By Lynn Malone
British charities will be afraid of prosecution and may face restraints on political campaigning brought about by the UK government’s proposed gagging bill, according to a top human rights lawyer.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), backed by a host of well know charities including the Salvation Army, Oxfam and the Royal British Legion, has written to Cabinet Office minister, Chloë Smith, to express its concern about proposals in the lobbying bill on “non-party campaigning.”
They sought urgent legal advice from election law expert, Helen Mountfield QC, who said the bill, due for its second reading in the House of Commons tomorrow, could violate the right to free speech.
The Coalition Government bill will widen the definition of election campaigning by third parties.
“Uncertainty about what the law requires is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, putting small organisations and their trustees and directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern,” Ms Mountfield said.
The proposals are intended to strengthen existing rules that limit what organisations can do to support political parties during an election. But planned changes mean that charities and community groups could be caught up in confusing legislation. The new rules are so complex and unclear that the NCVO claim it will be almost impossible for charities and community groups to follow.
The proposals are likely to impose extensive review and recording requirements on charities and community groups. Ms Mountfield added: ‘The restrictions and restraints are so wide and so burdensome as arguably to amount to a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression.”
The Government wants a statutory register of lobbyists, and a maximum spend of £390,000 in the UK by organisations during campaigning.
The NCVO say charities will be unable to decide whether they are in breach of the law when they campaign for a certain subject. Copies of the legal advice obtained by the NCVO have been sent to the Cabinet Office and to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which is examining the bill.
Karl Wilding, director of public policy at NCVO, said: “This bill takes us from a situation in which charities and community groups largely understood the rules on what they could do, into a position where no one has any idea what the rules are, but may nevertheless face criminal prosecution for getting them wrong.
“This is the inevitable consequence of rushing legislation through without any consultation.
“I would like the government to give serious consideration to putting its proposals on hold. This would give them the chance to consult properly on a solution that addresses concerns about undue influence in politics without the risk of sweeping every charity and community group in the country into a deeply burdensome bureaucratic regime.”