Electoral Commission chief 'saddened' by tone of joint letter on lobbying act

Claire Bassett says she hopes the NCVO, Acevo and Bond can work with her organisation towards a more constructive relationship on on the issue

Claire Bassett
Claire Bassett

The chief executive of the Electoral Commission has said she was "saddened" at the tone of a joint letter from three charity umbrella bodies calling on the regulator to explain its opposition to amendments to the lobbying act.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the charity chief executives body Acevo and the international development umbrella body Bond wrote this week to Claire Bassett, chief executive of the Electoral Commission, asking her to explain the regulator’s opposition to changes to the act suggested by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts after a government-commissioned review.

The review, completed last year, called for a number of reforms, including reducing the regulated campaign period to four months before an election and changes to the rules on joint campaigning.

It also recommended that the scope of the lobbying act be reduced to include only activity intended to influence how members of the public vote.

But it emerged last month that the government had decided against enacting Hodgson’s reforms.

The joint letter from the three umbrella bodies said they were extremely disappointed to hear that the government did not intend to take Hodgson’s recommendations forward "and that this is in part due to concerns raised by the Electoral Commission".

It called on the regulator to "clarify in detail what specific changes to the rules the Electoral Commission is opposed to", and on what grounds.

In her response to Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, Bassett said she was disappointed at the tone of the statements made by the three umbrella bodies and hoped the organisations could "work towards resuming a more open and constructive relationship".

"I was saddened to see the tone of the press release and statements issued yesterday soon after your letter was sent," said Bassett.

"The commission’s teams have had a constructive working relationship with NCVO staff to date, and would have hoped that a call or email would have been appropriate to clarify our position."

The letter included a link to a letter sent by the Electoral Commission to the government on Hodgson’s suggested amendments after the review was published last year.

It showed that the commission supported most of Hodgson’s recommendations, including the proposal to reduce the regulated period before a general election from 12 months to four, and for the regulatory position around "unexpected" general elections to be clarified.

But it showed that the commission did not support Hodgson’s suggestion that the lobbying act be amended to catch only activity that could be shown to be intended to influence voters’ behaviour rather than any activity that could be "reasonably regarded" to affect voting intentions, as is currently the case.

The commission said in its letter last year that regulating intentions rather than actual activity would be difficult and would move the regulator towards having to make a more subjective assessment when determining if any laws had been breached.

Bassett said in her letter: "Charities and other non-party campaigners are an important part of a healthy democracy, and their active participation during, as well as outside of, election campaign periods is welcome.

"The non-party campaigner rules have been in place since 2000 and it is important to be clear that they do not prevent campaigning or engaging in public debate. The rules only regulate how much is spent on campaigning that can be reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters’ decisions and the outcome of an election.

"They provide voters and the public with transparency, an aim I am sure we would all support."

A spokeswoman for the NCVO declined to comment on the Electoral Commission’s response.

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