Officials may have the power to ask people to take down blogs or stop political rallies under the new lobbying bill, the head of the Electoral Commission has warned. The regulator said there are “real questions around freedom of speech” as MPs prepared to debate the controversial new laws in the House of Commons. Charities have protested that the bill will limit their ability to talk about policy issues, because it puts new spending restrictions on political campaigning in the runup to an election. Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, said it needed more guidance from parliament as it will be asked to adjudicate on what constitutes campaigning for a political purpose, setting it up for legal challenges by charities, faith groups or trade bodies. She said would be a significant intervention if the regulator was to “ask someone from taking down a blog or a website or to prevent a rally from happening”.
Andrew Lansley, the leader of the house, defended the bill on Tuesday, saying it would in no way constrain the campaigning of charities. “What I explained to them, and I hope the public will understand, is that we are not setting out in any sense to constrain any charity or organisation who wants to campaign on policy issues,” he said.
“The simple issue is that, as already exists at election times, if an organisation, a third party that isn’t a political party, wants to spend a significant amount of money trying to influence that election directly, that is promoting a candidate or a party, then that should be registered and there should be limits on that just as political parties have limits on their expenditure.”
Amid widespread condemnation from the third sector, Labour called on David Cameron to drop the bill as it would gag charities and did nothing to clean up politics.