This week brought some useful progress in the task of rebuilding confidence among charities about their campaigning activities between now and the general election next May. The Electoral Commission published revised guidance about the lobbying act – which, among other things, clarified how it will proceed in cases where a candidate or political party decides to support, oppose or debate a subject that a charity has been promoting.
This had been a source of anxiety among charities and those supporting them. What if a long-standing campaign by a charity for a particular policy change that was central to its purposes was suddenly adopted - or for that matter rejected - by a candidate and became a matter of political controversy? Would this mean that all the charity’s spending so far on that campaign would count towards the limits laid down for third-party campaigners by the act? Would it have to stop or change what it was doing? And how should it deal with the new state of affairs in the future?
One of the FAQs on the commission’s website makes it clear that the adoption of a charity campaigning issue by a candidate or party, which some are referring to as "piggybacking", will not mean that all the charity’s spending on that campaign automatically becomes regulated. But it will become regulated if the charity goes beyond a one-off welcome for the political support and publicises it repeatedly in its subsequent campaigning, or alters or increases its campaigning as a result of that political support.
This common-sense response has been welcomed by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and others who have been judiciously pressing for clarification of this key issue. It is not going to solve all the problems posed for charities and voluntary organisations by the act, which is widely regarded as unnecessary and which Labour has pledged to repeal. It doesn’t necessarily help much, for example, with the decision of whether or not to register with the Electoral Commission, which remains something of a conundrum (only four charities have so far). But the new guidance will diminish to some extent the chilling effect of the legislation on legitimate campaigning by charities, and to that extent it should be welcomed.