(Greenpeace UK) Wednesday 19th April, 2017, London – Greenpeace UK has been fined £30,000 by the Electoral Commission for taking a principled stand against the controversial Lobbying Act.
In the run-up to the 2015 election the environmental group refused to register as a ‘third-party campaigning organisation’ under the new law. The move was an act of civil disobedience against a law that curbs free speech and neuters the power of campaigners to hold politicians to account while doing nothing to regulate actual lobbyists.
Under the Lobbying Act civil society organisations are required to register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in the rest of the UK on so-called ‘regulated activities’. The government’s definition of these activities is so broad it can include any activity that could be interpreted as ‘political’.
The Cameron government passed the legislation in the wake of high-profile corporate lobbying scandals. But the law that hit the statute book did far more to curb charities and campaigners than the actual lobbyists it purported to rein in. The legislation was condemned by a coalition of 160 charities – including the Royal British Legion, Save the Children and the Salvation Army – as well as a cross-party coalition of politicians.
During the 2015 election campaign Greenpeace UK visited coastal communities around the UK to campaign for sustainable fishing policies to be included in the parties’ manifestos, holding events supported by MPs and candidates of all parties from UKIP to the Green Party. The current fisheries minister George Eustice was among the candidates who signed a Greenpeace pledge to help local, sustainable fishermen. Greenpeace UK also promoted an anti-fracking election pledge that was signed by MPs of all political stripes.
Greenpeace UK was happy to tell the Electoral Commission how much it had spent on the two campaigns – a figure well below the spending limit for registered organisations under the Lobbying Act. But because Greenpeace UK refused to register its election manifestos campaign with the State under what it considers an anti-free speech law, the organisation has now been fined.
The legislation was found wanting by a government-commissioned review led by Lord Hodgson. The Conservative peer criticised the Lobbying Act for failing to distinguish between activities in support of a specific political party and civil society campaigning on public interest issues which are not party political. He concluded that the law needed to be changed to reduce its scope, but the government has so far ignored the recommendation.
In response to the fine Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said:
“Sometimes legislation is just wrong and you have to stand up and say so. That’s why we decided to oppose this illiberal law in an act of civil disobedience. The Lobbying Act is a democratic car crash, it weakens democracy and curtails free speech. Now Britain is going into a second general election regulated by a law that does little to stop powerful companies exerting secret influence in the corridors of power while gagging charities and campaign groups with millions of members. If the last election is anything to go by it will have a chilling effect on groups trying to raise important issues. Whoever wins on June 8th should heed the advice of Lord Hodgson and amend it.”
The Lobbying Act – also known as ‘the charity-gagging law’ – was blamed for having a ‘chilling effect’ on charity campaigning ahead of the 2015 election. A report by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by ex-Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, found that charities had been ‘frightened’ into cutting back their advocacy work because of the act.
Another part of the same legislation has also been criticised by anti-corruption campaigners for failing to rein in corporate lobbyists. The government’s lobbying register, one of the new provisions in the act, has been branded ‘useless’ by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency for capturing just a fraction of the hundreds of professional lobbyists working in Westminster.
John Sauven added:
“If you’re a corporate lobbyist paid by a tobacco company to fight anti-smoking legislation you’ve got little to worry about, the Lobbying Act does hardly anything to restrict you. But if you’re a mass membership campaign group trying to get political parties to make strong commitments on the environment or human rights then watch out, the State can now regulate your campaign, tying you in bureaucratic knots and preventing voters from hearing about the issues that matter. That’s why many charities decided the safest thing was to sit out the last election and may do the same this time. The Lobbying Act skews politics in favour of corporations operating in the shadows.”
From Lord Hodgson’s review of the Transparency and Lobbying Act:
4.19 […] The regulation of third parties should seek to regulate only electoral campaigning, that is, activity intended to influence people’s voting choices in the run-up to or during the election campaign. It should not seek to regulate the normal campaigning activities of organisations or individuals where that could more properly be described as advocacy or political campaigning.
Recommendation 3: The statutory definition of ‘procuring electoral success’ should be narrowed so as to capture only electoral campaigning – that is activity which is clearly intended to influence voters’ choices as between candidates or parties.
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