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10 January 2014

Lobbying Bill changes welcomed, but more needs to be done

Lobbying Bill changes welcomed, but more needs to be done

The government have announced significant amendments to the Lobbying Bill which returns to parliament next week for its final stages before it becomes law.

The changes, which follow considerable pressure from charities and campaign groups, will reduce the likelihood organisations are restricted in their activities in the run-up to elections. The Evangelical Alliance has joined a wide range of groups in calling for these changes, and despite the welcome shift in the government's position, further changes are still needed to produce a law that is fair and proportionate.

Earlier in the parliamentary process the government changed the proposed wording of what activity would require organisations to be regulated as 'third party' campaign groups to revert to the existing definition. This amendment helpfully removed the potential that campaigning activity which unintentionally benefited particular parties or candidates would require the campaign to be registered and regulated.

However, even with the broader definition of campaign activity major problems remained in the legislation. The changes proposed this week mean that many more groups will not be affected by the regulations. The law had planned on reducing the amount that could be spent before registration was necessary. Instead, the limits will now be raised from £10,000 to £20,000 in England and to £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There are also important changes proposed which will make it easier for groups to work in coalition together, instead of all expenses being pooled and applied in whole to each group, smaller organisations will be able to 'piggyback' off larger campaigns as long as their own expenditure remains below the registration threshold.

In future the regulations will apply for 12 months ahead of an election, however, for the 2015 election the regulated period will be reduced and only begin after the referendum on Scottish independence. In addition the bill will be fully reviewed following the next election.

Despite these important revisions the bill remains problematic. The most difficult remaining aspect of the bill is the inclusion of staff time within expenditure limits, both for the registration threshold and the maximum registered organisations can spend. Staff time is not accounted for in party political expenditure and it is therefore disproportionate for it to be included in non-party campaigning. It is also a considerable bureaucratic burden because very rarely is staff time simple to calculate or solely directed to clear campaigning ends.

In addition there are particular concerns that apply to churches and other faith groups. The bill exempts communications and events targeted at members and supporters but includes events or promotional activity directed beyond that. However, there is no clear definition of what a supporter is, a member is understood as someone with a financial commitment to the organisation, and for churches and charities they frequently communicate with people who may have only a tangential relationship with them, so working out which communications are included and which are exempted is potentially highly problematic.

The House of Lords has an opportunity next week to make further changes to the bill beyond what the government have announced this week. If they do so the vital campaigning work of charities, churches and other organisations across the country, frequently speaking up for those in greatest need of a voice, will be protected. While far better than it was when first published last summer, this bill is still in need of further work.

The Civil Society Commission, chaired by the former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, has produced two reports into the proposed changes and called for many amendments. They, along with the NCVO, have welcomed the government's announcement but maintain their call for further improvements.