How the Lobbying Act could impact on your organisation

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (commonly known as the ‘Lobbying Act’) is now on the Statue Book as law.

 

During its’ passage through Parliament Voice 4 Change England (V4CE) joined with many other Third Sector organisations to try and improve the legislation, including as a signatory in an open letter published in several national newspapers.

This Parliamentary Briefing looks at the implications of the Act as it may affect your charity, covering what you can and cannot do in the run-up to a General Election. This is not a definitive guide; there are some ‘grey areas’ of the Act which are due to be clarified by the Electoral Commission by early July 2014.

There were some improvements made in Parliament but other areas are still a matter of concern. The key question is what freedom do VCOs, like yours, have to campaign over the issues your clients experience in the 12 months before a General Election (or seven and a half months before the 2015 General Election)?

Our principle message from Voice 4 Change England (V4CE) is:

Don’t panic or stop your activities! You should still be able to carry on with your normal campaigning work during an election period. It is simply a case of planning ahead so you are aware of your ‘campaigning’ expenditure, and you know where the spending limits are.

This Parliamentary Briefing outlines:

  • What constitutes campaigning expenditure?
  • What the threshold is before spending has to be registered with the Electoral Commission?
  • What are the overall limits to spending?
  • How is expenditure calculated?
  • How will this affect my campaigning?
  • Can your VCO join ‘coalitions’ of other Third Sector organisations to campaign around a particular issue?

WHAT CONSTITUTES CAMPAIGNING EXPENDITURE?

‘Controlled’ campaigning expenditure is defined by activities that “could” influence the outcome of an election for parties or groups of candidates. The Government sought to widen the definition but backed down.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) includes campaigning which does not mention parties or candidates and for which the primary purpose is not party political. The new Lobbying Act keeps this definition but clarifies that campaigning for or against Parliamentary Bills will be exempt.

Election Period where campaigning expenditure counts– 12 months before UK General Elections and 4 months before European Parliamentary, Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections. For the 2015 General Election only it will apply for seven and a half months from 19th September 2014.

WHAT IS THE THRESHOLD BEFORE SPENDING HAS TO BE REGISTERED WITH THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION?

The threshold has doubled from £10,000 in England to £20,000, which is an improvement on PPERA. This works out as £1,666 per month for 12 months, so if your VCO campaigning is likely to exceed this figure you should plan ahead and be prepared to register expenditure with the Electoral Commission.

WHAT ARE THE OVERALL LIMITS TO SPENDING?

National Spending Limits– The total cap on what a charity can spend in each country has been cut by around 60% to £319,800 in England, £55,400 in Scotland, £44,000 in Wales and £30,800 in Northern Ireland.

Spending Limits Per Constituency– The spending limit is £9,750 per Parliamentary constituency. If you are running a national campaign it may be the case that you simply divide your campaign expenditure by 650 (for the 650 Parliamentary seats).

However if spending is directly targeted at individual constituencies that then counts towards particular constituency limits (eg. Leaflets / mailings to households or distributed in a geographical area). It is assumed that political hustings meetings will be included due to the physical location and which constituencies candidates are invited from.

HOW IS EXPENDITURE CALCULATED?

PPERA defined campaigning expenditure as covering written materials and associated staff costs, however the Lobbying Act also includes market research, the cost of public meetings, media events (eg press conferences) and transport.

Will our VCO have to fill out timesheets?Ministers said in Parliament that charities won’t have to do this, but will have to complete a monthly return to the Electoral Commission (if they exceed the £20,000 threshold on expenditure within the controlled period).

How is staff time calculated?Staff time is calculated based on the number of hours per staff member and their hourly wage. A grey area, to be clarified, is whether this just includes staff who specifically work on a campaign, or other staff who may be indirectly involved.

The Electoral Commission have indicated they will take a “sensible” approach to this, so the expectation is that charities will declare “reasonable” staff costs without having to go into forensic details.

Do Volunteers Count? It is expected that they won’t, but this is subject to the Electoral Commission guidance to be published by July.

Do supporters’ activities count towards staff time?“Active” supporters may be, but this is subject to guidance by the Electoral Commission. Given that any activities which supporters of an organisation undertake is likely to be unpaid – and therefore voluntary – it is highly probable that they won’t count towards controlled expenditure.

HOW WILL THIS AFFECT MY CAMPAIGNING?

If you plan ahead before the election period begins and calculate whether or not you are likely to go over the threshold the Lobbying Act should not affect your normal campaigning.

Even if you do go over the threshold (£20,000 over the election period), so long as you register with the Electoral Commission you can carry on campaigning in the normal way, just monitor and declare your expenditure each month.

Conversely, if your organisation will spend less than £20,000 threshold over the election period – including staff costs – then you are not affected by the Lobbying Act.

If your organisation had planned to stay under the threshold but find you have gone over it during the election period you can register with the Electoral Commission at any point and then count all spending over the election period.

Large charities may have their activities curtailed by an overall spending cap of £317,800 (or £26,650 per month over a 12 month election period), but the majority of VCOs will not reach that limit.

The Lobbying Act does not include sending letters / communications or meetings with MPs or Government ministers.

You can ‘frontload’ campaigning costs before 19th September but you cannot stockpile materials for use after 19th September (it is the date of use that counts, not when it was printed).

Websites will almost certainly not be covered under controlled expenditure unless they are “actively promoted” to the public during an election period. Actively promoting a website could include having a web address at the bottom of a leaflet.

Party conferences activity - such as stalls, fringe events and leaflets for delegates – will fall under the definition of controlled expenditure and thus count towards your organisations’ threshold and spending limits.

If an organisation breaks the Lobbying Act, the Electoral Commission can impose civil penalties and issue enforcement ‘stop’ notices. If such notices are ignored in worst case scenario a criminal prosecution can take place.

Organisations are free to ask the Electoral Commission for advice. The Commission will be monitoring campaigning activity and may get in touch with a charity to offer advice. If other organisations or individuals complain the Commission can investigate.

CAN YOUR VCO JOIN ‘COALITIONS’ OF OTHER THIRD SECTOR ORGANISATIONS TO CAMPAIGN AROUND A PARTICULAR ISSUE?

Yes, absolutely. However the question is will other organisations’ spending on a campaign count towards your own individual expenditure?

Under the previous law, PPERA, expenditure by alliances of groups who come together for a particular campaign applied to each member of that alliance. That still applies, however an organisation within the alliance can register as “lead campaigners” with the Electoral Commission and take responsibility for reporting spending on behalf of minor campaigners (providing that the minor campaigner does not mind spending more that the registration threshold).

The Electoral Commission need to clarify exactly how the administrative process would work for small-spending members of a coalition or alliance.  It is unlikely that infrastructure organisations will be responsible for the activities of their member organisations, but that remains to be clarified.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

The Lobbying Act will apply from 19th September 2014. The next Government will begin a review into how it worked 18 months after the 2015 General Election, and a report will be laid before Parliament. Meanwhile the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement will continue to collect experiences of how the law is working in practice from now and throughout this period.

For more information contact: Lester Holloway, Policy Officer, Voice 4 Change England:

Email: lester@voice4change-england.co.uk