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
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
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.