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Lobbying Bill goes in for a refit

17 January 2014

SHUTTERSTOCK

Policed: St Stephen's Tower and entrance to the House of Parliament 

Policed: St Stephen's Tower and entrance to the House of Parliament 

IN THE face of sustained opposition from within the charitable sector, the Government has watered down parts of the Lobbying Bill that campaigners argue will stifle democracy.

Amendments tabled to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill have assuaged opponents, but many still say that the proposals remain unacceptable. The Bill seeks to place tighter limits on how much money organisations which are not political parties can spend in the build-up to a general election.

The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, an umbrella group of hundreds of charities, chaired by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, has argued that the Bill would place too great a burden on small charities whose work may include campaigning on political issues.

In response to this, ministers have proposed amending the Bill in a number of ways. The total amount that charities in England can spend campaigning before they must register with the Electoral Com-mission will be raised to £20,000 rather than cut from £10,000 to £5000.

In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the amount will be raised from £5000 to £10,000. The UK-wide amount that any group can spend before an election will be cut from £988,000 to £450,000 rather than the originally proposed £390,000.

Lord Harries said on Tuesday: "The Government has made some significant concessions. But there is still no cause for complacency, and there are still areas we want to push on, such as spending in constituencies and charities working in coalitions. [The Government] has been under huge pressure from the campaigning groups, with scores of emails going in every day. They have seen this, and made some significant changes."

On Wednesday, after the Church Times went to press, peers from all parties defeated the Government by backing one of Lord Harries' amendments. A majority of 43 peers, 237 to 194, voted in favour of excluding "background staffing costs" from the proposed spending restrictions.

A separate amendment, proposed by Liberal Democrat peers, would exempt charities from any regulation on political spending. Lord Harries said that the Commission opposed this: it accepted that all organisations should be regulated, but believed that the original Bill set too draconian levels to how much charities could spend.

The chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Sector Organisations, Sir Stuart Etherington, said: "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."

A petition calling for further changes to the Bill has been signed by more than 133,000 people and 75 NGOs.

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