The lobbying bill has unearthed "high levels of ambiguity" in existing legislation covering charities’ ability to campaign, the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, told an audience of small charities yesterday.
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.
"We’re trying to work out how to remove as much ambiguity as possible," Hurd said at a round-table event for small charities organised by the Directory of Social Change. "We’re talking to the sector nearly every day. We didn’t get into this to muzzle people. I’ve spent years saying that the freedom of the sector to campaign has never been more important."
Hurd said the government could not remove all ambiguity and that a degree of judgement on the part of the Electoral Commission would always be necessary, but ministers would work with the sector as much as possible.
Hurd said the lobbying bill was not intended to stop charities campaigning "so long as it is compatible with their charitable objectives".
Commenting later on Hurd's remarks, Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, told Third Sector: "Hurd is right to say there’s ambiguity in the existing legislation and that it’s impossible to eliminate all ambiguity in deciding what counts as non-party campaigning. There will inevitably be situations where it will come down to the Electoral Commission’s judgement."
She said it was important to address other elements of the bill, such as the activities that were regulated and the spending thresholds. Chamberlain added: "The chances of being caught up in the new legislation are much greater than under the existing legislation, not just because of the definition but because so much more activity is regulated."