Environment charities slam lobbying act after fines

Written by Matt Ritchie

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been fined by the Electoral Commission for failing to comply with campaigning rules at the 2015 general election.

The charities fell afoul of laws requiring non-party campaigners to register with the Electoral Commission if they spent more than either £20,000 campaigning in England or £10,000 campaigning in Wales.

The commission said neither organisation registered, but the electoral watchdog’s investigations identified more than £100,000 in spending on campaign activity conducted during the regulated period.

Greenpeace was fined £30,000, and Friends of the Earth has paid its £1,000 fine. Both charities have heavily criticised the legislation today, arguing that it stifles charities’ ability to carry out vital aspects of their work.

The Electoral Commission said Greenpeace incurred at least £99,000 of spending in England and £12,000 of spending in Wales. The spending was incurred on a “Coastal Champions” boat tour and an anti-fracking poster campaign undertaken jointly with Friends of the Earth.

The commission found Friends of the Earth incurred at least £24,000 on spending in England. The spending was incurred on the joint activity with Greenpeace and separately on a “manifesto scorecard” published on its website.

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said the lobbying act is a “democratic car crash”, and the charity had refused to register as a third party campaigner as an act of civil disobedience.

“Now Britain is going into a second general election regulated by a law that does little to stop powerful companies exerting secret influence in the corridors of power while gagging charities and campaign groups with millions of members,” he said. “If the last election is anything to go by it will have a chilling effect on groups trying to raise important issues. Whoever wins on June 8th should heed the advice of Lord Hodgson and amend it.”

Friends of the Earth said the charity had tried to comply with the law. While Friends of the Earth’s spending had been under the threshold, its joint activities with Greenpeace had pushed it over the limit.

The charity realised this too late to file paperwork on time.

Chief executive Craig Bennett said it is a “terrible piece of legislation”, but the charity takes responsibility for the administrative error leading to the breach.

“But whilst we apologise for making a mistake doing the paperwork, we make no apology for campaigning to convince all candidates to do better for our environment. It’s our job to campaign for a better world,” Bennett said. “Wide ranging changes need making to the Act, including greater clarity around joint campaigning, to enable charities to do their job. It’s vital that charities and not-for-profits are able to use their voice to stand up for those that can’t, this legislation shouldn’t be stopping them.”

Several charity groups have called for changes to the act following the Prime Minister’s announcement that a general election is to be held in June.

Director of party finance and regulation and legal counsel for the Electoral Commission, Bob Posner, said non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy, and the commission encourages their active participation during campaign periods.

“However, where a significant amount of money is being spent on campaigning it is right that voters can see who is spending that money and what they are campaigning for,” he said. “The commission supports all campaigners by producing a range of materials to help ensure compliance with the law.”

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