More charities may be required to register with the Electoral Commission if the government’s new lobbying bill goes ahead, charity lawyers have warned.
On 17 July, the government published the Transparency, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill.
The bill makes provisions for a register of lobbying consultancies and tighter regulations for the amount organisations can spend on political campaigning during election periods.
Under existing Electoral Commission rules, charities, companies and other third parties have to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than £10,000 on campaigning in England or £5,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
If the bill goes ahead, this threshold will be lowered to £5,000 and above in England and £2,000 and above in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It would also widen the range of activities that are regulated, if they are carried out for "election purposes".
This would mean that spending carried out for "election purposes" on events, media work, polling, transport and documents discussing policies associated with political parties as well as the staff costs would be covered.
Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite, said that the combination of a lower spending threshold combined with a wider definition of activities might mean that more charities would be required to register with the Electoral Commission.
She said that this might be a concern for charities, because the public might not understand their reason for registering with the Electoral Commission. "If they register, the public might ask: ‘Why does a charity need to register with the Electoral Commission?’" she said.
McCarthy said she would like the Charity Commission’s existing election guidance to help the public understand why charities might need to register with the Electoral Commission and explain that charities are entitled to speak out and promote their causes.
In addition to public perceptions, being registered with the Electoral Commission would also open up charities’ spending on campaigning to a wider audience, McCarthy said, because registered third parties are required to submit a report of their spending to the Electoral Commission.
Tom Murdoch, an associate at the law firm Stone King, said charities involved in campaigning would need to consider whether they would exceed the registration spending threshold with the Electoral Commission.
"If in doubt, charities should register," he said. "However, effective campaigning material costs very little to generate today. Large campaigning charities are likely to be registered with the Electoral Commission already, while smaller charities are likely to concentrate on micro-campaigns in which they hope the strong message sells itself."