The National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has clarified its concerns about the Lobbying Bill, which major NGOs see as a continuing threat to free speech and action on public issues by charitable bodies, despite amendments offered by the government after concerted pressure from a huge, non-partisan alliance chaired by the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries.
NCVO, an umbrella body for charities in England and Wales, says that in its present form the Bill could still cause "huge problems for many organisations, even the largest." Comments on their blog indicate the deep concerns of small organisations, too.
An NCVO press release yesterday morning (9 January 2013) included one comment from the organisation's CEO, Sir Stuart Hetherington, which indicated that he thought "much of the risk to charities from this legislation has now been averted".
While they are pleased that the government has begun to make changes, the idea that the overall threat has receded is not a view shared by the vast majority of leading charities themselves, as membership of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement – which includes a swathe of over 130 voluntary and faith organisations, including some of the largest in the sector – indicates.
Advocacy organisations were concerned that Mr Hertherington's comment does not reflect their views and that it should not be allowed to undermine the chance of peers supporting further changes to the Bill, which are being put forward by Lord Harries after wide consultation.
In fact, they point out, NCVO's release itself sets out a range of significant, continuing problems with the highly contentious Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14, which critics say does almost nothing to counteract corporate bases, while severely restricting the free operation of non-party groups – including charities who are members of NCVO and its Scottish equivalent SCVO – before elections, as well as threatening the confidentiality of union membership records.
After concern expressed by voluntary groups, the NCVO, while not withdrawing the original release as some wished, have made it very clear that they still think there are major problems with the Bill and will be pushing for further changes at Report stage.
In a further statement, Elizabeth Chamberlain, policy manager at the NCVO, said the amendments do not address a requirement to account for the amount of staff time spent on campaigning, which could be highly burdensome, particularly for small charities.
She said the bill will still introduce a new spending limit of just under £10,000 in each constituency, and will reduce the total amount that a campaigning group can spend from £988,000 to £390,000.
"The changes that government has put forward are very helpful but they don't solve some problems for charities and the wider voluntary sector," she said. "Staff costs in particular are hugely problematic."
The NCVO release ended with a note stating clearly that elements of the Lobbying Bill "continue to be deeply problematic and could cause huge problems for many organisations, even the largest."
A huge effort is being made to win over Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers to vote for more substantial change to the Lobbying Bill. The Countryside Alliance, which has a large degree of support among Conservative voters and parliamentarians, is among the unprecedentedly wide alliance of groups who believe the Bill poses a real threat to grassroots democracy, campaigning and free speech.
Mr Hetherington's comment is being seen as an attempt to assuage some in government who have been taken aback by the depth and strength of feeling from charities on the issue, following a heated meeting with government representatives.
But the coalition of groups wanting to see the legislation changed substantially or withdrawn are clear that this is a cross-party issue, and that pressure needs to be maintained at the vital Report Stage of the Bill, now that the government has indicated that it is beginning to recognise the scale of concern.
Faith groups, including major agencies such as Christian Aid, CAFOD and the Muslim Council of Britain, have played a significant role in the campaign to substantially reform the Lobbying Bill, but there has been disappointment at the reluctance of the denominations – including the Church of England and the Church of Scotland – to speak out clearly on the issue.
Yesterday over 60 advocacy organisations, charities and NGOs, including Ekklesia, launched a petition to back amendments to the Lobbying Bill tabled by Lord Harries next Wedsnesday. The fact that it has acquired hundreds of supporters in a matter of hours indicates the strength of feeling, its creators say.
* Urgent petition to back Lord Harries / CCSDE amendments to Lobbyng Bill on 15 January: http://civilsocietycommission.info/petition/
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info
* The NCVO press release: http://www.ncvo.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/524-governme...
* NCVO blog clarifying its concerns: http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2014/01/09/lobbying-bill-significant-steps-forw...
* Petition against a union data grab through the Lobbying Bill: http://action.goingtowork.org.uk/page/s/lobbying-bill-my-union-membershi...
* 38 Degrees 'Gagging Law' petition: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/scrap-the-gagging-law#petition