It is in the public interest that charities and voluntary organisations bear witness to the impact of policy, give voice to the people they serve, and support full participation in political discussion and democratic process. Their subsequent campaigning might relate to specific policies, the delivery of services, or public attitudes. Regardless of its focus, the vital characteristic is that it involves the public in the debate. However, there is growing concern that the space for civil society to operate in this way is shrinking.
In this context, our research set out to find out whether the Lobbying Act is directly affecting charity and voluntary organisations’ ability to campaign. The evidence found that it is. The Act was intended to increase transparency in election spending, which few dispute is in the public interest. This research suggests that, by reducing civil society’s ability to campaign effectively, the Act does not deliver public benefit overall. What little transparency we gain is far outweighed by the loss of so many voices of experience from our political debate.
We found that the Lobbying Act is just one aspect, albeit a totemic one, of a bigger and more complex picture. The interplay between government policies, media attitudes and shifting public opinion has increased hostility to the idea that charities and voluntary organisations should speak out on issues that affect the people they serve. Restrictions on how funding, both public and private, may be used further reduces their ability to contribute to public debate.
Presented as an effort to bring transparency to the activities of commercial lobbyists, our evidence shows that it is charities that are feeling the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act. We found that many are now less inclined to tackle politically challenging issues publicly. Doing so risks meeting both the ‘purpose test’ and ‘public test’ of the Act, which requires registration with the Electoral Commission. This is costly, whether organisations register or, instead, try to tread the non-registration side of the line. As a result, those who wish to avoid uncertainty and extra cost are forced to step a very long way back from any potentially challengeable activity.
The result is more cautious, less responsive campaigning, and those who lose out are the people directly affected by the issues. It is their voices, ultimately, that are being silenced. Is the transparency that the Act promises coming at too high a price?