STOURBRIDGE MP Margot James has defended her support for a new law that critics in the town say will seriously undermine free speech.

Local supporters of the open democracy movement 38 Degrees, met with Ms James recently to ask why she had voted for the Transparency of Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, which they say will restrict free speech around election times for charities and volunteer funded campaign groups.

But the MP insisted that the legislation she has championed was necessary to prevent politics being unduly influenced in the run-up to elections.

She told the News that the close regulation of election campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties, was an aspect of the act she thought was "very necessary" and added: "It is particularly vital that we protect the integrity of our election system.

"We don't want Britain to be like the United States, where it is much more possible to buy an election."

The group , which refer to themselves as Silenced Stourbridge, said the act, also known as the "gagging law", would seriously restrict campaigning on "political" issues by charities in the lead-up to next year's General Election.

A member, who did not wish to be named, said: "Ironically, the original target of this legislation - the professional lobbying industry that spends around £2 billion a year on influencing politicians in Westminster - has been left virtually untouched by it. Instead, popular movements with interests only in representing their members views are being stifled.

"We came to see Margot James as individuals with a shared concern but we are now joining together."

But Ms James insisted that would not be the case: "The effect on small charities or campaigning bodies during elections is contingent on whether they are advocating support for a particular candidate or political party.

"Charities will still be able to support specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve their charitable purposes.

"As long as they steer clear of electioneering on behalf of a candidate or party they can campaign on issues, even if the issue in question is relevant to the political divide."

She added: "In general, charities are not going to be political as they will have to work with whoever gets elected."

However deputy leader of Dudley Council, Councillor Pete Lowe, who has been selected as the Labour candidate for Stourbridge and Cradley for the next General Election, has sided with the group.

He said: "If elected I will be accountable to the people of Stourbridge and I don't believe this legislation is consistent with that principle.

"I therefore fully support the ongoing campaign against this legislation and hope that I will soon be in a position to press for it to be repealed."