More than half of charities say that the lobbying act has made it more difficult to achieve their original missions or visions, according to a new report from the Shelia McKechnie Foundation.
The report, which was published today and is called The Chilling Reality, says 51 per cent of charities feel the lobbying act makes it more difficult to pursue their missions, particularly those working on politically sensitive or controversial issues.
The lobbying act sets spending limits and makes it a legal necessity for all organisations that spend more that £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Wales on regulated campaigning in the year prior to an election to register with the Electoral Commission.
Last year the government decided not to introduce reforms to the act proposed by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, whom the government had commissioned to review the legislation.
Today’s report, which is based on telephone interviews, focus groups and an online survey carried out with 92 campaigners and senior managers in the charity sector, says that the act "stops some activity completely", including public comment on politically sensitive issues.
The act also reduces charities’ ability to support local democratic engagement, the report says, and more than a third of respondents said they had changed their language or tone in campaigns or public comment as a result of the lobbying act.
"There is a widespread concern that this caution may have made communications less effective overall," the report says.
It adds that, despite the government’s insistence that the charity sector simply needs to understand the lobbying act better, "the best will in the world cannot transform ambiguous legislation into clear guidance" and the Electoral Commission faces an "impossible task" attempting to do so.
Large charities have also struggled to provide local staff and volunteers with a "sufficiently straightforward summary" of how the lobbying act works, according to the report.
A third of respondents said that the lobbying act had a negative effect on coalition building between charities on campaigning issues, and 36 per cent reported slower decision-making as a result of the act.
Only 32 per cent of respondents to the survey said that the lobbying act had had no impact on their campaigning.
Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Shelia McKechnie Foundation, said in a statement: "What we have found is deeply worrying. This research provides clear evidence that the ‘chilling effect’ is not an illusion and nor is it somehow self-imposed. It’s a rational response to this ambiguous and onerous legislation.
"The government has made very positive statements about the importance of the civil society voice and campaigning in recent weeks, which is welcome. But our research shows that their actions are constraining that voice, threatening civil society space in the UK and compromising public interest.
"We are calling on them to pay attention to this evidence and reconsider their current position."