Lobbying Bill to be re-drafted over charity concerns

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Ministers are preparing to fundamentally rewrite their controversial lobbying Bill after a barrage of criticism from charities and voluntary organisations, The Independent has learnt.

In an embarrassing climbdown, civil servants have been ordered to look again at the Bill and remove key sections which could prevent charities from campaigning on issues of national importance during an election.

The move follows widespread condemnation of the Bill that ministers have always claimed was only meant to prevent third parties from unduly influencing the result of elections.

But Oxfam, the Royal British Legion and the Salvation Army were among the organisations that warned that, as written, the Bill could have “disastrous unintended consequences” on their ability to speak out.

The charities also pointed out that the rules could force them to cut their spending in the run-up to elections substantially.

Under the current proposals, charities could be considered to be trying to influence an election even if they did not express support for any particular candidate.

However, Nick Clegg is now backing an amendment by a group of five Liberal Democrat MPs that would remove that section from the Bill. Sources close to Mr Clegg said that the Bill would then be substantially redrafted to allay the charities’ concerns.

“It would be fair to say that this Bill needs a bit of work,” they said. “We are now going back to try and redraft it in a way that makes quite clear that it will not in any way restrict the abilities of charities to campaign to change government policy or on other issues they feel strongly about.”

The source added: “John Thurso and other Liberal Democrat backbench colleagues have tabled an amendment to make it crystal clear this Bill will in no way stop charities doing their normal campaigning… The Government accepts the principle behind this amendment and will come back with changes to the legislation to reflect it.”

The minister responsible for overseeing the drafting of the Bill, Chloe Smith, has been criticised by the Electoral Commission – which will oversee the working of the Bill – for not consulting them before its publication.