Pause, reflect, do nothing

Dianne HayterDianne Hayter on why Ministers are turning a tin-ear to evidence-based criticism of the Lobbying Bill

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill returns to the House of Lords on Monday after a short pause – supposedly to let the government think again about its provisions. But such thinking has clearly not happened as, despite tremendous work by the Lord Harries Commission and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the government has failed to table one single amendment to improve this much feared piece of legislation.  

As it happens, Ministers are trying to say that this week’s remaining Committee stage debates will be a continuation of its consultation – an entirely new role for the Lords which is supposed to be a revising Chamber not a substitute for government listening to civil society. It amounts to Peers being turned into one large focus group for policy-making. Not only that, but by denying the House the chance to see the government’s hand over what – if anything – it will change in the Bill, Peers will be faced in early January with precious little time to see any amendments proposed before the start of Report stage.  

This reluctance to engage cannot be explained by the government remaining in listening mode, as there will be nothing Ministers hear this week that has not been said in the Commons, by Select Committees, at Lords Second Reading, in the sheaves of submitted evidence, or by the thorough work of Lord Harries and his Commission colleagues.

The government’s real problem is that it is turning a tin-ear to evidence-based criticism of this Bill. It doesn’t want to hear because it is determined that the voluntary sector, which gives voice and influence to many of our country’s voiceless and powerless people – should not be able to continue its traditional role in debating policy ahead of general elections. It is restricting this long-held role by forcing many more charities and third sector groups to register with the Electoral Commission, increasing the range of activities on which they must report their expenditure, and reducing the total money that can be spent over a 12 month period and in any one constituency.  

The effect of all this is not to increase transparency (which Labour would support) but to tie up small campaigning groups in red tape and regulatory rules, some of which take a lawyer to interpret.

No wonder many call this an attack on the freedoms of expression and association. The fear of breaking these new rules – which will come into force weeks after the Act is passed – will make some groups hold back on the things they want to say on public policy; be that about A&E closures, HS2, energy prices, new runways, closed libraries, tuition fees or the bedroom tax.  

And that is perhaps the real rationale for this nasty little Bill, hastily pulled together by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. They clearly don’t want some things talked about or highlighted ahead of the next election.

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

Published 15th December 2013

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