The government has been defeated in the House of Lords after peers voted to exclude some "background staff costs" from new financial restrictions on charities and other campaigning proposed in a government bill.
Peers voted by 237 to 194 – a majority of 43 – in favour of an amendment tabled by the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that would allow charities and campaigning groups to exclude staffing costs associated with hosting press conferences and rallies from new restrictions.
Peers inflicted the 86th defeat on the government despite a series of concessions last week designed to soften the impact of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. The bill, which will introduce a statutory register for lobbyists and introduce greater transparency to trade union funding, will restrict the ability of charities and other non-party groups to campaign on political issues in the year months before a general election.
The recent concessions included dropping a plan to cut from £10,000 to £5,000 the amount charities in England can spend on campaigning during a regulated period before they have to register with the Electoral Commission. The limit will be raised to £20,000.
Outlining his plan to exclude "background staff costs" from the restrictions, Harries said: "This is not primarily on cost grounds but because of the additional bureaucracy it would involve. How do you delineate the amount of time the staff members spend on mounting a public rally from the amount of time they spend on their campaigning work anyway?
"It is easy to assess the amount of money you are going to assess on hiring a hall for a public rally because you get an invoice for that. You don't get an invoice for a member of staff who spends 10% of their time over four weeks doing that."
Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, welcomed the vote. "This latest breakthrough for Lord Harries and the Commission on Civil Society is very encouraging. It emphasises how right ACEVO was to help set up this coalition of more than a hundred civil society organisations. It was the right thing to stand together and insist the bill still posed significant risk even after the government's welcome amendments last week.
"But let's not get carried away yet - we welcome the movements that have been made but we still want the government to move on subjecting civil society organisations to limits on their local, constituency-based campaigns. This provision still has the potential to silence the crucial voice of civil society. We will continue to argue the case for our members and not be complacent. We have done well to get this far. Let's keep up the pressure."
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