24 January 2014
Lobbying Bill continues to make its way through parliament as the government
rejected several key amendments made in the House of Lords. The House of Lords
will now decide whether to reinstate the amendments and return the bill to the
House of Commons, or accept the Common's decision and the bill will pass into
law in its current state.
Since its first publication last summer the Lobbying Bill, or the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill to give it its full title, has attracted an unprecedented range of criticism. It has seen Christians joining with the National Secular Society, and the Countryside Alliance with the League Against Cruel Sports, to push for major amendments, and to make a complex and unworkable bill slightly more tolerable.
The Bill begun life as an attempt to increase the regulation of lobbyists, but is considered likely to cover only a very small percentage of lobbyists. Most attention, however, has focussed on Part 2 of the bill which addresses non-party campaigning and the likely impact it would have on charities and other campaign groups in the run up to an election. Organisations which engage in activity that seeks to promote or procure the electoral success of particular parties or candidates have to be registered as third party campaigners and are regulated by the Electoral Commission.
Charities are additionally regulated by the Charity Commission and as such are already restricted in the manner in which they can engage in political campaigning. The initial proposals would have widened the law and created such a high level of uncertainty that it could prevent charitable and campaign organisations from any political activity in the year preceding an election.
The government have accepted some important amendments to narrow the range of
activity which would require an organisation to be registered as a third party
organisation, and increased the spending threshold at which organisations which
do engage in applicable activity have to register. These changes are welcome
and make the bill more workable and less of a threat to churches and charities.
However, they still leave many problems unsolved, and in the most recent
parliamentary debate the government rejected further amendments the Lords
adopted which would have exempted staff costs (which is the case in political
party expenditure) and amended constituency spending limits which were widely
For most charities the new law will not affect them, even if they do engage in political campaigning as long as they are not engaging in activity which could be reasonably considered to promote or disadvantage a particular party or candidate. There are a number of areas where concern remains and we will be seeking clarification as to how it applies to churches as the bill passes into law.
Firstly, before elections churches are probably the most common venue for hustings events where the public can ask questions of the candidates seeking to represent them. By not inviting all the candidates, or deliberately excluding a particular party, as many churches did regarding the BNP in 2010, are churches acting in a way that requires them to register as a third party? We do not think this should, and charity guidelines suggest participation can be restricted if made on objective grounds, or applies to parties which might alienate the charities supporters or users. This guidance will be updated if the bill becomes law.
Secondly, the bill refers to communications with members and supporters which are exempted from the spending restrictions, while public rallies are excluded. For churches this is particularly difficult because many who attend services may not be members, if the church has a formal membership, or have any formal financial or subscription link to the church which would categorise them as a supporter. How church services, hustings and other events organised by churches are categorised requires urgent clarification.
Finally, for churches that encourage participation in services from members of the congregation there remains uncertainty as to how the actions of the organisation are differentiated from the actions of a member of the congregation within the context of a service or event. For example, if someone stands up and speaks during a service and advocates particular policy or partisan preferences is that position the position of the organisation or the individual? For churches with less formal leadership structures it could be difficult to tell if someone is speaking on behalf of the church, and therefore decide whether the church should be regulated on that basis.
Assuming the bill passes into law the Alliance will continue to work alongside other organisations and charities to ensure that guidelines are produced to ensure campaigning is not unduly restricted and churches continue to be free to undertake vital political engagement in the run up to the next election.