In its current form the Lobbying Bill could be a "real threat to democracy", the head of the Institute for Government has warned.
The damning indictment came from Peter Riddell, who is also a former Times and Financial Times columnist, at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual Hinton Lecture in London yesterday.
Part Two of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill includes measures that civil society groups say will seriously hinder their legitimate campaigning activities.
It will be debated in the House of Lords in Westminster on Monday 16 December 2013.
Riddell called for Part Two of the Bill to be "chopped" altogether, and warned of likely legal challenges to determine its scope – a response that chimes with comments from the think-tank Ekklesia and others.
"I think [this Bill] could be a real threat to democracy," he added. "The fear of it, the apprehension is the most serous problem, voluntary organisations being afraid."
"It is quite clear no charities should favour one candidate or one party over another, but I think the freedom to express views and engage in debate is absolute," said Mr Riddell.
Noting the frustration of some conservatives at criticism of government cuts coming from voluntary groups, he continued: "The voluntary and charitable sector is in turmoil at present. The Charity Commission is under fire from parliament and faces big budget cuts, while the sector as a whole is grappling with the Lobbying Bill.
"At the same time, the sector has become an increasing provider of public services funded by the taxpayer, while the government is squeezing or reducing spending in many areas with no end of austerity in sight.
"This presents an acute dilemma for the sector – should it, can it, replace state provision? And are there negative sides to the diversity of the sector in a reluctance to share learning?"
Last week, Charlotte Ravenscroft, head of policy and research at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, responded to the Chancellor's Autumn Statement by saying: "Many charities fear the new welfare cap will drive the government to make spending decisions that will lead to vulnerable people bearing the brunt of further cuts. Further details announced today do not resolve our concerns.
"We have called for a proper consultation on these proposals and also for any cap to have consultation mechanisms built into it.
"We [have] heard further confirmation that balancing the budget will be achieved primarily through central government spending cuts rather than tax increases. This means there will be no let-up in the continuing squeeze on public service budgets over the next few years."
* More from Ekklesia on the Lobbying Bill: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* More from Ekklesia on the Autumn Statement: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/autumnstatement
* NCVO: http://www.ncvo.org.uk