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Charities and the Christian organisations tell me that the Bill will reduce the financial threshold at which a third-party campaigner must register with the Electoral Commission. Under the newly broadened range of activities, if a third party plans to spend £2,000 or more in the year leading up to the general election, it must register with the Electoral Commission. The Christian Institute and the Royal British Legion are concerned about that—the hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of charities that have the same concerns.
That is a unique problem for charities, many of which hold events at the Long Gallery in Stormont in the Northern Ireland Assembly for, for example, children in care, cancer awareness-raising or women’s rights, to name three of dozens of important issues. The events are costly to hold—it is highly possible that a charity will spend £2,000 or more in the year before an election without purposely seeking to enhance one candidate over the other. The charities set out to achieve a goal, but the Bill will disadvantage them greatly. I do not believe that the Government have acknowledged or understood the key issues Opposition Members have described.
Registering with the Electoral Commission at the low threshold will create disproportionate administrative burdens on charities and regulatory bodies. One point that has not been made in the Chamber is that the limit will apply to partnership working. For example, if two charities work together on a single-issue campaign and spend £2,500 each, they must both report expenditure of £5,000, which is nearly half of the limit of £11,000 in Northern Ireland.
The awful part of the measure is that, significantly, it will become a criminal offence to exceed the spending limit. The charities will not only be stopped from campaigning; they will be criminalised, which must be wrong. I cannot understand how the Government can say that that is not the case.
Other hon. Members have indicated that there will be changes to the Bill in the House of Lords. Let us pray for those changes. If those changes are made before we debate the Bill again in the House, we will have got what we wanted, but it is a pity that the Government cannot acknowledge that point.
Under the Bill, there is a significant possibility that the legitimate campaigning efforts of community and voluntary organisations will be unduly curtailed, and perhaps even criminalised, which undermines the efforts of charitable organisations to advocate for the most disadvantaged in our society. It could also prevent politicians from hearing those voices. Would it not be a terrible tragedy if we the politicians did not hear the voice of the charitable organisations that want us to campaign on their behalf to make life better for our constituents?
The Bill must not unduly impact the vital work of the community and the voluntary circle. I support hon. Members who are trying to do away with clause 27. I ask the Government to realise they are heading the wrong way.