Divide and rule: Govt splits opposition with 'gagging bill' concessions

The fight against fox-hunting would have been almost impossible under current rules, the Countryside Alliance says
The fight against fox-hunting would have been almost impossible under current rules, the Countryside Alliance says
Alex Stevenson By

The government has offered major concessions to the lobbying bill, winning over some - but not all - of those who have warned it is trampling on charities' freedom of speech.

Ministers unveiled amendments to the legislation which have succeeded in dividing its opponents, making upcoming votes on the bill a much more reassuring prospect for the government.

The biggest concession is an increase in the threshold of spending which would mean charities would face regulation by the Electoral Commission from £5,000 to £20,000.

Some campaigners who had feared the low barrier would produce a 'chilling effect' on small-scale community organisations have been placated by the reform.


Charities, by law, may not campaign in a party political manner. However the bill as originally drafted risked sweeping non-party political campaigning into its scope," the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' (NCVO) chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington said.

"The bill now provides a much more sensible balance than it did to begin with between creating accountability and transparency in elections while still allowing for charities and others to speak up on issues of concern."

But Labour said the changes "don't go near solving" the problems raised by the bill.

"Ministers have already been forced in to a humiliating pause on this bill for fear of losing a key vote, and now they've been forced into amending it as well," shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle said.

"This remains a bad bill which lets vested interests off the hook while gagging charities and campaigners. It says everything about who David Cameron stands up for."

Despite the concessions the total amount to be spent during the regulated period before elections is only being increased from £390,000 to £450,000 - significantly short of the current £988,500 cap.

The changes will also continue to force organisations to include staffing costs in their spending budgets, significantly limiting the ability of larger bodies like the Countryside Alliance to continue campaigning as they have done.

"The proposed inclusion of staff costs would mean significant additional red tape for charities that political parties do not face," Friends of the Earth's Liz Hutchins said.

"Proposed new constituency limits remain unworkable and unenforceable. Charities and campaigning organisations are more effective working together yet this bill makes this more difficult."

Green MP Caroline Lucas made clear she believed the bill was fundamentally flawed in a Guardian article published this morning.

"Where democracy and participation is alive and well is at the level of ordinary people's involvement with charities and organisations such as 38 Degrees," she wrote.

"Sadly, one of the underlying reasons for the government's attempts to push through this bill is that it's afraid of the power of informed and organised public opinion."

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