The elections watchdog has been accused of restricting debate and placing charities under permanent threat of criminal prosecution after it demanded that a law restricting campaign spending prior to a general election be applied to next month’s snap poll.
Greenpeace has released a letter from the Electoral Commission warning it of “civil or criminal sanction” if it has failed to limit certain types of campaign spending during the 12 months period prior to the general election on 8 June.
The Lobbying Act, introduced in 2014, restricts the amount that “non-party” organisations such as charities can spend on campaigns that could be interpreted as support for a particular political party or policy during a “regulated period” of 365 days before a general election.
The legislation was designed to apply under the fixed term parliament law which formally schedules a general election every five years, and had therefore anticipated the next national poll to take place in 2020.
But the commission has now been accused of enforcing those rules unsustainably after it insisted they also apply to the snap election called by Prime Minister Theresa May after months of categorical denials that she was considering such a move.
The watchdog yesterday confirmed to i that it has written to a range of organisations reminding them of the rules.
Greenpeace said the effect of the move was that it is being asked to account for spending ahead of an election which neither it nor any other charity could have reasonably anticipated, especially since Mrs May had gone out of her way for months before the poll to insist it would not take place.
The environmental group said the way in which the commission was applying the law would have a “chilling effect” on public debate and meant that a campaign such as Make Poverty History – run by a broad coalition of charities and other organisations against developing world poverty – would have been likely to fall foul of the legislation.
Greenpeace accused the commission of an “absurd interpretation” of electoral law and said it was willing to take its case to the courts.
Under the rules, any charity or non-party political lobbying group can spend no more than £20,000 in England (with an additional £10,000 for the rest of the UK) during the regulated period. When charities work together on a campaign, the figure rises to £390,000 across all organisations.
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK’s executive director, said: “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.
“If you are a fairly large campaign group or a smaller charity working in a big coalition, you’re now under permanent threat of being fined and potentially even convicted for your normal campaign activities.
“There’s are a real risk many charities will pull out of the political debate for fear of being caught up in this bureaucratic and legal quagmire.”
In its letter to Greenpeace, the Electoral Commission informed the charity that it should regard the regulated period for next month’s general election as having begun on 9 June 2016 and suggests the group should formally register with the watchdog so its campaign spending can be scrutinised.
The letter adds: “If Greenpeace does not comply with legal requirements set out in [electoral law] you may be subject to civil or criminal sanction.”
The environmental group was recently fined £30,000 by the Electoral Commission for refusing on principle to register its spending in the last general election.
Charities have previously expressed concern at the broad nature of the Lobbying Act rules and a review of the legislation last year by Conservative peer Lord Hodgson recommended significant changes, including narrowing the definition of political campaigning and drastically reducing the regulated period to four months.
Despite saying it would “carefully consider” the 30 recommendations made by Lord Hodgson, the Government has yet to implement the report.
The Electoral Commission insisted it was not preventing any individual or organisation from campaigning during the general election. A spokeswoman said: “Rules are in place which mean that non-party campaigners that intend to spend above a certain amount must register with the Commission if their campaigning activities could be reasonably regarded as intended to influence people to vote for or against political parties or any particular category of candidates. We have written to a range of organisations and individuals to remind them of the law and offer support.”