‘I hope…NGOs and other organisations won’t hold back.’  These were the Prime Minister David Cameron’s words when he encouraged debate about Britain’s place in the European Union at the World Economic Forum a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, the sector awaits the results of the Lord Hodgson review into the impact of the Lobbying Act on charities’ campaigning activities. The concern—upheld by a roundtable hosted by NPC last week—is that charities are doing exactly the opposite: that they are self-censoring, holding back.

During the roundtable, charities and legal experts alike agreed that the Act—which requires charities to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than £20,000 on activity that ‘can reasonably be regarded’ as influencing election outcomes—was a poorly written, confusing piece of legislation that imposes an arduous burden on charities. Beyond causing confusion, the Act has had a disquieting effect, with charities saying they are ‘terrified’ of breaking the rules.

A pressurised climate

One expert reported that lots of charities are now ‘flinching from saying controversial or interesting things’. Many are also avoiding joint campaigning due to the risks of partners falling foul of the requirements. The Act requires that staff costs are included in spending calculations, leaving charities scrambling to accurately apportion the time of staff who work across multiple areas. Meanwhile, trustees are worried that, if they have to register with the Electoral Commission, the general public will think they are trying to influence election outcomes.

Perhaps the sector’s nervousness about this act reflects a wider climate in which charities feel under pressure to play it safe. From ministerial announcements about extending Freedom of Information (FoI) rules, to an onslaught of criticism from the press about fundraising and executive pay, charities are feeling attacked on all sides.

Because charities feel ‘got at’, the instinct for some has been to retreat into defensive mode, rather than seek advice from regulatory bodies about what may or may count as being in breach. Overall, there was a consensus that the Act had missed the mark. Far from its stated aim of promoting transparency, it had created an ‘echo chamber of worry’ in the charity sector.

Has the Act’s importance been overblown?

Whilst it has been suggested by many that significant improvements should be made to the Lobbying Act—one leading criticism is that the legislation is simply incomprehensible—it was also suggested that the Act’s overall importance may have been overblown. It was pointed out quite rightly that charities are already prohibited from encouraging support for a political party under existing charity law (CC9).

Furthermore, one roundtable participant argued that ‘many charities are playing it wrong’ in this new environment. Rather than constructively engaging with decision-makers, they are retreating to social media and attacking the government from a distance—using the Lobbying Act as an excuse. As a result, charities are not maximising their impact—and ultimately letting down their beneficiaries.

This may be true in some cases, but many charities in the room reported that they are responding to the Act by engaging with the new political landscape in creative and constructive ways. These ranged from empowering service users to speak for themselves, to getting on the ‘inside track’ and building strong relationships with local politicians as a springboard for action at Westminster.

Keep on campaigning

Participants agreed that there would always be a place for hard-hitting campaigns that pick a fight with the Government. The real danger is that charities panic and end up ‘flailing around’ trying to pursue multiple campaign strategies unsuccessfully. ‘Be clear on what you’re doing,’ said one attendee, ‘and why you’re doing it’.

Now more than ever, charities need to understand what they want to achieve with their campaigning, what strategy they are taking, and how they will measure their impact. The Lobbying Act may have had a ‘chilling effect’ on charities’ campaigning activities, but charities have a chance to respond in a determined manner. The stakes are high and the environment is moving fast—campaigning charities must rise to the challenge.

So, to echo the words of the Prime Minister himself ‘I would say: don’t hold back right now […] get out there…’

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