With SCVO’s support, I conducted a qualitative study of Scottish third sector organisations in the months following the general election to determine how the Lobbying Act had (if at all) impacted the sector from a purely Scottish perspective. Because the Act’s provisions will apply to the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary Election, understanding this perspective is crucial.

The results were striking.

First, while the negative rhetoric around the legislation may be overstated, the Lobbying Act has materially impacted the Scottish third sector. Study participants said the Act has created a significant amount of extra work because they feel they now must be “careful” when developing campaign strategies. Other organisations reported the need to be constantly “checking” the guidance to ensure that they did not contravene the Act, and they described the Act as “burdensome” and “problematic”.

Registration with the Electoral Commission (EC) was also cited as an issue because it requires continuously monitoring and reporting activities during regulated periods. Not registering, however, confers additional obligations to ensure that organisational activities do not breach the rules. Many participants stated they would not be registering because they felt they did not need to, or because registering would make them look political to their service base or donors, which may create additional problems.

Overall, these additional steps have been very resource-intensive; they have forced charities to redesign their campaign strategies, seek external legal advice, hold training sessions, and issue extra information briefs, all of which divert time and resources away from legitimate campaigning.

This research also showed that the perceptions of the Lobbying Act’s regulations, that is, what organisations think the provisions of the Act mean for them, were at least as important as the actual impacts. This was due to confusion regarding the Lobbying Act and its guidance, especially the purpose test.

Participants reported working constantly to ensure that their campaign activities are non-partisan and consistent with OSCR’s regulations, and many used phrases like “policy-driven” and “issue-based” to describe their lobbying behaviour. However, several small- and mid-sized charities stated that they did not have the capacity or staff to understand the Lobbying Act or the guidance, and were afraid that they might unintentionally breach certain regulations. Many specifically expressed uncertainty about how to interpret the purpose test, which evaluates whether lobbying activity is intended to influence voters, and what meeting it would entail. This doubt may cause them to, for example, scale back campaign efforts.

In addition, Lobbying Act guidance was found to be unclear and not satisfactorily disseminated. Most participants had not received guidance, with one reporting they were not aware that guidance existed at all.

Coalition work emerged as a major theme in this research, but the Lobbying Act’s new spending thresholds may negatively impact the third sector’s willingness to collaborate. This is especially problematic for smaller organisations that rely on larger ones to amplify their voices because while their campaign spending may be comparatively small, they meet the spending limits much quicker by working in coalitions. Participants said they had been discouraged or limited in their efforts to build coalitions, which has resulted in them only involving themselves in core issues rather than everything they would have otherwise done.

Finally, the Lobbying Act has produced benefits because the additional steps necessary for compliance has made organisations more aware of internal and external activities. Some participants said the Act caused them to more closely evaluate their external communications, while others reported that the additional bureaucratization increased overall awareness of employee activity. Despite these benefits, the subjects in this research almost universally condemned the law.

It is clear that the Lobbying Act is producing negative outcomes for the Scottish third sector, especially smaller organisations. However, the Conservative election victory almost certainly means the Act is here to stay. With that in mind, civil society must take a pragmatic approach that enables it to lobby and campaign effectively whilst remaining lawful. This approach is critical to ensuring that third sector organisations continue to play a vital role in Scottish political and policy processes.

A summary of my research findings and recommendations is available here.

Joshua Bird is completing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and is currently a policy researcher with Holyrood Communications.