Government blocks Lords changes, but 'gagging law' activists press on

Government blocks Lords changes, but 'gagging law' activists press on

By staff writers
22 Jan 2014

Voluntary groups and NGOs reacted with anger this evening (22 January 2014) after the government used the whipping system to vote down amendments to its controversial Lobbying Bill.

But campaigners point out that peers and fewer than 20 MPs can alter the balance again, and say they are "not going away".

"The Commons has today chosen to completely ignore both the Lords and the legitimate concerns of civil society," commented Alex Massey, Senior Policy Officer at ACEVO, the charity leaders' organisation, after the short debate. Others expressed similar sentiments.

MPs voted on two motions to reject Lords amendments, tabled by former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, on the scope of staff costs and constituency regulation.

The first was won by 310 to 278 (a majority of just 32 for the government, from a working majority of 76). The second was 314 to 274 (a majority of 40).

Among other restrictions on non-party bodies at election time, the Lobbying Bill will slash charities' and non-party campaigns' spending limits by 60 per cent, restrict their spending in individual constituencies to only £9,750, force those involved in coalition campaigning to count all the coalition's spending as their own, and imperil the privacy of trade union membership records.

But it was pointed out in the debate in the House of Commons today that many wealthy corporate 'influencers' will be untouched by the legislation.

Lobbying by the alcohol industry against minimum pricing will not be included in the official register. A significant number of MPs have drinks industry and allied commercial interests.

A register of lobbyists that does not include lobbying of special advisers is tantamount to a 'laughing stock', said opposition MPs. The government purposely opposed the inclusion of 'spads'.

In a further report released just hours before today's crucial votes, because of the intense timetable pressure the government had applied in a bid to thwart civic and opposition to its plans, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee said still more changes were required and accused the government of showing a "contempt for Parliament" in its abuse of procedure for political ends.

Despite the defeat of Lord Harries' hard-worked-for amendments, a representative of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE) pointed out that "it is no small matter to double the registration threshold and to reduce the regulatory period for the 2015 General Election to 7.5 months amongst many other things. None of that would have been possible without a massive united campaign."

Friends of the Earth senior political campaigner Liz Hutchins added: “The Government comprehensively lost the arguments today but won the vote. This poorly conceived Bill will massively restrict charities and campaigning groups from speaking out on behalf of their members ahead of elections.

“Peers must once again stand up for democracy when the bill returns to the House of Lords,” she said.

The Lobbying Bill now goes into 'ping-pong' - back and forward between the Commons and the Lords. Since the government can finally use the Parliament Act to force the hand of Westminster if it needs to, peers will need to be persuaded that there is purpose in further opposition, and that important issues of principle are at stake.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "MPs' offices have reported being 'inundated' with messages of concern from the public and civil society groups over the past few days, urging them to back sensible Lords' amendments to the deeply flawed Lobbying Bill.

"It is a sad day for democracy when the Government chooses to ignore overwhelming criticism of its plans to restrict the free speech of non-party organisations, and to vote down sensible compromises.

"The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee described this Bill as 'an example of how not to make legislation'. It is now up to peers to do what too many elected politicians are failing to do, and press ministers into workable concessions," he said.

Tonight the campaign group 38 Degrees pointed out that if just 17 more Conservative or Liberal Democrat MPs had voted the other way, the outcome in the Commons would have been different.

The group, which claims 2.2 million participants, added that despite the disappointment of the Commons votes today, "there are reasons to feel hopeful too. This campaign has brought together so many different organisations and so many people from all walks of life. Together we're proving that whilst faith in politicians is at an all time low, passion for real democracy is alive and kicking."

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

* The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE): http://civilsocietycommission.info

Ekklesia is an active supporter of the CCSDE.

[Ekk/3]

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