Leave Charities Out of It: the case for a Lobbying Bill exemption

It became obvious this weekend that the Government’s efforts to head off charities’ criticism of the Lobbying Bill have not worked. Despite a package of technical amendments put forward by the Government last week, there are still significant concerns about the damage the legislation would do to the vital campaigning role of charities. The Observer carried a stinging criticism from UN Special Rapporteur Maini Kiai, who branded the Lobbying Bill a “stain on democracy”, and the Guardian reported on the groundswell of support in the House of Lords for an amendment to exempt charities from the scope of the legislation, which will be debated on Wednesday 15th January.

CAF has believed for some time that an exemption for charities is the most pragmatic solution to the problems with the Lobbying Bill. We recently signed a joint letter with the Royal British Legion, The Directory of Social Change and the Small Charities Coalition outlining our arguments for believing such an exemption to be the best option.

The key point is that calling for charities to be exempt from the Bill does not amount to pleading for special treatment: charities are already subject to legislation that prevents them from promoting or supporting political parties (outside the election cycle as well as within it) and they are regulated by the Charity Commission to ensure they comply with the rules. Furthermore, the trustees of a charity are personally liable for repaying any money that is found to have been spent on inappropriate partisan activity. It is clear from this that charities are in many ways already subject to stricter controls than any organisation would be under the proposed Lobbying Bill.

Calling for charities to be exempt from the Bill does not amount to asking for special treatment − rather it is about avoiding affecting charities disproportionately by forcing them to be regulated twice for the same activity. Those who argue that charities should not be exempted from the Bill, including The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement chaired by Lord Harries, maintain that this dual regulation is needed because there is some activity which would fall under the scope of the new legislation but is not prevented by charity law. It is far from clear to what extent this is actually true, and even if one can construct situations that arguably do fall in this space, the space is –in the words of Baroness Williams and Lord Tyler– “so narrow as to be irrelevant”.

The concern expressed by some is that in distinguishing between the treatment of charities and non-charitable NGOs you split opposition to the Bill and risk leaving NGOs to the wolves. But surely the point is that the distinction between charities and NGOs already exists, precisely because the former are bound by legislation and regulation governing their political activity, while the latter are not. And it is not as if the political activities of charities will be unregulated if they are exempt, only that they will not be subject to two regulatory regimes for the same activities.

The exemption of charities offers a pragmatic solution to part of the problem by pointing out that existing legislation and regulation is already in place to govern the political activity of charities, but even with that exemption the Bill is still a potentially damaging piece of legislation. Legitimate desires to curb inappropriate and undue influence by third parties on the political process must be set against the effect the legislation will have on the valid and vitally important campaigning role that many NGOs play in our society. It is easy to forget sometimes that democracy is not just about political parties. That is why CAF has also continued to highlight the international context in which the UK government is developing this legislation, and the damage we will do to our nation’s “soft power” if we continue along this road. CAF’s CEO John Low recently wrote a Huffington Post blog reiterating this concern.

The amendment to exempt charities from the Lobbying Bill will be debated tomorrow in the House of Lords, and could cause significant discomfort for the Government if passed. I hope that the surge of support for the amendment is sufficient to see it through, and help to protect charities from the harm that would be caused by this confused and confusing piece of legislation.

Rhodri Davies

2 responses to “Leave Charities Out of It: the case for a Lobbying Bill exemption

  1. Pingback: UN official attacks UK “Lobbying Bill” | Future World Giving·

  2. Pingback: 2014 – Our Review of the Year | Giving Thought·

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