Why the Lobbying Act must be changed
Yet another election is over.
The Conservatives have scraped together a government – in partnership with the DUP - and now charities and community and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK will be trying to plan for the coming months and years.
There is plenty for the third sector to chew over. Demand for services is not going away, there is bound to be some civic remodelling, particularly in areas of flux like adult social care, but that does not mean funding will flow easily.
One issue that does not cost money, however, and must be addressed is the clumsy, questionable and perhaps mendacious Lobbying Act 2014.
Billed as legislation that would curtail the influence of big money on elections, particularly from corporations, the most onerous effects instead fell on the third sector.
In Northern Ireland these are felt particularly keenly because organisations come under these effects before both Assembly and Westminster elections – which are all too frequent given our political instability.
And what is being lost from public debate is a huge amount of knowledge and expertise from organisations, big and small, who deal daily with some of the toughest problems we face as local communities and society as a whole.
Scope spoke with Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director for Amnesty International – one of over 50 charities which this week wrote to UK political parties describing the “chilling” effect the Lobbying Act has had on democracy, including forcing many to change their ke: messages.
Mr Corrigan said: “Well of course across the voluntary and community sector there is that body of expertise that doesn’t exist in the private sector or in government - and those voices need to be heard. That expertise needs to be shared in order to ensure better governance.
“Government, on the one hand, is interested in consultation with the community sector, yet when we want to have voices heard in a crucial period, the run up to elections, then we find it is restricted.”
Geoff Nuttall, NICVA’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, said the act has put third sector organisations on the back foot, and made them wary about being candid – and called into question whether the act was necessary at all, given already-established legislation.
“If you are already following pre-existing charity law then you are required to be non-party political, so the act seems to have just add an extra layer to that.
“In fact, it is open to question whether organisations have been affected to a greater extent by the act itself, directly, or more by the way it leaves things open to question. Those were the concerns at the time the act was passed - that it might unnecessarily deter people from perfectly valid campaigning and work.”
Mr Corrigan echoed this view, saying that Amnesty is a large enough organisation to be able to spend the time to ensure compliance with the extra red tape and conditions placed on communications – but that other organisations might not be so fortunate and, regardless, it still diverted resources away from the core mission of third sector organisations.
“I really know of no organisations in the NGO sector who would seek to influence anyone’s vote; what they want to ensure is that whoever is in power makes sensible decisions for the community at large.
“The act gives us pause; this week when we were preparing a response to Theresa May’s statement that she was thinking about ripping up human rights laws in the UK, we had to consider the implications, and ask if we could say what we wanted to say.
“We, as the biggest human rights organisation in the UK, had to pause and wonder what we were able to say in response to the PM threatening the human rights framework in the UK, which is something I would expect to see in a country like Turkey and not in the UK.
“What that means is there a distraction of resources away from Human Rights work and into compliance work, for an act supposedly designed to rein in undue corporate influence.”
He said he was not an expert on whether the act, for all its faults, had successfully pursued what were its apparent objectives – but noted several reports about a lack of transparency in donations and the effect of major donors on recent polls, including the Brexit referendum.
Further into absurdity
Unfortunately, the act is not simply a case of providing a few hoops that charities have to jump through before publicising their thoughts and views.
As per the above, some significant organisations felt they had to change their key messages during the legislated pre-election period – which, as it stands, lasts for twelve months. Then there are the financial restrictions put in place on campaigning.
Further to that, however, is the bizarre assertion that if a group of organisations form a united front on a given issue, then the money spent on anything defined as campaigning by one of them counts against the allocation for each of them individually.
Mr Corrigan said this had further added to the chilling effect of the act, by discouraging partnerships, which he said created a Catch-22 situation and was certainly one of the areas that needs to be addressed.
Then there is the fact that the 12-month restrictions are retroactive – meaning that, in the case of yesterday’s snap election, charities would be liable for breaches since June 9 last year despite the poll only being announced a few weeks ago.
“This is a classic case of the law is an ass. Perhaps, if we are being charitable, this was an unintended consequence.
“Nobody, not even the Prime Minister, knew an election was coming a year ago. She wasn’t even the Prime Minister then. Yet charities are supposedly able to have a crystal ball to divine the future, know elections will be called and to regulate their campaigning activities accordingly. It’s an absurdity.
“One of the things we are calling for is to reduce the regulated period from one year to four months, which would not even be sufficient in this case but it would go some way to helping generally.
“This is of particular relevance to Northern Ireland. If you look at our very recent history, we have been having election after election, we are almost constantly in campaign mode. Who is to say when the next election will be?
“You are talking about an almost ever-present set of legal restrictions on the voices in the charity sector, even more so than in other devolved regions like Scotland and Wales, because of our political instability.”
In their letter to party chiefs, the charity CEOs asked for three specific overhauls as a matter of urgency: implementing the recommendations of the Hodgson review into the act; reform the rules about organisations working together; and reducing the regulated period from one year to four months.
Those requests are really the bare minimum to remove some of the most problematic aspects of the Act. They truly are a matter of urgency.
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