The government has backed down over a controversial bill that charities claimed would have effectively gagged them, and severely restricted their abilities to campaign on social issues.
The transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill was put forward to restrict the lobbying of government ministers and senior civil servants.
To do so, as well as establishing a register of professional lobbyists, the bill proposed tough rules on how much “third parties” could spend in the run up to a general election, if they were deemed to be promoting a political message.
Critics said that the bill’s vague wording made it “entirely unworkable“, and warned that its implementation would be “harmful to democracy”, while The Association of Professional Political Consultants – the lobbying industry trade union – suggested that the bill will only affect only 1% of lobbyists.
In November, ministers announced a six-week pause in its passage to allow the government to reflect on its implications. And on Thursday, ministers announced that many of the more controversial sections of the bill were to be amended.
In its earlier form, the bill would have lowered the maximum groups could spend before having to registered with the Electoral Commission from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and from £5,000 to £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Now, ministers want to raise the limit to £20,000 in England and £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The bill would also have introduced a pre-election UK-wide overall spending cap of £390,000. This has now been raised to £450,000, though still represents a significant cut from the current limit of £988,500.
“The measures in the bill were never aimed at organisations who do not seek to influence the outcome of elections,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson said.
“These amendments directly address the concerns raised while preserving the core purpose of the bill.”
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), said that much of the risk to charities has now been diverted.
He added, “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.”
However, the NCVO warns that there are still some issues with the bill that may cause difficulties, such as proposed limitations on staff costs.
Meanwhile, Liz Hutchins, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said, “The proposed inclusion of staff costs would mean significant additional red tape for charities that political parties do not face.
“Proposed new constituency limits remain unworkable and unenforceable. Charities and campaigning organisations are more effective working together, yet this bill makes this more difficult.”
The bill’s report stage is due to take place on Monday.
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