Voluntary organisations are calling on the UK government to reconsider its Lobbying Bill following a major defeat in the House of Lords last night -- plus a petition handed in by former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, backed by 120 NGOs and 166,000 people in less than a week.
Campaigners won a significant vote at Westminster in the Bill's Report Stage on 15 January 2014, thanks to the votes of crossbenchers, Labour peers, two rebel Conservatives and four rebel Lib Dems, two English Anglican bishops and an independent.
The coalition's substantial defeat was 237 votes to 194. It secured a compromise that limits the range of controlled activities by NGOs that staff costs will apply to, though it does not remove them.
The amendment, along with several others, was tabled by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, on behalf of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE), of which Ekklesia is an active supporter.
Joe Irvin, chief executive of the local infrastructure body NAVCA, said that these changes had "turned an awful bill into what might at best be described as a deeply flawed bill".
The vote can still be overturned by the government at the so-called 'ping pong' stage of parliamentary procedure following the Third Reading, when the Commons votes on amendments from the Lords.
A series of other concessions was also achieved, and Lord Wallace, for the government, agreed to talk to the Electoral Commission about spending limits for non-party organisations.
However, critics of the legislation say that significant problems remain, and that even after yesterday’s changes, the Lobbying Bill would still limit charities and campaigning organisations from speaking out ahead of elections on some of the most important issues facing the country and the planet.
"Ministers must think again before this bill becomes law," said Liz Hutchins, senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth in England.
Responding to the passing of the key amendment removing most staff costs from campaign spending limits, Mark Goldring, Oxfam Chief Executive, commented: "It is ironic that it has taken the unelected House of Lords to strike a blow for democracy and stand up for charities threatened by the Lobbying Bill. The strength of feeling among peers is clear - the Government should now take the opportunity to back down gracefully and accept this amendment when the Bill returns to the Commons.
"Ministers should [also] take the chance before the next debate to drop unworkable constituency limits and restrictions on coalition campaigns."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, added: "Great credit must go to crossbench peers, a handful of rebels and stalwart civil society organisations for pushing the government back on NGO staff costs in the Lobbying Bill, and for extracting other concessions and promises of engagement.
"This endeavour precisely illustrates the importance of the kind of non-party campaigning that, ironically, the Bill itself threatens.
"However, despite these gains, the core problem remains. Poor process, lack of consultation and absence of scrutiny has produced bad legislation that fails adequately to address serious abuses of lobbying by big money interests, while harmfully shackling voluntary organisations.
"The government must now look to its own claims about free speech and democratic participation and have the courage to undertake a fundamental rethink about an unjust and ill-balanced Bill: one which is also, in parts, unworkable and unenforceable."
the Third Reading of the Lobbying Bill in the House of Lords takes place on Tuesday 21 January. This will discuss only issues that government ministers have agreed to return to. No other issues can be tabled or re-tabled.
* An overview: where are we now on the Lobbying Bill? http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19935
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Ekklesia has been actively supporting the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by Lord Harries: http://civilsocietycommission.info