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10 December 2013

Alliance joins call for government to stop gagging the poor

Alliance joins call for government to stop gagging the poor

Over a hundred charities and civil society organisations have called on the government to make significant changes to the Lobbying Bill when it is next considered by the House of Lords next week.

As the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement issued their second report, the Evangelical Alliance joined the call for the bill to be amended. The report includes a package of measures aimed at removing unintended consequences from the law as currently drafted, and prevents it from inhibiting charities, churches and other civil society bodies from campaigning ahead of elections.

Charities and faith groups which often campaign on behalf of those who are poorest, most vulnerable and frequently disenfranchised from the political process told the government to "stop gagging the poor". Charities are already heavily regulated in how they operate political campaigns and are not allowed to act in a way that has the intent of benefitting a particular party or candidate.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration bill has been widely criticised for failing to do what it initially set out to do – better regulate corporate lobbying – and do a lot it purported not to intend. It has been suggested less than five per cent of lobbyists would be required to register under the new proposals, but as much as 70 per cent of charity campaigning could be affected.

The Commission developed six tests which would need to be met to judge good regulation of campaigning activity from charities and civil society organisations. These include the need to prevent undue influence on elections and ensure transparency of those engaged in activity that could influence the election. Such a goal must also be achieved in a way that is clear, based on a demonstrable need, and is practical for non-party campaigning groups to implement. The government's proposals were found to fail each and every one of the six tests.

The report, released ahead of the resumption next week of the committee stage in the House of Lords, makes clear that problems about the regulation about non-party campaigning are not restricted to the inadequacies of the current proposals but these exacerbate existing flaws with legislation passed in 2000. Together the two pieces of legislation create a confused picture of what is and what is not campaigning, whether it requires registration, and what is not permitted. Together with changes that will bring more organisations into the regulatory framework this creates severe uncertainty and will likely freeze out much campaigning activity.

Proposals have also been brought forward to exclude staff time from the cap on permitted expenditure, and increase rather than decrease the threshold at which registration is necessary. It also suggested doing away with attempts to impose constituency limits which it considered as impractical given the nature of many campaigns.

The government plans will also restrict organisations from coalition campaigning by attributing the amount spent by the whole coalition to each organisation. This means that campaigns with a large number of small organisations could end up banned even if the amount spent by each group is relatively small.

Following the debate in the House of Lords next week the bill will be voted on by the House of Lords in the new year.