MPs have narrowly voted against an amendment to the lobbying bill that would, in effect, have excluded charities from its reach.
Graham Allen, the Labour MP for Nottingham North and chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, tabled an amendment that would have specified that activity would be caught by the legislation only if its "primary purpose" was to support a particular election candidate or party.
But it was defeated by 261 votes to 298 during the third and final reading of the government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in the House of Commons yesterday.
MPs approved a government amendment that uses the wording of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000. This says activity will be caught if it can be "reasonably be regarded as intended" to support a party or candidate.
MPs also voted against Labour amendments that would have removed reductions in the spending thresholds for registration of "non-party campaigners" with the Electoral Commission and in the amounts that such campaigners could spend.
An amendment that would have removed a wider list of activities that count towards the spending limits was defeated. The bill was passed to the House of Lords, where it will be debated on 22 October.
During the debate yesterday, Tom Brake, the deputy leader of the house, tried to reassure MPs that charities "are not affected by the bill because they do not campaign for electoral success".
But Stephen Twigg, the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby and shadow minister for constitutional reform, said: "There is a real risk of a chilling effect on our national debate, given the timing and rush of this bill.
"The minister has acknowledged that the government is in a rush to get the legislation in place for the 2015 general election, and inevitably people will think they are trying to insulate their own record, MPs and candidates from legitimate democratic criticism."
A number of high-profile campaigns, including the equal marriage campaign by the gay rights charity Stonewall, the Royal British Legion’s military covenant campaign and the National Union of Students' tuition fees campaign in 2010, could have been "stymied by the legislation", said Twigg.
The bill passed its third reading in the commons by a majority of 44.
Sector bodies, including Acevo and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, have said that the government’s amendments to the bill do not go far enough.
Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: "It is a great disappointment that this bill should have got through the Commons as it is. One MP commented that the hurried debate was an abuse of parliament, and I agree.
"But civil society will work with what we have and help the Lords to write a bill that is fit for purpose."
He said Acevo would work with the Commission on Civil Society, a coalition of 37 sector organisations set up by Acevo to investigate the effect of the bill, to hold debates and hearings around the country about the bill.
"The voice of civil society is crucial to a vibrant democracy," said Bubb. "At election time it must be heard loud and clear. Political parties have nothing to fear from good debate. And our legislation is improved by the voices the sector brings to that debate."In a few weeks time this bill should start to look like what the public wants."
The commission will report to the House of Lords after the bill has been debated there on 22 October.
Elizabeth Chamberlain, a policy officer at the NCVO, said: "Given that the bill is being rushed through and moving to the Lords, we will be continuing to raise concerns around a number of key issues that remain unresolved."
These would include, she said, the test of what activities are considered "for electoral purpose", why the expenditure threshold has been lowered considerably, and the new list of activities covered – including staff costs – which Chamberlain said was "too broad and potentially vague".
- For more news on the lobbying bill visit our Big Issue