LONDON — The United Kingdom Cabinet Office announced Friday it would make no changes to the 2014 Lobbying Act, a piece of legislation designed to prevent corporate lobbying, but which also outlines strict but vague rules against charity advocacy in the period before elections.
The Lobbying Act requires that charities either restrict spending on activities that could be perceived as political to less than 20,000 British pounds ($25,845) — including staff pay — for the duration of a campaign period; or else register as campaigning organizations with the Electoral Commission, an independent body that oversees U.K. elections. U.K. charities complain that the law’s guidance does not clearly define what qualifies as “political activity,” forcing them to shut down their advocacy work during election periods. At least one charity — Greenpeace — has previously been fined for falling foul of the rules.
The act had been under consideration for reform following a review led by Lord Robin Hodgson, a Conservative peer previously responsible for a review of the Charities Act 2006. His recommended reforms, compiled and presented to the government in March 2016, sought clarification around what qualifies as “political activity” and requested new guidelines to allow for snap elections.
However, the Cabinet Office decision announced on Friday amounts to an indefinite suspension on any progress toward the recommended reforms, although they could be revived by a future government.
In an email to Devex, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The rules on third party campaigning in elections ensures that activity is transparent and prevents any individual, company or organization exerting undue influence in terms of an election outcome.”
“We recognise and value the role that charities play in our society and are keen to work with voluntary bodies to ensure the rules are well understood.”
Tamsyn Barton, head of Bond for International Development, said it was “a terrible day for British democracy.”
“How are charities supposed to speak up for the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society, both here and globally, when they are at risk of being penalized by the Lobbying Act?” she asked.
The decision came as a surprise to many in the aid community, particularly because the recommendations had been accepted by the Charity Commission, the Lobbying Act’s implementing body, and had been supported by the United Nations.
Maina Kiai, U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of assembly, issued a U.K. country report in June that criticized the act for being largely ineffective in its mission to curb corporate 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 in June. “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.”
Making the work of charities more complex, the Lobbying Act doesn’t regulate for snap elections, meaning that if an unexpected election is called, charities must retroactively account for and report potentially political activities — including social media messaging — for one year prior to the date of the vote.
“What happens when you have an unexpected general election? How can a charity deal with that if they didn’t know a general election was going to happen, and the regulatory period began June 9, 2016?” Lord Hodgson told Devex in a phone interview ahead of the U.K.’s snap election earlier this year.
“I do hope very much that the Electoral Commission, who accepted my recommendations too, will bear in mind the particular position charities find themselves in when we have an election out of the blue,” he said at the time.
For many smaller charities, the Lobbying Act also creates a financial conundrum: as budgets tighten, they must either seek expensive legal advice in order to stay on top of the law, or suspend some or most advocacy activities to play it safe.
In a report released by Bond in June, charities including Global Citizen offered testimony about the financial squeeze caused by the act.
"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,” a statement included in the report said.
“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 added.
On August 25, 120 charity officials signed and sent a letter to Tracey Crouch, the incoming parliamentary under secretary of state for sport and civil society, stressing the need to re-examine the law and its role in silencing charities ahead of the past two elections.
Lord Hodgson offered some comfort when asked in June how charities should proceed if his recommendations were rejected. He explained it is largely up to the Electoral Commission — which is made up of “reasonable people,” he said — to apply the law.
“I think there is the council of despair which some charities adopt. The reality is that you are entitled to lobby in pursuance of your public benefit objectives,” he said.
“I personally believe that if you were a charity and you were spending whatever your business-as-usual budget is, and you continue to use that during the election period, I doubt if the Electoral Commission will go after you,” Hodgson said.