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The Lobbying Act: A Beginner's Guide

2 December 2014

The Lobbying Act: A Beginner’s Guide

What does the Lobbying Act mean for you?

There are three parts to the Lobbying Act. Part One created a register of consultant lobbyists, Part Two updates the legal framework for non-party campaigners, which regulates the amount of spending by third parties in the run up to an election, and Part Three relates to how trade unions must administer their membership lists.

The bit that caused the biggest fuss was Part Two. It requires all ‘non-party campaigners’ who spend over a certain amount on election material and regulated activities (from events, to rallies, to tweets) to register with the Electoral Commission. An organisation will have to register as a ‘non-party campaigner’ if they spend over £20,000 in England (or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) during an election period, which this year began on 19 September, on activity that can reasonably be regarded as an attempt to influence someone to vote for or against a candidate or candidates. If you’re unsure whether your organisation needs to register, read the guidance and take a look at our explanation of why NCVO decided not to register.

A threat to campaigning?

The Lobbying Act provoked a significant backlash because of the threat it could pose to campaigning by charities. Originally the Bill proposed lower registration thresholds and spending limits, plus differentiated constituency spending limits and a much longer list of what constitutes regulated activity. In these respects the Act that was finally passed, after much lobbying by NCVO and others, is much improved from the initial Bill – but the definition of ‘controlled expenditure’ is still a problem. But charities can’t express party political views, right? Right. But the problem comes where campaigning on an issue could be regarded as having the effect of encouraging people to vote a certain way, should a particular party also take that issue up.

This continues to be one of the most problematic aspects of the law and of the Electoral Commission’s interpretation, and will no doubt cause many headaches for charities wishing to campaign and raise awareness on the causes that matter to them. Charities are concerned about how to carry on with their campaigning in a way that doesn’t bring them within the scope of the rules. The rules on controlled expenditure state that campaigning on an issue that is politically divisive (such as immigration or welfare cuts) could be seen as attempting to influence support for a particular party or candidate – even if the charity has been campaigning on it for years. Many campaigners feel that there is a fundamental injustice in having to comply with rules and deal with the burden of registering, just because their campaign has been effective and received the endorsement and support of one or more political parties.

Chill in the air

A second concern is that the guidance produced by the Electoral Commission (a lengthy 22 documents) is not as clear as many charities would like it to be, and this means that they won’t get a definitive answer to their questions and concerns. There’s an extent to which this is preferable to rigid rules, as the alternative would be a regulator which had to pre-approve every campaign. But one possible result of the uncertainty surrounding the new rules is a ‘chilling effect’, whereby charities prefer not to take risks and instead reduce their campaigning activity for fear of falling foul of the new regulations. We’ve argued that the biggest danger now is self-censorship among fearful charities, rather than the actual rules.

Transparency is key

Despite campaigning strongly against many of the original, more worrying aspects of the Lobbying Bill, NCVO has long been of the view that the regulation of lobbying needs a thorough review. We think transparency is important, so we are in favour of introducing a universal register of lobbyists that would cover all professional lobbyists, including those working within charities. What the Act delivered, as most in public affairs will have noticed, fell far short of this.

Join the debate

NCVO hosts a Public Affairs Network for staff at member organisations who work in policy, parliamentary affairs and external relations. We hold events roughly every quarter for members to catch up on the latest developments in the voluntary sector and network with their colleagues. Last week we hosted an event with DeHavilland and heard from Rob Hutton, politics editor at Bloomberg, about his new book on spin and his predictions for the election. If you’re interested in joining the group, contact Helen Raftery (helen.raftery@ncvo.org.uk), or find out more about NCVO membership. 

Helen Raftery
Helen Raftery
External Relations Trainee

Helen Raftery joined NCVO in June as a Trainee External Relations Officer, working in media and parliamentary relations. She also helps to co-ordinate NCVO’s Public Affairs Network.