The lobbying bill risks "profoundly undermining the very fabric of our democracy" by limiting the right of campaigners to speak out on important issues, according to a report published today by a coalition of charities and other organisations.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill contains proposals restricting political activity by third parties in the run-up to elections, which charities fear will limit their ability to campaign. The bill returns to the committee stage in the House of Lords next week.
The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which was set up to scrutinise the bill, calls in its report for a pause in the legislative process to allow for a joint committee to consider the legislation and whether any urgent changes are needed before the 2015 general election.
The commission is chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Harries of Pentregarth and includes eight other members from civil society and campaigning groups, including: Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB and chair of Acevo; Justine Roberts, chief executive of Mumsnet; and Baroness Mallalieu, president of the Countryside Alliance.
In the introduction to the report, called Non-party Campaigning Ahead of Elections, Lord Harries says: "There is no doubt, from the evidence that this commission has gathered, that part 2 of the lobbying bill risks profoundly undermining the very fabric of our democracy by significantly limiting the right of organisations – from charities and community groups to think tanks and blog sites – to speak out on some of the most important issues facing this country and the planet.
"Whether we agree with these organisations or not, their role is essential in order to have an informed, engaged electorate."
The commission said that the current debate had revealed a lack of clarity on the right of charities to engage in political activity, even under existing election laws.
"The result is a fundamental uncertainty that will inhibit charities from campaigning for fear of breaking the law," the commission says in its report.
However, it says that new measures introduced in the bill would make matters worse. These include lowering the amount charities have to spend before they must register with the Electoral Commission, cutting the amount charities are allowed to spend, introducing a cap on the amount that can be spent in constituencies and broadening the scope of activities subject to regulation.
"It is likely to result in a broad range of everyday, issue-focused campaigning being caught by the bill," the report says.
The report also says that the legislative process was "inadequate" and has resulted in "poorly drafted legislation".
"The lack of an evidence-based impact assessment, pre-legislative scrutiny and appropriate information and time for parliamentarians to scrutinise the bill has made it impossible for parliament to perform its function in relation to producing high-quality legislation," the report says.
The report says that if its central recommendation is not implemented, the government should make several changes, including retaining spending limits contained in the existing legislation, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.