The Electoral Commission’s recently published guidance on the lobbying act is incomprehensible and in urgent need of clarification, according to Sir Stephen Bubb, head of charity chief executives body Acevo.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which received royal assent in January, lowered the maximum amount that non-party campaigners can spend on certain regulated campaigning activities and increased the amount campaigners can spend before being required to register with the Electoral Commission. It also substantially widened the range of regulated activities.
Full guidance totalling 292 pages on how to comply with the act was published by the commission last month, but experts warned at the time that it left areas of uncertainty, such as the rules about joint campaigning and the new constituency spending limit of £9,750.
A spokesman for Acevo said that five Electoral Commission staff attended a meeting on Tuesday organised jointly by the international development membership organisation Bond, Acevo and others, and attended by 120 charities and campaigners.
According to the spokesman, the meeting included a "heated exchange" between the commission and the attendees as the regulator "tried and failed to clarify guidance that was intended to clarify the law".
In addition, Acevo, Bond and the online campaigns platform 38 Degrees wrote to the Electoral Commission last week asking for the guidance to be improved, requesting a response by the end of this week.
In February, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote to Bubb to reassure him that the majority of charities would not be affected by the new act – a view shared by Caroline Cooke, the head of policy engagement and research at the Charity Commission.
Bubb said: "We were told that government wanted more transparency and not to limit charities’ ability to speak out in public. Now the Electoral Commission’s guidance leaves charities, social enterprises and campaign groups none the wiser as to how to avoid criminal prosecution around some areas of the law.
"A law that places such severe restrictions on our freedom of speech should not be left to chance. It is critical that they sort this regrettable mess out and give us the clarity we need immediately."
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said it had worked with the UK charity regulators in producing its guidance and that it was also running webinars and attending meetings to help campaigners understand the rules.
"It’s a comprehensive package designed to take into account varying organisation’s needs, from charities and faith groups to trade unions and business bodies, with examples for them to consider," he said. "It also reflects the detail that many of these organisations told us they would find helpful when we asked them this in a survey before we produced the guidance."
He also said it would respond to the letter from the three organisations in the coming days.