Government to amend lobbying bill following pressure from charities
- Thursday, 09 January 2014 08:52
Welcoming the changes to the lobbying bill, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which first raised concerns about the bill, said:
‘Much of the risk to charities from this legislation has now been averted.
'We are grateful that the government has listened to the concerns charities have raised in recent months. Charities, by law, may not campaign in a party political manner. However the bill as originally drafted risked sweeping non-party political campaigning into its scope.
'The bill now provides a much more sensible balance than it did to begin with between creating accountability and transparency in elections while still allowing for charities and others to speak up on issues of concern.'
'We look forward to working with the Electoral Commission as it develops the detailed guidance on this legislation that charities and others will need to follow.
‘If anything is to be taken from the debates over the lobbying bill, I hope it is that government remembers the importance of proper consultation before bringing forward draft legislation.'
NCVO raised concerns about changes to ‘non-party campaigning’ rules contained in the lobbying bill last summer, saying they risked making charities ‘collateral damage’ in the government’s attempts to regulate political campaigning.
NCVO sought legal advice from an election expert QC which confirmed that the lobbying bill, as initially drafted, risked having a ‘chilling effect’ on charities’ freedom of expression.
In August we wrote to then minister Chloe Smith MP, backed by household name charities including Oxfam and the Royal British Legion, to seek clarity on the bill.
Following a meeting with NCVO in September, the government agreed to abandon their proposed new widened definition of spending for electoral purposes in favour of reverting to the existing definition in PPERA (Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act). This went some way towards mitigating the risk to charities.
A further legal opinion obtained by NCVO advised that concern that reverting to the former definition did not go far enough given the far lower spending thresholds and more onerous reporting requirements the bill also introduced. Today's amendments alter the amount of expenditure that must be reported to the Electoral Commission, substantially reducing the administrative burden on smaller charities - a concern NCVO has raised throughout the whole process of the bill.
While some organisations will still be subject to a much more onerous regulatory regime, these amendments take a more proportionate approach. In particular, raising the England-wide threshold for registration with the Electoral Commission from the proposed level of £5,000 to £20,000 - as NCVO suggested - will significantly lower the risk that small charities will become caught up in this regulation. This increase reflects the considerably wider range of activities that now count towards controlled expenditure. Without such a change, even a small local charity could quickly have found it necessary or prudent to register with the Electoral Commission, in case it were accused of campaigning in a party political manner.
There are still some problems with the bill which need to be addressed in order to make it workable. In particular, staff costs and further changes to the rules on coalitions are necessary. These continue to be deeply problematic and could cause huge problems for many organisations, even the largest.