SCVO is alarmed by the legislation being brought forward as part of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administrations Bill. It is our view that the second part of the Bill which focusses on non-party campaigning is an attack on democracy which could restrict legitimate participation in the political process. This represents a significant threat to the vital campaigning work being undertaken by third sector organisations in the run up to elections.
By broadening the scope of material and activities deemed for election purposes, reducing the amount that can be spent on non-party campaigning and causing confusion around what is for ‘electoral purposes’, this bill introduces a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity for the third sector. The result of this will be organisations caught up in bureaucratic processes, subject to complex rules and unable to participate fully in elections.
The spending limits are particularly restrictive in Scotland where the registration threshold will be reduced from £5,000 to £2000 and the absolute limit for spending in the year before an election will become £35,400. These reduced limits when coupled with the broadened definition of controlled expenditure will mean many organisations will be unable or unwilling to run campaigning activity in the year prior to an election.
Much has been made of the amendments which have changed the definition of ‘electoral purposes’ back to its original definition. However the briefing from NCVO, which is based on legal advice states:
‘The assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house to ensure that charities will still be able to support specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties have not been met.’
This is hugely significant as it would affect third sector campaigning in Scotland on a range of public policy, from welfare reform, the economy, environment and climate change issues, taxation, human rights and international development.
The proposals on non-party campaigning were not part of the original bill and therefore were not part of the consultation process. This lack of opportunity for the third sector to have their say has been exacerbated by its fast-tracking through Parliament
The Electoral Reform Commission is also concerned by the timetable and lack of scrutiny:
‘We share the concerns expressed by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights about the timing of the Bill and the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny. If this Bill is enacted, the changes will apply to the 2015 UK Parliamentary general election and will apply to campaigning from May 2014 onwards, allowing only a matter of weeks for organisations to prepare prior to the introduction of the new regime.’
It is our view that this bill is an extremely poor piece of legislation that was badly conceived and poorly written. The bill is supposed to address concerns around transparency, yet the process of bringing it before Parliament has been murky and incomprehensible. The devolved administrations have not been consulted and it remains unclear if the proposals will affect the participation of third sector organisations in the referendum. We would like to see a reversion to the initial rules until a full and proper consultation can be undertaken.