The lobbying act is, in effect, "a punitive extra tax on campaigners" and the Electoral Commission’s guidance on complying with the law needs a fundamental overhaul, according to a PR industry body’s submission to Lord Hodgson’s review of the act.
The lobbying act received royal assent in January last year and mandated a review of part 2 of the act – the section that tightens restrictions on the campaigning activities of charities and other groups.
The Third Party Campaigning Review, which is being led by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, began gathering evidence in March, and in April invited further feedback from interested parties through online surveys.
These surveys closed on 7 June. The Public Relations Consultants Association has submitted a further response that expands on the questions addressed in the survey, in which it says: "Some organisations report bills for lawyers and accountants running into the tens of thousands. Given that for some organisations campaigning is vital in meeting their charitable objectives, this has amounted to a punitive extra tax on campaigners."
The PRCA submission says that volunteers feel threatened by the act, saying that this has "had the effect of, essentially, silencing volunteers and smaller charities", and recommends that more should be done to explain to smaller charities that they are unlikely to be covered, including a communications campaign to make volunteers aware that they are not regulated.
The submission also says the Electoral Commission’s guidance on the laws is "often confused and unclear" and "needs a fundamental overhaul if it is to be fit for purpose", a criticism that has previously been made by a number of charities and campaigners.
It says that in some cases complying with the legislation could cost charities more than they spend on campaigning itself.
The PRCA recommends an increase in the spending limits – a recommendation that was due to appear in Labour’s never-published Sherlock review of the act – as well as a simplification of the requirements for registered non-party campaigners to report to the Electoral Commission.
It says that the Charity Commission and the Electoral Commission need to "work more closely to ensure each organisation’s guidance does not contradict the other’s".
The PRCA’s submission asks the government to reassure charities that the aim of the act and government policy is not to stifle their freedom of speech.
Hodgson has until late 2016 to publish his review, but says he intends to do so by the end of this year.