This week Lord MacKay of Clashfern, a former Lord Chancellor, will lead a cross party attempt to amend the Lobbying Bill to ensure that charities are exempted from the proposed legislation. As the bill currently stands, charities would find their ability to undertake advocacy and campaigning work significantly restricted in the run up to elections.
Amendments to the Bill have already been proposed to increase the spending limit for charities. However we don't believe these amendments go far enough toward protecting the crucial right of charities to engage in advocacy, and that it would far better simply to exempt charities from the scope of the legislation. If the Bill passes without such an exemption for charities, the UK's reputation as a bastion of civic freedom and an exemplar of permissive government enabling civil society will be tarnished.
It is for this reason that we welcome the move by Lord MacKay, Lord Low of Dalston and Lord Phillips of Sudbury to push for a total exclusion of charities from the Bill. The legislation, officially known as the 'Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill' was originally conceived with the aim of levelling the electoral playing field by limiting the influence of lobbyists and 'big money', but somewhere along the way the government has lost sight of this aim. The Bill in its current form will stifle healthy debate and campaigning from charities, even though this was clearly never the intention.
Even the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly and association, Maina Kiai, has noticed the more pernicious nature of this Bill, which he believes "will shrink the space for citizens - particularly those engaged in civil society groups - to express their collective will", threatening to "tarnish the United Kingdom's democracy".
There are a number of reasons why an exemption for charities is the best option on the table. Firstly, the inclusion of charities in the Bill is completely unnecessary because there is already legislation to restrict charities' political activities. The Charity Commission is responsible for enforcing this charity law and ensures that any charity campaigning can be political, but not designed to promote or support any one political party. Charity trustees will find themselves personally liable if these rules are broken.
Secondly, civil society organisations are uniquely placed to speak out about issues which are of pressing concern to certain groups in society. The advocacy done by these charities plays a vital role in preventing a tyranny of the majority and it is therefore essential they are not gagged by the Bill. In 2010 David Cameron signed the National Compact which stated as its first principle that civil society organisations should be allowed to deliver their mission, including 'their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist'. The Lobbying Bill undermines this document and overrules the belief that cross sector relationships should be built on mutual trust.
If the Lobbying Bill comes into effect without an exemption for charities, we believe the UK will damage its reputation for advancing civic freedoms and undermine the nation's "soft power" as a consequence. We have long been admired globally for our enabling environment for civil society organisations, but this Bill would see us following regressive international trends in the relationship between governments and civil society. Unfortunately a number of countries, including Nigeria, Ecuador and Algeria, have proposed regressive legislation restricting advocacy in civil society organisations and this trend seems to be gathering pace. The international community has also expressed concerns over legislation in Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Sudan which will restrict access to foreign funds for charities who engage in advocacy activities. The UK risks being viewed in the same light if the regressive attitude towards charities and NGOs demonstrated in the Lobbying Bill is allowed to stand.
This Wednesday the amendment to exempt charities will be put before the House of Lords and has a growing number of supporters. We hope the government will listen to the concerns raised by the Peers and exclude charities from this legislation, so that they can continue to focus on achieving their charitable mission without facing further attempts to gag or limit their campaigns. Politicians need to recognise that our society is healthier and freer because of the insightful advocacy work so many charities undertake.