The Woodland Trust and the League Against Cruel Sports have become the first charities to register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners since the introduction of the lobbying act, with the online campaigning platform 38 Degrees also registered and the religious charity Quakers in Britain expected to join them shortly.
A total of 13 organisations are currently on the commission’s online register. Also registered are the government-backed community organisation One Norbiton, the non-charitable animal rights group Political Animal Lobby, a trade union and several consultancies.
The lobbying act means that in the run-up to national or European elections, any charity or campaigning organisation that spends more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on certain public campaigning activities that could be interpreted as attempting to procure electoral success must register as a non-party campaigner with the commission. The act became law in January and the first regulated period begins on 19 September, running through to next May’s general election.
As lobbying experts have told Third Sector for an article on how to comply with the new laws – to be published in the next edition of the magazine, out this week – the general mood among charities errs on the side of not registering on the grounds that registering leaves charities vulnerable to accusations or suspicions of holding party political bias.
Jessica Metheringham, a parliamentary engagement officer for Quakers in Britain, said: "Although we are not party political, under a plain-text reading of the act and the guidance, what we do could potentially be seen by others as biased. It is a reputational risk and we are therefore expecting to register."
Metheringham said Quakers in Britain believed the legislation to be "unworkable and unenforceable" and that it had issues with a number of aspects of the Electoral Commission’s guidance on the laws, including its definition of public and private activities. "We're a church, and we don't think in these sorts of terms," she said. "The concept of ‘members of the public’ simply isn't appropriate for a faith organisation."
A spokeswoman for the Woodland Trust, which registered in April, said: "We erred on the side of caution and registered to ensure our compliance and in the spirit of transparency, but will continue to lobby alongside others for the legislation’s repeal.
"We do not intend to push voters in the direction of any particular party; rather, we would like to see all parties recognising the many benefits woods and trees provide and prioritising them accordingly within their manifestos."
The League Against Cruel Sports, which registered on 1 August, did not respond to a request for comment.
Non-party campaigner status was brought in by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. A total of 77 organisations have previously registered and since seen their registration lapse in that period, including the League and other charities such as the National Autistic Society. A spokesman for the NAS said it would not register this time around.