Charities to be consulted on code covering election campaigning, government pledges

Charities will be asked for their views on a new code designed to address the “chilling effect” that the lobbying act has had on campaigning, the government has pledged.

Peers yesterday approved an amendment to the Elections Bill that will require the Electoral Commission to draw up a code relating to activities that could be seen as influencing elections.

The amendment, which was drawn up by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, means the commission will have to publish a code on the operation of Part 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which deals with controlled expenditure of third parties.

Hodgson’s amendment, which will not apply to elections to the Scottish or Welsh parliaments, is designed to reduce the so-called “chilling effect” the lobbying act has had on campaigning by giving a clearer framework under which organisations can operate.

Under current legislation, it is up to the Electoral Commission to decide whether or not any campaigning activity could be “reasonably be regarded as intended to procure electoral success” and therefore subject to lobbying act requirements.

Hodgson has been arguing that a clearer framework was needed to define what could be regarded as intended to influence elections.

His amendment says the proposed code, which will be consulted on publicly and approved by the relevant minister, must provide guidance on the kind of expenses that would fall within the scope of the lobbying legislation.

It is expected to provide examples of the activities organisations will be able to undertake during pre-election periods.

Speaking during a debate in parliament yesterday, the Cabinet Office minister Lord True said the amendment would require the Electoral Commission to conduct a statutory consultation.

“As part of the statutory consultation, the government would certainly expect a cross-section of civil society groups to be consulted,” he said.

Hodgson told peers the code would allow parliament to scrutinise and approve the initial codes, but would also give third-party campaigners “the knowledge that compliance with the code provides a statutory defence”.

The amendment was accepted and the bill will be sent back to the House of Commons for MPs to consider changes made during its passage through the House of Lords, before becoming law.

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