This afternoon, the House of Commons is considering in Committee the second part of the so-called Lobbying Bill. This is the part which puts restraints on the campaigning ability of charities and third sector organisations to campaign in the run-up to General Elections.
The Government is seeking to get this Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible and with as little debate as they can get away with. Their aim is get this restrictive legislative agreed in time for the 2015 General Election.
Even though the Bill was only published just before the summer recess, charities and campaigning organisations – from the WI and Oxfam, to the British Legion and Friends of the Earth – responded quickly to the threat which they faced. MPs were inundated with emails from concerned charities and even the impartial Electoral Commission came out strongly and criticised the poorly drafted legislation.At Second Reading the Government had a ‘bloody nose’ with many Conservatives as well as Labour MPs attacking the Bill. The Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, has indicated that the Government will make a ‘concession’ to try to placate the groundswell of opposition. He has said that the Government will not now seek to redefine what already exists in legislation with regard to what can be “reasonably” regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success.
This move is welcome, but it only loosens the stranglehold that charities are facing. The concession does not go nearly far enough because the Bill is fundamentally flawed and requires a whole host of changes before it can even begin to be considered as acceptable. In short, it is still a shambles. The Electoral Commission has made the very good point that the Government should open up an immediate dialogue with all those affected by the Bill “before putting amendments before Parliament”.
There are of course other significant worries about this part of the Bill: the Bill lowers the threshold which third parties will have to register from £10,000 to £5,000 in England and from £5,000 to £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Bill also includes “staff costs” in any calculation of campaigning expenditure and, amongst other things, places onerous reporting requirements on individual organisations. And at a time when the cost of politics should be reduced, the Bill still places increased responsibilities on the Electoral Commission, which will cost the taxpayer huge sums of money.
That is why the Government must ‘withdraw’ this Bill, consult widely and go back to the drawing board. We are not in the business of defending the ‘status quo’, but what is required is not an ill-considered Bill which seeks only to promote the interests of the coalition parties by stifling proper debate in the run-up to the General Election. That is why Labour wants to take the big money out of politics and encourage a new culture of debate and questioning in which civil society can play a central role.
This article was written for LabourList