Charities won’t be silenced by Lobbying Act

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​SCVO says it will show defiance to legislation which could close down debate

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6th January 2015 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

Charity chiefs have said they will defy rules which could restrict campaigning during the forthcoming Westminster general election campaign.

The UK Lobbying Act, which came into force last year, brought in changes to how non-political organisations can conduct campaigning work in the run up to a general election.

However, third sector groups are concerned they could be caught up in these changes in the run up to the general election even if they don’t mention political parties but campaign on general policy – for example the retention of the Human Rights Act and welfare spending cuts.

Groups that actively campaign as part of the general election campaign have to register with the Electoral Commission and adhere to strict new spending limits. However, the board of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) has said the body will not register regardless.

SCVO is worried that the new law will effectively muzzle charities and have a chilling effect on legitimate criticism of policy.

The introduction of this Act is a direct attack on the campaigning activity of the third sector that legitimately challenges government policy

SCVO has campaigned against these new rules since they were first proposed – and its board has now taken a decision that the organisation will not register with the Electoral Commission.

A paper agreed by the board states: “The introduction of this Act is a direct attack on the campaigning activity of the third sector that legitimately challenges government policy. The third sector’s right to campaign for the benefit of our members is fundamental to the pursuit of our objectives and must be protected.

“From a strategic political and campaigning perspective, SCVO should be opposed to any act which is explicitly designed to prevent the third sector using funds to campaign and criticise and oppose government policy.

“The third sector in Scotland – and SCVO itself – has always had a generally positive relationship with successive Scottish Governments. This will not always be the case.”

SCVO chief executive Martin Sime said: “The Lobbying Act could have an absolutely chilling effect on debate and legitimate criticism.  

“This is part of an attempt to undermine charity campaigning on behalf of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our society – the very same people who are bearing the brunt of austerity policies and the politics of division and blame. Charities should refuse to be silenced. It is vital their voice is heard at all times."

The UK government and the third sector have been on collision course over the past year over perceived attempts to silence charities.

Tory MPs – including a former minister with responsibility for civil society – have criticised charities for being “too political” when they speak out against austerity.

Oxfam was criticised by the Charity Commission, the England and Wales regulator, at the end of last year over a tweet it sent out to support its Perfect Storm campaign.

A Tory MP objected to the tweet which stated that austerity was forcing people into poverty.

The commission said Oxfam should have done more to “avoid the misconception of political bias”, but accepted that the charity had no intention of acting in a party political way.

An Oxfam advert and associated social media campaign calling for the end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza were also scrutinised by the commission, which concluded that  it was satisfied the campaign “was undertaken in the context of supporting the delivery of Oxfam’s charitable purposes."

The commission concluded it is essential for trustees to "have clear oversight of the campaigning work of their charities", particularly ahead of elections.