Sir Stuart Etherington says sector should ignore 'hyperbole' over the lobbying act

In a blog, the NCVO chief writes that changes are needed to the Electoral Commission's guidance, but it is 'not incomprehensible'

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has urged calm over the lobbying act, saying the sector should ignore the potentially dangerous hyperbole and "theatrical claims" about the new laws.

In a blog post on the NCVO website, Etherington says that the Electoral Commission’s guidance on the lobbying act is "not perfect, but it is not ‘incomprehensible’," referring to the description used earlier this month by Sir Stephen Bubb, his counterpart at the charity leaders group Acevo.

Nonetheless, the NCVO has joined Acevo in asking the Electoral Commission to make changes to its guidance.

The first regulated period under the lobbying act begins next month, after the referendum on Scottish independence.

The act, which faced substantial opposition from charities and campaigning groups in its passage through parliament, tightens laws around what charities and campaigners can do in the period running up to elections.

The Electoral Commission produced its full guidance on complying with the act last month; organisations including Acevo and the charity law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite have since said that it needs substantial revision.

But Etherington has voiced disapproval at some of the stronger criticisms of the law and the guidance. "I wince when I now read exaggerated claims about the impact of the act, as such misrepresentations could be deeply harmful," he says in his blog.

"When charities read that they will be ‘censored’ or banned entirely from campaigning, or that their board face jail if they make a mistake, the effect is not to improve their understanding, nor to provide a constructive solution, but simply to spread confusion and alarm. This scaremongering is irresponsible and is in serious danger of deterring charities from perfectly lawful campaigning – a scenario not without irony."

Charities should be aware of multiple assurances from government that the legislation is not designed to stop charities’ normal campaigning activity, and that the Electoral Commission is "not out to ‘get’ charities", he says. Etherington says that new legislation is always likely to present uncertainties.

Etherington makes the same claim as has previously come from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Caroline Cooke, the head of policy engagement and research at the Charity Commission – that few charities would be affected by the new laws and would therefore need to register with the Electoral Commission.

Etherington praises the Electoral Commission for having "made real and substantive efforts to engage with the sector on the implementation of the act", and says it was given a difficult task in being asked to interpret the law in a short space of time.

"I am clear: the balance of risk is that we self-police and stay silent on issues that concern our beneficiaries," he says.

Etherington does, however, acknowledge that more clarity in the Electoral Commission’s guidance would be helpful.

Another NCVO blog, published simultaneously by Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy manager at the umbrella body, says it has written to the commission suggesting several amendments, such as changing its structure to make it more accessible and giving tighter definitions of certain terms used.

Chamberlain also reiterates Etherington’s view of risk, saying: "The much bigger risk is that you worry so much about the act that you decide not to pursue advocacy goals that are important to the people and issues you work for."

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