Restrictive regulation of charity campaigning debated by Lords

14 September 2018

This week the House of Lords debated Part II of the Transparency of Lobbying, Third Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, more commonly known as the Lobbying Act or “gagging law”. 

Passed into law in 2014, the act intended to make the process of influencing government policy more transparent. However, in practice, the legislation makes it harder for charities and NGOs to campaign on their core issues in the run up to elections. Their voices are restricted from engaging in political debates and excluded from the UK’s democratic processes. 

In 2016, a government-commissioned review of the act by a Conservative peer, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, found that the act failed to get the balance right. He proposed several reforms, which were endorsed by the UK voluntary sector, and the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities. However, in September 2017, the Cabinet Office announced that it would not implement Lord Hodgson’s recommendations.  

Highlights from the Lords’ debate

This week’s debate, brought to the House of Lords by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, looked to raise this issue once again and to highlight the “chilling” effect the legislation has had on the charity sectors campaigning on core issues central to their charitable aims. 

Although there was broad agreement across the house that there had to be some sort of regulation for charities, the Labour peer, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, raised this issue that the act had gone “too far”. He added that although campaigning can sometimes be “irritating” for politicians, it shouldn’t be stopped, as it plays an important role in ensuring a holistic debate around an issue. 

Many Lords highlighted the need for a strong civil society voice that contributes to a vibrant democratic society. However, Conservative peer Lord Suri believed that charities need to stick to their charitable aims and not stray beyond their remit. He conceded that the wording used in the legislation can be unclear and confusing, and is a problem for smaller charities, but pointed to declining public trust in charities as a reason for why strong regulation should be in place. 

This was also highlighted by the Government Minister, Lord Young of Cookham, who argued that that the rules exist to give the public more confidence in charities, and without them the political system would be open to “unknown groups spending an unknown amount of money.”

Undemocratic and restrictive 

Bond supports the call for charities to be transparent with their campaigning spend during elections. However, the Lobbying Act goes too far. 

Earlier this year, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation released a report (PDF) which found that 68% of charities have changed their campaigning as a result of the act. 51% also said it had affected their ability to achieve their mission. 

But perhaps most shockingly, the report found that those who really lose out are the vulnerable and marginalised people that charities work with and support, whose voices have gone missing from the political debate.

As we’ve said before, the act’s impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised is too great. By stifling charities with administrative burdens and making it harder for them to speak out on important issues, the voices of civil society are being excluded from the democratic process. 

Join the Bond Operating Environment Group to help us combat the Lobbying Act and other operating environment challenges for charities and NGOs in the UK.