The chair of the Electoral Commission has told MPs it is concerned that proposed limits on the amount campaigners can spend in each constituency in the run-up to elections may be difficult to police.
Jenny Watson told MPs on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee yesterday that the proposed spending limits in the lobbying bill would be difficult to enforce because in some cases it would be hard to work out whether an issue should fall within local or national spending limits and constituency spending would be difficult to define.
"Does a billboard on a high-profile issue at Clapham Junction constitute campaigning against a constituency or national spending limits?" she said. "What about leaflets given out in a shopping centre used by many people from different constituencies?"
She said the debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday was the first opportunity either house had had to discuss this provision. "The absence of any pre-legislative scrutiny on this new area of regulation causes us concern and we would still welcome clarity from parliament on how it envisages the rules working in practice," she said.
Watson also said that constituency spending rules "would be unenforceable by us in real time during a general election period". Traditionally, enforcement activity only happens after an election campaign except in the most "egregious cases", she said.
The bill contains proposals to reduce the spending limit for campaigns by any third-party organisation in the run-up to and during elections on campaigns that "could be reasonably regarded as intended" to favour particular parties or candidates. The limit would be lowered from £988,500 to £390,000.
Organisations will also have to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on such campaigns. Charities fear that the changes could impair their ability to run campaigns in the lead-up to elections.
The government has indicated that it would raise the spending limits at the report stage of the bill in the House of Lords, which is scheduled for 13 January, but has not yet said to what levels.
Watson said the Electoral Commission supported a shortening of the period where the rules apply from a year before the election, as proposed in the bill, to six months for the next general election only. Watson said the change would give organisations more time to understand the rules and seek advice.
She also said there was a risk that small charities working in campaigning coalitions with other organisations would get "pulled in to the regime" and would have to register with the Electoral Commission and report their spending.
But Watson told MPs she would not want charities exempted from the bill, as did Georgette Mulheir, a member of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement - a coalition of charities, campaign groups and academics set up to consider issues with the bill - and Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations,
Mulheir said:"There is a risk that an unscrupulous group registers as a charity and tries to avoid the regulations and is therefore able to influence the election which in the long term would have a very negative impact on the reputation of charities,"
Wilding pointed out that there were many voluntary groups that were not registered charities.