Major U-turn expected on lobbying bill

By Adam Bienkov

Ministers are to make substantial amendments to the government's lobbying bill, following claims that they are trying to silence charities.

The coalition has been accused of trying to gag their opponents in the run up to the next general election.

Under current proposals, charities could be considered to be trying to influence elections even if they did not support individual candidates.

Nick Clegg will now back an amendment by five Liberal Democrat MPs which makes it clear that voluntary groups will no longer be affected by the bill.

A source close to Clegg admitted that the bill "needs a bit of work" and added: "We are now going back to try and redraft it in a way that makes quite clear that it will not in any way restrict the abilities of charities to campaign to change government policy or on other issues they feel strongly about."

Leader of the house Andrew Lansley will today meet with an alliance of voluntary groups to try to allay their concerns.

Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations said: "We look forward to meeting Mr Lansley and will listen carefully to his proposals. It's crucial that charities and community groups can have confidence on where they stand in law."

Trade unions and other campaign groups are still expected to be affected by the bill.

On the eve of the TUC's annual conference, union leaders pledged to defy any attempt to silence them in the run up to the general election.

"The lobbying bill is one of the biggest threats to freedom of speech we have seen in this country for years," said TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady.

"This is supposed to be a free country where ordinary people are supposed to have a say, not one where we're gagged because professional politicians don't like what we're saying."

Earlier this week David Cameron accused the unions of a "concerted lobbying campaign" to defend their ability to sway elections and said he was determined they would be "brought within the law."

The Electoral Commission also warned that the lobbying bill will lead them to issue "stop notices" to bloggers and campaigners, forcing them to take down websites and ban rallies.