Dianne Hayter on why the Lobbying Bill gives the game away on the Coalition’s priorities
Later today, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill gets its second reading in the House of Lords. This bill is a bad piece of legislation which not only fails to regulate the lobbyists that wield disproportionate power in our politics, but also gags charities and civil society, and increases red tape on trade unions.
Part 1 of the bill would require only a tiny majority of lobbyists to register, covering only agencies rather than those in-house lobbyists which big companies tend to employ. Even those the government call ‘consultant lobbyists’ only need to comply if they lobby Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. To illustrate just how ridiculous this is, Fred Michel, whose text messages with the Special Advisor to (at the time) DCMS Secretary Jeremy Hunt got them both in so much trouble, would completely escape registration.
Moreover, while big drinks companies would not be required to register their in-house public affairs teams, Alcohol Concern would have to declare the agency it employs. This is just one reason why we believe any register should include all professional lobbyists, who should then adhere to a strict code of conduct.
If Part 1 of the bill is too weak to deal with a real problem, then Part 2 is a solution searching in vain for one. It lowers the threshold for spending above which an organisation has to register as a third party, and increases the activities and items that count. These ‘heavy reporting thresholds’, to quote the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, add so much uncertainty for charities that they may refrain from campaigning on their key issues.
Indeed, is it any wonder that those challenging the bill have taken to using the shorthand description: ‘the Gagging Bill’? No charity wants to risk its entire budget on legal fees, and so it begs the question as to which campaign the government wanted to prevent? Stonewall on ‘equal marriage’? The British Legion on keeping the Chief Coroner?
Put another way, what mischief is this bill seeking to remedy? Could it be that Mr Clegg doesn’t want an active NUS in his constituency, pointing out his broken promise on tuition fees? If that is the case, he should declare an interest and this should be renamed the Sheffield Hallam Retention Bill.
Part 2 of the bill is so badly constructed that it fails to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. The legal opinion we have received – and today placed in the House of Lords library – illustrates the Coalition’s threat to freedom of assembly and association in its bid to gag charities and pressure groups that dare to question government policy.
The reasoning behind Part 3 of the Bill is even harder to discern. Unions will have to engage in an additional audit of their membership lists. The fact that they require accurate lists to run on a day to day basis does not deter the government, so the latter’s pledge to cut red tape for business is casually wrapping charities and unions up in it.
Taken as a whole, this legislation will help tobacco companies and the big energy firms to continue to lobby while hindering Cancer Research UK and the British Legion from campaigning and holding politicians to account. It tells you everything you need to know about the Coalition government’s priorities.
Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister in the Lords
Published 22nd October 2013