations over £7,500, with more frequent reports during a general election period.

Charities claim these restrictions will jeopardise their ability to campaign on key election issues. In a letter to political leaders, signed by more than 160 organisations including Save the Children, Oxfam, Greenpeace and Amnesty International, voluntary groups protested the Act’s stifling of free speech.

An independent commission of January this year found that almost 67 per cent of groups felt the Act made some or all of their objectives more difficult to achieve. The commission’s chairman, Lord Harries said the legislation has had ‘a chilling effect on organisations speaking out on issues from climate change to assisted dying’. The Act will also have an administrative effect, increasing bureaucracy for voluntary organisations who must submit detailed reports and register with the Electoral Commission if they wish to spend amounts exceeding designated thresholds.

The Act also limits the amount organisations can collectively tackle, with big issues such as climate change, as the restrictions still apply to groups working in collaboration. The Labour Party has promised to get rid of the Act if it wins the election in May, with leader Ed Miliband formerly describing the legislation as a ‘gag on charities and campaigners’. The Conservative Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, however, opposed this claim, branding it ‘alarmist’. Similarly, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the Act was designed to increase public trust in lobbying and prevent spending aimed at promoting one political party, rather than to restrict charities’ freedom to campaign.

The legislation does not prevent groups from campaigning completely. It does not cover campaigns costing less than £20,000 and charities are not automatically affected if they are associated with a particular party, only if they alter or increase campaigning as a result of the political party’s support. Furthermore, the legislation does not cover campaigning if it does not promote electoral success for a particular party or candidate and groups can continue to campaign on general issues.

What could be considered to promote electoral success however is subjective. A report conducted by the National Coalition for Independent Action, claimed many voluntary groups fail to speak out on issues out of fear of losing funding or bringing other sanctions. Smaller-scale organisations, with lower expenses, however, are unlikely to be affected by the legislation and can continue to campaign on overtly political issues during the run-up to the General Election.

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