The extent of public concern about the government's controversial Lobbying Bill, which lets off corporate lobbyists but threatens to gag NGOs and unions, is seen in the extraordinary response to the petition backing Lord Harries' amendments, launched only late last week.
So far well over 130 organisations and 163,000 members of the public have supported and signed the petition, which will be handed in to the House of Lords, which is considering the Bill, on Wednesday 15 january 2014 – the last day of the parliamentary Report Stage when key votes will be taken.
New supporters are emerging all the time. The National Union of Journalists has announced that it is backing a coalition of charities and NGOs and urging peers to support amendments to the lobbying bill, which blocks organisations from campaign work during election periods.
The government has made some concessions to the bill, which has been dubbed the gagging bill, but there are still serious problems. Organisations and unions could still find they are breaking the law while carrying out campaigns during an election period.
The bill regulates the spending on activities such as advertising, rallies and media work.
The NUJ is not affiliated to a political party, but it would have to log how much it spends on campaigns – including staff costs – if the "effect" was seen to favour or prejudice a party, even if it did not name the party or candidate.
By answering journalists' questions, a press officer may have to log their costs if answering questions about a policy or campaign is construed as having an influence on the election or prejudicing a party. Campaigns officers could also find they will have to cost their time; this could seriously hamper them from doing their job. The bill will prevent organisations from working on joint initiatives, because they will each be liable for the total cost of any campaign.
The NUJ has joined the coalition of charities, civic groups and NGOs in urging peers to back the amendments put forward by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, when this part of the bill is debated on Wednesday.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: "We must do all we can to ensure that peers hear our arguments and back essential amendments to this anti-democratic bill. In its current form it will prevent many organisations from campaigning and those who do will be severely restricted by red-tape.
"Peers must vote against the Government and support Lord Harries' amendments which go some way towards minimising the damage this bill does to the way we campaign and our right to a democratic voice."
The NUJ says it is also concerned that the government has failed to make concessions on part one of the bill, which means the bill will fail to clean up the lobbying industry.
The attacks on trade unions in part three are also unchanged and the bill remains a threat to union membership confidentiality. This is despite the Regulatory Policy Committee, the government’s red tape advisory body, telling the government to redo its assessment of the impact of part three of the bill on regulation of union membership systems, it says.
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement and its petition: http://civilsocietycommission.info
Ekklesia is an active supporter of the CCSDE.