The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector has called on the government to reconsider its lobbying bill because it could restrict charity campaigning.
The panel, a group of voluntary sector leaders and experts established in 2011 to protect the independence of the voluntary sector, held an evidence session in London yesterday.
Speaking after the session, and as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill had its final reading in the House of Commons, Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the panel, said: "Voluntary and community organisations are crucial to a healthy democracy, providing vital checks and balances on behalf of otherwise powerless groups or unpopular causes. Their efforts to influence politicians to create better public services and policy should be welcomed."
Singleton urged ministers to take a "less hasty and more consultative" approach to developing the legislation.
During the session, the panel heard evidence from a range of sector representatives, who expressed their concerns about the lobbying bill.
Opponents of the bill are worried that the legislation, which contains proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections in the year before those elections, will make it harder for charities to speak out.
Giving evidence to the panel yesterday, James Legge, head of political at the Countryside Alliance, said the bill’s proposed spending limits could restrict his organisation’s campaigning activities. Any requirement to register with the Electoral Commission would add extra bureaucracy, he said.
"We would find ourselves not only registered but subject to a very burdensome process of reporting, which has implications for the financial stability of the organisation," he said. "I suspect we’d reach our spending limits quite quickly and we would in effect have to cease to operate on some or all of our campaigns."
Jessica Metheringham, parliamentary engagement officer for the Society of Quakers, warned that church hustings – which give members of a church the chance to question candidates ahead of an election – could fall foul of the proposed legislation. "For us this strays into the question of freedom of religion," she told the panel.
George Bangham, policy officer at the chief executives body Acevo, told the panel it had been a difficult summer and autumn for the sector and the government’s rhetoric seemed to be against it. "Certainly, some backbench MPs from the government appear to have given credence to think tanks and other campaigning groups’ views that charities should basically go back to being passive recipients of government money – to not campaign but simply get on with their charitable objectives," he said.
He argued that the lobbying bill should not be made law without proper pre-legislative scrutiny. "We feel on a point of principle, quite apart from what the drafting actually looks like at the moment, that legislation like this must be consulted on."
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