Lansley backs down on controversial lobbying bill

Minister makes crucial concession in meeting with Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

The government has said it will make changes to its lobbying bill in response to fears from voluntary sector organisations that they would be adversely affected by the new regulations.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill includes proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections.

Voluntary sector organisations had warned that a clause in the bill that introduces a wider definition of election campaigning could catch and inhibit many legitimate charitable activities.

However, after a meeting on 6 September between Andrew Lansley, leader of the House of Commons, and Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the government said it would amend the bill to prevent charities from falling foul of the new regulations.

A statement from the Cabinet Office said the government would change the definition of the types of activities that the bill would cover.

Rather than describing the activities as "for electoral purposes", which the NCVO warned could capture legitimate day-to-day activities of charities, the government said it would make use of a definition in existing legislation.

"After discussions with the NCVO and others, and in order to make the point as clear as possible while maintaining the reforms to electoral law, we now propose to revert to the situation as set out under existing legislation, which defines controlled expenditure as expenditure ‘which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success'," the government statement said.

But the government said it would not change the proposed new limits that the bill will introduce for third-party campaigning expenditure.

Etherington told Third Sector that he was glad the government had listened.

"Our biggest worry was the change from intent to effect, and the government is going back to a position where, if it can’t be demonstrated that charities had the intention to influence the outcome of an election, they will be fine," he said. "Since charities don’t try to do that, they are pretty much covered."

Etherington said the NCVO would continue to discuss the remaining points, including the reduced limits on expenditure by third parties during election campaigns and the definition of the kind of costs that would count as relevant expenditure.

Lansley said: "I am very glad that I have been able to meet the concerns of voluntary organisations, while ensuring that the bill still regulates effectively when organisations directly try to promote election candidates and parties."

- Read other stories on the lobbying bill by visiting our Big Issue

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