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Charities Aid Foundation


21 September 2017

Over recent years, CAF has been strongly critical of the closing space for civil society; a term that refers to the introduction of laws and restrictions that are designed, either intentionally or otherwise, to shrink the operating space for civil society organisations. This includes measures overseas, but also policies and legislation in the UK that would have a negative impact on the ability of charities to stand up for the interests of their beneficiaries.

In the UK, the most prominent policy contributing to the closing space is the Lobbying Act. Introduced before the 2015 General Election, this act changed the law regarding the ability of third parties to influence elections, including charities. However, there has been much criticism of the Act both for the measures that it contains and the broader climate that it contributes to, which have been said to have had a chilling effect on charity advocacy. CAF has consistently opposed the Act, and called for charities to be exempted from it.

Following the 2015 General Election, Conservative Peer Lord Hodgson was asked to review the Lobbying Act to learn more about the impact it had. After talking with many impacted organisations, Lord Hodgson proposed a package of recommendations to mitigate some of the Act’s worst effects. Primary amongst these were proposals to reduce the regulated period covered by the Act, and changing the test that the Electoral Commission uses to determine whether organisations are seeking to influence how people vote.

Charities strongly backed Lord Hodgson’s proposals, and the need for reform was heightened by the 2017 General Election. Called despite the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, the election alerted organisations to the fact that the Lobbying Act can be applied retrospectively, meaning that organisations were in a regulated period without any knowledge. With so much political uncertainty, this raises the prospect of charities being in a perpetual regulated period, with the associated restrictions that includes.

Earlier this year, the Lords Select Committee on charities recommended that the Government implement Lord Hodgson’s recommendations in full. Following this, charities wrote to the Government to urge them to introduce the proposed reforms. Whilst many other political parties had indicated that they planned to exempt charities from the Lobbying Act in their manifestos earlier in the year, it is possible that these changes would have secured cross-party support.

However, last week the Government announced that it would not be implementing any of Lord Hodgson’s recommendations. Whilst there are undoubtedly pressures on Parliamentary time, it is disappointing that the Government made no positive mention of the merits of Lord Hodgson’s recommendations, and seems to have little desire to revisit them when the political landscape has changed.

For charities, this is an extremely negative outcome. Not only do the restrictive rules remain in place, but if, hypothetically, a general election were to be called in eight months time, that would mean that charities are operating in a regulated period now without any way of knowing it. It also sets a negative example to the rest of the world; many countries rely on restrictive measures in positively viewed liberal democracies to justify regressive policies that they enact, as our ‘Do As I Say’ report explores here.

The general agreement is that reforming the Lobbying Act will need primary legislation, or time for debate in Parliament. That this will not be forthcoming from the Government makes generating change extremely difficult, but charities will want to continue to put pressure on politicians so that they can continue to give a voice to their beneficiaries and speak out for those who otherwise do not have a voice. In the meantime, it is important that charities comply with the law but campaign with confidence, and that the Government works with charities to implement the rhetoric that it has used to stress the legitimacy of charity campaigning.

This is undoubtedly a setback, but it is essential that organisations – including CAF – continue fighting for the principle of charity advocacy.

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