If the lobbying bill became law in its current form it could be a "real threat to democracy", the audience at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual Hinton Lecture heard last night.
The lecture, at the Guildhall in the City of London, was given by Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, a non-partisan think tank that aims to improve the effectiveness of government.
Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which includes measures that voluntary sector organisations believe could significantly hamper their campaigning activities, is due to be debated in the House of Lords on Monday.
Riddell, a former journalist for the Times and Financial Times newspapers, said that although none of what the institute does could "remotely be described as campaigning, or favouring one party over another", it is concerned it could be affected by the lobbying bill unless the bill is substantially amended.
In the questions and answer session, he called for Part 2 to be "chopped" and said that if it went through still intact to become legislation there would be legal challenges to determine its scope.
"I think it could be a real threat to democracy," he said. "The fear of it, the apprehension is the most serous problem, voluntary organisations being afraid."
Riddell said he was "very suspicious" because ministers’ amendments had still left ambiguities.
"It is quite clear no charities should favour one candidate or one party over another, but I think the freedom to express views and engage in debate is absolute," he said.
Riddell said he thought there was frustration among some Conservatives that the voluntary sector could be seen as a "lobby for more public spending, a voice against the government".
In his wide-ranging lecture, Riddell spoke about his organisation’s work to improve the policy-making process and addressing the gap between Whitehall policy-makers and those implementing policy on the ground.
Over the past year, the institute has been working with the Big Lottery Fund on the Connecting Policy with Practice programme, which has brought together Whitehall officials with those who run services, including voluntary sector organisations.
Riddell opened his lecture by saying: "The voluntary and charitable sector is in turmoil at present. The Charity Commission is under fire from parliament and faces big budget cuts, while the sector as a whole is grappling with the lobbying bill.
"At the same time, the sector has become an increasing provider of public services funded by the taxpayer, while the government is squeezing or reducing spending in many areas with no end of austerity in sight. This presents an acute dilemma for the sector – should it, can it, replace state provision? And are there negative sides to the diversity of the sector in a reluctance to share learning?"