New rules on campaigning will be in place during the Scottish election in May. There will be restrictions on the spending of “non-party campaigners”, which could include third sector organisations.

OSCR has produced guidance for charities setting out the rules they should follow to comply with charity law and the UK Lobbying Act.

campaigning can be restricted if it focuses on an issue which is strongly associated with one or more political parties

In this blog I want to sets out the basics of the rules introduced by the Lobbying Act.

Your organisation’s campaigning will be affected if all three of the below apply:

  • You will be spending more the £10,000 in the regulated period on the following activities: press conferences or other media events that you organise, transport in connection with publicising your campaign, the production or publication of election material, canvassing and market research, public rallies and public events.
  • The above activities are aimed at or involve the public (the public test).
  • The above activities can be “reasonably regarded as intending to promote or procure the electoral success of a candidate or group of candidates” (the purpose test).

This means your campaigning activity has to be aimed at the public and can be reasonably seen as promoting a party or candidate and costs more than £10,000 in the defined period.

This should make things simple but unfortunately there is broad interpretation of the tests.

For the public test, only activities aimed at members and “committed supporters” will be exempt, so general mailing lists and social media are counted as being aimed at the public.

For the purpose test, campaigning can be restricted if it focuses on an issue which is strongly associated with one or more political parties. Even if an organisation’s aim is to achieve something else and they don’t mention political candidates or parties.

If you think your organisation might be affected then please do seek advice from SCVOor the Electoral Commission before altering your campaign. Changing your approach should always be a last resort.

If your activity is eligible to be regulated under electoral law, you will have to register with the Electoral Commission, account for your spending and comply with a campaign cap of £75,800 for the regulated period.

If you work together with other organisations on a joint campaign then the combined spending may count towards your spending limits. Anyone planning a joint campaign, should see the EC Joint Campaigns guidance for further details.

Hustings shouldn’t be covered by the new rules provided you ensure you invite all the parties or candidates.

While we’re stuck with them, the third sector must as far as possible carry on with our normal campaigning activity, speaking out for our members and lobbying for change. Campaigning is a vital part of what the sector does and we must strongly resist any attempts to silence our voice.