The negative impact of the Lobbying Act is clear. It has had a damaging effect on campaigners and is a threat to freedom of speech. But it is here to stay.
1. Reduce the regulated period covered by the Act
The overburden of bureaucracy and the threat to freedom of speech could be partly alleviated if the regulated period for each election was reduced to three or four months.
2. Reduce red tape
The level of reporting required by the Act could be generalised rather than requiring specifics. Examples given to the PRCA suggest that team members of organisations that registered spent hours counting individual social media posts to see if they were required to be counted – a clear overburden of bureaucracy.
3. Improve guidance
The Electoral Commission’s guidance needs a fundamental overhaul if it is to be fit for purpose.
The Electoral Commission needs to invest in staff with experience of campaigning and running charities. It also needs to create wider (and more lengthy periods) for consultation with campaigners about what guidance would be useful, remembering that any guidance issued will raise further questions.
However, the Electoral Commission should be at pains to ensure its guidance is easy to understand and doesn’t create a lawyers charter where only those with specialist knowledge can interpret the regulations.
Guidance should also focus on clarifying what can be done, rather than talking vague general principles – which when tested are often found wanting (such as this example on media relations).
4. Increase spending limits
In some cases the complexity of registration / reporting prevented organisations from engaging in local activity.
More should be done to explain to smaller charities that they are unlikely to be covered – and an increase in spending limits would assist in this. This would help the issue of volunteers being cowed by the Act. Corporate pro-bono support for charities should also be counted as volunteering, not as regulated activity.
5. A public commitment from the government that it will not make any further attempts to harm campaigners’ freedom of speech
Charities need to be reassured that the aim of the Act and government policy is not to stifle their freedom of speech. The UK needs to recover moral leadership on this issue and protect the vital work charities do in campaigning on a range of issues which find favour across the country and across the political spectrum.