Umbrella bodies ask Electoral Commission to explain opposition to lobbying act reform

The NCVO, Acevo and Bond have written to chief executive Claire Bassett asking her to tell them why her organisation apparently came out against reforms suggested by a peer

Three charity umbrella bodies have called on the Electoral Commission to explain its apparent opposition to amendments to the lobbying act suggested by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the chief executives body Acevo and the international development umbrella body Bond have written to Claire Bassett, chief executive of the Electoral Commission, asking her to explain her organisation’s apparent opposition to the amendments put forward by Hodgson in his government-commissioned review of the act.

The act sets spending limits and makes it a legal necessity for all organisations that spend more that £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Wales on regulated campaigning in the year prior to an election to register with the Electoral Commission. 

Hodgson’s 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.

The review 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.

Today’s letter says the three charities recently had a meeting with Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Civil Society, and Chris Skidmore, the constitution minister, to discuss reform of the lobbying act.

It says the three organisations 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 says: "We understand that as the body charged with enforcing the rules you may have a different view about some of the changes proposed, but we are aware that the Electoral Commission itself has found some parts of the act to be a challenge to implement and enforce.

"We also hope you will agree that by not enacting the reforms we risk continuing the confusion about the act, and allowing the problems we saw earlier this year to reappear at all future general elections."

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

"That would not only mean that we have a better understanding of our respective positions, but it could also enable an open conversation about possible solutions moving forward," it says.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said in a statement he was extremely disappointed by the commission’s position.

"What’s needed is an open conversation about how the rules on non-party campaigning can be changed so they meet their objective of ensuring fair elections," he said.

"There is consistent evidence that the law has a detrimental impact on the ability and willingness of the voluntary sector to speak out. We need prompt answers from the Electoral Commission so that we can get that discussion under way."

Asked to comment on the letter, an Electoral Commission spokesman said the regulator supported the majority of Hodgson’s recommendations in its formal response to the proposals last year, albeit with some areas of concern.

"Now it has been indicated that there will be no legislative reform to the rules, the government and others - ourselves included - must look for ways to work with campaigners to address inaccurate perceptions of the legislation so that charities and other third sector organisations can confidently continue their campaigning work," he said.

"Charities and other non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and, as a society, we must encourage their active participation during, as well as outside of, election campaign periods. The non-party campaigner rules have been in place since 2000 and they do not prevent third parties from campaigning or engaging in public debate."

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