Bill threatens free speech and civil society, co-operators say

Proposals to restrict non-party campaigning have come under fire from Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative Party and a growing number of charities concerned about their potential effect on free...

Proposals to restrict non-party campaigning have come under fire from Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative Party and a growing number of charities concerned about their potential effect on free speech and civil society.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill proposes restricting spending and increasing accountability for those that campaign on political issues. Apart from political parties, which would be exempt, any organisation expressing a political judgment or attempting to influence voting decisions would be subject to the new rules during an election year, if the Bill becomes law.

The proposed changes would bring a wider range of activities before the Electoral Commission, including events, media work and manifestos. Non-party campaigners spending over £5,000 in England, or £2,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, would have to register with the Commission as a ‘recognised third party’. Current limits are £10,000 in England and £5,000 in the rest of the UK.

Elizabeth Chamberlain of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations said the proposals could seriously hamper charities and other groups that spoke up on issues. “The distinction between political campaigning and campaigning on policy matters is quite clear under the Charity Commission guidance but it's not clear in the Bill,” she said. “We're worried that campaigning on policy matters will be covered.”

Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, said the Bill could affect co-operatives. “We’re monitoring its progress and have a concern that the co-operative sector and wider civil society activities may be caught up in the red tape,” he said.

“We understand and are supportive of action to get a grip on the behind-the-scenes lobbying that goes on for big business interest groups. We’ll comply with whatever rules are set by Parliament if they cover our work. But the current Bill seems poorly drafted and may have far-reaching and unintended consequences of bringing open, free and democratic civil society initiatives into the net of state regulation.”

Karin Christiansen, General Secretary of the Co-operative Party, said as a registered political party its work would not be affected, but added: “We’re concerned that it hasn't been fully thought through, won’t tackle the issues it seeks to address and will have serious unanticipated consequences. As a consequence the Party will continue to work with campaigning organisations and our Parliamentarians to help to ensure that as little harm as possible is done to those who campaign for important and legitimate causes.”

It is thought the proposed rules could relate to any activity, including awareness and fund-raising. “The regulatory burden could crush small organisations," said Elizabeth Chamberlain. "It won’t always be possible for these groups to know in advance what issues may become political during an election period, or when an election year begins.” The NCVO had met Cabinet Office officials behind the Bill, but many of its questions remained unanswered, she added.

The NCVO has written to Chloe Smith MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, to say the current draft is unworkable and must be reconsidered. The letter, which is supprted by 32 charities including the Countryside Alliance, Oxfam and the RSPB, said: “The complexity of the legislation, the lack of clarity in drafting, the amount of discretion given to the Electoral Commission in determining how the rules apply and the remarkably burdensome reporting requirements, at a time when the government has given a commitment to reducing regulation, will collectively have the result of muting charities and groups of all sorts and sizes.”

The bill was laid before Parliament before summer recess on July 17th. Its second reading is timetabled for September 3rd. Committee stage is on September 9th-11th.

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