June 7, 2017

Charities face criminal sanctions over campaign spending on snap election

The background - “Gagging Law”

Legislation was introduced by the Government in 2014 to restrict the amount of spending by organisations on political campaigns in the run up to an election following a number of corporate lobbying scandals. A Charity must now register with the Electoral Commission if it plans to spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in the rest of the UK on ‘regulated activities’.

It was envisaged under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 that organisations would know when the regulated period came into force ahead of a general election.

However, many charities risk being caught out due to the announcement of the snap general election. Because of this unexpected election the Electoral Commission has said that the regulated period came into force retrospectively and started in June last year. This approach has been criticised on the basis that there appears to be no fixed start or end date to the regulated period as a snap general election can be called at any time.

The issue

There is serious concern growing across the charities sector. Many charities could have innocently fallen foul of the legislation going about their legitimate business. In addition, the administrative burden of deploying resources to monitor the work of the charities over the past year to ensure it complies with the legislation is immense. The burden is greater for smaller charities that do not have the necessary resources to manage this, and therefore risk losing their voice for fear of campaigning before the election.

Following a letter sent by more than 50 charities to the main parties leaders, today The Guardian reports Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to “repeal legislation that “gags” charities and voluntary sector organisations during an election campaign”, with Mr Corbyn stating “They should have a right to speak.”

The consequences

Failure to declare any work that could be deemed to be political over the past year could result in civil or criminal sanctions.

Greenpeace received a fine of £30,000 for failing to register as a “third-party campaigning organisation” in the run up to the 2015 general election. Greenpeace is fighting back this year and has threatened the Electoral Commission with legal action unless it reconsiders what can count as ‘regulated expenditure’ before the snap election.

Opinion – a bureaucratic nightmare?

Many are critical of how broadly ‘regulated activities’ is defined and the potential of this to capture any activities that could be even loosely interpreted as political. Greenpeace have commented that the situation is a ‘bureaucratic and legal nightmare’

Our advice to charities is to be alert to the Electoral Commission’s announcement and to review their activities carefully. If concerned they should seek professional advice.

Share on: