Peers from all political parties called for the lobbying bill to be either substantially amended or scrapped altogether during its second reading in the House of Lords yesterday.
Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill contains proposals restricting political activity by third parties in the run-up to elections.
Several peers said during the debate that the proposals would substantially reduce the ability of charities to campaign on legitimate issues and had been introduced without adequate scrutiny or consultation. They called for the government to carry out a fundamental review or scrap part 2 altogether.
Lord Ramsbotham, a crossbench peer, said: "I believe that the government should withdraw part 2 of the bill now or, at best, submit it to the consultation that has hitherto been denied."
He said the government "must avoid giving the impression that they think they own the voluntary sector".
Lord Phillips, a Liberal Democrat peer, called for a "fundamental review" of the legislation and for charities to be exempted from part 2 of the act.
Viscount Younger of Leckie, a Conservative minister who proposed the bill’s second reading, defended the proposals, saying it was the government’s belief "that the vast majority of charities or other groups campaigning for their preferred policies will not be affected by the bill".
But Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a crossbench peer and chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement – set up by a group of charities to scrutinise the bill – said charities had legitimate concerns about the simultaneous lowering of the amount they could spend and the widened range of activities that count as campaigning.
"Some people say that they cannot understand why charities are worried about it because there will be no curtailing of their freedom," said Harries. "It is the combination of these elements, together with a continuing fundamental uncertainty about the definition of an electoral activity, that is making so many charities feel that their freedom to engage is in fact being threatened."
He said the bill would scare away many trustees of small charities from legitimate activities.
"They will be very frightened of quickly going over the limit and doing something illegal," he said. "If, however, they decide to take the risk and register, the paperwork needed to subdivide the elements of expenditure and people’s time could be a huge bureaucratic burden."
He said charities "feel that their fundamental right to free speech will be severely curtailed".
"It is said that there are those who resent the role now played by charities in our society," he said. "Some apparently would like to confine them to service provision, leaving the formation of political policy to politicians."
Lord Horam, a Conservative peer, criticised plans to reduce the amount organisations could spend on campaigning before they must register with the Electoral Commission.
"Why go so far down the route to seek to register groups that are spending £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?" he said. "You do not get a lot of campaigning for £2,000 these days."
Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the Liberal Democrat peer responsible for taking the bill through the Lords, promised that the government would create a bill that everyone was happy with.
"The charity sector perceives this as an attack," he said. "That is, by and large, a mistaken perception. However, of course we have to reassure people and make sure, as we take this bill through the various stages, that we have a bill that we are all happy with as it emerges from this house."