June’s snap general election brought some of the more absurd and unnecessary aspects of the Lobbying Act into sharp focus. The announcement of the vote sent charities into administrative fervor, and led to important campaigning work being scaled back or postponed. Creating greater transparency in who lobbies is something we can all get behind, but the Lobbying Act not only fails in this objective, it also has the unacceptable side effect of stifling debate at key political periods.
One of the more troubling aspects of the legislation is the retroactive application of a ‘regulated period’. This exposes the problematic and unfair nature of the legislation. It requires organisations to scrutinise their campaign activity from 12 months before the election to ensure it has complied with regulations on election campaigning despite no knowledge that the election was going to take place. But far worse than this is the impact on civil society debate.
The lack of voices from the charity sector during the election period speaks volumes of the ‘chilling effect’ the Act has had on our democracy. The Act has limited charities from speaking out whilst also placing an undue burden on those that do. During the 2017 general election charity voices were noticeably lacking from commenting on the Conservative policy on social care. The country is in desperate need of a debate on social care and it is disappointing that charities were unable to represent their beneficiaries and instead were silenced when the opportunity arose.
For those that do decide to speak out, the administrative burden is substantial. At an NPC event about the impact of the Lobbying Act, Friends of the Earth spoke of how they decided that they didn’t want to be prevented from speaking out during the election so signed up to the Electoral Commission register. In order to comply they had a member of staff working almost full time to audit records and ensure that they had complied in the past 12 months, as well as to advise on current approaches. This is a significant strain on both time and money.
It is encouraging to see a renewed effort to oppose the Lobbying Act by the charity sector. Last week over 100 charities signed a letter to Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, requesting its overhaul. Charities and campaigners including Save the Children, RSPB, Greenpeace and Bond UK signed a letter stating that “the Lobbying Act has had a disproportionate impact on civil society campaigning” and that this has resulted in “important voices being lost from public debate”.
The fundamental issue with the Lobbying Act is that it works on the assumption that ‘good causes’ and ‘improving people’s lives’ are the antithesis of advocacy – which is just simply not the case. Charities exist to end suffering and problems for their beneficiaries. It is therefore ridiculous to expect charities not to campaign for policies that would achieve this. It makes no sense for a charity to focus just on treating symptoms if advocating for change would remove the problem all together.
One further problem is that public opinion is not behind the restriction of charity lobbying. We asked the general public what they thought about restricting different organisations lobbying when the Act was first signed in 2014. Only 15% of the public thought that charities should be restricted in their political lobbying, this compared with 54% of the public agreeing that oil and gas should be.  The failure to implement other aspects of the Bill such as a register of lobbyists means that the sectors that the public are most concerned about remain relatively unscathed.
The Lobbying Act is an ill thought out piece of legislation that is detrimental to our democracy. Let’s hope Tracey Crouch heeds the calls from the charity sector and sets the wheels in motion for its long overdue reform.
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