“a free, fair and open society“ – some problems with the Lobbying Bill

Michael Carchrie Campbell (Photo: Michael Carchrie Campbell)
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Michael Carchrie Campbell (Photo: Michael Carchrie Campbell)

Michael Carchrie Campbell MCIPR (Photo: Michael Carchrie Campbell)

Today, I wrote to the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Belfast East, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party to ask her to not support the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Bill which is currently before the House of Commons. My reasons for doing so are outlined below.

According to the Parliamentary website, the Bill

  • introduces a statutory register of consultant lobbyists and establishes a Registrar to enforce the registration requirements
  • regulates more closely election campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties
  • strengthens the legal requirements placed on trade unions in relation to their obligation to keep their list of members up to date.

These sound like three good things to be doing: until you examine it more closely.

The statutory register

There are a number of problems with the legislation. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (of which I am a member) gave written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee saying that

  1. The definition of ‘consultant lobbyist’ as given in clause 2 of the Bill is not likely to lead to a register that enhances transparency about lobbying. This is because the proposed definition would fail to capture many of those who would identify themselves as such, and also render the vast majority of non-consultant lobbyists, including those serving in-house and in various other capacities, as non-registrable.

The CIPR has consistently called for a universal register. It has worked in partnership with the Association of Professional Political Consultants and the Public Relations Consultants Association to seek legal advice and have produced a draft definition of lobbying. They also founded the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) following the recommendation of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee for ‘a public register of lobbyists’.

It is argued that a limited register of lobbyists would not achieve the original stated aim of increasing transparency in lobbing and that the current Bill could actively reduce transparency. There is also concern that the register will not now cover areas such as lobbying in Parliament, which may lead to a gap between what the public expect from the register and what it will actually achieve.

Unintended consequences

  1. The narrow definition of a consultant lobbyist will create an invitation to avoidance for those who see registration as overly burdensome. With the cost of a register being divided by a small number of those required to register, some may seek to alter their practices to avoid the heavy cost implications.
  2. By exempting lobbyists in one employment context, but not in others, the Government is creating questionable legislation which discriminates against a small minority of professionals and could easily distort the market. This not only reduces transparency as fewer people are obliged to register but may be in contravention of EU law.
  3. The Bill will drive away signatories from the existing voluntary registration. The significant likely costs from the statutory register will make those who do register with it unlikely to wish to incur additional costs from a voluntary register. The current voluntary registers, including the UKPAC register, are publicly searchable and easy to use. They also hold numerous entities and individuals to account for their actions. If lobbyists move away from the voluntary registers to only sign the statutory register then the current high bar set for professional standards, transparency and accountability would decrease.

Enhancing transparency about lobbying?

The CIPR states that

[t]he Bill as it stands is extremely poor and risks weakening accountability and transparency within the public affairs profession. The register of lobbyists could be an opportunity to establish an enhanced level of transparency and reflect the positive role of lobbying within the democratic process. However, the Bill offers an incredibly narrow focus and will thus leave out the majority of UK lobbyists. The Bill has therefore failed to meet the Government’s own original objective of increasing transparency.

To me this just about sums it up. Part one of the Bill fails to do what the Government said it set out to do.

Regulation of campaign spending by those not political parties

Part two of the Bill is to regulate the spending during election campaigns of those who are not registered as political parties. This is the part of the Bill that has it labelled the Gagging Bill. Unsurprisingly, many people are worried about this.

Susannah Compton writing for 38 Degrees says of the bill,

The government is still trying to smuggle through plans to silence criticism. The law would clamping down on the free speech of ordinary people, like you, me, and millions of others. Reducing our ability to work together to protect our NHS, stop big business dodging tax, tackle climate change and stand up for the issues we believe in.

The ‘gagging law’ is being rushed through parliament right now. It limits how much groups like 38 Degrees, Oxfam or Friends of the Earth can spend in the year before an election — on anything that could influence the result — even unintentionally! For example if we’re criticising the government’s plans for our NHS, then that could affect how people vote.

But it is not just political campaign groups like 38 Degrees who are concerned, even those over at Conservative Home seem slightly concerned. The Government has produced some amendments but these have also been criticised for not going far enough to protect charities’ campaigning activity by the NCVO and Acevo who have said that their legal advice says that the amendments are not sufficient to protect charities’ campaigning activity.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, said:

“The amendments leave a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity.

“In short, many organisations including small community groups will be required to consult the Electoral Commission before undertaking campaigning activity in an election period in order to ensure they are not falling foul of the new regulations.”

While he welcomed the government’s attempt to address charities’ concerns,

“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”.

Etherington added that despite the proposed amendments,

“much campaigning activity by charities and other voluntary groups will still be covered by this excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime”.

Bubb: curbing freedom of speech

Acevo‘s Sir Stephen Bubb added:

“The government is clearly keen to show it is listening to civil society, but these amendments don’t prevent the bill curbing freedom of speech around elections.

“The bill greatly 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 also drastically restricts civil society’s spending on public campaigns in election years.”

Sir Stephen Bubb was very concerned about the timetable for publishing these amendments. “Publishing these amendments today leaves two working days for civil society to consider them before they are debated in the Commons.

“This rushed timeframe is an object lesson in poor law-making, and will only necessitate further damage-limitating amendments after the next debates.”

This may have been drawn up by ministers who think only of England, but in other parts of the United Kingdom we have elections to our devolved legislatures as well as to local councils. Is everyone going to have to consult the Electoral Commission nearly every year? This does not seem to make it easy for society to hold our politicians to account.

What can we do about this?

Contact the MPs and Peers

Well you can write to your MP or presuming that the Bill will make it through its Third Reading today in the Commons, you can write to members of their Lordships’ House and seek to get them to do what they are so often good at, revising Government Bills.

Contact 38 Degrees

Why are 38 Degrees targeting the LibDems when it is a Tory minister sponsoring the Bill?

Secondly, whilst I have highlighted what 38 Degrees have said about this Bill, I suggest that you write to them to ask why they are using Facebook ads targeting Nick Clegg when the Bill is sponsored by Andrew Lansley of the Conservatives. Our man, Tom Brake has been doing his best to untangle the mess. (Hat-tip to Digital Politico).

Thirdly, join the Liberal Democrats and work with us to

“to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.“ (from the Preamble to the Federal Constitution of the Liberal Democrats)

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