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by GK Strategy 1st June, 2017
3 min read

A strong and stable society needs lobbying, it’s time to review the Act

In an election campaign filled with noise, one group has been surprisingly quiet – charities.

Yet with much of the campaign focused on big social policy issues; health and social care, housing and welfare it is perhaps more surprising still.

However, the lack of campaigning does not stem from a lack of things to say, it stems from the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, more commonly referred to as the ‘Lobbying Act’ or amongst third party campaigners, the ‘Gagging Act’.

On the face of it, the Act was brought in to clean up politics as David Cameron had repeatedly identified lobbying as likely to cause ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’ and an issue that had ‘tainted our politics for too long’.

Indeed, there has been a raft of lobbying scandals over the years, though very few of them recently have actually involved any lobbyists, usually featuring an undercover journalist sting on a parliamentarian.

The legislation also gave the government a chance to tackle two other issues bothering the coalition partners of the time; for the Tories a chance to reform the financial support of the Labour Party from the Trade Unions, and for the Lib Dems the chance to limit the ability of the NUS to campaign on their tuition fees U-turn.

So was born an Act in three parts.

The unions and the lobbying industry both raised concerns about the legislation, its clarity and its impact, but it was the Third Sector who were most up in arms.

Under Part 2 of the Act, which covers “Non-Party campaigning etc.”, a ‘non-party campaigner’ must register with the electoral commission if they plan to spend over £20,000 in England or £10,000 in any part of the UK on regulated campaign activity during a regulated period, such as a general election. Most controversially of all, these limits include staff time so places significant restrictions on the ability of campaigning organisations to act.

Many charities and NGOs have campaigning as one of their core functions, and have an integral role in the democratic process with a duty to represent the ‘common interest’.  By virtue of working with often underrepresented communities, they have unique insight into the deficiencies of current and proposed policies and the causes of social ills, and are therefore are well placed to campaign on their behalf.

The Act determined the regulated period as 12 months which would restrict “activities include media events, the production of election materials and canvassing that can “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates, including political parties or categories of candidates who support or do not support particular policies or issues”.

Putting aside the significant restrictions this places on the voice of the UK’s Third Sector,  the legislation was designed to sit alongside the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, so when and where the regulated period began should have been fairly clear.

But then Theresa May called a snap election (and has pledged to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in her manifesto) and now the Electoral Commission regulated period has retrospectively come into force in June last year, leaving many organisations fearing they could face fines or, in the extreme, criminal action. Indeed, Greenpeace, who were the first organisation to be fined under the Act for not registering as a third party campaigning organisation in the 2015 election, have said their punishment has been a deterrent for other civil society groups to campaign this year.

This is a worrying development, not only for this election, but for the health of our democracy.

Stakeholders of all varieties form a vital part of a democratic system, helping lawmakers understand complex issues and draft better policy. Indeed, it is recognised as so important that it is enshrined in the final clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

With no Fixed Term Parliament Act and a government able to call an election at any point, this fundamental part of the system could be restricted forever, to the detriment of everyone – particularly those underrepresented communities.

The Harries report, launched by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, found that the Lobbying Act had a “chilling effect” on charity campaigning during the 2015 general election.

Considering a sizeable Tory majority is a probable outcome of the upcoming election, there is an even more important role for political debate from all sides to act as a check and balance on the government, to raise awareness of issues and to inform better policy making.

As lobbyists ourselves, we welcome regulation and transparency – it is at the core of what a modern and professional industry should be about and only bad practitioners should have anything to fear from it.

The breadth and variety of campaign groups in our society is one of its greatest assets and the cornerstone of a free, liberal and open society. Restricting the voices of any sector leaves us all poorer as a result.

Indeed, the Lobbying Act is itself an example of what happens when policy is made without listening properly to stakeholders, it would be wise for it to be reviewed.

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