Gag reflex

Dianne HayterDianne Hayter on the state of the Lobbying Bill, as it makes its way into the Lords 

It all started so well. In order to avoid Cameron’s predicted “next big political scandal waiting to happen” the government promised a statutory register of lobbyists.  It took a long time – consultation lasting over 12 months, then silence and nothing in the Queen's Speech, until a sting operation (with those hit including a Chair of a Select Committee) triggered action and the long awaited Bill. 

Strangely, the Bill was then hurried through the Commons at an unprecedented speed, to the dismay of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (which even now is still awaiting a proper reply from Ministers to its report) and serious questions from the Commons’ Committee on Standards. Worse still, only one third of the published Bill covered the subject of that earlier consultation – lobbying – with two new chunks added.  

One of these new chunks restricts the campaigning activities of charities, churches or any groups who might possibly be seen as influencing an election. It has led to condemnation by the Third Sector’s main umbrella organisations – something which the Coalition failed to heed. 

NCVO’s Chief Executive Stuart Etherington commented “The assurances given by ministers on the floor of the House to ensure that charities will still be able to support specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties have not been met.  Legal advice indicates that much campaigning activity will be covered by this excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime.”

Meanwhile, ACEVO Chief Executive Stephen Bubb warned that the Bill risked “curbing freedom of speech around elections.  It increases bureaucracy for civil society groups in the year before an election, by halving the spending thresholds above which organisations have to register with the Electoral Commission.  It drastically restricts civil society's spending on public campaigns in election years.  The public wants legislation that makes politics and corporate lobbying more transparent.  Instead this Bill makes almost no change to lobbying rules while punishing civil society for a loss of trust in politics that is not its fault.” 

Adding insult to injury, Ministers gave neither the Third Sector or the Electoral Commission enough time to consider or influence the Bill – a decision described by Unlock Democracy as "a textbook example of how not to draft legislation. It is explicitly partisan and is being rushed through Parliament with very little scrutiny. Its proposals will have a chilling effect on campaigning."

The other, pernicious new chunk of the Bill creates further red tape to how trade unions maintain their membership records, requiring an addition level of audit and scrutiny in an area with no known shortcomings. It simply forces unions to spend even more of their members’ money on bureaucracy rather than representation.

Unsurprisingly, Part 2 (ie, the chunk that affects the voluntary sector) has led to widespread protestations – even from Conservatives. MP Zac Goldsmith tweeting “Lobbying Bill is rushed and unclear. Surely any legitimate campaign on any policy issue cd be interpreted as party political (& be captured)?”, while the Director the Centre for Policy Studies recently told The House magazine that “the Lobbying Bill is an extraordinary attack on free speech and must be scrapped”. 

Such complaints have somewhat overshadowed the failure of Part 1 to tackle lobbying. This conveniently precludes all lobbying done by companies themselves, as well as that of all but a tiny handful of civil servants and Ministers – not even Chairs of Select Committees are covered. In fact, the Bill exempts 80% of lobbyists and fails to address almost 90% of what the industry does. And it doesn’t even require energy companies to register their in-house lobbyists – all in the face of reports that over 100 meetings have taken place between DECC Ministers and representatives of ‘the Big Six’ since the start of the Coalition.

To date, the government has failed to satisfy the concerns of the voluntary sector, and resisted every attempt to produce a bipartisan, workable and effective Bill. But now that it has arrived in the Lords, with the Second Reading coming up on 22nd October, Labour Peers will work with colleagues from across the House to try to amend the Bill’s continued shortcomings and raise standards across the lobbying industry. In doing so, we will also speak up for those families struggling with their energy bills and introduce an amendment requiring company lobbyists to register.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister in the Lords

Published 10th October 2013

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