SCOTTISH charities fear proposed laws planned to crack down on lobbying could stop them speaking out on key issues during the independence referendum debate.
In a letter co-authored by charities south of the Border, they have asked the UK government for urgent clarification on what the impact of the changes.
The Lobbying Bill is to be debated in the coming weeks in the House of Commons and so is yet to finalised.
Proposals include a spending limit on any organisation promoting a party political message.
Many charities, including Oxfam and the Salvation Army, are seeking urgent legal advice over the bill’s current form, warning it could have disastrous, unintended consequences.
The bill is primarily aimed at general elections and it is not yet clear what impact it will have on those for the Scottish Parliament or the 2014 referendum.
However, Scottish charities are so concerned they have written to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, warning they could be silenced on key issues.
“We are concerned that proposed new rules could apply to a range of normal and legitimate awareness-raising activities despite them being intended to be party-politically neutral,” they wrote.
“A health charity could publish a leaflet highlighting the dangers of smoking. If smoking legislation became a party political issue in an election, this activity could be deemed to have the effect of supporting a party’s campaign and be subject to regulation.”
It is hoped the impact of the bill will be clearer after it has been reviewed next week by the political and constitutional reform committee, and debated in the Commons after MPs return from their summer break.
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said: “The rules proposed in this bill are aimed at UK general elections. At the moment no-one knows how Scotland will be affected, but when it is debated we will have a clearer idea of what the impact of this bill may be.”
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman insisted charities campaigning without any intention to promote a particular party would be exempt.
However, David McColgan, policy officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which represents more than 1,500 charities in Scotland, said: “There are justifiable concerns this bill could lead to confusion, given that the referendum will come in the middle of the regulated period in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
“This legislation was intended to bring more transparency to politics, but instead we have ended up with ill-conceived proposals that threaten free speech and would prevent charities speaking out.”
Mike Smith, Oxfam’s parliamentary adviser, said: “Charities are seriously concerned. We are urging the government to urgently reconsider the provisions in this bill.”
A Salvation Army spokesman added: “We have long been in favour of minimum unit pricing for alcohol. We are concerned that the proposed new rules will deem such issues party political and prevent us from campaigning on it ahead of future elections.”