Amendments to the lobbying bill published today by the government do not go far enough, according to the heads of the sector infrastructure bodies the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Acevo.
Sector bodies have previously objected to parts of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill that they say limit charities’ ability to campaign. The government’s amendments are intended to meet those objections.
The bill contains proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections in the year before those elections.
Charities had warned that a new definition of election campaigning was so wide that it could catch many legitimate charitable activities, and said that elections were so frequent that the new law would, in effect, stop many charities campaigning altogether.
The amendments reintroduce a definition of political lobbying that is similar to the one that currently exists in law. But the two leaders said this definition was already troublesome for campaigning charities and that several other concerns with the bill, such as reduced limits on how much could be spent on campaigning, had not been addressed.
And they criticised the government for introducing the amendments just two working days before they were due to be debated in the House of Commons.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said: "The government’s commitment to addressing the legitimate concerns of many charities and other voluntary organisations remains welcome, but the proposed amendments do not go far enough. The assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house to ensure that charities will still be able to support specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties have not been met."
He said legal advice suggested the proposed amendments would still lead to an "excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime" for sector bodies.
"The amendments leave a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity," he added.
Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said the bill would increase bureaucracy by cutting the spending thresholds above which organisations would have to register with the Electoral Commission and "drastically cut" the amount charities could spending on public campaigns in election years.
"This bill makes almost no change to lobbying rules while punishing civil society for a loss of trust in politics that is not its fault," he said.
Bubb said the "rushed timeframe" of the amendments was "an object lesson in poor law-making" and that further amendments would still be needed.