The Government has made new concessions to the sector on the controversial Lobbying Bill, resulting in sector organisations giving a positive but qualified response to the changes.
The Government plans to amend the bill to exempt smaller charities and raise the amount campaigners can spend ahead of the 2015 general election, by raising the threshold at which campaigning expenditure requires registration with the Electoral Commission, to £20,000 in England and to £10,000 in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
However, the Directory of Social Change and others, said in a letter, that staff costs at the moment remain within the scope of the rules so it is likely that, for example, if a small charity employed a policy officer working on campaigns it would need to register during the period in the run up to elections.
The government also plans to allow a ‘lead campaigner’ organisation to report to the Electoral Commission on behalf of smaller organisations campaigning in coalition.
In theory this would reduce the hassle for smaller organisations that support joint campaigns of having to register separately with the Commission, but the detail of how this would work in practice is not clear.
Overall, these amendments are intended to reduce the regulatory burden on smaller charities and voluntary organisations.
But Jay Kennedy, director of Policy and Research at the Directory of Social Change, warned: "They are a step in the right direction but don’t go far enough.
"We maintain that there is a strong case for exempting charities entirely from this Bill, and that there is significant support in the Lords for this position."
ACEVO: Great job, but outstanding issues
However, Sir Stephen Bubb, CEO of ACEVO, praised the work of minister of State Greg Clark and minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd on the amendments.
He said: “ACEVO resolved to help set up the Commission on Civil Society with more than a hundred civil society organisations because the charity sector works best when we work together.
"We now have begun to see the fruits of that engagement. Greg Clark and Nick Hurd have done a great job of listening to the Commission on Civil Society’s concerns.
"We recognize that the government has listened and we welcome the amendments proposed. I thank Lord Harries of the Commission for his excellent work in the last few months on the sector’s behalf.
"Clearly, there remain outstanding issues with the bill. We would still like the government to consider removing staff costs from the bill’s restrictions.
"We must continue to make the argument against the proposed £10,000 cap on spending in one constituency by a charity or campaign group.
"But we believe that the commission has established a positive dialogue with government and we look forward to discussing these matters going forward.”
NCVO: Risk averted, but still a sweeping bill
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which first raised concerns about the Bill, also offered a qualified positive response.
Etherington commented: "Much of the risk to charities from this legislation has now been averted.
"We are grateful that the government has listened to the concerns charities have raised in recent months. Charities, by law, may not campaign in a party political manner.
"However the bill as originally drafted risked sweeping non-party political campaigning into its scope."
NAVCA: Victory, but restricting freedom to campaign
Joe Irvin, chief executive of NAVCA, also welcomed the changes, but offered a wider perspective of how the Government got itself in this position.
“Whilst it would be churlish to not accept that the Government amendments are an improvement, especially for smaller charities, I am still baffled as to why the government ever got itself into this situation.”
“Doubling the threshold for registration to £20,000 and requiring only the lead organisation in a coalition to register are significant victories for smaller charities.
"However, we still have a Bill that restricts the freedom to campaign, makes it harder for groups to raise legitimate concerns with politicians and creates unnecessary red tape for charities – whose campaigning, let’s not forget, is already regulated by the Charity Commission.”
Oxfam: Pleased, but...
Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, said: "Originally the bill would have lowered the maximum that can be spent before groups have to be registered with the Electoral Commission from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and from £5,000 to £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"We're pleased ministers have stepped back from the brink and promised to significantly reduce the bill's chilling effect on democracy.
"But the changes address many of our fears, unworkable limits on constituency spending and the requirement to account for staff costs will still unduly restrict the ability of charities and others to speak out on issues of legitimate concern."
Christain Aid: Shouldn’t now stumble at the final hurdle
Christian Aid’s senior UK political adviser Barry Johnston, shared the same approach, saying further important changes are still needed to the Bill.
He said: "It is refreshing to see the Government finally listening - and these changes are significant. However, the Bill still contains several totally disproportionate and unworkable provisions that must be changed.
"Having come this far in the right direction, the Government shouldn’t stumble at the final hurdle. Common sense should prevail."
Johnston added that the worst remaining flaws in Part 2 of the Bill, which seeks to regulate campaign spending by organisations which are not political parties, relate to staff costs, Parliamentary constituencies and coalition working.
"In all three cases, the Bill would introduce provisions that are totally inoperable, which will leave campaigners and regulators themselves wondering what on earth the law actually means. This will waste precious time and money", he warned.
"Peers have already voiced widespread opposition to these regulations and we will continue campaigning with them to ensure that the final Bill is one that does not neuter vibrant public debate in the run up to the election."
Labour: Remains a bad bill
Labour's shadow Leader of the Commons Angela Eagle, said: "This remains a bad bill which lets vested interests off the hook while gagging charities and campaigners. It says everything about who David Cameron stands up for."
Lord Harries: issues to be resolved
And Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former bishop of Oxford who chairs the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement - the campaigning umbrella group representing more than 100 sector organisations - said there were still "major issues" to be resolved.
He said: “I would like to congratulate all charities and campaigning organisations for bringing about a significant change of heart by Government. However there are still some major issues that need to be resolved.”
Since its introduction to Parliament, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill has been repeatedly criticised by the sector worried it could restrict campaigns by bodies that are not party political.
Last November, the Bill's parliamentary passage was "paused" for six weeks after much opposition and campaigning from the sector.
The letter from Nick Donovon, The Royal British Legion; Rhodri Davies, Charities Aid Foundation; Alex Swallow, Small Charities Coalition; Jay Kennedy, Directory of Social Change to members of the Lords addressing the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
As you will be aware, Part II of this Bill seeks to change the legal requirements for third party campaigners in relation to general and devolved elections in the UK. Our organisations maintain that the proposals put forward in Part II are an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy for charities who are already regulated by the Charity Commission and prohibited from promoting the electoral success of political parties or candidates. We are also agreed that the Bill, as it currently stands, threatens our ability to lobby government on issues of importance to our beneficiary communities in the year preceding an election. We therefore urge you to exempt charities from the scope of the Bill.
We maintain that the Bill threatens to restrict our ability to carry out our charitable function and campaign on behalf of the interests of our beneficiary communities. It will do this by lowering the threshold at which an organisation has to register with the Electoral Commission, from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and from £5,000 to £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; widening the scope of regulated activity; and drastically reducing the total amount that non-party campaigners can spend in the year before an election, by between 60-70%.
We appreciate the need for appropriate and proportionate regulation of non-party campaigning ahead of elections. However, we are concerned that the cumulative effect of lowering registration thresholds and significantly reducing spending limits, while at the same time increasing the number of regulated activities, will result in disproportionate administrative and regulatory burdens being placed on charities, and the creation of a more complex campaigning landscape for us to try and safely navigate.
We believe that the simplest and most effective solution to the threat posed by Part II would be to exempt charities entirely from the scope of the Lobbying Bill and from the current Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA).
Charity law is already clear that no charity can have political purposes, or pursue their charitable objectives by politically partisan means. It is the responsibility of the Charity Commission to enforce charity law and it already provides detailed guidance about what awareness-raising activities are permissible through its CC9 publication. It makes little sense then for charities to have a secondary regulator as this is needlessly costly and confusing and serves only to add to the bureaucratic burden placed on charities.
There is also little to no evidence of the need for additional regulation. The fact that trustees of a charity are jointly and severally personally liable for assets of their charity which are misused or misspent has, for many years, proven effective at preventing campaigning abuses. The Government has also failed to identify a single case in which a charity engaged in activity which was deemed to have been intended to promote or procure electoral success, and which was not covered by existing charity law. The Government has therefore come up with a ‘solution’ to a non-existent problem.
Exempting charities from the scope of the Bill would also relieve the Electoral Commission of major duties and expenditures. Instead of funding two bodies to oversee the campaigning activities of charitable organisations, we would support the awarding of additional funding and resources to the Charity Commission to ensure that they could properly regulate the charitable sector.
We are aware of the arguments made against an exemption for charities: some argue that it is not legally possible to exempt charities, while others maintain that if charities were to be exempted, non-charities would attempt to circumnavigate the rules by setting up a charitable arm to conduct their campaigning activities. We disagree with both points and believe the legal opinion is far from clear cut. What is clear is that charities already have a unique legal status in the UK; not only their organisational set-up but their specific activities are controlled with respect to political activity. The existing regulatory burden is not a light one. It is far more likely that charities will set up non-charitable campaigning arms to avoid the restrictions of charity regulation than the reverse. Charities can campaign and a campaigning organisation can become a charity, but it must have charitable purposes and any campaigning must be entirely in support of this. An organisation that wishes to carry out its campaigning work primarily through political activity, therefore, could not become a charity.
Charities play an important and much valued part in our country’s democracy, often standing up for the interests of minority or disadvantaged peoples. It would be a great shame if, at a time of general disillusionment with politics, the trusted voices of charitable organisations were silenced in the run up to an election. Excluding charities from the Bill would send a clear message to charity trustees that this is not what the Government intends.