When the lobbying bill first emerged the sector was horrified and argued that its provisions, which were supposed to tackle back-door influences on our politics, would actually silence the voices of legitimate grass-roots campaigners.
Last Wednesday the government made a number of amendments but we, at Acevo, believe there’s still a long way to go. In light of the amendments and ahead of the bill’s report stage in the House of Lords this week we’ve rounded up five key points about the lobbying bill.
1. It’s all about limiting the amount you would spend on your campaigns in an election year
The bill achieves this through what it refers to as “thresholds”. If you were to spend more than these thresholds in an election year you would have to register with the Electoral Commission and be monitored as a political campaigner.
Originally the Government wanted to set these thresholds at a mere £5,000 of campaign spending during the whole election year in England and just £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: tiny, tiny amounts. Their new proposal increases those thresholds, so you can spend £20,000 if you are in England, or £10,000 if you are in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, without all the bureaucracy and monitoring. Granted, that’s still not a huge amount, but it is a significant improvement.
2. There’s also a limit to the amount you can spend in any one parliamentary constituency
The bill imposes a second limit on your campaign spending and this is definitely more egregious than the first one. Under the bill, you can only spend up to £9,750 on your campaigns in any one parliamentary constituency. Spend more than that and it could proceed to criminal proceedings.
As you can imagine, we’ve always argued vehemently against this, as £9,750 is hardly a huge amount for any campaign team to spend over the course of a year in one action area. And, besides, it just makes no sense to look at our sector’s activity in that way; many charities and campaign groups simply don’t organise themselves in terms of parliamentary constituencies. We tend to follow the issue or social need, wherever it takes us, irrespective of the political geography. We foresee real problems for campaigners of all stripes unless there is movement on this.
3. Sorry, but your staff costs count
Crucially, you must count the cost of employing your staff towards the bottom line for your campaign spend, as well as a number of things such as your travel costs. We have argued and argued on this one but the government have not yet conceded ground. It’s a real potential problem with the bill. Staff costs often represent the bulk of any campaigning organisation’s costs. In our sector, we often use campaigning staff for other important things to do with our missions and services too. We’ll keep going on this too.
4. If you’re a small charity, there is a little titbit for you
Under the rules, if you’re part of a smaller charity you might avoid the worst of all this by joining a campaign coalition. The government’s new position is that if you are in a coalition of this kind, the single largest organisation working with you will be able to submit all the spending for monitoring on your behalf. If you’re a registered third-party campaigner working with these groups, you won’t need to report at all, unless you spend more than the national threshold. This is far better then the government’s previous position – that everyone in a coalition, no matter how small, had to keep tabs on their campaign spending.
5. … And finally: according to the bill, the “election year” is actually eight months
Originally the government wanted all of the above to cover campaigns that take place over the period from May 2014-May 2015. We’ve managed to get that reduced so that they would now actually apply from 19 September 2014, the day after the Scottish Independence Referendum and would last until the 2015 election on 8 May. So that gives us all a bit more space to make those campaign funds work for us. After May 2015, the whole thing will be reviewed again.
We should all monitor how the eventual act that ripens from the lobbying bill affects our campaign work over the course of the next year. That way, we’ll be in a position to come together once again when it’s up for review in May 2015 and, if need be, have this argument all over again, this time with even harder data. But for now let’s keep pushing the government on these issues. They’ve come this far and what’s at stake is too important to let the debate rest now.
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