April 25, 2017
U.K. Election 2017: Charities Silenced By Snap Election Red Tape

Charities may be forced into silence during this year's U.K. election campaigning. How a charity can campaign is governed by complicated red tape and this could well prove to be a barrier to charities' involvement in crucial election discussions.

The executive director of Greenpeace, often one of the strongest voices on environmental issues in elections, said the law which governs charity involvement was a "democratic car crash." John Sauven called for this to be "the last election contested under the shadow of this failed law."

But just what is stopping a charity from offering its voice to the upcoming U.K. election and why is the current red tape such a barrier to them?

Will charities find barriers to their involvement in the U.K. election? [Image by Alastair Grant/AP Images]

How Each Charity Can Join This Election Campaign

The role of charities in elections is important, as they lend an important perspective on the civil discussions that surround the pertinent election issues. The rules that govern the involvement of a charity in an election in the U.K. are very strict and relate to their previous year's spending.

A charity's election involvement is legislated under the Lobbying Act. This act requires charities to register as "non-party campaigners" if they spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in any other part of the U.K. on "regulated campaign activity."

This means that charities can take part in U.K. election campaigns but are not standing for elections themselves. This legislation covers most charities' efforts, as charities tend to campaign on issues rather than party politics.

The Lobbying Act is designed to prevent charities or organizations from using significant financial resources to unfairly distort public opinions or party policies through excessive lobbying. But to say that it is limiting the useful efforts of charities is an understatement.

The "regulated campaign activity" that they must declare dates back 12 months from the date of the U.K. election. In the year ahead of a U.K. election, charities must be careful to report all their activity and spending on issues in which they actively campaign for or against.

But in this situation of a sudden snap election, it means that charities are now in a mad scramble to retroactively declare their campaign spending back to June 9, 2016. The issue is not just the huge administration burden now on each charity's shoulders, but also that they had been planning for an election in 2020.

Many charities are now having to change their focus of campaigning to offer their voice to the pertinent issues that will affect this election rather than one in three years time.

Theresa May addresses a crowd in front of campaign posters
Prime Minister Theresa May campaigning ahead of the U.K. election on June 8 [Image by Rebecca Naden - WPA Pool/Getty Images]

The Government Reviews Its Own Law

The Lobbying Act has long been criticized by charity leaders. Greenpeace's John Sauven noted that a government review had concluded as much.

"The government's own review acknowledged that the legislation had a chilling effect in the 2015 election by 'frightening charities away from raising important issues.'"
It was called a "gagging law" and was accused of "stifling free speech" in a letter signed by 160 charity leaders following the 2015 U.K. election. The subsequent review of this act by the new government in 2016 made a number of suggestions on how to revise it to better benefit the efforts of charities.

It suggested that the regulated period of 12 months was shrunk to four months, as this is a more realistic amount of time to influence the public's opinion ahead of an election. It also suggested that, in a situation of a snap election, that the laws needed to be clarified as they are "excessively complicated."

Neither suggestion has yet been carried out. The Cabinet Office also refused to comment upon any revisions or clarifications ahead of this election. A spokesperson offered only this reply to requests from BBC News.

"As we're in the pre-election period it would be inappropriate for us to comment."
Charity And The 2017 U.K. Election

So, what will the likely impact be, and can charities still play an important role in the U.K. election?

In short, yes, the larger charities will likely find their voices in time to support the civil conversation. But it won't be easy even for those with significant resources. As the chief executive of ACEVO has suggested, many are currently just trying to "understand their legal obligations." Many smaller charities may simply find the barriers to involvement insurmountable.

But, assuming many charities understand their legal obligations as well as prepare the necessary evidence of the last year's campaign spending, register as a non-party campaigner, and prepare relevant documents on the issues that matter to this election, then they will not be silenced.

But it's not a given that they will be as effective as they could be under a more flexible Lobbying Act, as ACEVO's Vicky Browning has pointed out.

"There is a real danger that this decision will hamper charity campaigning over the crucial coming weeks."
Charities and the general public will hope that this is not the case. For a fair and equal approach to issues in the U.K. election, the voice of charity is vital. But for some in this sudden rush of campaigning, there may be a little too much legislation and not enough time to have the impact that we need charities to have.

[Featured Image by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images]