Next week, Parliament will debate and vote on a Bill which has been introduced by the Government at breakneck speed. Ostensibly, the Bill is about setting-up a totally inadequate register for lobbyists and weakening the trade unions relations with the Labour Party in a partisan way.
In this respect, the Bill is as expected. But what has come as a shock is the Government’s plans to severely curtail the ability of charities to campaign in the run-up to elections.
According to Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill, there is to be a significant extension of what constitutes electoral campaigning by charities. If the Bill is passed unamended, it will mean that virtually all the campaigns of many charities will be subject to strict regulations and bureaucratic procedures. The affect will be that a whole range of day-to-day activities by charities are likely to cease. Charities’ non-political public policy work will become a thing of the past.
The Bill is so severe that it will place restrictions on a charity’s ability to raise issues before a general election or an Assembly election, even if no reference is made to specific policies or candidates. A charity’s reference to a dog’s home, a motorway, a youth club, or overseas development, could be construed as ‘political’ and be caught by the Bill.
If the Bill reaches the statute book, it will mean that charities will have to register with the Electoral Commission if they want to spend more than £2,000 in Wales and £5,000 in England before an election. The Bill also puts a stringent cap on the total amount registered campaigners can spend on ‘regulated activity’ in the year before an election both on an all-Wales basis and per Parliamentary constituency.
What is more, registered campaigners will have to prepare reports for the Electoral Commission to itemise spending in a particular parliamentary constituency. They will also have to provide a statement of accounts that gives a true and fair view of their income and spending in the year before an election. At the same time, charities will also have to list their assets and liabilities.
Not surprisingly, charities are up in arms. Oxfam Cymru have stated that “numerous charities including ourselves are seriously concerned by the proposed new rules which would have a huge impact on charities’ and other groups’ ability to speak out and campaign on the issues we work on”.
Similarly, the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services (CWVYS) has expressed its concern on behalf of the many voluntary youth organisations in Wales, and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) has also added its voice to the outcry.
Even the impartial Electoral Commission has stated that it is worried because the Bill has been brought forward with “no consultation or discussion”. The Commission is concerned about what activities are to be regulated, the targets for expenditure and the feasibility of obliging charities to comply with entirely new regulations in the short time before the 2015 General Election.
All of the charitable and voluntary sector are aghast as to why the Government wishes to go down this road. The Electoral Commission has stated that as far as they can see, there is “no clear rational”.
If you are being kind, you could say that Part 2 of this Bill is full of unintended consequences. On the other hand, the Government may want to deliberately restrict criticism and curtail legitimate campaigning activities because they wish to stifle free and open debate in the run-up to a general election.
Whether Part 2 of this Bill is the result of cock-up or conspiracy, what is becoming ever more clear is that it will have a hugely negative impact on our democracy. Active and forthright charities are part of the lifeblood of our country. That is why their ability to campaign and speak their minds is so important. I urge all people who value our charities, whatever political views they may hold, to say loudly and clearly that the Government must think again.
This article was written for the Western Mail.