State of play

Dianne HayterDianne Hayter on the latest developments with the Lobbying Bill, ahead of upcoming Lords votes

Last week we found out that the government has been forced to introduce amendments to the Lobbying Bill. These fix some problems but it remains a bad bill that gags charities and campaigners while letting vested interests off the hook.

As a supposed ‘transparency’ bill, it fails to live up to its name. Part 1 would produce a register of lobbyists which only includes lobbying firms, excluding both their individual lobbyists and all of the thousands of lobbyists who work either for a trade association or a company. Furthermore, only meetings with ministers and permanent secretaries would be published, and not those equally important exchanges with senior civil servants and special advisers.

One example of where this matters is the policy shifts around minimum unit pricing for alcohol, where the drinks industry had 130 meetings with government. As these mainly involved in-house lobbyists rather than agencies and ministers or permanent secretaries were not present, most of the meetings would remain secret. With the Report stage of the Bill taking place this coming week, we will therefore seek to amend the Bill so the public know who’s lobbying professionally and who they’re lobbying.

Part 2 of the Bill was supposed to shine a light on campaigning around elections, but will instead tie up voluntary organisations and charities in red-tape – and that’s despite the amendments so far forced on the government by the outrage within the third sector. Hundreds of NGOs are still going to have to register with the Electoral Commission and make detailed reports of spending (including on staff) by constituency, even though this is not how they work. The overall effect will be reluctance from the sector to challenge government action. No wonder there’s speculation that the real motivation behind this section of the Bill is a fundamental reluctance on the part of the Coalition to defend its record ahead of the next election. We’ll be looking therefore for further changes to the Bill on staffing costs, as well as bringing in measures that would make constituency limits more workable.

Which brings me to the miserable little Part 3, designed simply to cost trade unions money by forcing them to appoint and pay for an ‘Assurer’ to double-certify their membership records. (That’s in addition to the fact that they already have an Auditor and report to the Certification Officer.) Ministers are proposing this change, despite a complete lack of evidence of any problem with such records – and with the dangerous possibility of outside access to confidential information on membership records. Given recent blacklisting scandals in the construction industry, the government should be making the privacy of union members a priority.

So there we have it. Companies and trade associations can continue to lobby in secret. Charities will be tied up in red tape and reluctant to risk breaking complicated rules if they campaign against government policy.  And trade unions will have to pay money for a double audit of their records. This Bill is the most vivid example yet of David Cameron and his ministers standing up for all the wrong people.

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

Published 11th January 2014

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