Two weeks on from the election we’re all taking stock of who’s in, who’s out and what the new Conservative majority government in Westminster means for our influencing work.
In the midst of drawing up contact lists and securing early meetings with the newly elected MPs you wish to convert to your cause, don’t forget to spend some time reflecting on what the election result means for charity campaigning in the round. Now is the time to let Government know how the Lobbying Act affected your campaigning. It is also vital to continue making a positive case for charity campaigning in anticipation of the Charity Commission review of its guidance on campaigning and political activity by charities.
Debate about the Lobbying Act continued throughout the regulated period and will persist now the dust has settled and an objective assessment of the impact of the Act on charity campaigning can be made. While I do not wish to defend an unnecessary piece of legislation, my personal view is that more heat than light has been generated by opponents of the Act. There is no doubt it has burdened some charities with extra bureaucracy but it doesn’t actually prevent campaigning (although I know of examples of charities self-censoring their activities and exercising excessive caution amidst confusion about what the Act prohibits and concerns about the reputational risk of being perceived as ‘political’). The Conservative government is extremely unlikely to repeal the Act so any further efforts in that direction are futile. That is not to say that you shouldn’t participate in the two reviews that are underway.
Lord Hodgson’s Third Party Campaigning Review is looking at how well (or not) the regulatory system for third party campaigning works and will report to Government by the end of the year. If you want to tell the powers that be how the Act has made it more difficult for your charity to campaign, make sure you complete the survey (which closes on 7th June), attend one of the roundtable discussions and email your specific concerns to the review. Lord Harries continues to examine the effect of the Lobbying Act through his Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement and is also collecting evidence of its impact.
In my view, the looming review of Charity Commission guidance is more concerning than the Lobbying Act. Although the Charity Commission’s intention at this stage is only to conduct an informal review in the light of the election, I would argue that the Conservative victory makes a formal overhaul of the guidance more likely, given the mood music coming from the Conservative backbenches (and, in at least one case, the frontbench) in the last Parliament.
So while you’re shoring up your contacts in Westminster and reviewing your position in the light of a new Government, spare a thought for how you can protect the sector’s right to campaign and influence legislative and policy-making processes. Make time to respond to any informal requests for evidence from the Charity Commission and be ready to engage in a formal consultation if necessary. Be prepared to make the case for charity campaigning day in and day out, not only to those who brazenly say charities should stay out of politics but also to those in our own ranks – colleagues, senior managers and trustees – who perhaps feel unsure of the law and are nervous about campaigning or don’t understand its value.
It seems to me that one effect of the Lobbying Act has been to make boards and senior managers more cautious. Part of any campaigner’s job is surely to work within their organisation to make the positive case for campaigning and influencing so that the reasons for it are understood and any fears about falling foul of the law are allayed. The sector stood up for itself when the Lobbying Bill was making its passage through Parliament. We may be stuck with the Lobbying Act but the unity and strength of that campaign must continue if we are not to face further restrictions on our ability to amplify the voices of the many people who rely on us to make them heard.