Lobbying bill has implications for freedom of speech, warns Electoral Commission official

Peter Horne, director of party and election finance at the commission, tells committee of MPs that handing it more power is problematical

The government’s lobbying bill raises "real questions around freedom of speech" a senior Electoral Commission official said yesterday.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill contains proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections.

It also introduces a wider definition of election campaigning, which the National Council for Voluntary Organisations says could catch many legitimate charitable activities.

Presenting evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee yesterday, Peter Horne, director of party and election finance at the Electoral Commission, warned that handing more power to the commission to carry out certain functions raised "real questions around freedom of speech."

Horne said there were questions about the power the bill would give the commission to pre-emptively regulate and issue a "stop notice" to any organisation that it thought would spend above the allowed amount on campaigning.

Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, also presenting evidence, said the some of the controls given to her organisation by the proposed lobbying bill would be unworkable.

She warned that the bill would give the Electoral Commission too much discretion to regulate campaigning activity.

Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North and chair of the committee, said yesterday that the bill should be delayed for six months so that it could be sent to a special committee for redrafting.

Watson also raised concerns about the broad definition of "for election purposes" regarding the types of activities that the Electoral Commission would be responsible for regulating.

She said: "Our view is the bill as drafted creates a high level of uncertainty, which will make it difficult for campaigns to be confident about how their activity from May onwards will be affected, while simultaneously imposing significant new burdens on such organisations.

"The wide interpretation of ‘for election purposes’ gives us the discretion to interpret what type of activity will be regulated as political campaigning. This is discretion we did not seek."

Watson said she had concerns about the definition of "for election purposes" and the subsequent widening of the Electoral Commission’s remit.

She said that "a good parallel" would be the Charities Act 2006, which introduced a public benefit test "and then asked the Charity Commission to define the public benefit".

"We would appreciate understanding more about parliament’s expectations and where we might intervene and how we intervene," she said.

Watson also raised concerns about the new spending thresholds for registering with the Electoral Commission, especially in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and recommended that they were increased.

The commission was not consulted by the government before the bill was published, Watson said. She said she felt the bill would have "benefited" from pre-legislative scrutiny.

- Read other stories on the lobbying bill by visiting our Big Issue

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