The Lobbying Act – Where are we now, and what’s next for voluntary organisations?

blue arrowThe Lobbying Act (officially the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act) finally concluded this January after an eventful journey through Parliament.
 
Here we provide a bit of background into the Act, to accompany a new short briefing we’ve produced. The briefing is aimed at people who may not work in a policy role, but are concerned as to whether their organisation may be affected by the Act.
 
This blog takes a look back, and examines the development of this controversial legislation, from its inception to its current state, with the aim of helping organisations grasp the context behind the Act, how the rules came into being and how they might be applied.
 
The blog provides an overview of:

The original proposals

In July 2013 the Government put forward proposals to: 

  • Introduce a register of consultant lobbyists and establish a body to enforce registration
  • Regulate the spending of organisations that weren’t standing for election or registered political parties for a year prior to an election
  • Strengthen the legal requirements obliging trade unions to keep their list of members.

For the VCS, Part II of the Bill – which sought to change existing rules regarding ‘non-party campaigners’ – presented some serious concerns.

The phrase ‘non-party campaigner’ can technically cover any voluntary sector organisation, from a large national charity to a small local infrastructure organisation, such as a Council for Voluntary Service. The term covers any individuals or organisations that campaign in elections, but are not standing as political parties or candidates.
 
The Bill proposed a new definition of ‘activities for election purposes’, new administrative and reporting requirements for groups, and proposed to widen the range of activities that would be included in the term ‘election material’.
 
There were concerns that these proposals would create confusion, that they could deter charities from undertaking legitimate campaigning activity, or curtail their activity altogether.
 
Many groups would not have had the capacity to deal with the increased levels of bureaucracy involved, or would worry that they were breaking the law.   
 
The Bill also proposed to place restrictions on an organisation’s spending on a campaign in the year prior to an election. This proposal meant that if a group spent over £5000 on activities that were deemed to be promoting the success of a party or candidate they would now have to register with the Electoral Commission. This was a considerable reduction from the previous £10,000 limit meaning that the number of VCS organisations affected would increase substantially.

Opposition, challenges and amendments

A broad coalition of organisations came together to oppose the Lobbying Bill, and the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement was created.
 
The government granted some early concessions at the Commons Report stage. The contested definition of ‘restricted activities’ was returned to the definition in the original Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) legislation, and finally in November the Government agreed to a 6-week pause in the Bill to allow for consultation and Ministers to address some of the serious concerns.
 
During this pause, a number of VCS organisations came together to lend support to recommendations made by NCVO and the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement.
 
Compact Voice wrote to Chloe Smith MP, raising concerns on the potential restrictions on the voluntary sector’s independence and right to campaign (which are enshrined in the first principle of the Compact).
 
It highlighted that the broad nature of the Bill could adversely affect how voluntary sector organisations were able to campaign during election periods.

The final Act and what’s next

A series of concessions were made in the face of pressure from the voluntary sector in January 2014. These were:

  • Raise the financial threshold for organisations to register with the Electoral Commission from £5,000 to £20,000;
  • A commitment for a comprehensive review of the Bill after the 2015 general election.

Further challenges to the Bill from the House of Lords brought amendments to narrow the scope of staff costs included in the new legislation, and to reduce the types of activities that would count toward spending in individual constituencies.
 
These amendments would have reduced the impact of the Bill on the VCS. Unfortunately they were overturned by MPs when the Bill returned to the House of Commons.
 
Understandably, many VCS organisations remain concerned about whether the new rules and regulations in the Act will affect them ahead of the 2015 general election.
 
Our short briefing on the Lobbying Act should clarify how the Act relates to the Compact, what it means for voluntary organisations, and highlights what guidance is available elsewhere.

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