The government’s new lobbying bill will not restrict the campaigning activity of charities, the leader of the House of Commons said yesterday in a debate before the second reading of the bill.
Speaking in the House of Commons today, Andrew Lansley, the leader of the house, said that fears raised by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and others that the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill would prevent charities from campaigning, were unfounded.
"The idea that charities are in any way constrained is completely wrong," he said.
The bill contains proposals to make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns that affect European, national and local elections. The NCVO has said that it also introduces a wider definition of election campaigning that could catch many legitimate charitable activities.
Lansley argued that legal advice produced for the NCVO and published yesterday found that the same uncertainty around the definition of "for election purposes" was already there in the existing legislation and was not introduced by the new bill. "The uncertainties are uncertainties that could be construed to the existing legislation," he said.
He said the bill would make changes to the amount that third parties could spend on campaigning and the types of spending – such as spending on staff costs – that should be recorded, but not to the definition of "for election purposes".
He argued that charity law already prohibited charities from supporting political parties and candidates – the type of activity that counted as "for election purposes" – so they should not be affected by the regulations proposed by the bill.
"This bill does not change that charities will still be able to give support to particular policies," he said. "The bill does not seek to regulate charities that simply engage with the policy of a particular party."
Charities would be required to record their spending on campaigning and register with the Electoral Commission only if they promoted the election of a particular party or candidate, Lansley said.
Speaking against the bill, Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey and shadow leader of the Commons, said the bill placed a "sinister gag" on charities and other third-party organisations.
"This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I have seen any government produce in a very long time," Eagle said.
Earlier today, Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North and chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, proposed during a committee evidence session that the bill should be suspended for six months so that a new draft could be worked on.
Speaking during the Commons debate, Allen criticised the government for introducing the section of the bill that contained the proposed changes for third-party lobbying at the last minute.
The bill passed its second reading and will go to the committee stage for three days on 9 September. The committee will be a committee of the whole house.
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