NCVO seeks urgent legal advice over government campaigning proposals

Charities, led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), have written to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith to express serious concerns over proposals in the lobbying and transparency bill which would dramatically limit their ability to speak out on issues affecting the people and causes they support.

NCVO says the government is at risk of inadvertently making charities and community groups ‘collateral damage’ in its efforts to regulate election campaigning. The letter is supported by charities including the Royal British Legion, Countryside Alliance, RNIB, Oxfam and Help the Hospices among others. Read the letter here.

NCVO has instructed a QC to provide urgent advice on the proposed rules, which could have the effect of preventing charities from speaking out on issues both locally or nationally. The rules would cover, among other things, leaflets, websites and media appearances. Charities’ normal work and publications may suddenly become subject to regulation in the period before an election. A community group that campaigned in favour of or against a local bypass road proposal, or on local health services, could become subject to the rules.

Under the rules, if a charity or community group expressed its view on an issue, even though it must be party politically neutral under charity law, it could still be deemed to have had the effect of supporting a party or candidate’s election campaign. They would then be subject to the demands of regulation which could dramatically limit their work.

The rules in the new bill are complex and unclear, meaning charities will have no certainty over when they may be accused of having inadvertently assisted a candidate or party’s election campaign. Even a fundraising leaflet that touched on an issue which could be contested in an election – and it is hard to predict what this will include – could be subject to regulation.

Commenting, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said:

'The Cabinet Office tell us that charities’ normal work shouldn’t be caught by these rules but it seems to us that there is a large and murky area of uncertainty. We urgently need clarity to prevent charities and community groups from becoming collateral damage in the government’s efforts to regulate political campaigns.'

Notes

NCVO represents the voluntary sector in England, with 10,000 members from the largest household name charities to the smallest community groups.

Contact

Aidan Warner, media officer, NCVO – 020 7520 2413 / 07714 243 942.

 

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