Lobbying bill campaigners welcome promise to raise thresholds for Electoral Commission registration

In a letter to voluntary sector bodies, Lord Wallace of Tankerness also says that the regulated period will be reduced to seven and a half months for the 2015 general election

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

The government has promised to raise the proposed thresholds for registration with the Electoral Commission as one of a number of changes to the lobbying bill.

A letter from Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, sent yesterday to voluntary sector representatives that have been pressing for changes to the bill, says the proposed thresholds will increase from £5,000 to £20,000 in England and from £2,000 to £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Wallace’s letter also says that the regulated period – the time before an election that the parts of the legislation, including the spending limits, are active – will be reduced from 12 months to seven and a half for the 2015 general election.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said the changes set out in the letter would "avert much of the risk to charities". The chief executives body Acevo welcomed the changes but said further amendments were still needed.

Charities fear that changes introduced by the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which will reach the report stage in the House of Lords next week, will significantly impair their ability to run campaigns in the lead-up to elections.

Wallace’s letter says that raising the registration threshold would address the concerns the government has heard about its effect on small campaigning groups and small charities. "It will effectively exempt these groups from the need to register as a third party, and the reporting requirements that entails," it says.

He says that the regulated period for measures set out in the bill would begin after the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September. This means the regulated period for the 2015 general election will be seven and half months, rather than 12 months as originally proposed.

"This will allow more time for the Electoral Commission to produce clear and sensible guidance so that changes are clearly understood by those affected before the regulated period begins," the letter says.

Other changes set out include that a lead campaigner should be able to report on behalf of small campaigners it is in coalition with, meaning partners would not need to provide any spending returns or register with the Electoral Commission.

The letter says that the government will increase the spending limits on campaigns that "could be reasonably regarded as intended" to favour particular parties or candidates by £20,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The proposed limits will be increased to £55,400 for Scotland, £44,000 for Wales and £30,800 for Northern Ireland.

But it does not promise any changes to the limits in England, which will remain at £319,800.

All of the measures in part 2 of the legislation, which contains the sections charities are most concerned about, will be reviewed after the 2015 election, says Wallace.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said much of the risk to charities had been avoided.

"The bill now provides a much more sensible balance than it did to begin with between creating accountability and transparency in elections and still allowing for charities and others to speak up on issues of concern," he said.

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, welcomed the changes but said "outstanding issues" with the bill still remained. "We would still like the government to consider removing staff costs from the bill’s restrictions," he said.

"We must continue to make the argument against the proposed £10,000 cap on spending in one constituency by a charity or campaign group. But we believe that the commission has established a positive dialogue with government and we look forward to discussing these matters going forward."

Joe Irvin, chief executive of the local infrastructure umbrella body Navca, said that although the amendments were an improvement, he was "still baffled as to why the government ever got itself into this situation".

"Doubling the threshold for registration to £20,000 and requiring only the lead organisation in a coalition to register are significant victories for smaller charities," he said. "However, we still have a bill that restricts the freedom to campaign, makes it harder for groups to raise legitimate concerns with politicians and creates unnecessary red tape for charities – whose campaigning, let’s not forget, is already regulated by the Charity Commission."

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