The first pre-election campaigning period regulated under the lobbying act starts today.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 became law in January despite fierce opposition from charities and other groups who feared it would impinge on their ability to campaign freely.
In the run-up to elections, charities spending more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in other parts of the UK on particular "regulated activities" must register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners.
Regulated activities include media events, the production of election materials and canvassing that can "reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates, including political parties or categories of candidates who support or do not support particular policies or issues", according to the Electoral Commission's guidance.
The first regulated period – shorter than it will be in future to give the Electoral Commission time to draw up its guidance – starts today and runs until the general election, which is scheduled to take place on 7 May 2015.
Thereafter the regulated period will be 12 months before general elections and four months before elections to the EU parliament or the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
So far, three charities have registered as non-party campaigners with the Electoral Commission: the League Against Cruel Sports and the Woodland Trust, which have been registered for several months, and the cholesterol charity Heart UK, which registered last week.
The religious charity Quakers in Britain has said it is likely to register, but has yet to do so. Among the other registered campaigners are online the campaigns platform 38 Degrees, two trade unions and other non-charitable groups.
Charities that do spend more than the threshold on regulated activities are not required to register with the commission before they actually spend the money. Registration is open until election day itself. Some charities are nervous that registering will put them in line for criticism by the public or MPs.
Some people have criticised the Electoral Commission’s guidance in the period leading up to the first regulated period, saying it was incomplete and unhelpful. The commission has since made small changes to that guidance.