An amendment to exclude charities from the lobbying bill has been withdrawn after the Charity Commission raised concerns about the proposal.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury, a Liberal Democrat peer and charity lawyer, tabled the amendment to exclude charities from the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill for the report stage debate in the House of Lords yesterday.
Voluntary sector organisations are concerned the bill will curtail their ability to speak out on issues that could be regarded as party political in the run-up to elections.
Phillips said during the debate that members of the Lords were sent an email from the commission on Tuesday evening raising concerns about his proposal.
The letter, from Jack Rowley, public affairs manager at the commission, raised several concerns, including that organisations wanting to avoid the measures contained in the bill might try to apply for charitable status before an election period, or try to use existing charities as "a vehicle for what would otherwise be regulated under electoral law".
"We do not believe that, in the best interests of public trust and confidence in charities, an exemption for charities is the most appropriate method for the regulation of charities during an election period," it said.
It also said that the commission would face practical difficulties if an exemption for charities were agreed.
The commission also raised concerns that, given a 50 per cent reduction in its budget for 2015/16 compared with 2007/08, an exemption for charities from the bill "could increase volumes and workload to a level that we may not have the capacity to absorb".
"If an exemption were to be agreed, we would need to analyse the likely impact of this on our already stretched resources, and extra resources may be needed to increase capacity," it said.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a crossbench peer and chair of the Commission on Civic Society and Democratic Engagement, said during the debate that the email showed the commission was "unequivocally in opposition" to the amendment.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, the Conservative peer who carried out the 2012 review of the Charities Act 2006, told peers that both the Charity Commission and the Electoral Commission opposed the amendment.
Phillips admitted being "slightly crestfallen" when he received the letter, after trying for some considerable time to get the Charity Commission to "come out of its shell and be clear about what it thinks of the arguments advanced on each side of this debate".
The amendment to exclude charities was based on the argument that charities cannot campaign for and against candidates or parties, because it is against charity law and already regulated by the charity commissions across the UK.
"My proposition hitherto has been that charity law and election law in this bit of the landscape are so similar as to be no different from each other," said Phillips.
But the commission’s email said there were some circumstances in which a charity’s activities could adhere to charity law but might still require them to register with the Electoral Commission during an election period.
There were calls from some peers, including Lord Low of Dalston, who supported the amendment, and Lord Best, for the proposal to be debated at the third reading of the bill, which is scheduled for 21 January. But it was decided there was not enough time for the issues to be fully considered before then.
Phillips withdrew his amendment, but it will be part of a wider review of all the measures in Part 2 of the legislation, which contains the sections that charities are most concerned about, after the 2015 election.
The review was one of a number of government amendments to the bill announced last week.