A Conservative MP has accused the National Council for Voluntary Organisations of leading a "massive over-reaction" against the lobbying bill.
A meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering in parliament yesterday heard evidence from the NCVO, the Countryside Alliance and the campaigning group 38 Degrees on the possible effect of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill on the ability of charities to campaign.
Responding to the evidence presented by the three groups, Sir Peter Bottomley, the MP for Worthing West and member of the APPG, said he thought the NCVO was responsible for encouraging an over-reaction by the voluntary sector to the lobbying bill.
"I think the NCVO has led a massive over-reaction," he said. "Some of the things being discussed could have been discussed quite quietly without bombardment."
Bottomley, who has been an MP since 1975, also criticised 38 Degrees for taking up MPs’ time by filling their inboxes with emails. He said that each time a charity asked its supporters to email him with concerns, he approached the chief executive of the charity for a meeting so he could explain to them why that method of campaigning was bad.
"One in three of these chief executives come back, two out of three don’t," he said. "So I’d like the NCVO and Acevo to put on a seminar so that I can come and talk to their members and chief executives to explain what the emails actually do." He said the practice "wrecks our work".
Responding to Bottomley’s comments, Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy manager at the NCVO, said the NCVO itself was not the root cause of concern, but charities had approached it to raise concerns about the bill.
"I think I’d like to clarify that as a membership body the NCVO was not there rallying the troops," she said. Charities had a number of concerns with the bill, she said, including the negative effect that registering with the Electoral Commission could have on the public’s perception of a charity.
Also giving evidence at the meeting, James Legge, head of political at the Countryside Alliance, said it would be extremely difficult for charities to avoid campaigning on issues that were political and therefore they would be regulated by the proposed legislation, because it was impossible to predict which issues would be taken up by politicians. "What is defined as election expenditure all depends on what politicians want to make a political issue," he said.
Lord Best, vice-chair of the APPG and a crossbench peer, told the meeting that the bill was likely to be amended during its passage through the House of Lords. He said that amendments tabled by Lord Harries of Pentregarth were likely to be supported by the majority of crossbench peers and could therefore change the bill.