Friday, 8 August 2014

Censoring charities - the Electoral Commission and the Lobbying Act

So we have now had the 'guidance' from the Electoral Commission on the Lobbying Act for a couple of weeks. Long enough to consult widely on it and begin to reflect on how we might comply. "Incomprehensible" is one way to describe it. More specifically, it is helpful in places but based on a poorly drafted Act that is wrong in principle. 

As ACEVO have long warned, the Lobbying Act will affect our historic right to campaign if we let it do so. That means our job between now and the election is to go about our usual business of campaigning and awareness-raising so far as we can. The 292 pages of guidance published to date leave several areas of uncertainty that we will do our best to clarify in the next few weeks, such as the rules about joint campaigning and the details of the new constituency spending limit of £9,750.

Five Electoral Commission staff attended a meeting on Tuesday at ACEVO Towers organised hosted by Bond, ACEVO and others involved with the Commission on Civil Society. It was attended by 120 charities and campaigners. There were some heated exchanges between the Commission and the attendees as the regulator tried and failed to clarify guidance that was intended to make things clear! They are to be commended on their willingness to engage with the sector - indeed some of the Commission have a background working in the third sector. But there is still a long way before we come close to fully understanding every part of the guidance. 

We must do our best between now and 19 September and take the approach that the Lobbying Act is indeed not meant to catch campaigners doing their usual work. Small charities in particular, or anyone else who is unsure or unused to speaking out in public, should be mindful of the Act but shouldn’t let it deter them from pursuing their mission as they would do at any other time.

If you have any questions about the Act’s implications the best course is always to contact the Electoral Commission directly, on their website or via

I note also my letter in February from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who wrote to me to reassure us that the majority of charities and campaigners would not be affected by the new Act.

We were told that government wanted more transparency and not to limit charities’ ability to speak out in public. Ultimately the proof of what exactly the Act really does affect will come after its regulatory period starts next month. But for now we’ll continue to campaign for clarity about its regulations and to replace it after the election with a workable and fair arrangement for non-party campaigners.
Remember too that this is not the only threat we face. The Charity Commission are consulting on ludicrous new proposals to make us all declare ‘campaigning’ spend. Anyone who knows what charities' purpose is understands that advocacy is but the other side of the coin to delivery. More worryingly there is thought to be a desire, by some, to revise the current entirely sensible Commission guidance on campaigning (‘CC9’). This is an agenda that appears to be ideologically-driven rather than about better regulation. Of course we will see what they do but we should be aware that our historic duty to speak truth to power is under threat.

And finally; you might ask what happened to me and Newsnight yesterday. Well, I was bumped in favour of Jacob Rees-Mogg of all people. Hardly the stuff of in-depth analysis. On a happier note I can report that Radio 4 is doing an analysis programme to go out next Thursday evening which does examine Big Society - what happened? Worth listening to. I did an interview for them today.

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