Britain’s election watchdog is to warn the Government that its plans for new laws to regulate lobbying have been badly drafted and will adversely affect charities and other campaigning organisations.
The Electoral Commission is currently consulting on its official response to the Lobbying Bill, which is due to come before Parliament at the start of next month.
But charities and groups like 38 Degrees – which collect public donations to lobby politicians – fear the new rules could have “disastrous unintended consequences” on their ability to speak out in the run-up to elections.
Under the proposed new law any organisation deemed to be promoting a message which supports or attacks a political party or candidate will only be allowed to spend £390,000 during the election campaign, rather than the current £988,000.
At the same time any campaigning group that spends more than £5,000 in the period will be forced to declare details to the Electoral Commission.
The move could potentially affect both third-party campaigns on fracking, student loans and the NHS in the run-up to an election as well as small local campaigns.
Now the Electoral Commission, which would be responsible for interpreting and enforcing the new law, has revealed that it is unhappy about its operation.
“We have some significant concerns over the way the Bill has been drafted,” said a spokeswoman. “We will be briefing Parliament on these as soon as MPs return. Over the past few weeks, we have been talking to charities and organisations that could be affected by these rules. This will inform our evidence.”
The Commission is expected to publish a briefing paper on its position ahead of formal evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee which will examine the bill the week before Parliament returns. Labour yesterday described the Lobbying Bill as a “sinister attack” on charities and campaigners.
In a meeting with affected parties last week they warned that it could stifle public debate on issues like health, poverty or housing.
They also said that it could have an adverse effect at a constituency level, with small local groups unable to afford the administrative burden required to report their activities to the Electoral Commission.
Angela Eagle MP, Labour’s Shadow Leader of the House, said described the bill as a “desperate attempt by the Government to insulate their record and policies from criticism in 2015”.
“The Government urgently needs to listen to charities and campaigners who are telling them that these proposals will have a chilling effect on the quality of our national debate,” she said.
A Labour source suggested one target might be preventing the National Union of Students from campaigning against Liberal Democrat MPs who support the raising of tuition fees.
“Our understanding is that Nick Clegg is behind a lot of this because he’s worried about what happens if the NUS target seats with large student populations,” they said.
“This is naked political opportunism that will stifle political debate around election time.”
However a Cabinet Office spokeswoman denied that the Bill would affect charities or generic campaigns.
“The intention of the Transparency Bill is to bring greater transparency where third parties campaign in a way which supports a particular political party or its candidates, by requiring expenditure on those campaigns to be fully recorded and disclosed,” she said.
“We are keen to work constructively with the Electoral Commission and other parties to achieve the objectives of the Bill.”