As the battle between the government and charity leaders over the Lobbying Act continues, many smaller charities would have been forgiven for thinking that it was not safe to continue to campaign in pursuit of their charitable objectives. The concerns raised by charity leaders relate to Part 2 of the Act, and in particular clauses relating to charity campaigning during ‘election periods’ (defined contentiously in the legislation as the year leading up to an election). Both an independent review of the legislation and a House of Lords Select Committee have recommended that these concerns should be acted upon by ministers, but the government has refused to do so.
The issue about charities campaigning in ‘election periods’ is particularly vexed because in this age of political instability, we don’t know when the next election will be (check out the odds of the timing of the next election – basically, it’s anyone’s guess). The fact that an ‘election period’ is defined as being the year before an election means that charities have to perpetually work on the basis of being in an ‘election period’. Charity leaders rightly say that this creates uncertainty, and they point to the danger of charities permanently reining in their campaigning as a result.
Yet while unclear charity legislation affects everyone in the sector, particularly if it precipitates further legislative constraints on charities in the future, there should be no reason why the vast majority of charities should be affected directly by this particular law if they stick to the basics of a good charity campaigning. As charity law expert Simon Steeden of Bates, Wells and Braithwaites solicitors notes, as long as charities remain independent and do not encourage support for any particular parties or candidates, they can publish the views of parliamentary candidates and parties which relate to the charity’s cause and they can approach candidates and ask if they will sign a pledge which supports their policy (Steeden’s views are well worth reading in detail and inform much of this piece).
For most charities, seeking pledges of support from Parliamentary candidates is as political as they would want to get irrespective of the new law, but those which want to go further, and intend to spend more than £20,000 in England on activities which ‘might be seen as intended to influence the election result’ (for example, the publication of materials for the public or organising public events), need to register with the Electoral Commission. Charity leaders are right to state that the wording ‘might be seen as intended to influence the election result’ is loose but the Charity Commission has clearly stated that if charities continue to make sure they run independent and politically-neutral campaigns and events, they need not be ‘gagged’.
Whether or not elections are approaching, charity law and good practice dictates that charities must remain independent from political parties even if they might agree with a party’s stance on certain issues. Charities aren’t political parties and nor should they be: the law aside, they don’t serve their beneficiaries well if they align too closely with one party or the other. In this febrile political age, regardless of charity regulation, it is common sense for charities to stay ‘above the fray’ and to build campaigns which will resonate no matter who is in power.
My message to small and medium-sized charities is that while there are problems with the Lobbying Act, sector leaders are doing a good job in making the case and in the meantime, you should not be put off from campaigning, and should keep focussed on good practice:
- make it about the issues, not about the individual parties;
- build campaigns which aren’t attached to one political ideology but rather have cross-cutting appeal;
- be ready to lay out the facts fairly and neutrally.
So, in short, be sensible, maintain your independence, make time to read the Electoral Commission’s guidance on this issue, consult your board to ensure they’re happy that what you’re doing is in line with the guidance and your charity’s objects, but don’t let yourself be gagged. Keep calm and carry on campaigning – your beneficiaries depend on it.