Policy, campaigns & research, Policy

Keep calm and carry on campaigning – but government must reform the Lobbying Act!

New research adds further hard-nosed evidence to the widely held view across the sector that the Lobbying Act must be reformed. The Directory of Social Change supported the Sheila McKechnie Foundation to gather evidence about the impact of the Lobbying Act on campaigning by civil society organisations. Here are six key findings from the research project that underpin this message.

The Lobbying Act is an ambiguous piece of legislation. It is confusing and creates uncertainty. Most charities have not even heard about it. But many charities, small and large, and umbrella bodies have thought that the Act’s ambiguity and difficulty of getting to grips with it has prevented people from participating more actively in political debate. We can now point to evidence that shows that this view is not just a notion but reflective of what’s actually happening on the ground.

So what did the research uncover? Intentionally or not, the Lobbying Act has had a myriad of impacts on charity campaigning:

  • People’s voices go missing from the political debate: Compliance with the Act is an administrative burden. For example, larger organisations struggle to inform local staff or branch volunteers so that they can plan campaigns with confidence. As a result, charities have less time available to focus on representing issues affecting their beneficiaries.
  • It makes it harder for charities to pursue their mission: 51% of survey respondents said the Act made it harder for them to achieve their organisational mission. Those working on politically sensitive or controversial issues – like welfare, disability, and immigration – felt even more wary about the Act impacting them.
  • It reduces working in coalition activity: One third of survey respondents reported a negative effect on coalition building. Some said this was the biggest issue because the Act had directly stopped activity from happening. Smaller organisations and churches said they were most affected and are more fearful of working in coalition.
  • It alters the tone of campaigning: 35% of charities surveyed for the report said they have avoided issues seen as too politically ‘live’. 36% said they have changed their language or tone. This caution may have made communications less effective overall.
  • The Act has a cost well beyond its intended application: It diverts significant time and money away from core work and towards compliance. 43% of charities reported they have adapted their campaigning as a direct result of the Act. This means more time is now spent on planning campaigns. Larger charities for example said they invested significant time in advising on the Act internally, making sure local staff, volunteers and campaigners are informed.
  • It stops some activity completely: There have been clear instances of campaigning activity being cancelled. Examples included public comment on politically sensitive issues, work in coalition and activity designed to help people participate in political debate.

What does this mean for charities?
The overall effect of the Lobbying Act is that it reduces the ability of charities and voluntary organisations to support local democratic engagement. And despite the various financial thresholds, it may hit small charities the most. As one CEO interviewed for the study put it: ‘Small charities have lost the opportunity to amplify their voices. And losing the opportunity to create movements of shared interest, especially with people who have lived experience, means that their voices are not being heard.’

What does this mean for government and regulators?
The Lobbying Act is an ambiguous piece of legislation, which needs a clear and rational response to reform it. The ambiguity in key areas – for example around ‘reasonably intending to influence voters’ – makes it nearly impossible to understand and manage risks sensibly, unless you have enough resources that can be committed to do so. And this is exactly why many organisations feel forced to step back from any activity that could be potentially challengeable under the Act. The overall effect can be more cautious, less responsive campaigning. Those who lose out are the most vulnerable people – charities’ beneficiaries.

The irony is that this is all old news reform of the Lobbying Act has been on the the agenda but then kicked into the long grass. Lord Hodgson led a 15-month review of the Act and produced reams of evidence, then came up with detailed recommendations. And many of them were welcomed by DSC. Then government subsequently rejected the recommendations of its own review, leaving the sector in disbelief. Now it’s back to square one. Maybe the government will slowly start to realise that reform of the Act is much needed?

Resources for you
If you read this and think ‘I need to know more about this’ – well don’t worry! We have lots of resources for you that can help answering all of your questions:

  • Find the full report on Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s website.
  • Download our handy 2-page guide on the Lobbying Act. It includes a flowchart which helps you to decide whether the Act really affects you or not as an organisation.
  • Need more information? Attend our training ‘The Lobbying Act: What You Need to Know’ on 9 October 2018. It is a course for campaigners, policy and public affairs specialists, trustees, activists, and managers. It will help demystify the Act, its implications and effects.
  • Bond is the UK network for organisations working in international development. Read their six takeaways from the report showing that the Lobbying Act really impacts campaigners and limits democratic engagement in the UK.
  • There is also a handy guide on what you can do under the Lobbying Act available on the Campaign Collective’s website.