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‘Charity gagging law’ under fire

UN report criticises Lobbying Act’s ‘chilling effect’ and urges UK government to reform it
United Nations Building, Geneva

A senior United Nations official has expressed concerns about the highly controversial Lobbying Act, urging the UK government to reform it.

In a report presented at the UN Human Rights Council, UN experts criticised the act for its ‘chilling effect’ on civil society and its unequal treatment of charities compared with businesses.

‘The Special Rapporteur repeatedly heard that this Act has had a chilling effect on the work of charities during election periods, with many opting for silence on issues they work on. Charities have been reluctant to register, fearing that it would be misunderstood as engaging in prohibited party political activity. During the 2015 general election, for instance, fewer than 60 organizations decided to register with the Electoral Commission as non-partisan campaigners.’

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association on his mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The Lobbying Act

The Lobbying Act, dubbed the ‘charity-gagging law’ when first introduced in 2014, was widely criticised at the last general election because of its lack of clarity and overwhelming bureaucracy. A government-commissioned review called for it to be reformed, but no action has been taken.

The Act imposes restrictions on the amount of money charities and campaign groups can spend on loosely defined political activities in the lead up to an election.

An ‘international embarrassment’

The high-profile intervention by the UN, which went largely unreported, will pile more pressure on ministers to look again at a law widely blamed for silencing civil society organisations at both the 2015 and 2017 elections.

Greenpeace has branded the Lobbying Act an ‘international embarrassment’ and called on ministers to use the Queen’s Speech to signal a reform or repeal of this failed legislation.

A coalition of more than 50 campaign groups has called on party leaders to change the law following reports that charities had chosen not to speak out on the ‘dementia tax’ for fears of legal repercussions.

‘The Lobbying Act is now a source of international embarrassment. Britain is renowned for its vibrant civil society and its respect of free speech, and this failed legislation is threatening both. The act has done nothing to curb the influence of corporate lobbies over our political system, but has frightened charities supported by millions of people into silence. Ministers should listen to the UN and to their own experts and use the Queen’s Speech to repeal or reform this charity-gagging law. [The] election should be the last to be held under the chilling influence of the Lobbying Act.’

Greenpeace UK’s executive director

Disproportionate impact

Summing up evidence gathered during last year’s visit to the UK, the UN rapporteur highlights the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act on charity campaigning during the election period, ‘with many [charities] opting for silence on issues they work on’.

The report also criticises the ‘disproportionate impact’ the act has on civil society and trade unions compared with businesses. It points out that the register of lobbyists established by the act failed to capture the many in-house lobbyists working in Westminster and that civil society is unevenly affected.

‘Finally, the Special Rapporteur is concerned that the Lobbying Act has a disproportionate impact upon civil society and trade unions vis-à-vis businesses. This is because Part 1 of the Act does not restrict the activities of in-house lobbyists, who enjoy the most influence in the Government by far, and who overwhelmingly work for business interests. It is important that the Government follow a policy of sectoral equity in its treatment of businesses and associations, so that civil society organizations are able to operate in an environment at least as favourable as the one provided for businesses.’

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association on his mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The UN special rapporteur supports the conclusion of the government-commissioned review led by Lord Hodgson which called for the sweeping definition of ‘regulated activity’ to be restricted to work clearly intended to influence the outcome of the vote.

Click here to read the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association on his mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (A/HRC/35/28/Add.1).

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