Government agrees to delay lobbying debate and raise spending limit

Lords debate on part 2 of the bill, which contains the measures that charities are particularly concerned about, will be put back until 16 December

House of Lords
House of Lords

The government has said it will "substantially raise" the proposed spending limits in the lobbying bill and has agreed a six-week delay to the debate about measures that affect charity campaigning.

Before a debate in the House of Lords on the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill yesterday, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the Liberal Democrat peer responsible for taking the bill through the Lords, wrote to peers to say that the government had listened to the views of charities and voluntary groups.

"They have made the point that low-level and low-spend campaigning, particularly by small groups, could be caught by the bill as currently drafted, and could mean that many more of them will have to register with the Electoral Commission and be subject to spending and donations controls in the run-up to a general election," he wrote. "We understand these concerns and intend to respond to them."

The bill contains proposals to reduce the spending limit for campaigns by any third-party organisation in the run-up to and during elections on campaigns that "could be reasonably regarded as intended" to favour particular parties or candidates. The limit would be lowered from £988,500 to £390,000.

Organisations will also have to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on such campaigns.

Charities fear that the changes could impair their ability to run campaigns in the lead-up to elections.

Wallace said in his letter that the government stood by the principles of the bill but recognised that balance was needed.

"We are therefore looking again at the thresholds for registration to ensure that small campaigning groups, including charities, are not caught by the regulatory regime," he said.

"I will make clear to the House this afternoon that the government will bring forward amendments to the bill to substantially raise these thresholds from those proposed in the bill."

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office was unable to confirm how much the threshold could change.

During the debate in the House of Lords yesterday, Wallace said the order in which the measures in the bill would be considered by the Lords would change so that debate on part 2, which contains the measures that charities are particularly concerned about, would be put back until 16 December, a delay of almost six weeks.

"I believe that we have come up with a way of delivering a pause in our consideration of part 2 of the bill so that there can be wide consultation over the coming weeks and so that the government can try to address the concerns of those involved and interested in part 2," he said.

A motion put forward by the crossbench peer Lord Ramsbotham to delay debate on the measures until February was withdrawn.

Wallace told the House of Lords that the government would draw on the work of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, a coalition of charities, campaign groups and academics set up to consider issues with the bill and chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Harries of Pentregarth, so the charity sector has "a proper opportunity to explain to the government its concerns".

"If the commission of the noble and right reverend lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, could report in three weeks, I am confident that we can find a solution in nearly double those three weeks," Wallace said.

"I stress that we are listening and that we want to listen. We have already shown willing: we announced this morning that we will bring forward an amendment, the effect of which will immediately be to exempt all smaller charities from the provisions of the bill."

Harries said in the Lords that the delay was "a very short period indeed".

The Labour peer Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town said she was concerned that there "has been no indication that something other than the raising of the threshold is on offer".

"There is a democratic fear about part 2 about the threat to freedom of assembly and free speech, which needs more than just consultation to be put at rest," she said.

Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said in a statement that a six-week delay was insufficient.

"This is a breather and not a meaningful pause," he said. "Government must commit to a meaningful length of consultation, long enough to sort out the concerns raised by civil society." 

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said: "This is an encouraging move, but the government must now use this extra time to solve the problems with its rushed legislation."

Andy Ricketts

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