(ROWAN POPPLEWELL on Bond) It hasn’t been easy to convince decision makers that the Lobbying Act is a problem. The government continues to claim that the act does not restrict charity campaigning in response to calls for reform. However, new research published by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation shows that this position is untenable. It is further evidence that the Lobbying Act is undemocratic and must be reformed.
Here are six things the report tells us about how the Lobbying Act really impacts campaigners and limits democratic engagement in the UK.
- It prevents people from participating in public and political debate. The research shows that the administrative burden that the act places on organisations means that they spend less time campaigning. It reduces their capacity to represent issues affecting the people that they work with and they’re less able to encourage supporters to engage in public and political debate. These people are often among the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society, and their voices and views are lost.
- It silences small as well as large charities. Rules on joint campaigning are having a disproportionate impact on smaller organisations, who are reluctant to work in coalition with larger organisations in case they are forced to register with the Electoral Commission. As one campaigner puts it, “small charities have lost the opportunity to amplify their voices. Losing the opportunity to create movements of shared interest, especially with people who have lived experience, means that their voices are not being heard”.
- It’s harder for charities to achieve their mission, especially those working on politically sensitive issues. An astonishing 51% of survey respondents said that the Lobbying Act has affected their ability to achieve their organisational mission. This figure was even higher among campaigners who work on politically sensitive or controversial issues. Political divisions over welfare, disability and immigration policies mean that organisations that are committed to speaking out on these issues see it as higher risk and feel more cautious about the act.
- It forces charities to change how they campaign. A massive 68% of charities in the survey have changed how they campaign following the introduction of the Lobbying Act. 35% of campaigners said that they had avoided issues seen as too politically “live”, and 36% reported that they had watered down the language or tone of their communications. 34% of respondents said that the Act made them less agile and responsive, while 36% said that it had slowed down their decision making. This results in “meeker, blander, less responsive campaigning” and “those who lose out are the people directly affected by the issues, who may see slower progress or feel less able to make their voices and experiences heard in the democratic process”.
- The Lobbying Act is ambiguous, confusing and silences campaigners through creating uncertainty. 43% of respondents said that they had adapted their campaigning to avoid activity that they are uncertain falls within the scope of the act. Many of these campaigners said that they still found it confusing even after they had consulted the Electoral Commission guidance and sought legal advice. And as the report points out, these are people for whom interpreting legislation is a key campaigning skill. Despite this expertise and the advice received, campaigners are still struggling to get to grips with the rules, especially complex parts such as “the purpose test”.
- Funding conditions, attitudes of politicians, and the media also contribute to the “chilling effect”. Almost half of respondents said that their relationship with funders and donors also affected their ability to campaign, while 45% pointed to funding conditions such as clauses in grant agreements. Attitudes of politicians and the media also affected campaigning (34% and 31% respectively). The report concludes that “organisations are not affected by the Lobbying Act in isolation, but as part of a steady flow of changing attitudes and policy trends” which have created “an atmosphere in which organisations feel that their legitimacy is threatened”.
What do these findings mean for campaigners, regulators and government ministers?
First, this research shines a light on the wider impacts and implications of the Lobbying Act. We often focus on how the legislation affects charities, but the real impact is on the voices of the people they work with and represent. It is impossible to argue that the legislation is in the public interest.
While transparency is important, the impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised is too great. By tying charities in administrative knots and making it harder for them to represent issues that concern those they work with, the voices of these people are being excluded from the democratic process.
Second, it is implausible to argue that the Lobbying Act is not a problem, and that charities just need to understand it better. Yes, the act is vague and confusing and some better guidance would help. But many of the campaigners that participated in this study have taken legal advice and curtailed their activities as a result.
I have also personally met with several lawyers and legal experts who say they find the legislation to be ambiguous. This suggests that the issue lies with the act itself, and that more and better guidance will not resolve the issue.