Guest blog by Paul Parker, Recording Clerk, Quakers in Britain
In June 1660, Margaret Fell delivered a paper to King Charles II and both houses of parliament making clear Quakers’ stance ‘against all strife and wars’. In 1917, officers of the Quakers were jailed for defying the censor by publishing peace pamphlets during the First World War. Ever since the early days members of the Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers, have seen it as an act of faith to speak truth to power with love. And they have done so on a huge range of peace and social justice issues – against nuclear weapons, opposing fracking, in support of same-sex marriage and humane policy on the refugee crisis. By current definition, that makes us a lobbying organisation to our very core.
The introduction of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 presented today’s Quakers with a dilemma. Should we comply with legislation that threatened to place limits on our ability to speak our truth during an election period, or should we defy it? To defy it would put our organisation at risk and at the same time appear to undermine the government’s efforts to provide greater transparency about who is funding election campaigning. In 2014, our national representative body, Meeting for Sufferings, determined:
“We engage in political activity because our faith impels us. Registering under the Lobbying Act will not stop us from speaking out. While we feel that the Act has many flaws we also recognise that a key aim is to reduce the ability of large organisations (worthy and ruthless alike) to hold disproportionate influence over the political system, and also to increase transparency. The feeling in this meeting is that it would be right to register under the Act, but also to make it clear that we won’t modify our work to fit in with the limits, but will continue to be led by our conscience.”
For the current General Election campaign, Quakers are one of only five charities to register as lobbying organisations. In 2015 we were one of 14 charities to register, and the only charitable organisation to declare income for campaigning purposes. We spent just under £80,000 in the regulated period running up to the election, the bulk of it on staff costs. As it stands, the law requires us to track expenditure on 20 different campaigning issues, to backdate that analysis for a year, and to report weekly. This impacts on our costs, but won’t change anything we do.
We welcome transparency in politics, but this Act does not deliver it. It focuses on the minutiae of costs and donations, in a sector driven by motivations and passion. The Act assumes charities are structured like political parties, which quite simply isn’t the case. Quakers are a church first and a charity second, and we campaign on a wide range of issues. It’s hard to tell how our conscience will next ask us to speak out.
The danger of the Lobbying Act is that other charities and faith bodies, perhaps less confident about the need for their voice in the public square, or without the financial and moral resources to stand firm, will shy away not just from registration, but from any campaigning whatever. The Lobbying Act poses a subtle, insidious danger to charities, binding them in red tape, telling them they shouldn’t be in the political space at all.
Of course charities shouldn’t be trying to swing an election, but it’s vital the public are given the information they need to make up their minds how to vote. After all, charities are seen by the public as three times more trustworthy than politicians! We have a vital role to play in civil society, and that doesn’t stop when there’s an election. But this legislation leads them and their trustees to be too cautious in speaking out. It leads them to hesitate to join with partner organisations and campaign together, to avoid the sheer rigmarole of compliance with yet another set of rules (23 online handbooks so far) and yet another regulator. Many charities just don’t have the time, the energy, or the determination to participate in the democratic process on these terms. This is a loss to our society.
I don’t believe this law was set up especially to catch out the Quakers, so what problem is it trying to solve? Its perhaps unintended consequences, of stifling wider civil society debate, limiting charities’ ability to engage with government on issues where they have particular insights, and silencing the voice of those whom they support and represent, can only damage our democracy. It creates a void filled by fake news and extreme views. Surely no responsible government can want that; whoever is elected next week, it is time they looked again at this inadequate and dangerous law.