The Electoral Commission will brief MPs about the "significant concerns" it has with the government’s new lobbying bill, which the commission says could affect charities.
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.
In a private briefing sent to interested parties, including charities, the commission says the rules on campaign spending might be "unenforceable" because it would be hard to identify when they would apply. "It will often be hard for campaigners to identify with a reasonable level of confidence when an activity has ‘no significant effects’ in a given constituency," the briefing says.
The commission’s briefing says that the bill is also unclear on the rules concerning what would constitute election-related activities.
"In our view, it is not at all clear how that test will apply in practice to the activities of the many third parties that have other purposes beyond political campaigning," it says. "For instance, it seems arguable that the new test could apply to many of the activities of charities, voluntary organisations, blogs, think tanks and other organisations that engage in debate on public policy.
"In contrast, the current definition of third party campaign sets out quite clearly both the type of activity that may be covered (material directed at the public that promotes electoral success), and the fact that such activity is controlled whatever the intentions of those carrying it out."
Last week, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations wrote to the Cabinet Office to ask the government to reconsider the bill. The umbrella body said that the bill’s definition of election campaigning was so wide that everyday charity activities could be caught.
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said it had "significant concerns about the way the bill has been drafted". He said the regulator intended to brief MPs on its concerns when they return to parliament on 2 September.
On 3 September the commission will give evidence on the bill to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which will include concerns raised by charities, the spokesman said.
A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the bill was intended to bring greater transparency where third parties campaign. "We are keen to work constructively with the commission and other parties to achieve the objectives of the bill," he said.