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The Government wants to tackle big-money donors and shady lobbyists. Does it really mean to gag The Royal British Legion?
In 1921, a year before a General Election, The Royal British Legion successfully ran its first campaign, lobbying the Government to ensure that three-quarters of those employed on relief works were veterans of the First World War. Today we're still campaigning. Most recently we persuaded the Government that the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant should be set down in law.
We are strictly apolitical and refrain from endorsing any particular party or candidate. However, the draft Transparency of Lobbying and Non Party Campaigning Bill will, perhaps accidentally, inhibit the ability of charities like the Legion to be the voice of their beneficiaries.
The draft Bill regulates the campaigning activities of individuals and organisations in the twelve months preceding a general election. I am sympathetic to the aims of the Bill, which seeks to avoid a situation similar to that in the United States, where regulations on election spending are circumvented by organisations which are effectively fronts for political parties and their supporters.
But the devil is in the detail. A combination of a badly drafted definition of 'electoral purposes', regulation of a broader range of activities, and lower spending thresholds look likely to unnecessarily expand the role of the state in regulating charities, over and above existing Charity Commission rules.
Our job is to be the voice of military personnel, veterans and their families. When Government action is required, we make the case for change. In the run-up to the 2010 election when we called upon Parliamentary candidates to pledge to "Do Their Bit" for the Armed Forces. No specific request was made of candidates; we left the understanding of what 'doing your bit' meant up to individuals. All the main party leaders and most MPs signed the pledge. This activity would almost certainly have been covered by the draft Bill, with a cap on overall spending, onerous regulatory requirements and the potential for fines if the cap is breached.
It is not just the Armed Forces community who could be affected. Local and national campaigns for and against wind farms, high speed rail, and new airports could also be affected. If such campaigns take place in an election year, campaigners may inadvertently enhance or undermine the standing of a particular party or candidate, even if they do not intend to do so, and even if they do not name or identify the party or candidate.
The Government needs to rethink this Bill. There are a range of possible alternatives. The regulation of charities could be left to the Charity Commission; the definition of 'electoral purposes' could be more tightly defined; and the restrictions on spending could be less severe.
The Prime Minister's Big Society agenda called on us to harness the power of Edmund Burke's "little platoons" of charities. This Bill may have the effect of quieting the voice of Big Society for the twelve months before each election. Democracy requires a conversation, so let us talk about how to achieve decent aims – greater transparency and getting 'big money' out of elections – without unintended and stifling side effects.
by Dr Chris Simpkins, Director General, The Royal British Legion and published in The Telegraph, 3 September 2013. The Lobbying Bill goes to a second reading in the Commons today.
The Legion's written submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee can be viewed here.
©The Royal British Legion 2014. Registered Charity No 219279. 199 Borough High St, London SE1 1AA. Tel +44 (0)20 3207 2100