The lobbying act guidance on campaigning in coalitions, published this week by the Electoral Commission, could make it "all but impossible" in many cases for charities to collaborate on political campaigns, according to critics of the new legislation.
The latest guidance, Introduction to the new rules on campaigning for non-party campaigners: joint campaigns, deals with campaigning in coalitions. It says that campaigning coalitions can have a "lead campaigner" that must register with the commission, although other organisations in that coalition might not have to register. In a campaigning coalition without a lead campaigner, all campaigning organisations must register if their combined spend exceeds a certain level.
The rules say that individual non-party campaigners or campaigning coalitions must not spend more than £319,800 in England, £55,400 in Scotland, £44,000 in Wales, £30,800 in Northern Ireland or £9,750 in any individual constituency.
The guidance also deals with how organisations determine whether they should define themselves as in a coalition for registration purposes, saying groups must "make an honest assessment" on whether or not they are "spending money as part of a common plan or arrangement".
However, signs that organisations are "very likely to be working together" include having joint advertising campaigns, leaflets or events, or if one organisation "can approve or has significant influence over" the leaflets, website of other campaign activity of another.
Liz Hutchins, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "The tight new spending caps, and the much broader range of activities caught by those caps, will make it all but impossible for charities to work collaboratively on many issues that are important to the public and the planet."
Hutchins also said the blame did not completely lie with the commission, which she said "is in an invidious position – its latest guidance reflects the very bad law that has been passed".
Ros Baston, a freelance electoral law specialist and former senior adviser at the Electoral Commission, said the act "means people are going to have to be a lot less flexible in how they work together", as cooperation must now be more formally classified and accounted for.
Baston also said that although it was important that charities made these honest assessments, the new guidance might not be sufficient to let them do that. "The guidance also leaves a lot of ambiguity, and I hope that the final guidance gives more detail and certainty," she said.
The first regulated period under the new rules starts on 19 September and runs through to next year's general election.
Since the lobbying act was passed in January, the commission has published six documents introducing the new law and outlining its implications for campaigners. Full guidance, which will expand on and potentially modify this initial guidance, will be published by early July.