How can advice be impartial when campaigning is not

manifesto, a public statement of policy or intent.

Like it or loathe it, we cannot ignore the build up to the next UK general election.  Over the coming months the political parties will be bombarding us with campaign information intended to influence the way we vote.  How do we disseminate this information to allow us to make informed decisions as to which party we support?  The first port of call for many people who require independent, impartial and confidential information and advice (which is also free) is their local Citizens Advice Bureau. Does this mean you can visit or contact your local CAB to ask for advice on how to cast your vote in the general election? Clearly not because any such advice would not be impartial.

Citizens Advice is the central body representing bureaux nationally.  It campaigns on issues which become apparent from the problems clients bring to bureaux seeking advice.  Last year it published a Citizen’s Manifesto setting out eight key measures it would like the next elected government to implement.  These include for example ensuring that work always pays for parents by providing support for 90 per cent of childcare costs and free school meals for all parents on Universal Credit.  It is included in the manifesto based on the number of people who come to bureaux worse off when they are in work than when they are workless.

The Lobbying Act 2014 was introduced with the intention of creating transparency and openness in the way lobbying of political parties is conducted.  The Act also sets out a number of measures which regulate lobbying during the period 19 September 2014 – 7 May 2015 (the 32 weeks leading up to the date of the general Election). This is known as the regulated period.  The Act has been described as a gagging law because it affects what charitable and non-political campaigners can do during the regulated period as well as professional lobbyists.  However how can any campaigning organisation claim to be non-political during the regulated period?  Lobbying the government in power need not be political.  Seeking to influence political parties and what they will do should they be elected to government during a general election campaign is political by definition.

This issue also raises two important questions for Citizens Advice. Firstly, can a political party which commits to some or all of the measures in the Citizens Manifesto claim to be endorsed by Citizens Advice by implication?  The second  question concerns  another measure included in the Citizens Manifesto, namely that the next government should invest in the Citizens Advice service to deliver an interactive, tailored advice service by telephone, online and face-to-face.  How would Citizens Advice react if a political party adopted this measure which is clearly designed to promote its well being without also supporting those parts of the Citizens Manifesto intended to help its clients?

Impartiality is a cornerstone from which  public confidence in the advice it receives from bureaux is based.  It is too important to be compromised by ill conceived campaigns during a general election which are therefore overtly political.

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