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UK charities face a permanent “chilling effect” on their campaigns after the Electoral Commission said they must declare any work that could be deemed political over the past 12 months to ensure they are not in breach of the Lobbying Act.
At least one charity has been warned that if it does not, it may face “civil or criminal sanctions”.
The legislation, dubbed the “gagging law” by charities when it was introduced in 2014, regulates the amount of money organisations can spend on campaigns deemed to be political in the run up to an election.
Organisations may have fallen foul of the law going about their legitimate business – Tamsyn Barton
Under fixed term parliament rules it was envisaged that organisations would know when the period of regulated spending came into force ahead of a general election.
But following Theresa May’s snap election announcement last month the Electoral Commission has announced that the regulated period came into force retrospectively – and started in June last year.
Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven said the decision would have a huge impact on charities’ activities.
“The commission implies that since a snap election can be called at any time, there is now no fixed start or end date to the regulated period. It’s as if the Lobbying Act and its spending cap were now permanently in force, every day of every year.”
The Electoral Commission has threatened to close down Greenpeace’s campaigning activity if it fails to comply with the act in the run up to this year’s election.
Last month the environmental group became one of the first organisations to be fined under the act, incurring a £30,000 fine for refusing to register as a “third-party campaigning organisation” in the run-up to the 2015 election.
Sauven added: “This absurd interpretation is bound to have a significant impact on civil society as it multiplies the uncertainty and confusion already created by the Lobbying Act. If you are a fairly large campaign group or a smaller charity working in a coalition, you’re under permanent threat of being fined and potentially even convicted for your normal campaign activities.