How the lobbying bill became the charity gagging bill

Posted by John Sauven — 3 September 2013 at 2:37pm - Comments
A man with his mouth gagged
All rights reserved. Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpeace
Charities and campaigning groups have lined up to condemn the 'charity gagging bill'

When David Cameron described the access of business lobbyists to government as "the next big scandal", we thought he was making a prediction.

But his lobbying bill, otherwise known as the 'charity gagging bill', seems so deliberately controversial, and is being rushed through parliament with such unseemly haste, that we're wondering if he was actually making a promise.

The UK lobbying industry is a £2bn anti-democratic powerbase, providing influence over legislation to businesses with the means to pay for it. There are plenty of good reasons for businesses to provide the government with their views, but when arms firms are lobbying to have corruption investigations abandoned, or car firms are lobbying to weaken pollution controls, the absolute minimum we need to ensure we still live in a real democracy is transparency.

No one needs to be shut out of the public debate, but if we don't know who's lobbying who, then the risk of powerful vested interests having undue influence over policy is obvious.

On the positive side, the new bill has a provision for compiling a public register of lobbyists. However, this only covers the 20% of people working for lobbying firms. The majority, working in-house for large companies, will be exempt. So far, so desperately inadequate. Wait until you hear what the bad bits are.

The second part of the legislation has nothing to do with either corporate lobbyists or transparency. It is intended to limit the ability of non-profit charities and similar groups to campaign on issues of public interest.

Specifically, the amount charities, unions and campaign groups would be allowed to spend during the 12 months before an election on work which might have political impact has been cut by over 60%. At the same time the definition of electoral expenses has been broadened from the cost of election related leaflets and posters to include many other costs such as staff wages and other overheads, so the reduced budget will now have to cover a lot more.

The hugely increased bureaucratic burden, particularly onerous for small, local campaign groups, and the bewildering lack of clarity on which aspects of which activities count as electoral, have led the Electoral Commission to describe the changes as unworkable.

The restrictions are not just applied to explicit party endorsements. When Help for Heroes lobby for better prosthetic limbs for military veterans, that could be an implicit criticism of the current government, and were they to publicise a big improvement in this area, that could be an implicit endorsement. Whether something is electoral is judged by whether it could potentially affect the election, not whether it is intended to.

When one of our media officers takes a call from a journalist on renewable energy, that could be an election expense. Climbing the Shard to highlight the dangers of oil drilling in the Arctic could be an election expense, and my writing this blog, particularly since Labour announced that they oppose the charity gagging bill, is an election expense. The NSPCC lobbying for legal protection for children in care, and any awareness-raising work they do around the issue, could be too.

If you're campaigning for a new hospital in your constituency, or against one being closed, for or against a new bypass, free school or bird sanctuary, or any issue on which politicians or their parties have expressed a view, then what you're doing is electioneering, and the government wants you to do a lot less of it.

How will all of this affect corporate lobbyists? Not very much. Big companies don't generally rely on elections and public opinion to sway politicians. They tend to get better results from informal one-to-one chats in corporate hospitality boxes, fact-finding missions to exotic locations, and the occasional quiet country supper. But that doesn't mean they're not affected at all.

So long as we lack a properly thought through lobbying transparency bill, the best hope the public has of discovering who is influencing their elected representatives is the constant questioning and probing from charities and campaign groups. And the best hope for causes which might be opposed by big money interests is those same charities and campaign groups.

And so the charity gagging bill removes the single biggest restriction on the power of corporate lobbyists, and replaces it with a register covering less than 20% of the industry - a percentage which could drop further as companies avoid scrutiny by taking their lobbying in-house. The bill privileges undemocratic, behind-the-scenes influence over open, public debate.

Cameron has delivered the next great political scandal. A piece of legislation intended as a watchdog for corporate lobbyists, stopping them from hijacking legislation, has apparently been hijacked by corporate lobbyists who have pulled all of its teeth and trained it to bark at the postman and play dead for burglars.

It's been suggested by those with a party political bias that Cameron is using this bill to try to prevent independent scrutiny of his government's record in the run-up to the election, and that the whole thing is Clegg’s desperate attempt by to dodge the revenge of the National Union of Students for his tuition fees betrayal.

A more generous explanation might be that Chloe Smith, the junior minister guiding this bill through parliament, has been a bit naïve and allowed herself to be led astray by silver-tongued lobbyists.

But that excuse only works for the draft. If the coalition passes the bill, having been fully informed of its defects, then we can only assume that they want to increase the power of corporate lobbyists, cripple civil society and restrict free speech in election years to politicians.

Of course, charities and campaign groups’ ability to criticise the charity gagging bill will be restricted by the charity gagging bill. But we will have the chance to witness, for the very first time, the entirety of British civil society united behind the same campaign priority. Cameron will finally get to meet his Big Society.

If you’re interested in joining the team of volunteer Greenpeace lobbyists who are currently meeting with their MPs to stand up to this Bill, sign up here.

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