The Electoral Commission , Britain's elections watchdog, has concluded that government plans to censor political campaigning before a general election are flawed and in part unworkable.
In a private briefing sent to interested parties, the commission says that it has significant concerns about the coalition's lobbying bill, that some parts of it may be unenforceable and that it is not at all clear how the new restrictions
affecting charities will work.
When the transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill 2013-14 was published in July, the day before MPs broke up for their summer recess, it emerged that, as well as long-expected plans for a statutory
register of lobbyists, the bill includes proposals that would drastically censor campaign groups from speaking on political issues in the 12 months before a general election.
In its letter, the commission says the proposed rules about spending at constituency level may be unenforceable , partly because it will often be hard for campaigners to identify with a reasonable level of confidence when an activity
has 'no significant effects' in a given constituency .
More broadly, it says the proposed rules about what constitutes election-related activity are not sufficiently clear. The briefing says:
In our view, it is not at all clear how that test will apply in practice to the activities of the many third parties that have other purposes beyond political campaigning. For instance, it seems arguable that the new test could apply to many of
the activities of charities, voluntary organisations, blogs, thinktanks and other organisations that engage in debate on public policy.
John Sauven, executive director at Greenpeace , one of more than 100 charity organisations that have expressed concerns about the bill, said the legislation was the most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory .
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said it had significant concerns about the bill and would be explaining them in detail to a select committee in September. The bill's second reading is on 3 September, with its three-day committee
stage a week later.
A negative public reaction to the government's disgraceful lobbying bill and its effect on censoring campaign groups has led to a promise to make significant changes.
Liberal Democrat sources said the government will retreat on some parts of the lobbying bill as early as next week, after campaign groups raised serious concerns that it would have a chilling effect on their campaigns.
The news comes days after MPs attacked the bill as a dog's breakfast and a mess when it was debated for the first time in the House of Commons.
Labour attacked its sinister restrictions on campaigning by campaign groups a year before an election, while backbench Tories expressed reservations about its impact on free speech.
It is understood the government will offer to remove several controversial clauses, including ones that said campaigning could count as political if it procures success for a candidate, even if it does not endorse a specific party. Charities from
Oxfam to the Royal British Legion feared this could make them subject to spending limits on political campaigning in the year before an election.
Sources close to Nick Clegg said the amendments would mean no extra charities or third parties would be caught by the restrictions, though some that faced limits in 2010 would still be affected by new limits.
Even with the promised concessions, the lobbying bill will still mean third parties are subject to tougher restrictions on political campaigning.
The Electoral Commission has warned the new spending limits could mean it would have to ask groups in breach of the law to take down blogs or stop political rallies. The watchdog said the bill would create a high degree of uncertainty.
The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement has published its action plan to protect democracy from the chilling effect of the Lobbying Bill which is seeking to censor campaigners on political issues.
The Commission warns that Part 2 of the Bill is so broadly drafted it would restrict campaigning in the whole year before an election. Parliamentary candidates only have to account for their spending in the few months before an election.
The report recommends that Ministers should urgently rewrite the Lobbying Bill to prevent significant damage to legitimate campaigning. It also sets out a twelve point action plan to ensure transparent and proportionate regulation in election
periods. It warns urgent action is needed to improve a Bill that the Electoral Commission has described as unenforceable in parts and which legal advice has warned will have a chilling effect on campaigners.
The Commission's recommendations include:
Treating campaigners in the same way as political parties by excluding staff costs from spending limits
Reducing the period covered by the legislation to six months ahead of an election instead of a year
Dropping the proposed tightening of spending caps for campaigners
Doubling the current spending levels at which campaigners have to register with the Electoral Commission
Scrapping the proposed constituency spending limit which the regulator warned may be unenforceable