Electoral Commission amends guidance to lobbying act

Some see the revisions as minor, others as a victory for campaigners against the legislation

The Electoral Commission has made amendments to its guidance on the lobbying act after criticism from the sector of the original guidance, but campaigning experts say they are minor changes and offer little help.

Under the lobbying act, charities must register as non-party campaigners with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than a given amount of money on certain public campaigning activities that could be interpreted as attempting to procure electoral success.

The act passed into law in January and the commission published full guidance on compliance with it in July.

The commission was strongly criticised for the lack of clarity in the guidance, and a number of figures in the charity sector called for it to be revised or amended.

The Electoral Commission has since published a single-page document listing eight amendments and a message on its website says: "We have updated parts of our non-party campaigner guidance to reflect stakeholder feedback. We have also made a number of other small changes and corrections."

Four of the amendments clarify that campaigning activities are likely to be classed as regulated activity if they can reasonably be seen as intended to influence voters.

One amendment removes the commission’s assertion that registering as a non-party campaigner is a straightforward and short process, while another is a formating issue.

Vicki Bowles, a solicitor at the law firm Stone King, said: "They’re helpful to an extent, but they don’t go far enough and they don’t answer the questions that I’m being asked about specific campaigns. The main concern is about what happens if you’re campaigning on an issue and it suddenly becomes a political issue."

Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity leaders group Acevo – one of the organisations at the forefront of calls for the commission to rethink its guidance – said: "The Electoral Commission is in retreat. These amendments are another victory for the campaign on the lobbying act, and particularly the pressure from Acevo, [the NGO network] Bond and [the petition-hosting organisations] 38 Degrees.

"Their practical implications are small, but they do mean the Electoral Commission accepts the principle that its original guidance was unclear. The only regret is that it is taking so long for it to admit its errors and rectify them."

Jude Doherty, policy coordinator at resources and training charity the Directory of Social Change, said: "I don’t think there is much here that is contentious. All the amendments are minor."

The first regulated period under the new laws starts on 19 September, the day after the Scottish independence referendum, and lasts until the general election on 7 May 2015.

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