The Gagging Law is not fit for purpose – but what will Labour’s consultation achieve?

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The General Election may be eight months away, but there are just weeks to go until regulations for non-party campaigners during the 2015 General Election come into force.

The fear is that ‘part two’ of the Lobbying Act (or Gagging Law) will restrain charities and grass roots organisations’ ability to campaign in the run up to the Election.

The Electoral Commission, which administers the Act, says that “campaigning activities will only be regulated if they can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or reduce the electoral prospects of a political party or parties, or a group of candidates, including parties or candidates who support or oppose a particular policy.”

But, the Commission goes on to warn: “campaigning activity may be regulated even if your intention is to achieve something else, such as raising awareness of an issue.”

Labour has already launched a consultation about reforming part of the Act (the Shadow front bench did initially pledge to repeal the law).

And, for once, campaigners in the private, public and not for profit sectors are agreed that reform must take place.

But the problem with Labour’s consultation is that it assumes that campaigners are clear on what the current law actually means.

The first three questions in the consultation ask:

  • How will Part Two of the current Lobbying Act affect your campaigning?
  • What part of current election law causes the most administrative burden?
  • Do the relevant people in your organisation understand the current legal requirements for campaigners?

But, the Act is complex, bureaucratic and left a recent meeting of 120 charities, designed to clear the air, in “a state of disbelief.”

In fact, the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) recently wrote to the Electoral Commission asking for answers to ten questions about how the law will be applied.

These questions highlight how the Act is at best unclear and at worst confusing, or even contradictory.

The concerns the PRCA’s members raised range from fundamental questions about what is covered, to the extent to which spending limits apply to staff or volunteer activity, and go into the detail of how any spending should be reported.

So how can anyone even start to respond to Labour’s consultation when it’s not clear how the Act will actually affect campaigners?

And while Labour’s determination to try and find a workable solution to the Act is laudable, it is not just ‘part two’ of the law which needs reform.

‘Part one,’ or the section of the Act designed to regulate lobbyists, is equally unfit for purpose. Not only did the legislators ignore the industry’s own definition of what constitutes a lobbyist, but they have also created a law that excludes regulation of the 80 per cent of lobbyists who work in-house.

This part of the Act has also excluded anyone who knows what goes on in the industry from applying for the role (so perhaps unsurprising no-one has applied so far).

But while consultations and reviews take place, what about campaigners affected by the law?

The Charity Commission, the charity bosses organisation ACEVO and the PRCA all agree that people should keep calm and keep campaigning.

But this decision will need to be one which each organisation or group makes for itself. It’s not made any easier by the general sense of confusion around campaigning during regulated election or referendum periods (even the employers’ body the CBI got itself in a muddle recently).

The freedom of expression is one of the fundamental principles of our democracy and so it is of concern that some groups may well self-censor themselves and refrain from campaigning during the election period.

And it is this freedom that should be starting point for Labour’s consultation on the Lobbying Act. 

Simon Francis is Vice Chair of the PRCA’s Not-for-profit and Charity Group.

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