The UK government has indicated that it will make changes to its much criticised Lobbying Bill, but charities and NGOs say much more is needed.
Ministers will table a series of amendments to the Bill today (9 January 2014), easing some of the restrictions on how much charities and other non-party organisations can spend in the run-up to a general election -- but less on what they can say and do.
In brief, part one of the Bill sets up such a weak register of big, corporate lobbyists that it will make no difference to the problems it is supposed to have been designed to address.
Part two, on the other hand, amounts to a chilling attack on civic free speech before elections that has united charities, pressure groups, think tanks, faith groups and many others in opposition.
Part three imposes new red tape on union membership systems and will allow the state access to such membership lists at will.
After intense pressure by the 120 members of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE), including Ekklesia, and by allied campaigns, the government has indicated that it will make modifications to registration thresholds, the regulation period, restrictions on coalition campaigning, spending limits, and the process of reviewing the Bill.
But there are still some really big problems remaining, say charity campaigners. Overall the Bill still represents a threat to democracy and a crack-down on the right of NGOs to speak out and to associate.
Specific problems include the definition of campaigning to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidates can still catch campaigning not even mentioning a party or candidate; and campaigning the primary purpose of which is raising policy issues.
Staff costs will still be included for NGOs (for a big new range of activities), while political parties do not have to account for them.
Constituency spending limits remain very low and are still unworkable for NGOs and unenforceable for the Electoral Commission.
Spending limits are still extremely low and supporter definition is based on an out-dated approach relating only to financial supporters.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth, chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, commented: "I would like to congratulate all charities and campaigning organisations for bringing about a significant change of heart by Government.
"Ministers have recognised the force of the arguments put to them and have made important concessions. However there are still some major issues that need to be resolved in particular staff costs and coalition working."
Liz Hutchins, Friends of the Earth senior campaigner added: "Ministers have accepted that they have made serious mistakes with the Lobbying Bill and have backtracked on several issues.
"However the legislation would still impose significant new restrictions on charities and campaigning organisations from speaking out ahead of elections.
"The proposed inclusion of staff costs would mean significant additional red tape for charities that political parties do not face. Proposed new constituency limits remain unworkable and unenforceable. Charities and campaigning organisations are more effective working together yet this Bill makes this more difficult.
"Ministers must make further substantial changes to these parts of the Bill or face defeat in votes at Report stage," she concluded.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said: "It is good to see the government beginning to respond to overwhelming concern from charities, faith groups, civic organisations and the public to legislation which will still – even with the kind of modifications they are now suggesting – amount to a severe restriction on non-party campaigning in the run-up to an election, while also imposing unnecessary red tape and creating an unacceptable data grab.
"The unworkability of the Lobbying Bill in it current form and the threat to democracy and free speech that it constitutes should be a concern to politicians from all parties, who now have the opportunity to urge the government towards a fundamental rethink on legislation that the Electoral Commission, senior lawyers and a host of expert commentators have severe worries about."
Campaigners will be seeking further meetings in the light of the latest government announcements, and have vowed to keep pressure on for more substantial change.
The government’s Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill – described in the Financial Times as “one of the worst pieces of legislation put before the Houses of Parliament for many moons” – goes to Report stage on 13 and 15 January 2014.
* Urgent petition to back Lord Harries / CCSDE amendments to Lobbyng Bill on 15 January: http://civilsocietycommission.info/petition/
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info
* Petition on the union data grab issue: http://action.goingtowork.org.uk/page/s/lobbying-bill-my-union-membershi...