09 October 2013
Members of the opposition have spoken out in Parliament after the government continued in its attempt to push the widely controversial Lobbying Bill through at such a pace that thorough scrutiny is impossible.
Yesterday (08 October 2013), the timetable for Commons debate on the Bill was put forth, resulting in complaints from opposition MPs. Deputy Leader of the House of Commons Tom Brake moved that the Report Stage of the Bill last just two days, with the first Part of the Bill discussed yesterday and Parts 2 to 4 debated today.
This means a much shorter period of debate has been allowed for the Bill compared with other, arguably less critical, Bills. Furthermore, there has been very little – or in many cases no – consultation on the contents of the Bill, and debate has been tabled in such a way that the proposed policies have barely been scrutinised during the Second Reading or Committee stages.
Part 1 of the Bill defines who is and is not considered a ‘lobbyist’ and provides for the mandatory registration of consultant lobbyists. This part has been severely criticised for including small charity organisations as lobbyists, but failing to include large businesses that are known to lobby government – such as the tobacco and energy industries – because in-house lobbying departments of firms whose business is mostly elsewhere are exempt from the new proposals.
At yesterday’s debate, Labour MP Chi Onwurah moved a new Clause 7 to widen the definition of ‘lobbyist’ so that in-house lobbyists would also be required to register. Following debate, Mr Onwurah withdrew the clause because “given this Government’s clear lack of understanding of lobbying activity, the new clause will not improve the Bill substantially”.
Labour MP Gareth Thomas also attempted to add the requirement for a Code of Conduct for Lobbyists to be added to the Bill. At the moment, there is no Code to govern their behaviour and he put forth the case that lobbyists should be expected to voluntarily accept a Code that ensures they operate in an ethical manner. However, this proposal was narrowly rejected by a 292 vs 224 vote.
“This is an abuse.
Parliament has been disrespected;
Parliament has been abused…”
Part 2 of the Bill contains new proposals for non-party campaigning, in which charities will be expected to sign the lobbying register with the Electoral Commission if their campaigning spend goes over £5,000 in the year running up to a general election – and that includes staff costs and overheads. There is also a proposed limit on their spending in their year of £388,080 (down from £988,800) and £9,750 per constituency.
Part 3 of the Bill proposes that Trade Unions must have their Register of Members audited with every annual report and present their auditing certificate to the certification officer. This Register of Members will also be made available to a much wider range of people than before. This has raised concerns about the potential for blacklisting trade union members, while simple administrative errors on the Register – or incorrect information due to the impossibility of keeping track of the correct addresses for all members at all times – could lead to injunctions against industrial action and weaken trade unions even further.
Mr Thomas said: “There was certainly no pre-legislative scrutiny of either of the first two parts of the Bill … as regards part 3, the whole House if aware that the government do not like anyone belonging to a trade union or standing up for themselves at work, so the lack of consultation over this part is hardly surprising. It is nevertheless still very disappointing.”
“We have had one day for Second Reading, just three days for Committee and now just two for Report. Virtually every other piece of Government legislation will get more scrutiny than this Bill. I remember charities legislation during the last Session—a small Treasury Bill to amend gift aid provisions, yet that Bill was in Committee for two whole weeks, as well as having a full day for Second Reading and Report,” he continued.
Labour MP Graham Allen – Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – also criticised the proposed timetable.
“The whole concept of a programme motion is that it is part of the process of the House, and part of respecting our democracy … if that process is corrupted – which is what has happened in respect of this Bill – it means that the House cannot, across party divides, help a Government of whatever colour to make a Bill more effective.”
He also noted that not only had the government not consulted with the third sector organisations its Bill would affect, it didn’t even consult with the Electoral Commission to test the wisdom of handing it so many new powers.
While scrutiny of the Bill has been limited to just a few days, the government were far more apathetic about responding to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s own report on the consultative document for the proposals, taking over a year to do so, Mr Allen added.
“They responded only when they were forced to do so, because, as a result of their own timetable, they were trying to rush the progress of the Bill … Given the time that has elapsed between the issuing of the consultative paper and now, it would have been perfectly possible for us to engage in a proper process of pre-legislative scrutiny …”
“That is why, for the first time in over 20 years in the House, I am on my feet saying that this is an abuse. Parliament has been disrespected; Parliament has been abused … One day before the House rose for the summer recess in July, we were presented with this Bill. It is not a Bill that my Committee had examined, it is not a Bill that the House had considered, it is not a Bill that was referred to the Electoral Commission, and it is not a Bill that was referred to third parties such as charities—10,500 of them.”
Despite such passionate opposition to the programme, the two-day Report Stage was agreed by 317 vs 249.