The human rights group Amnesty International UK has registered as a non-party campaigner with the Electoral Commission under the lobbying act, saying it had to choose between registering or toning down its campaigning activities.
The act, which was passed in January last year, says that charities, campaign groups and other organisations must register with the Electoral Commission if their spending on particular "regulated activities" in a pre-election period exceeds £20,000 in England, £10,000 in the rest of the UK, or £9,750 in any one parliamentary constituency.
It also significantly broadened the list of regulated activities and lowered the overall spending permissible by registered organisations. The law has been criticised by some in the charity sector as an attempt to silence dissent and free speech.
Amnesty International United Kingdom Section, the full legal name of Amnesty International UK, which is not a charity, officially registered with the Electoral Commission on 23 March, and its registration was confirmed on the commission’s online register this week.
The Amnesty International UK Section Charitable Trust is a related charity registered in England and Wales and in Scotland. It carries out some advocacy, education and grant funding work, and has not registered with the Elector Commission. The charity had an income of £14m in 2013, and the non-charitable section’s income was £24.8m in the same year.
A statement from Tim Hancock, director of the chief executive’s office at Amnesty UK, said the organisation registered with the Electoral Commission "in order to ensure that Amnesty International UK remains able to campaign on all issues that it wishes to during the election period".
Hancock added: "We are concerned that the act of registration may lead some people to believe that Amnesty International UK is campaigning to influence the outcome of the general election period. We want to state, unequivocally, that this is not the case."
Hancock’s statement said that Amnesty’s governing statute required the organisation "to act with political impartiality", and added: "Amnesty International UK has criticised the current government. We have also praised it. The same applied to its predecessors. We decide our stance issue by issue and policy by policy, not because we want to see a government of one complexion or another."
The statement said that although Amnesty UK accepted the importance of electoral transparency, it regretted "that the lobbying act is so broadly drawn that some of our long-standing work can fall under the definition of ‘regulated campaign activity’." The organisation opposed the legislation throughout its passage into law.
The statement said that if the organisation had decided to create internal rules to prevent it from carrying out those activities it would have been unable to speak about such issues as proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act and laws that it says allow homophobic discrimination.
Amnesty is the 59th organisation registered as a non-party campaigner with the Electoral Commission, joining charities including Stonewall, the RSPCA and the Salvation Army, and other groups such as the campaigning platform 38 Degrees, the cosmetics retailer Lush, various individuals and several trade unions. Arthritis Research is the most recent charity to register, although its registration was confirmed only this week and it has not been put onto the Electoral Commission’s online register.