How the Lobbying Bill protects corporate interests at the expense of charity campaigns

How the Lobbying Bill protects corporate interests at the expense of charity campaigns

By Richard Carr
10 Jan 2014

The Robin Hood Tax campaign is facing a tough opponent – not just from the usual source of the financial sector and their allies, but from legislation currently going through the House of Lords.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is due to go to its report stage next week (13-15 January 2014). The Robin Hood Tax campaign cannot support it for a number of reasons, and we urge peers of all political colours not to rush the bill through just to get it passed in time for the 2015 election.

The legislation would hamper our campaigning abilities whilst empowering those of our richer opponents. On whatever side of the Financial Transaction Tax debate you sit, this cannot have been the bill’s original intention.

The following is quite technical, but since these technicalities are so threatening to our campaign and others like it they are worth setting out – particularly for any peers considering the legislation.

Firstly, what the government are saying about ‘controlled expenditure’ as has functioned under the terms of the 2000 Political Parties, Referendums and Elections Act is only half the story at best. They claim that the 2000 Act – and the proposed lobbying bill – does not inhibit a campaigning group’s activities. This is patently false. Almost any and everything a campaigning group does in the way of advocating a particular issue can fall under the terms of existing, but particularly the new, legislation. As the Civil Society Commission have acknowledged there is currently a significant amount of legal ambiguity as to what charities, NGOs and the like can and cannot do, but under the new bill a draconian element is to be added to this mush.

The bill introduces new provisions over ‘controlled expenditure.’ This reduces the amount any charity or NGO can spend in the year before a General Election by a minimum of 60 per cent, from just under one million pounds to around £390,000. But it also massively disincentivises the type of partnership working and ‘making every pound stretch further’ ethos that politicians usually praise to the hilt.

As a coalition of over one hundred charities, NGOs, and other civil society groups Robin Hood relies on joint campaigning. Yet under the legislation two campaigns each putting forward, for example, £10,000 towards a joint campaign will both see £20,000 counted against their individual spending threshold. This not only means the Robin Hood campaign will reach its spending threshold quicker, but it could potentially deter prospective coalition members from donating money. There has been some suggestion smaller charities will be exempt from such provisions, but we await the detail. As it stands charities will be forced to retreat to single issue campaigns which one might suggest suits politicians then more able to play one off against the other.

Secondly, the bill totally undermines the very type of charitable, volunteerist ethos that was at the heart of the Big Society agenda. Work carried out on a pro bono or in-kind basis for a given campaign will still count towards the new spending limits, even when (as is normal) such people waive their fee. For the Robin Hood Tax campaign, a recent promotional film written by Richard Curtis and starring Bill Nighy would likely fall under the provisions of the bill. Suffice to say, to account for even one day of these two people’s time, let alone hire a set, cameras, camera and support staff and so forth, is not cheap, and could well take up the entire campaigning budget for a year. It is through such celebrity led endeavours that charity, third sector and NGO campaigns often get our message across – and the bill robs us of that opportunity.

The Financial Transaction Tax is also a clear instance where, without freedom of speech for civil society, private sector interest can set the terms of debate. The UK media is rarely shy about latching on to poorly researched, nakedly self-serving pieces on behalf of the financial sector which inflate, exaggerate and occasionally invent arguments as to why the FTT allegedly could not work. They bring forward nonsensical numbers regarding the FTT’s theoretical impact on British jobs or GDP (somehow the success stories of Brazil’s very real £10 billion a year FTT and growing economy never seem to make copy) in the knowledge that they will likely get coverage.

Without NGOs having the ability to provide balance, this fast becomes the story. And if such a document is put out by a New York bank, or the Brussels office of a leading consultancy firm, it will not be properly regulated by the bill – yet many UK papers will still cover it. The debate on the FTT thereby becomes extremely one sided in the year prior to the General Election with politicians, potentially, being bullied by private sector capital (through the threat of lower donations) into taking an anti-FTT line when they actually believe it would be good for Britain. This is hardly the ideal state of affairs for a twenty-first century democracy.

The bill would seriously curtail the efforts of the Robin Hood tax campaign (and hundreds of charities and NGOs like it). Yet 2014/15 is a period which will see an EU-11 FTT introduced and high level development (and G8/G20) summits where the use of €34 billion of estimated revenue will be debated. The world does not run to the British electoral cycle timetable. For campaigns with any form of international dimension the bill is extremely problematic.

We urge peers to re-consider this hasty bill which will bring a whole series of negative consequences. In light of such pressure the government has indicated it may offer concessions in some areas. But even if these changes are accepted (no guarantee as yet) there are, as NCVO note, "still some big problems with the bill, which need to be addressed in order to make it workable and ensure charities and voluntary organisations are not deterred from undertaking campaigning activities." It is not too late to go further.

* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill

* Urgent petition: support Lord Harries' amendments to the Lobbying Bill: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19882

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© Richard Carr is a Policy Adviser at Stamp Out Poverty (http://www.stampoutpoverty.org) and a supporter of the Robin Hood Tax campaign (http://robinhoodtax.org.uk), which Ekklesia also backs.

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