The new lobbying bill could restrict charity campaigning and could even make it difficult to fundraise, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has warned.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which will have its second reading in the House of Commons on 3 September, contains proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections.
It also proposes to introduce legislation requiring anyone spending more than £5,000 on campaigning activity to register with the Electoral Commission.
But Elizabeth Chamberlain, a policy officer at the NCVO, said the bill’s definition of election campaigning was so wide-ranging that everyday charity activities could be caught.
"As the rules are written at the moment, many charities carrying out perfectly legitimate activities would be caught," she said.
She said the NCVO would meet Cabinet Office officials this week to tell them that the rules as currently proposed would be extremely difficult for charities.
The law as it stands prevents charities from engaging in campaigning with a party political motive, she said. But the new law will look at the effect of a campaign, and leaves the judgement in the hands of the Electoral Commission.
This means that a charity that published campaigning material on an issue such as housing or healthcare could be considered to be engaging in political campaigning if it shares a point of view with one party but not another, even if its intention was just to inform the public, and even if it did not even mention the election.
Even fundraising material that highlighted this issue could be considered party political material, the NCVO warned.
"The bill will affect local elections, by-elections, European elections and referendums as well as the general election," said Chamberlain. "If you run a campaign over any substantial period of time it is likely to fall into an election period.
"Also, you are required to inform the Electoral Commission in advance, so you will have to guess whether your campaign might fall into an election period and whether it might be considered political, because the Electoral Commission will decide on a case-by-case basis.
"You will have no way of knowing what will and won’t be affected.
"This will have a particularly chilling effect on smaller organisations, who will find it very difficult to campaign with confidence."