Sinister Lobbying Bill would gag campaigning voices

The  ‘Lobbying Bill’, due its second reading today, would have horrifying implications for the way politics – and political campaigning –  are practised in this country.  Outrageously, it would suppress a range of legitimate voices, while doing very little to expose the murky world of lobbying.

It’s very much a bill of three distinct parts – one broadly welcome but inadequate, one of significant concern, and one plain sinister.

Part One of the Bill would set up a register of lobbyists.  I’ve been calling for this for some time, and it’s long overdue.  People have a right to know about the various different influences on the decisions being made on their behalf.  But whereas other parts of the Bill go too far, this one doesn’t go far enough.   As it’s worded, only a small proportion of the people meeting with ministers and officials, many of them from powerful companies,  would be defined as lobbyists.   Instead of restricting itself to the very narrow group of “consultant lobbyists”, the scope of the Bill should be much wider, so that it shines a light on the way lobbying works.  As the Unlock Democracy group is arguing, the legislation should do far more to improve transparency, particularly around the financial aspects of lobbying.  For example, the amount paid to lobbyists by clients should be in the public domain, as should information on anypublic office they have held in the past five years.  And the registrar should be required to report to Parliament each year on the administration of the Act.  

Part Three of the Bill – which has been interpreted as an attempt by the Government to embarrass Labour over its candidate selection processes –  imposes new requirements on unions.    Their obligations to provide membership information to the independent regulator, who would gain new powers, would be further tightened.   Unions have very legitimate concerns that this would create another barrier to the right to take industrial action.  Whether this is deliberate or an unintended consequence, it’s worrying.

But it’s Part Two of the Bill that alarms me the most.  By imposing a quite astonishing range of  requirements on campaigning organisations in the run-up to elections, it would effectively shut down legitimate voices seeking to raise awareness on issues of legitimate public interest, whether it’s on NHS reform, housing policy, or wildlife conservation.   Campaign spending limits for “third party” organisations – such as charities and pressure groups – would be drastically cut, and the definition of what constitutes campaigning broadened. And there would be new forms of regulation for organisations lobbying on issues at constituency level.

Some of the potential implications of this are frankly terrifying.   In the months preceding an election, it would be harder for campaigners to criticise the policies of a particular political party.  Organisations would have to deal with a new bureaucracy, and  be obliged to constantly ask whether they could continue many of their day-to-day activities.

Perhaps most worryingly, the power to stand up against racist or extremist parties could be curtailed.  So we’d have the perverse situation where the BNP, which as a political party would be exempt from these rules, would be protected, whereas the activities of those campaigning against them would be severely restricted.

We can’t allow this to happen.  I’ve co-sponsored a reasoned amendment to the Bill, and next week will be hosting a meeting with representatives of Unite, Hope not Hate and other affected organisations so they can put their concerns to MPs ahead of the Bill’s committee stage.

They are right to be concerned.  In the name of transparency, the Government has published a frankly chilling Bill which would effectively suppress the debate that it is essential in a healthy democracy.

Caroline's meeting will take place at 10:30am next Tuesday (September 10th) in committee room 14 in Parliament, all welcome, speakers from Liberty, Hope not Hate, NCVO and more TBA.

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