Campaigners must be vigilant to freedom of speech threats

Posted on 10/04/2016


Campaigners rightly gave a “cautious welcome” to the Hodgson Review of the Lobbying Act. There is much to welcome, but also much to worry about contained within its 103-pages.

The official Review into the Act clearly recognises the concerns campaigners had with the Act and the way it was introduced.

For instance, one formal response to the Hodgson Review highlighted major concerns with the implementation of the Act which “severely limited” charities’ campaigning activities.

The Review has taken very welcome steps to address some of these concerns – for example, 70 per cent of the PRCA’s recommendations have been accepted in full or in part.

Especially welcome is the Review’s emphasis on creating a level playing field between not-for-profit and private companies. It specifically recommends that companies (like Boots, which spent significant sums attacking Labour) are  made aware of their obligations under the regulations.

However, charities and campaigners need to remain vigilant.

The Review does not go far enough to address some areas of concern and there are new potential threats to campaigners’ freedom of speech on the horizon, including one worrying recommendation in the report itself.

In the current legislation, only material that is directly targeted at the general public is regulated. However, Lord Hodgson appears to suggest that the definition of who constitutes the “general public” is revised and expanded to include “committed supporters” who may then use social media (and other channels) to spread an organisation’s message further.

This will mean more charities may need to register as those staff costs and expenses involved in supporter communications are also counted toward the financial limits.

The move will also muddy the waters for campaigners; forcing them to segment their supporters into groups. Communications with “Constitutional Members” and “Affiliated Supporters” would continue to be excluded, but other “Committed Supporters” included in the regulations.

With this slight change in guidance from the Electoral Commission, all of the good work of the Review in other areas could be undone.

And while the Review starts from the principle that campaigning during an election should be encouraged and is separate from advocacy a charity may undertake, there are concerns that the government does not truly believe in freedom of speech for charities.

This is especially relevant in light of Cabinet Office minister, Matthew Hancock’s recent comments on only funding charities that do not criticise the government. As well as creating an unnecessary distinction between those in receipt of government grants and those operating government contracts, this policy would risk undermining organisation’s own principles and charitable purposes.

There are also elements of future campaigning which the Review suggests may look to be regulated in the future, such as “out of constituency” campaigning on social media and the potential inclusion of data mining within the regulations. The government should tread very carefully if it decides to develop legislation in this area.

To meet the threats still posed by the Lobbying Act – and new potential restrictions on charities’ ability to operate – the PRCA Charity and Not-For-Profit group is organising a workshop on 18 May 2016 and will be inviting Government and Opposition spokespeople to attend.

A version of this article first appeared in PR Week.