As leader of the opposition, David Cameron said the shady world of political lobbying was in desperate need of reform and that politics needed to be ‘cleaned up’. Lobbying, he suggested, was a major scandal waiting to happen.
He even sounded quite progressive, emphasising the importance of transparency. He even suggested that vested interests should not be able to influence the political process from behind a veil of secrecy.
Well, after four years in power, many believe his Coalition government’s actions speak a very different language, particularly with reference to the word ‘transparency’. And especially now the rather sexily-entitled Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning & Trade Union Administration Bill went before MPs again last night, having completed its final passage in the Lords on Monday.
The bill makes it an offence for a consultant to lobby, except in certain circumstances, without first registering as a consultant lobbyist. It also introduces changes to the use of trades union membership lists, and cuts the money ‘third parties’ can spend in support of a party or candidate, as well as on election materials.
Restrictions on debate
The suspicion is that the bill is being hurried through Parliament so that the weight of restrictions on debate can be enforced on Government critics in time for the 2015 general election.
Shadow leader of the House, Labour’s Angela Eagle, said the legislation “seeks to silence critics of the government in the run-up to the general election, while letting vested interests operate out of sight” and was “an object lesson in how not to legislate”.
The Electoral Commission and a coalition of charities, many of which united behind a campaign by 38 Degrees, feared a wide range of organisations would fall within the definition of a ‘third party’.
Indeed, the legislation would introduce controls which are, according to the NCVO, “likely to impose extensive and expensive audit and recording requirements on charities and community groups in relation to a wide range of activities. Charities may even have to account to the Electoral Commission for volunteers’ time.”
The NCVO approached Helen Mountfield QC for legal advice. She said that the bill was “likely to impose substantial new regulatory hurdles in relation to what they can say and restrictions on their ability to comment on matters of public interest for very substantial periods of time.
“The lack of clarity as to the extent of the controls, coupled with the criminal sanctions for non-compliance, mean that the provisions of the bill are likely to have a chilling effect on the expression of views on matters of public interest by third sector organisations.”
Many of the restrictions outlined in the bill apply during a ‘relevant period’, but its definition is not straightforward. “It may not always be possible to predict whether a ‘relevant period’ has started in advance, before it has begun.”
The Lords had amended the bill at its last reading, but the vast majority of Coalition MPs lined up to strike those amendments out, instead voted to:
- remove new rules that limit secret lobbying by big business, and
- restore limits on what ‘non-politicians’ – campaigners, charities and voluntary groups – can say on issues of the day.
Expressing disappointment with the result, 38 Degrees executive director David Babbs said the vote was tight and, therefore, encouraged opponents of this “gagging law” to begin a fresh campaign.
He said: “It’s pretty depressing. But it’s not over. The House of Lords will now get another vote – probably next week. They have the option to refuse to back down and force MPs to vote yet again.
“Today, there’s lots to feel fed up about. Yet again we’ve seen MPs push through a law which the public have never voted for, and which has been heavily criticised by everyone from the United Nations to the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Women’s Institute to the Royal British Legion.
“A number of government MPs did rebel. If 17 more had voted differently, we would have won. Maybe we can get some more to change their minds next time around.
“Hopefully we can all agree on one thing, though. This definitely isn’t the time to give up. The kind of issues that 38 Degrees members choose to campaign on – like protecting the NHS, preserving our countryside, improving democracy and challenging tax dodging – are way too important to leave to politicians.”
Details of how each MP voted will be posted on the 38 Degrees website shortly, and its supporters are encouraged to ‘join the conversation’ on its Facebook site.