Proposed UK legislation could still go too far in regulating ‘third party’ campaign activities during elections, despite improvements, non-profit groups say

NGOs 1: government 0. The UK’s non-profit sector claimed a victory in September when the government U-turned on a law on lobbying, as it made its way through parliament. The bill, known in full as the “Transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill”, would have included sweeping rules about the behaviour in the run-up to the 2015 general election of “third parties” – groups that have an interest in the outcome of the election but are not political parties or candidates.

The basis of the “non-party campaigning” part of the bill was that without appropriate controls, third parties might exercise undue influence over election outcomes. There is already a law that individuals or groups wanting to have their say during an election must register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend £10,000 or more in a constituency (in England) on election-related material. The government wants to reduce this threshold to £5,000, and to make the scope of the requirement much broader – to include a wide range of costs that might be related to some form of campaigning during an election.

The consequence, according to organisations as diverse as internet-based activist group 38 Degrees, the Trades Union Congress, the British Legion and the Girl Guides, would have been that almost any campaigning activity in the year preceding a general election would have to be registered under the law, with potential sanctions for those that do not. 38 Degrees branded the bill a “gagging law” and said it “would have a chilling effect on British democracy and our right to speak up”.

The government U-turn – it admitted that the law’s net had been cast too wide – brought the panic to an end – for now. However, the law is still making its way through parliament, and NGOs are staying vigilant.

Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy officer at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says non-profits do want greater transparency when it comes to election lobbying and campaigning, but in drafting the bill the government went too far. The government climbdown is “encouraging” but “it’s still early days” in the passage of the bill through parliament, she says. The way election-related campaigning is treated in the law “has to be very specific” to avoid unforeseen consequences, she adds.

Severe limit

Nigel Stanley, a spokesman for the Trades Union Congress, agrees that the bill could still have damaging effects. The government “still proposes to severely limit what third party campaigners – those actually trying to have a voice in an election debate – can do”, he says.

Although definitions in the law are being tightened up so that fewer activities are included in its scope, the government could still reduce the spending limit that triggers a requirement to register with the Electoral Commission. The final law could result in “onerous record-keeping that will be beyond some organisations – particularly grass roots and informal networks”, Stanley says.

Much remains to play for, and unions, NGOs and charitable organisations will continue to campaign on the bill through the autumn.

campaigning  NGO  politics  UK Government 

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