Could the UK ‘Lobbying Bill’ turn the global trend for restricting advocacy by not-for-profits into an epidemic?

Future World Giving

House of Lords Chamber, UK, where the Lobbying Bill will be debated. Image by UK Parliament via Flickr

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF)  has expressed concern that controversial UK legislation to limit the capacity of charities to engage in advocacy in the run up to elections would set a bad example to other nations.

 

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill – more commonly known as the Lobbying Bill – will return to the House of Lords (upper house of the parliament of the UK) for debate next week.

 

The Bill proposes attempts to regulate lobbying throughout the electoral cycle following a number of lobbying scandals that have engulfed this and previous governments. This desire to weaken the ability of wealthy individuals and powerful lobbyists to game the electoral process in pursuit of vested interests is understandable. However, as has been discussed in more detail elsewhere, the Bill could, in its current form, significantly restrict the ability of charities to campaign on issues pertaining to their charitable mission.

 

Last week CAF sent a briefing note to peers of the House of Lords asking them to consider the Lobbying Bill in context with international trends in not-for-profit law and the UK’s responsibility to adhere to internationally accepted principles on the role of advocacy in civil society.

 

The briefing detailed CAF’s concerns that in its current form the Lobbying Bill;

 

  • would weaken the UK’s reputation for creating a positive environment for civil society
  • threatens the longstanding principle that advocacy is a key function of civil society organisations
  • would see the UK follow regressive international trends in the relationship between government and civil society

 

The United Kingdom already has legislation which establishes charities as a specific legal form which connotes certain restrictions on political activity. There is a dedicated independent regulator for charities (the Charity Commission) which is responsible for enforcing this legislation. As such CAF is calling for an amendment to the Bill which would exclude charities from further restrictions. Whilst there are also wider concerns about the impact on non-charitable NGOs, we believe that this amendment represented the most practical solution on the table at this time.

 

Global trend for restrictions on advocacy

 

Not-for-profit organisations are uniquely placed to speak out about issues which are of pressing concern to certain groups within society. Their advocacy ensures that minority voices can be heard preventing a Tyranny of the Majority that can undermine healthy democratic governance.

 

Sadly, observers of international trends in laws relating to not-for-profit organisations have noted a counter trend to the general global advancement in civic freedoms we have witnessed in the past generation. In 2001 the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (INCL) identified “restrictions on NGO Public Policy Activities” as a “global trend in NGO law.” Since 2009 the trend has begun to pick up pace, with nations including Indonesia, Nigeria, Ecuador and Algeria proposing regressive legislation restricting advocacy as a feature of civil society organisations.

 

A recent report presented by Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated that;

 

“It is a source of serious concern that the term “political” has been interpreted in many countries in such a broad manner as to cover all sorts of advocacy activities; civic education; research; and more generally, activities aimed at influencing public policy or opinion. It is clear that this interpretation is solely motivated by the need to deter any forms of criticism.”

 

As has been reported previously on this blog, some governments have singled out foreign, and foreign funded organisations with legislation that restricts or undermines their capacity to engage in advocacy. CAF is concerned that the Lobbying Bill could make a hypocrisy of any efforts by the UK to dissuade the likes of Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Sudan from pressing on with regressive policies towards the advocacy of such organisations.

 

CAF urges peers to consider the above concerns in their discussions.

 

Adam Pickering

 

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