Fears have been expressed that a new Government crackdown on the big business of lobbying could silence the campaigning voice of the charity sector. Paul Robinson reports.
IT’S a piece of parliamentary legislation with a name that will never win any prizes for brevity.
The title in question is the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Unions Administration Bill’.
Some have taken to calling it the lobbying transparency bill.
The people leading the charge to halt the bill’s progress through Westminster, however, know it by another name – the gagging bill.
They claim that, by attempting to put an end to lobbying scandals, ministers are in danger of hampering the ability of charities to speak out on public interest issues – and the effects, say campaigners, could be “chilling”. The bill was first published in July, amid allegations about the influence of lobbyists on government decision-making.
If it becomes law, paid lobbyists in communication with ministers or senior civil servants about policy, legislation or contracts would have to place details of their clients – effectively the businesses or other parties whose interests they are pushing – on a publicly-available register. Announcing the bill, Andrew Lansley, leader of the House of Commons, said: “From the beginning this government has believed that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’.”
For charities, though, there was a considerable amount of devil in the detail. The bill also proposed a £390,000 cap on the amount any group – excluding political parties – would be able to spend on campaigning across the UK during parliamentary election periods. An accompanying change in the definition of ‘campaign spending’, it was claimed, would mean the cost of many legitimate charitable activities could end up counting towards the expenditure cap.
Concerns were quickly voiced that charities, wary of breaking the new rules, could be all but silenced in the run-up to elections.
Ministers have since tabled amendments to the legislation and dropped plans to change the way campaign spending is defined. But those steps have not allayed the fears of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). Its chief executive, Sir Stuart Etherington, said earlier this month: “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.”
Leeds-based charity Epilepsy Action is also calling for “more clarity” on how the bill could affect its work. Campaigns manager Stacey Rennard told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Epilepsy Action is a campaigning organisation. As a charity, we work hard to improve epilepsy services and raise awareness of the condition for the benefit of all people with epilepsy.
“Lobbying and campaigning is a vital part of this and is central to us achieving our long-term vision to improve the lives of everyone affected by epilepsy. This new bill is currently being debated and its full impact is still unclear. We would welcome more clarity on exactly how the bill could affect our campaigning work at both a national and local level.”
Ben Drury, mobility team manager for the Guide Dogs charity in Leeds, said: “[We agree] with the NCVO that the ... changes to the bill may not go far enough and fear it could be rushed through without sufficient time for proper scrutiny and debate.
“We need more time to examine the legislation fully and consider the impact of the Government’s reforms. We urge the Government to look at this again. Guide Dogs is committed to speaking up on behalf of people with sight loss and it is vital that any proposals do not hamper our ability to carry out this duty.”
Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, today branded the bill “too divisive”, adding: “It risks doing more harm than good.” Local political support for the bill has come from Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet & Rothwell. He told the YEP: “It’s important to note at the outset that this bill is to affect only third party organisations which campaign for the electoral success of a particular political party or candidate.
“It’s not about gagging or point-scoring but about transparency – the British public have a right to know where political parties get their money from. An organisation campaigning only on policy issues, for example, Christian Aid [and its] recent campaign on international development, would be exempt from these changes.” Mr Shelbrooke added: “This will affect all political parties and it is the right thing to do, ensuring that it’s always the best candidate to win an election, not simply the one with the richest donors behind them.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also has no doubts the bill – due to be debated in the House of Lords for the first time on October 22 – is the right way forward.
Speaking in the Commons last week, he said: “Under the current rules, a well-funded third party campaign group seeking to influence the democratic outcome in a constituency or constituencies could spend more money than a political party. That, surely, cannot be right.” He added: “Nothing in the bill would stop Make Poverty History spending millions on its campaign. Nothing would stop the Green Alliance grading us all on our green promises – nothing would change that.”
Charities across the land will follow tomorrow’s Lords debate hoping Mr Clegg’s prediction holds true.