Another government defeat on 'unworkable' Lobbying Bill

Another government defeat on 'unworkable' Lobbying Bill

By staff writers
21 Jan 2014

The UK government has suffered another serious defeat in the House of Lords on its Lobbying Bill - which NGOs, charities and unions have dubbed "the gagging law".

Peers backed an amendment on what critics say is an unworkable and unfair set of constituency limits on activity by non-party organisations in the run up to an election.

The vote was triggered by Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, who is the chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement.

CCSDE has brought together 130 NGOs and charities to seek substantial change to a piece of legislation that has been strongly criticised by lawyers, charities, voluntary and community groups, faith bodies, the Electoral Commission, political reformers and tens of thousands of members of the public.

The Bill allows corporate lobbyists off the hook while shackling and gagging non-party NGOs from speaking out on public issues near elections.

Lord Harries. speaking at the Third Reading of the Bill in the House of Lords today, proposed two amendments and expressed disappointment at the government's failure to respond to informed, thoughtful opinion on the dangers of the Bill.

"We are all aware this bill that came to us in the first place was an appalling piece of legislation," he declared.

Regarding his Amendment 11, he explained that voluntary organisations do not organise on a constituency basis, but around particular issues and concerns.

Trying to allocate and denote general expenditure in relation particular constituencies would be arbitrary, uneven, unfair and a bureaucratic nightmare, NGOs have said.

Some local campaigns, for example against hospital closures, work across constituencies and cannot allocate attribute spending easily, Lord Harries pointed out.

The Electoral Commission itself has eared that the very low NGO/charity constituency spending limits may be "unenforceable", and there are likely to be political and legal challenges to this and other aspects of a Bill described recently in the Financial Times as "one of the worst pieces of legislation put before the Houses of Parliament for many moons."

The second substantial defeat on this Bill poses "serious questions for the government", observed Asheem Singh, director public policy for ACEVO, the charity leaders' network, in response to the vote.

Liberal Democrat Baroness Shirley Williams observed: “The gap between the deliberations in this House and the deliberations starting in the [Commons] tomorrow, are frankly ludicrous. They do not enable the other place to take into account the very careful and deliberate thoughts that have been given in this House, not least by the Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth and his very impressive Commission, which most people in here agree went in great detail into this Bill, produced some excellent amendments.

“In a very constrained situation this house can legitimately say, and the Commission [on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement] can legitimately say that it’s made a very substantial contribution to make this complicated Bill as good as it can be made.”

Campaigners will now be working hard to get MPs to support amendments and changes, including others considered this afternoon.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "Civil society groups, working with peers from across the spectrum of political opinion, have won significant concessions and two important votes on the Lobbying Bill in the second chamber so far.

"These are significant wins, but it is now even more vital that MPs back the Lords amendments tomorrow.

"As it stands, and even as amended, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14 still threatens to stifle legitimate public debate and non-party political campaigning on policies that affect people’s lives.

"It is important to win as many changes as possible before this Bill becomes law, but the issues of constraints on free speech and grassroots democracy this legislation raises will not go away."

Lord Harries' Amendment 21, calling for a review of the law to be published within 18 months of the 2015 General Election so that there is no rush before the 2020 election, will also be considered this afternoon.

* Liz Hutchins - It is vital that MPs vote to lee Lobbying Bill changes: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19987

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

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