Changes to the lobbying bill do not go far enough, umbrella bodies warn

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says aspects of the bill remain 'ambiguous and damaging'

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Voluntary sector umbrella bodies have expressed concerns that the changes to the lobbying bill agreed by the government last week do not go far enough.

Following a meeting with Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Andrew Lansley, the leader of the House of Commons, announced on Friday that the government would amend the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in response to charities’ fears.

A statement from the Cabinet Office said the government would change the definition of the types of activities that the bill would cover. Rather than describing the activities as "for electoral purposes", which the NCVO warned could capture legitimate day-to-day activities of charities, the government said it would make use of a definition in existing legislation.

But Etherington and Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said more needed to be done to meet the voluntary sector’s concerns.

Etherington said that although the changes proposed by the government were a significant step in the right direction, the NCVO remained concerned about the "ambiguous and damaging" legislation.

"The proposed definition of controlled expenditure remains neither clear nor workable for non-charitable voluntary organisations," he said. "We remain similarly concerned that the expenditure thresholds proposed in the new bill will be damaging, particularly for small community groups that are not charities. These must be restored to current levels."

The bill includes proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections, even if that is not the campaign’s objective. The current limit is £988,500.

Etherington also said the question of how organisations working in a coalition would be affected must also be addressed.

"If a revised test of what constitutes non-party campaigning by charities, together with a clear definition of controlled expenditure and unchanged expenditure thresholds, cannot be achieved, we will continue to argue for the withdrawal of part two of the bill," he said.

Bubb agreed with the call last week by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that the bill should be delayed for six months.

"I am pleased that the government has recognised the extent of charities’ concerns regarding the restrictive proposals in the bill," he said.

"However, its proposed changes do not go far enough. The bill as it stands will still create unnecessary uncertainty, bureaucracy and cost for charities seeking to engage with public policy debate. Many charities have told me they remain concerned about its effects.

"The government should listen to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's recommendation and go back to the drawing board. We shall offer our help and cooperation, if the government allows us time, to design a bill that properly restores the public's trust in politics."

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, told MPs in the House of Commons last week that the bill would not affect the ability of charities to campaign.

- Read other stories on the lobbying bill by visiting our Big Issue

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