In this blog Felix Spittal, Policy Officer of The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations writes about the disastrous implications of the gagging bill for the campaining work of charities in the UK if it passes through the House of Lords .

The legislative mess that is the Lobbying and Transparency Bill has now passed its third reading at Westminster and has moved to the Lords for their consideration. Unfortunately, the second part of the bill, which proposes changes to the rules around non-party campaigning, remains a serious threat to the campaigning work of the third sector.

What has become clear during the passage of the bill through parliament is that there was already some ambiguity around much of the legislation and regulations covering third party campaigning. The problem with this bill is that it has failed to address that ambiguity and despite late government amendments has not tackled the principle concern – that campaigning organisations will not be able to support specific policies without becoming caught up by the regulations.

The Electoral Commission states that the new wording which covers this aspect will ‘need to be considered carefully and tested with campaigners to ensure that they are fit for purpose.’ By not having any pre-legislative scrutiny for this section of the bill, that opportunity did not exist and there will undoubtedly be negative consequences for the sector and a great deal of uncertainty.

The bill has cut the amount of money organisations can spend in the run up to an elections as well as broadening the scope of the activities that are covered. This will cause more third sector bodies to come under the scope of Electoral Commission regulation and will see many restricted by limits on controlled expenditure.

There’s a complete lack of sound reasoning behind these reductions and new limits. Lowering the spending threshold for registration with the commission from £5,000 to £2,000 seems arbitrary and entirely without justification. Any problems with corporate lobbying at Westminster are clearly not happening at the financial scales covered by these thresholds.

Transparency of lobbying activity is clearly important, but it is unclear how the bill will achieve this. Any minor improvements brought about will be vastly outweighed by the negative implications for campaigning and freedom of speech. Around election time it is more important than ever that third sector organisations and their members views are part of the debate.

Sadly, this is still a poorly conceived and drafted piece of legislation that will restrict the work of campaigning organisations without delivering any benefit to the public that I can see. This was inevitable without proper pre-legislative scrutiny. Now it is down to the Lords to see this bill for what it is and act to reject all changes to non-party campaigning until a full consultation can take place, anything less would have disastrous implications for the participation of third sector organisations in the political process.

This blog was originally published on The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations at:

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