There are specific rules around joint campaigning. This can be confusing and worrying to campaigners ahead of a general election.
The reason that joint campaigning rules exist is to prevent an organisation from deliberately dividing itself into multiple groups to get round the spending limit. The rules were written with the assumption that there was just one campaign and just one topic. It’s likely that the authors of the legislation did not consider that that campaigning bodies might be members of umbrella groups.
As with the Lobbying Act in general, the best approach is simply to demonstrate that you have considered the legislation. The Electoral Commission, who regulate the Lobbying Act, are generally willing to accept your considered opinion as to whether your campaigning should be counted. For most organisations, this means that you need to show that your trustees/directors/steering committee have been informed of the main points of Lobbying Act, and that you have judged your work to not fall under the Act’s remit.
Are you running a joint campaign?
Before considering how you might do this, let’s check that you are conducting a joint campaign. The Electoral Commission distinguishes between campaigners who are simply working on the same issue, and campaigners who are actually working together. If you have a had meetings as a group, and you have a name and an agenda for those meetings, and you plan to meet again, then it’s probably a joint campaign.
So, you think you are running a joint campaign? The simplest and probably best thing to do is to fill out the templates/spreadsheets exactly as you would if you were one single body. If this is an informal sort of joint campaign, then it’s extremely unlikely that you would have spent anything approaching the thresholds (of £20,000 or £10,000).
Umbrella bodies and other unambiguous cases
If you are an umbrella body then you should probably contact all your member organisations and ask them for their views on the Lobbying Act. If none of your member organisations will be registering, then your best course of action is probably to follow the templates on the overview page. Use this short paper if you do not think you even come close, this long paper if you suspect you do need to do the calculations, and the spreadsheet to help with those calculations.
You should also include in your long/short paper information about who your member bodies are and what sort of relationship/agreement you have. You should also contact all your member bodies and include them in this conversation, and share your drafts with them.
The difficulty would come if you have a member organisation which IS going to register under the Lobbying Act.
Let’s imagine, for example, that you are an umbrella body leading an environmental campaign. Let’s also imagine that you have one employee (a coordinator), and 70 member organisations. And let’s imagine that you have both Quakers in Britain and Friends of the Earth as member organisations. (Both registered for the 2017 elections.) In my entirely non-legal but generally-knowing-something opinion, it is feasible but hugely unlikely that simply having those two groups as members would drag you in to needing to register with the Electoral Commission. It has not been tested in any legal sense. Because I believe you the umbrella body being required to register is very unlikely, I also think that it is very very very unlikely that it would have an impact on your other member organisations. In effect, I am saying that the knock-on effect, were it to occur, would only go down one level. However, no one has ever tested this, and I am not a lawyer.
If you did have a member organisation which was going to register, then the most sensible thing would be for them to add you to their expenditure records. They’d kind of be incorporating you for the purposes of the Lobbying Act. You could be added to more than one organisation – so Friends of the Earth could add you on their accounts, and then Quakers in Britain could also add you. Obviously these two organisations would need to talk in order to ensure they added the same information.
If you think that you are in the position where some member bodies are registering, please feel free to contact me for advice. I’m at email@example.com.
Expectations of umbrella bodies
I was contacted a few weeks ago and asked: “Is there really an expectation on the part of the Electoral Commission that you’ll be able to credibly account for the spending of 70 member organisations?” I’m afraid there is.
I used to work for the Electoral Comission, as part of the team looking at boundaries. When I worked there, we all had timesheets. These were spreadsheets which were filled in every day (or at least every week) by staff to say when they’d been working. The primary reason was flexi-time – the Electoral Commission was very good at ensuring that if we worked extra hours one week, we could have the time off the next week. When the part of the Electoral Commission I worked for split off to become a separate organisation, we started monitoring which project staff were working on. The reason for this was that we would get Freedom of Information requests asking how much we’d spent on the review of such-and-such district council, and so we’d need to add up all the staff time. I understood from former colleagues still at the Electoral Commission that they were doing a similar thing to their timesheets.
It is likely that the Electoral Commission is still doing something similar. They are probably also comparing this to lawyers who bill in six minute slots, and as a result they possibly consider that any serious organisation should be doing at least what they are doing. With these assumptions about the level of monitoring which occurs in organisations, and a general lack of understanding about the fluidity and reactive nature of many campaigns, it is easy to see how they may consider that staff time and spending can easily be calculated.