Peter Wardle: staying on the right side of the lobbying act

As the first regulated period gets under way, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission describes what charities must do to keep their campaigning within the rules

Peter Wardle
Peter Wardle

On Friday 19 September, new rules introduced in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act come into force. It’s fair to say that this legislation did not pass without controversy.

The Electoral Commission spent a lot of time briefing parliament on the changes we thought were needed in order to make sure the lobbying act worked as well as possible, both for campaigners and for us as a regulator. Once the act became law, we moved quickly to draft the guidance that campaigners needed to understand how the new rules would work in practice.

Non-party campaigners, including charities, that spend money on campaigning that can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters in the run-up to an election have been regulated since rules were first put in place in 2000. The new legislation extends the range of campaigning activities that are covered by these rules. This used to be only election material, but now the definition includes public rallies, press conferences or media events and canvassing or market research: for example, using phone banks to encourage people to vote a certain way.

Any non-party campaigner that intends to spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in any of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland during the regulated period  – which runs from 19 September 2014 until 7 May 2015 for the May 2015 UK parliamentary general election – must register with us. There are new lower spending limits that vary across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and also a £9,750 spending limit per constituency. More information is contained in our guidance.

We produced this guidance in a format that allows campaigners to use the document most relevant to their needs. The introductory guidance should help many campaigners decide quickly whether they are likely to need to register. Those that do can find more detail in the rest of the guidance about what they need to focus on during their campaign, and what they need to report to us on in order to comply with the law.

In the course of preparing our guidance we did a great deal of work to listen to the concerns of campaigners and to understand how our guidance could best help them. We talked extensively to organisations that might be affected by the legislation, particularly in the voluntary sector. We held consultation events across the UK and ran a survey that had over 120 responses. We issued a series of campaigner updates that have over 900 subscribers, and will continue to issue these over the coming months. 

Since we published our guidance in July, we have listened to feedback and made adjustments where needed. Some organisations have also asked for more factsheets on specific issues – we’re responding to that – and by the end of this week we will have published new factsheets covering the use of social media and party conferences.

We appreciate that many campaigners want definitive "yes" or "no" answers that tell them whether their activities will be covered by the new rules. However, the way the law is drafted means that it will depend on the facts in each case. Campaigners therefore have a responsibility to consider their planned activities in the light of our guidance and the new rules, and decide whether they need to register. We will continue to produce campaigner updates and where charities would find a factsheet helpful, we’ll consider producing one or adding to our FAQs to help you decide.

Charities are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation in the campaign period ahead of the general election. Where a significant amount of money is being spent on campaigning, it’s right that voters can see whose spending that money and what outcome they are campaigning for.

Peter Wardle is chief executive of the Electoral Commission

To sign up to the Electoral Commission’s updates for non-party campaigners, click here

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