Report Shines Light on The ‘Chilling Reality’ of UK Lobbying Act
8 June 2018 at 4:30 pm
The UK Lobbying Act has concretely affected charities and voluntary organisations, and has seen people’s voices go missing from the political debate, a new report has shown.
The Sheila McKechnie Foundation, the UK’s leading provider of training and support to those seeking to bring about positive social change, set out to discover whether the Lobbying Act was affecting charity and voluntary organisations’ ability to campaign.
The report, The Chilling Reality: How the Lobbying Act is Affecting Charity and Voluntary Sector Campaigning in the UK, found while the act was presented as an effort to bring transparency to the activities of commercial lobbyists, it was charities that were feeling the “chilling effect”.
Sheila McKechnie Foundation chief executive Sue Tibballs OBE said by reducing civil society’s ability to campaign effectively, the act did not deliver public benefit overall.
“What little transparency we gain is far outweighed by the loss of so many voices of experience from our political debate,” Tibballs said.
“We found that many are now less inclined to tackle politically challenging issues publicly.
“Doing so risks meeting both the ‘purpose test’ and ‘public test’ of the act, which requires registration with the Electoral Commission.”
In particular, the report focuses on Part Two of the three-part Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (commonly called “the Lobbying Act”), which regulates the expenditure that a non-party campaigning organisation must declare to the Electoral Commission during the period leading up an election.
While the act does not, in itself, ban or restrict any types of activity already permitted under law or charity regulation, it requires all organisations that spend more than £20,000 (A$ 35,242) in England or £10,000 (A$17,621) in Wales on regulated campaigning in the year prior to an election to register with the Electoral Commission.
The legislation has come under fire from those in the charity sector for being ambiguous.
But in 2017 the government decided not to introduce reforms to the act proposed by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, whom the government had commissioned to review the legislation.
In this latest report, Tibballs questioned whether the transparency that the act promised was coming at “too high a price”.
“The result is more cautious, less responsive campaigning, and those who lose out are the people directly affected by the issues,” she said.
“It is their voices, ultimately, that are being silenced.”
According to the report the Lobbying Act is just one aspect, “albeit a totemic one”, of a bigger and more complex picture.
It found the interplay between government policies, media attitudes and shifting public opinion had “increased hostility to the idea that charities and voluntary organisations should speak out on issues that affect the people they serve”.
“Restrictions on how funding, both public and private, may be used further reduces their ability to contribute to public debate,” the report said.
With respect to the Lobbying Act, the latest report found the added administrative burden had reduced the capacity of organisations to represent issues affecting their beneficiaries and enable supporters to engage in political debate.
It quoted The Salvation Army saying: “The impact isn’t on us, per se, but the people we represent. People not being able to engage in the political debate.”
The report found the act also made it harder for charities to pursue their mission, with 51 per cent of respondents saying it had affected their ability to achieve their organisational mission or vision.
Organisations working on politically sensitive or controversial issues, like welfare, disability, and immigration, saw it as higher risk.
One third of survey respondents reported the act had had a negative effect on coalition building, reflecting the findings of other reviews.
The evidence suggested that it also reduced the ability of charities and voluntary organisations to support local democratic engagement, with larger organisations struggling to provide a sufficiently straightforward summary of the act for local staff to plan with confidence; and smaller organisations and churches, who depend on collaboration to build their capacity, fearful of coalition rules.
As a result of the act, 34 per cent of respondents said they were less agile or responsive and 36 per cent reported slower decision-making.
It was found to discourage a proportionate approach to risk management.
Those who wished to avoid uncertainty, or the extra costs of registration, were forced to step a “very long way back from any potentially challengeable activity”.
A total of 42 per cent of respondents said they had avoided activity where they were uncertain whether it came within the scope of the act, 35 per cent said they had avoided issues seen as too politically “live” and 36 per cent said they had changed their language or tone.
According to the report, “there is a widespread concern that this caution may have made communications less effective overall”.
The report also found the act had diverted significant time and money away from core work and towards compliance, and that whether or not organisations were registered with the Electoral Commission, “compliance has a cost”.
Tibballs said it was important that charity and political leaders work together to re-open civil society space.
“In the context of shrinking spaces around the world, the UN Rapporteur has already warned of increasing pressure on UK civil society,” she said.
“The UK is keen to be a global leader in human rights and good governance. To do so, it needs to keep its own house in order.
“Revisiting the consequences of the Lobbying Act, in combination with the other factors we have identified, will be an essential step.”