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Don’t all rush at once

After widespread warnings of the death of charity campaigning, a grand total of four charities have decided to register with the Electoral Commission, the regulator responsible for implementing the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Unions Act 2014.

Popularly known as the ‘Lobbying Act’ (or, less favourably, the ‘gagging act’), the first ‘regulated period’ under these new regulations came into force last month, requiring charities that intend to spend more than £20,000 campaigning on political issues in the run up to the 2015 General Election to register by the 19 September.

Given the political capital expended on these regulations—and the alarm sounded by many in the sector who felt charities would be gagged as a result—NPC was interested to see how many charities have bitten the bullet.

The Electoral Commission database shows only Stonewall*, the Woodland Trust, League Against Cruel Sports and Heart UK have decided to follow the flowchart and register—all charities with a clear mandate to campaign in pursuit of their objectives.

But can this really be the sum total of charities with a campaigning stake in the general election? While gay rights, trees, foxes and cholesterol may figure on the political agenda in the next six months, it seems a stretch to think they will be electorally decisive issues in May.

More significant, perhaps, is who doesn’t appear on the register. No think tanks on either the left or right of the political spectrum. None of the great campaigning charities who drew the ire of Ministers this year—Oxfam, or Save the Children. NCVO went public with their decision not to register. At NPC we are still deciding whether or not it will be necessary to register as an N.P.C. (non-party campaigner, of course). 38 Degrees have registered, but they are a private company—a campaigning platform and not a charity in their own right.

Plenty of charities, it seems, have simply decided that the new rules do not apply to them.

If the response of the voluntary sector has been equivocal, the Electoral Commission has been equally wary. In their briefing for parliament ahead of the second reading of the act, the regulator warned—with a talent for understatement—that the act raised ‘significant issues of workability’. Their published guidance makes a decent fist of helping charities navigate the decision whether or not to register, but the real test will come when the regulator must enforce the rules.

Matters seem more likely to come unstuck around this issue of implementation. A mini-storm has already erupted over suggestions that charity employees’ social media activity will be monitored for political activity in the run up to the election. When so few charities have registered, will the Electoral Commission truly be expected to keep a running tally on which of the 160,996 other charities are approaching the £20,000 limit? How can a regulator with a team of only seven enforcement staff hope to mount a monitoring operation on par with GCHQ? They can’t, and I suspect they never intended to.

What will be harder to judge is whether the furore that accompanied its introduction will have a more insidious impact on the sector’s culture and attitudes to campaigning. Will charities shy away from large-scale public campaigns in future, for fear of falling foul of the Electoral Commission’s regulations? Self-censorship is already a thorny issue where charities are in receipt of grants from government (or, indeed, corporations).

The lessons for charities in navigating these questions, perhaps, is to return to first principles: focus on the mission. If a campaign is the most effective way of securing change, charity law is clear: it is absolutely legitimate. Regardless of who takes up residence in 10 Downing Street next May, we hope charities will have the courage of their convictions, and continue to advocate for those with the greatest need.

* in the spirit of full transparency, my former employer.

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