Academic Debra Morris specialises in charity law. Debra’s research has focused on many different aspects of charity law and regulation, and today she shares her insights into the evolving, and eroding, rights of charities to campaign and lobby politically.
For a much more detailed look at Debra’s arguments why not check out her article in the Voluntary Sector Review which is free to access until the end of April: Legal limits on political campaigning by charities: drawing the line
Charities play a much needed role in policy development and regulatory reform.
Yet, the ability of charities in England and Wales to participate in the political process, particularly around election times, has been significantly restrained in recent times.
In my recent policy review in the Voluntary Sector Review, as well as examining established charity law principles which prevent charities from having political purposes, I focus on recent election law and political developments which have further limited charities’ ability to participate in the political process.
There is a need for effective regulation of those campaigning during the run up to general elections. Transparency about who third party campaigners are and what they are spending is desirable.
However, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 was heavily criticized by charitable bodies because it threatened to prevent them from carrying out entirely unconnected campaigning.
“…the voices of some of the most vulnerable were not heard during the run up to the 2015 UK general election”
Empirical research suggests that charities felt gagged by the Act, so that the voices of some of the most vulnerable were not heard during the run up to the 2015 UK general election. The same law applies to referendums and is now affecting charities’ ability to participate in the debates around whether or not the UK should remain in the European Union.
Following a review of its impact, a report laid before Parliament in March 2016 recommended a number of changes to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 which, if implemented, would increase the charitable sector’s ability to campaign.
The reforms would achieve a better balance between effective and proportionate regulation and transparency around elections and would be welcomed by the charitable sector. However, this is not the only restriction that charities are currently facing when it comes to limiting their role in the political process.
A significant blow to democracy came in February 2016 with the announcement by the Cabinet Office of the UK government to the effect that, in the future, all organisations (including charities) in receipt of government grants will be prohibited from using such funds to engage in political lobbying.
“[the] clause…has the potential to mute the charitable sector’s voice even further when it comes to campaigning”
From May 2016, a clause will be inserted in all government grants to the effect that ‘payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action’ will not be eligible expenditure.
The universal introduction of such a clause in all government grants has the potential to mute the charitable sector’s voice even further when it comes to campaigning. The immediate reaction from across the charitable sector has been one of condemnation.
For those concerned with charity regulation in other jurisdictions, the potentially significant consequences of changes to electoral law on charities and their ability to participate in public debate and dialogue during the important periods that precede elections and referendums should be noted. Similarly, administrative developments can also potentially have a devastating effect on charities, as we are witnessing by the introduction of the anti-advocacy clause in charity grants.
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