Lobbying bill puts charities in fear of criminal prosecution, says top QC

Advice from a top election law QC has confirmed charities’ fears over proposals in the government’s lobbying bill, due to get its second reading in the Commons tomorrow (today).

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations wrote to Cabinet Office minister, Chloë Smith, last month, backed by many household name charities, to express its concern about proposals in the bill on ‘non-party campaigning’ (1). Concerned charities include the Royal British Legion, Oxfam, and the Salvation Army.

The proposals are intended to strengthen existing rules that limit what organisations can do to support political parties during an election. But the proposed changes mean that tens of thousands of charities and community groups may inadvertently be caught in the scope of deeply burdensome regulation.The new rules are so complex and unclear that they will be challenging if not impossible for charities and community groups to follow, NCVO believes.

NCVO sought urgent legal advice over the impact of the proposals from election law expert Helen Mountfield QC (2). The advice is available here.

‘Uncertainty about what the law requires is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, putting small organisations and their trustees and directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern’, Ms Mountfield writes in her opinion.

The proposals are likely to impose extensive and expensive audit and recording requirements on charities and community groups in relation to a wide range of activities. Charities may even have to account to the Electoral Commission for volunteers’ time.

‘The restrictions and restraints are so wide and so burdensome as arguably to amount to a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression’, Ms Mountfield adds, saying that the legislation may fall foul of freedom of expression rights.

The Electoral Commission itself expressed significant doubts about the viability of the proposals in a briefing for MPs published on Thursday (3). The Commission, which would be responsible for enforcing the rules, said that even if it provided advice to charities on what they could do, they could still not act with certainty, as their advice and opinion could be challenged by others. There will be ‘a lot of complexity and uncertainty for those who may be covered by the rules’, the Commission said.

NCVO has provided a copy of the advice to the Cabinet Office and to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which is examining the bill.

Commenting, Karl Wilding, director of public policy at NCVO, said:

‘This bill takes us from a situation in which charities and community groups largely understood the rules on what they could do, into a position where no one has any idea what the rules are, but may nevertheless face criminal prosecution for getting them wrong.

‘This is the inevitable consequence of rushing legislation through without any consultation.

‘I would like the government to give serious consideration to putting its proposals on hold. This would give them the chance to consult properly on a solution that addresses concerns about undue influence in politics without the risk of sweeping every charity and community group in the country into a deeply burdensome bureaucratic regime.’

Contact

Aidan Warner, media officer, NCVO – 07714 243 942 / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Notes

NCVO represents the charity and voluntary sector, with over 10,000 members, from the biggest household name charities to the smallest community groups.

1) http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/documents/press-releases/ncvo-seeks-urgent-legal-advice-over-government-campaigning-proposals
2) Ms Mountfield, of Matrix Chambers, was instructed by charity law specialists, Bates Wells Braithwaite. http://www.matrixlaw.co.uk/Members/26/Helen%20Mountfield.aspx / http://www.bwbllp.com
3) Electoral Commission briefing for MPs on the second reading of the bill (PDF): http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/156580/Transparency-of-Lobbying-Non-Party-Campaigning-and-Trade-Union-Administration-Bill-Second-Reading-Briefing.pdf

 

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