Etherington to meet Lansley as speculation mounts about change of heart on lobbying bill

NCVO leader to meet leader of the Commons as Liberal Democrat MPs table amendment to bill that would stop it from restricting charity campaigning

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, will today meet Andrew Lansley, leader of the House of Commons, amid mounting speculation that the government will amend its new lobbying bill.

A group of Liberal Democrat backbench MPs have tabled an amendment to the government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill that would prevent it from restricting charity campaigning.

The bill contains proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections. The NCVO has said that it also introduces a wider definition of election campaigning that could catch many legitimate charitable activities.

According to articles in The Guardian and The Independent newspapers, sources close to Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, have said that the government accepts the principles of the amendment and will make its own amendment to the bill. A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said he was unable to confirm or deny the accuracy of the reports.

A spokesman for John Thurso, MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said Thurso had tabled the amendment, along with a number of other Liberal Democrat backbenchers, to reassure charities that they will not be affected by the bill.

The amendment makes it clear that the bill should not limit the capacity of a charity or non-party campaigning organisation to comment on public policy as long as it does not seek to influence the outcome of an election, the spokesman said.

The amendment will also make recommendations for the bill to reintroduce terms set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that dictate what would count as regulated spending on campaigning.

Speaking in the Commons earlier this week, Lansley said he recognised there were concerns about the wording of the clause in the bill on regulated spending.

"I recognise that the wording of the clause has caused representative bodies to be concerned, and I am keen to continue the discussions with campaigners in which colleagues and I have already taken part," said Lansley. "I can reassure them that we are not proposing a substantive change in the test of whether third-party spending is considered to be for electoral purposes."

A spokesman for the NCVO said Etherington and Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the NCVO, were due to meet Lansley this afternoon, to discuss the bill. The NCVO last month met Cabinet Office representatives to discuss its concerns about the bill.

In a statement, the Cabinet Office spokesman said: "Ministers have been clear throughout the debate in the Commons on Tuesday and in meetings with charity representatives that the bill would not capture a huge swathe of charities that are not already registered as third parties that campaign during election periods. The government has listened to them and will continue to engage and address their concerns as the bill continues its passage through parliament."

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