The hubbub around the infamous “lobbying bill” is not, it seems, about to die down anytime soon. On Thursday, the Government announced it would be making further amendments to the Lobbying Bill after charities raised concerns they could be gagged by the legislation.
It said it is committed to ensuring normal charity campaigning isn’t inadvertently affected by the bill, which aims to outlaw spending more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections. The amendments, to be tabled on the 8th and 9th October 2013, could specify that only activity which could “reasonably be regarded” as trying to “promote or procure the electoral success” would be covered by the bill.
Likewise, events run by organisations specifically for their own members or annual conferences would be exempt. Charity bodies including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have said they will be taking legal advice once these are published to ensure the Government fulfils its commitment. But will the amendments be enough?
Since I penned an optimistic piece hoping legislators behind the bill would consult with the sector and refine it, the sky seems to have darkened considerably. Beyond the Lobbying Bill, Government proposals will seek to introduce more stringent tests to decide who can bring a judicial review, and to make the whole process more expensive.
Simply put, these new proposals would restrict the ability of any and all charities and campaigning groups to challenge unfair decisions on behalf of their beneficiaries through law — a core remit of so many British NGOs out there.
Sir Stephen Bubb, who runs ACEVO, got the ball rolling last week when he noted in Third Sector magazine, “There is a sinister agenda backed by those that want to clamp down on charity campaigning and charity independence. It’s become quite a hostile environment in a way that I haven’t experienced for a decade.”
On Wednesday, Sir Stuart Etherington, who heads up the NCVO, joined the fray. Specifically referring to the lobbying bill, Etherington publicly appealed to Andrew Lansley, leader of the House of Commons, saying “Charities and voluntary organisations that are simply active in trying to change policy for the advancement of their own mission should have the guarantee that they can continue to campaign as vigorously as they wish.”
Finally, on Thursday, news broke that Bubb and his team have set up a commission to investigate the impact of the lobbying bill, while at the same time Etherington will next month head a committee made up of sector leaders to establish good practice principles for campaigning and lobbying.
It’s a flurry of activity that tells us the charity sector is downright rattled, and that seems to confirm the depressing contention (as circulated on digital news source Mashable) that we are in the midst of a “global crackdown on activism”.
Clearly, something needs to be done. Among the suggestions so far have been IoF chair Mark Astarita’s no-nonsense Charity Defence Council back in July — an intriguing, American-style operation that would give the sector a strong, unified voice. He might be onto something. Because it’s great that Acevo and NCVO, two well-respected umbrella organisations, have swung into action.
But it might not be enough. We need more leadership from those at the top of lobbying and campaigning charities, and we need it to happen in a direct, unified and integrated way. It means a sector wide coming together and a concerted campaign to outline the threat civil society is facing.
It’s time for them, and all of us in the sector, to stand up and be counted. Ironically, the future of our ability to lobby effectively looks likely to come down to how effectively we lobby against these very proposals in the coming weeks. As a test of our campaigning mettle, it’s one we can’t afford to lose.