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The government's new lobbying bill has united charities, unions and other NGOs - as well as civil rights activists - in condemnation for measures that will do too little to combat serious corporate interference in politics, but will provide the pretext to limit and intimidate legitimate policy-based work by non-government and non-party political bodies.
The coalition denies the dangers being ascribed to its bill, but the chair of the Electoral Commission has said recently that regulators could be forced to take legal action against community groups and activists due to confusion over their new role.
"There may be circumstances where a stop notice might be argued to be needed in cases of, for example, asking somebody to take down a blog or a website or prevent a rally from happening," commission chair Jenny Watson told the constiturional reform committee.
"That is a significant intervention for the electoral commission to take." She said that the bill risked infringing "fundamental issues of free expression" if it goes unamended.
Greenpeace's John Sauven has written a good piece analysing the danger, which is worth quoting at length.
The UK [corporate] lobbying industry is a £2 billion 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 per cent 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 per cent. 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.
* Full article by John Sauven here: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/how-lobbying-bill-became-chari...
* See also on Ekklesia: 'Threat to gag campaigners in run-up to elections'', by Savitri Hensman: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18865
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrowTweet