When the government first agreed to soften the wording of the lobbying bill to make it less likely that normal charity campaigning would be hamstrung during election campaigns, it seemed as if the whole business was more cock-up than conspiracy: the tighter wording and spending limits on "non-party campaigning" were never meant to apply to charities, and the ready retreat of the minister, Andrew Lansley, was evidence of that.
His concession was to revert to the wording in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000, which first established the non-party campaigning restrictions and says relevant activities are those that can "reasonably be regarded as intended" to support a particular party or candidate.
Since then, the sector umbrella bodies the NCVO and Acevo have been arguing that this wording, though less tight than that originally proposed, was itself causing uncertainty among charities during the 2010 election campaign and led some of them to curtail what they regarded as their usual activities in pursuit of their charitable objects. Hence the pressure at the report stage of the bill last week for the government to agree to an amendment that would relax the wording further so that only activities with the "primary purpose" of favouring a party or candidate would lead to a charity having to register with the Electoral Commission and conform to the much reduced spending limits in the bill.
The government's refusal to agree to the further concession casts doubt on the benign interpretation that the whole thing was never meant to apply to charities, which after all must already conform to Charity Commission rules that make it completely clear they cannot support parties or candidates.
Campaigning charities have always been a thorn in the side of ministers, whose protestations that they welcome the sector's contributions tend to be made through gritted teeth. So perhaps this unexpected measure in this melting pot of a bill is actually a deliberate attempt to bring those pesky charities to heel during elections. There are likely to be fireworks as it goes through the Lords.
- Visit our Big Issue on the lobbying bill