September 6, 2013 6:49 pm

Charities win reprieve on strict new lobbying bill

Charities have won a reprieve from strict new laws which could have curtailed the amount they could spend in the run-up to a general election after the government backed down on a key part of its lobbying bill.

Andrew Lansley, leader of the Commons, announced on Friday that the government would no longer seek to change the definition of political spending, which is limited during a general election campaign.

Ministers are planning to use the lobbying bill to reduce the limit on third party campaign spending from £988,000 to £390,000.

This was designed to hinder the activities of big unions, but charities warned it would also affect them, not least because the definition of what counts as electoral spending was also due to be broadened.

Under government plans, organisations would have been limited in what they could spend “for the purpose of or in connection with procuring or promoting electoral success”.

But facing an outcry from the voluntary sector, Mr Lansley announced on Friday that the government would revert to the original wording, which limits anything “which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which represents charities, had warned the bill would have a “chilling effect” on their members’ activities, dubbing the bill the “gagging bill”.

Mr Lansley said: “I heard what charities and voluntary organisations had to say. While we always were clear that we had no intention of preventing them campaigning on policies and issues as they always have, I wanted the bill to be as clear as it could possibly be.

“So, I am very glad that I have been able to meet the concerns of voluntary organisations, while ensuring that the bill still regulates effectively when organisations directly try to promote election candidates and parties.”

The NCVO welcomed the move. Sir Stuart Etherington, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “I am pleased the government has listened to and significantly met the concerns of charities and community groups.

“I understand the government’s intention was not to make their normal work subject to this regulation. We will work closely with the government and the political and constitutional reform committee in order to deliver this intention.”

Mr Lansley is refusing to back down on other measures in the bill, including the reduction in the spending limits and the extension of the definition of campaign spending to include rallies, transport and press conferences.

But there are likely to be other compromises in response to a string of amendments proposed to the bill, which has proved to be one of the most controversial the coalition has attempted to pass.

A Whitehall official said: “A number of amendments have been tabled. The government intends to respond in a way which meets both the principle and spirit of these.”

The cabinet office refused to comment on what those compromises could be. Another controversial element of the bill is the way it says it will force lobbyists to be more transparent about their meetings with those at the top of the government, but actually exempts any company not defined primarily as a lobbying company. It also allows companies to meet anyone below ministerial level without having to declare it.

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