Many charities cut down on or withdrew completely from speaking out on issues in the run-up to the general election because they feared they might fall foul of the lobbying act, according to a new report.
The report, published today by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, says the impact of the act amounted to "an infringement on legitimate democratic engagement ahead of the election".
The commission, which is chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Harries of Pentregarth, was set up in 2013 in response to concerns that the lobbying legislation might curb charities’ campaigning activities.
Today’s report, the fourth published by the commission, says that uncertainty about the regulations meant that many activities aimed at raising awareness and generating discussion before the election did not take place.
It calls on the government to repeal part 2 of the legislation, which particularly affects charities and campaigning groups, or at least suspend it before the devolved administration elections take place next year.
It says that the commission, which held two evidence sessions attended by about 50 organisations and received written evidence from 52 organisations, saw nothing to convince it that the lobbying act was necessary to avert undue influence on elections.
"The act has now been tested, and considerable evidence shows it has had a negative impact on charities and campaign groups speaking out on crucial and legitimate issues ahead of the election," it says.
"Through our evidence we have learnt of the challenges that many charities and campaign groups have faced in implementing the act, including confusion about the ambiguity of the definition of regulated activity.
"Charities and campaign groups reported to us that they found it difficult to know what was and was not regulated activity, and as a result many activities aimed at raising awareness and generating discussion ahead of the election have not taken place."
It says that Quakers in Britain pulled out of a joint campaign on the tax-dodging bill because of fears about the lobbying act, and the Badgers Trust worked largely alone in the run-up to the election because other wildlife NGOs withdrew from campaigning.
It says the commission recognised the difficult job that the Electoral Commission had had in producing guidance on the legislation, but many organisations reported that they found much of it to be unclear and had had to invest "significant resource in understanding it and ensuring compliance".
The report says: "We are also concerned that at a time when charitable organisations are being asked to demonstrate value for money from funders and supporters, the act has led to resources having to be shifted to ensure compliance with the act, rather than achieving their charitable objectives."
It recommends that the definition of regulated activity in the act should be amended to clarify that campaigning should be regulated only when it is "clear that the subjective intention is to influence the outcome of an election, rather than to raise awareness and generate discussion amongst competing parties and candidates".
The report says that the definition of expenditure that counts towards the threshold past which organisations must register with the Electoral Commission should be narrowed to exclude areas such as staff costs.
Constituency spending limits should also be removed, it says.
Harries said the findings raised "alarm bells about the erosion of democratic debate". He said: "Democracy and the right of individuals and groups to speak out are the bedrock of our free society. The act should now be repealed or at least suspended and substantially amended before it restricts legitimate public debate ahead of further elections."