UK charities break silence on damage caused by Lobbying Act

Members of different nongovernmental organizations march in the streets of London during the G-20 summit in 2009. Photo by: racheblue / CC BY-NC-ND

Read Devex’s post-election coverage: UK aid prospects brighten slightly in immediate election aftermath

Several major United Kingdom-based charities have come forward to detail the damage caused to their organizations by recent legislation that limits advocacy activities during election campaigns, ahead of a snap election on Thursday.

Designed to curb corporate lobbying and prevent wealthy individuals from influencing the outcome of elections, the Lobbying Act 2014 restricts organizations from engaging in “activities that could reasonably be perceived as being intended to influence an election.”

The ambiguous legislation — which has so far been tested only once, at the general election in 2015 — has resulted in many aid and advocacy organizations limiting their activities and withdrawing from public discourse in the run-up to the election on June 8.

Now, organizations say they have struggled to afford the legal advice needed to comply with the regulations, and in some cases have halted routine activities as a precaution since the election was unexpectedly announced in April.

UK aid organizations fall silent ahead of the election

Some NGOs in the United Kingdom are clamming up ahead of the June 8 snap election, concerned about unwittingly violating ambiguous regulations on election campaigning.

Under the Lobbying Act, charities must either register as a campaigning organization with the Electoral Commission — an independent body that oversees U.K. elections — or must restrict spending on activities that could be perceived as political to less than 20,000 British pounds ($25,845) for the duration of the campaign period — including staff pay. Many NGOs do not want to register as campaigning organizations to avoid politicizing their image. Greenpeace was fined 30,000 pounds ($39,000) for failing to do so at the last election.

Representatives from Global Citizen, a European Union-focused advocacy group; Christian Aid, an international development implementer; and others are calling for the rules to be adjusted to take into account activities unrelated to the election.

Tom Viita, head of advocacy at Christian Aid, said in a press statement that the regulations have disrupted the charity’s annual Christian Aid Week, which involves fundraising events and door-to-door collections.

“As a fixture in our calendar, every May for 60 years, Christian Aid Week has seen many elections and governments come and go. The Lobbying Act is so badly drafted it created a huge amount of unnecessary red tape for us to prove that our supporter activities during Christian Aid Week should not be defined as election activity,” said Viita.

“During the week, tens of thousands of people knock on doors and distribute leaflets — not for political parties but for Christian Aid to help the world’s poorest people through fundraising and campaigning,” he said.

The act requires charities to report on activities that could “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters” up to a year in advance of an election. The law does not account for snap elections, meaning organizations must now retroactively submit any activities that could have been deemed political in the last year — for example, debates or advocacy around the U.K.’s refugee policy.

“That is an intolerable burden for a charity that has been speaking out for justice for over seven decades, and amounts to an attack on democracy,” Viita said.

Others have pointed to inadequate advice from the Electoral Commission in the face of the snap election.

"Global Citizen's resources have been diverted from our core mission ... to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act.”

— Global Citizen

In a study compiled by Bond, the U.K. NGO network, environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth said that: “The Electoral Commission have tried hard to be helpful, but from some of our experiences and those of others it seems that several staff may have been parachuted into the advice team at short notice when the election was called, and did not know the regulations well enough.”

“This has caused confusion at best, and at worst is highly likely to have added to the ‘chilling effect’ on charity campaigning which the Lobbying Act has brought about.”

The Electoral Commission’s current guidance advises organizations to go ahead with “routine activities,” but both Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid felt it necessary to report them.

All forms of outreach — including tweets from personal accounts — must be weighed as potentially carrying a political message. According to a case study from Christian Aid, supporters and staff “were very nervous about what they could and couldn’t do and how that might accidentally get the charity into trouble.”

For an organization such as Global Citizen, which works to raise awareness of the barriers faced by the world’s poorest, political campaigns are an opportunity to engage young people on the issues at stake. The organization says the confusion imposed by the Lobbying Act has been a drain on finances.

"Global Citizen's resources have been diverted from our core mission — to build a movement of people to help tackle poverty, gender inequality and climate change — to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act,” it reported.

“It is important that the government follow a policy of sectoral equity ... so that civil society organisations are able to operate in an environment at least as favourable as the one provided for businesses.”

— Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur on freedom of assembly

“We have been gagged and our activities curtailed. The fact that we have had to assess activities carried out before we even knew an election would be called is frankly indefensible,” the statement said.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly Maina Kiai issued a report on the U.K. this week that criticized the Lobbying Act for being largely ineffective in its mission to curb lobbyists, as well as causing undue strain on the aid sector.

“Part 1 of the act does not restrict the activities of in-house lobbyists, who enjoy the most influence in the U.K. government by far, and who overwhelmingly work for business interests,” Kiai said in a statement. “It is important that the government follow a policy of sectoral equity in its treatment of businesses and associations, so that civil society organisations are able to operate in an environment at least as favourable as the one provided for businesses.”

The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party have all committed to reforming the Lobbying Act, while the incumbent Conservative Party and current government is yet to release its verdict or hold a parliamentary debate on a report submitted last year that recommended changes to the law.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.