11 October 2013
The widely controversial Lobbying Bill has been passed by the House of Commons and has had its first reading in the House of Lords.
Despite campaigning against the Bill – which has been described by the opposition as a “dog’s dinner” – by a long list of third sector organisations and trade unions, the Bill has gone through in largely the same shape as it was originally brought to Parliament. The government hurried to make some amendments to the Bill following a whirlwind of bad press on the plans, but these have been criticised by experts and the opposition.
Ros Baston, a lawyer formerly of the Electoral Commission, said: “It appears that the government has been taken aback by the level of opposition and has spent the past few weeks on a headless chicken run. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in amendments that mystify more than they enlighten.”
During the second day of the report stage on Wednesday (09 October 2013), the Bill’s poor drafting and total lack of consultation for the proposals was picked apart again. For instance, it was noted by Labour MP Wayne David that there had been no consultation with devolved governments, leaving uncertainty in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as to how the Bill would affect their citizens.
Proposals to make it clearer as to just what ‘controlled expenditure’ – money counted as being spent on political campaigning by charities – includes were voted down in a very narrow ballot, while there was also fiery debate as to what constitutes political campaigning in the first place – if an organisation campaign on an issue that is then taken up a political candidate, will the charity be forced to register with the Electoral Commission?
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said ‘no’ – charities will only be caught under the new laws if they specifically endorse one candidate over another – but the third sector remains concerned that this statement is not necessarily reflected in the wording of the law.
Furthermore, Brake argued that charities do not engage in political campaigning anyway, as by doing so they could have their charitable status removed by the Charity Commission. But this begs the question: Why pass a law limiting their political spending if this is an activity they do not engage in?
Labour MP Stephen Twigg put it succinctly when he said that Part 2 of the Bill – which deals with non-party political campaigning – is “a solution in search of a problem”.
“If the government were serious about taking big money out of politics, they would consider ideas such as a reduction in the overall expenditure cap for political parties during election years and the introduction of a £5,000 cap on donations to political parties,” he added.
The Bill will now be debated in the House of Lords, with the second reading timetabled for 22 October 2013. Considering the very rushed way in which the Bill has been forced through Parliament, it can be expected that the peers will question the thoroughness of scrutiny received by the Bill so far.