Charities have "huge anxiety" about breaking the lobbying act because they fear any breach would cause reputational damage, according to a new report from the research consultancy nfpSynergy.
The report, The Lobbying Act: a waste of time and resources?, says that charities are right to be nervous about breaching the act because any breach could lead to a perception that a charity is too "political" – a negative attribute, according to journalists and MPs surveyed by the consultancy in separate research.
The report, published today, is based on phone interviews with campaigning professionals at 19 charities between October and December 2014. It says a lack of clarity in the act has left many charities scared of breaching it, and quotes one public affairs head as saying that MPs have "created a monster".
Many of the interviewees said their charities were going to great lengths to ensure they would not breach the act and become a test case for the sector. Several organisations had scaled back the profile they gave to supportive MPs and removed from their websites the names of parliamentary candidates who supported their campaigns, the report says.
It says the "huge anxiety" in the sector about the act stems from a fear of reputational damage. "If a charity is perceived to be too ‘political’, this can cause lasting damage to its ability to work with journalists and MPs, as well as to its levels of public trust," says the report. "Once an organisation is branded as ‘political’, it may continue to dog its brand for years, causing lasting reputational damage."
Failure to comply with the act, which gained royal assent in January 2014, can result in court action and fines for a charity. The report says, however, that in the case of a breach most of the charities surveyed believed they would not face penalties and the Electoral Commission would instead work with them to help them comply.
Karen Barker, a researcher at nfpSynergy, said: "This legislation was brought in to make lobbying more transparent during a general election, but in practice it is stopping some charities from speaking out at all."
The report calls for the Electoral Commission to tighten its definition of the "purpose test", which determines whether or not the campaigning activity of a charity is regulated. It will be regulated only if it can be reasonably regarded as intended to influence the public to vote for or against political parties or candidates.