Charities and NGOs inquiry says Lobbying Act impact is 'chilling'

By staff writers
February 3, 2015

Research from an independent commission has highlighted the "chilling" impact on free speech of the UK government's Lobbying Act in the run up to the 2015 General Election.

A third report from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE), chaired by former Anglican Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, has set out the first detailed evidence of the impact of the Lobbying Act on charities and campaign groups since it became law last year.

The Act was originally proposed to tackle abuses by corporate and in-house lobbyists at Westminster. Instead, critics say, it is worded in such a way as to shackle non-party campaigning groups, NGOs, charities and trade unions at election time.

Even before the 'regulated period' started for the 2015 General Election, on 18 September 2014, the Lobbying Act has been limiting charities and campaign groups from speaking out on important issues ahead of the general election, says the CCSDE report.

Some 63 per cent of respondents to the survey that forms the basis of the report stated that compliance with the Act will make some or all of their organisational or charitable objectives harder to achieve.

The main impacts of the law so far are that:

· Many NGOs are more cautious about campaigning on politically contentious issues because they fear breaking the law or the reputational risk of vexatious complaints.

· The law and associated guidance is consuming disproportionate resources that the public has donated to the causes they believe in, putting red tape ahead of core purpose.

· The law makes it almost impossible for charities and campaign groups to work together and speak out on politically contested issues in joint coalitions, as they did before the Act.

The Commission's members, across the political and humanitarian spectrum, say that the Lobbying Act should be repealed immediately, except for the increase in registration thresholds.

This would have the effect of temporarily reverting to the previous Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) adopted in 2000.

A new law should be consulted on, with appropriate pre-legislative scrutiny in Parliament, and passed into law within two years of the formation of the next Government, says CCSDE

Lord Harries of Pentregarth commented: “Our inquiry shows that the Act has had a chilling effect on organisations speaking out on issues from climate change to homelessness.

“It is also tying some of our best loved charities and campaign groups in unnecessary red tape.

“In trying to ward off a hypothetical abuse of the electoral system the Government is inflicting unnecessary and unenforceable regulation on campaigning groups, who now play such a key role in keeping our democracy alive.”

The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (the Harries Commission) is continuing to gather evidence about the impacts of the Lobbying Act on democracy and civil society during the regulated period, and will report again before the general election.

Ekklesia is an active member of the Commission and supports its inquiry. Co-director Simon Barrow commented: " Like many others who care about freedom of expression, we are concerned about the findings of this first report on the impact of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.

"Charities, NGOs, faith and belief groups, and non-party campaigns should not be silenced on public issues at a time when large companies, like Boots, are engaged in highly publicised party-political campaigning.

"As well as hearing the views of political parties in the run-up to an election, the public should also have the right to hear the views of advocacy, charitable, policy and research organisations on the issues that they are engaged in."

"The impact of this Act so far does not appear to be good for democracy," he concluded.

* Impact of the Lobbying Act on civil society and democratic engagement (via Ekklesia): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21383

* More on the Lobbying Bill (now Act) from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill

* Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (UK Government legislation): http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/4/contents/enacted/data.htm

* More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (the Harries Commission): http://civilsocietycommission.info

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