Charities are feeling the chilling effect of the lobbying act, third Harries Commission report will say

The latest report from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by Lord Harries, is due to be published on Monday

Lord Harries
Lord Harries

Charities and campaigning organisations are feeling the chilling effect of the lobbying act and are not speaking out on important issues before the general election, the third report of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement will say.

The commission, chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Harries of Pentregarth, was set up in October 2013 because of widespread concern about the act, which was then going through parliament.

The new laws came into force in January 2014, introducing tighter controls on campaign spending for organisations other than political parties or those standing for election. The first regulated period prescribed by the act started in September 2014 in relation to this May’s general election.

Sources close to the commission have told Third Sector that the report, to be published on Monday, will say that charities are cautious about campaigning on politically contentious issues because they fear breaking the law or the reputational risk of receiving vexatious complaints.

The report will also say that the new laws and the lengthy guidance accompanying it – which has been criticised as "incomprehensible" – is consuming substantial time and resource for charities.

It will argue that the act has made it almost impossible for charities and campaign groups to work together as coalitions and speak out on politically contested issues, as they did before the new law came into effect.

The report will include the results of a survey of charities and campaign groups, with 63 per cent of respondents saying that the act will make some or all of their objectives harder to achieve.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World At One yesterday, Harries said: "We've had clear evidence that a number of campaigning groups have already decided not to campaign or not to join with other bodies to campaign on an issue because they are frightened of running foul of the act.

"I would be very surprised if at the end of this election there weren't a number of legal cases where complaints had been brought against campaigning groups."

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders group Acevo, said: "The lobbying act was always a solution in search of a problem. This report shows it is diverting charities from their usual work for beneficiaries, plunging them into a sea of red tape. At Acevo, we know how part 2 of the lobbying act works, and our advice is clear: keep calm and carry on campaigning. Charities should not be gagged, and they won’t be.

"We repeat the call we made in our general election manifesto for all political parties to commit to repeal the lobbying act in the first year of the new parliament. The free speech of groups as well as individuals is too important to be curtailed by the political class."

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