An overview: where are we now on the Lobbying Bill?
Even with the changes agreed as result of the Report Stage in the House of Lords this week, the UK government's Lobbying Bill remains a huge restriction on civil society campaigning compared to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
So what happened last night and what does it mean?
First, peers from all parties backed an amendment (number 45) to limit NGO staff costs counting towards controlled expenditure during an election period, by 237 votes for to 194 votes against.
The amendment was tabled by Lord Harries of Pentregarth and was supported by a petition of over 130 charities and campaigning groups and 160,000 people.
In addition, the House of Lords agreed to several other changes to the Bill proposed by the the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE), including:
i) Raising the threshold for non-party organisations to register with the Electoral Commission to £20,000 for England, £10,000 for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
ii) Reducing the regulatory period from 12 months to 7.5 months for the 2015 General Election (the Commission recommended six months indefinitely).
iii) Exempting the following costs from controlled expenditure: translation into Welsh; making controlled activity accessible to people with disabilities; safety and security measures.
iv) Excluding small-spending organisations from coalition campaigning rules.
A proposal to exclude charities from the regulation, opposed by many charities themselves because of the unevenness and division this would have resulted in as far as other NGOs are concerned, was rejected. It will be reviewed as part of a wider review of non-party campaigning regulation after the 2015 General Election.
Key problems remain, namely:
i) Overall spending limits have been slashed by 60 per cent (Amendment 46A had to be withdrawn).
ii) New tight constituency spending limits have been introduced which NGOs say are unworkable and the Electoral Commission says may be unenforcable. (Amendment 52 was withdrawn on condition that ministers return to the issue at the Third Reading).
iii) Restrictions on campaigning organisations campaigning in coalition together. (Amendment 39A was withdrawn).
iv) An outdated definition of NGO supporters (Amendment 40 was withdrawn).
Because of the restrictive procedure, it was only ever going to be possible to push for one or two votes. So where amendments were withdrawn, this was because government ministers refused to budge and a vote would not have been winnable.
The next stage is the Third Reading in the Lords (at which no further changes can be tabled or re-tabled), then consideration of Lords amendments in the Commons (the so-called 'ping pong', where the staff costs amendment is vulnerable to being overturned with no debate), then the Royal Assent by which the Bill becomes an Act of law.
Government ministers are being asked during these stages to think again about the Bill in a fundamental way following their Lords defeat (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19933) and the wholesale disapproval of it in the civil and public sphere.
Ekklesia's specific comment is that what has happened this week is 'Progress, but the Lobbying Bill remains dangerous' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19934).
The organisations gathered together in a bipartisan way by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, including Ekklesia, now need the government to make further changes before the Bill becomes law.
It would also be a huge step forward if Labour would commit to repeal the eventual Act, which will be deeply problematic and undesirable.
Legal, human rights and other challenges are possible if the government refuses to rethink this flawed legislation.
* Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/41/contents
* Parliamentary progress of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/transparencyoflobbyingnonpar...
* More from Ekklesia on the Bill: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info
Our sincere thanks to Liz Hutchins of Friends of the Earth for her regular CCSDE updates, and to Lord Harries for his highly effective coordination and presentation of amendments.
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