"Don't give up on making changes" is the message from voluntary organisations and members of the public to members of the House of Lords, as the Lobbying Bill returns to the second chamber on Tuesday 28 January.
Peers had their amendments to the controversial legislation – which shackles non-party campaigns, charities and unions but lets big corporate lobbyists off the hook – defeated in the House of Commons yesterday (22 January 2014).
MPs passed a range of amendments to the Bill on Wednesday but disagreed with those that had been tabled by Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, Chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, on staff costs and constituency regulation.
These particular amendments were intended to ease the burden of the regulation on charities and campaigning organisations. The amendments had been passed in the House of Lords with large majorities and were backed by peers from across the House. The changes were supported by a petition of over 130 NGOs and more than 164,000 people collected in a few days.
MPs had less than 24 hours to consider the amendments after they were passed at Lords Third Reading on Tuesday 21 January. Speaking during Lords Third Reading, Liberal Democrat Baroness Shirley Williams supported the amendments and described the decision to return to the House of Commons the day after Lords Third Reading as “ludicrous”.
The Bill is reaching the end of its time at Westminster, and the coalition government has the power to force it through. But huge opposition from voluntary organisations and the public, together with intense criticism from a senior UN rapporteur an from bodies like the Electoral Commission and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have put ministers under intense pressure.
It is often custom for peers to back down when their attempts at reform have been defeated in the elected Commons. But in this case campaigners will argue that there are serious issues of democracy and free speech at stake, and the Bill, described in the Financial Times as “one of the worst pieces of legislation put before the Houses of Parliament for many moons” also lacked pre-legsilative scrutiny and consultation.
Indeed, the government has been accused of rushing it through in indecent haste, such that the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said yesterday that it amounted to a "contempt for Parliament" .
However, because of the governments determination to move forward voting, most MPs ad little or no chance to read the Select Committee report, and it was evident, say critics, that many Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs were ill-informed about the details and likely impact of what is officially known as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill.
Campaigners to reform the Bill are now writing again to peers, especially cross-benchers, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who have been uncomfortable and critical of it.
An additional 'myth buster' briefing is being produced by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE), which said tonight that it "will be working to highlight the ongoing problems with the Bill and to find solutions to the problems before the Bill is passed into law."
After the Lords have the chance to vote again, it is likely that the government will push the Bill straight back to the Commons the next day, Wednesday 29 January, in order to restrict the ability of members of the public to seek to persuade their representatives on the issue.
Graham Allen MP, the chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, declared in the House yesterday, that the timetable was "an absolute disgrace, and it cannot be allowed to continue if we are to have any reputation in this House for doing our job on accountability and scrutiny effectively."
A total of eight Conservatives and ten Liberal Democrats rebelled against whips in the Commons on 22 January on one of two amendments, but a further 17 and 21 would have been needed, respectively, to defat the government.
As it stands, the Bill will still severely restrict charities and campaigning groups from speaking out on behalf of their supporters ahead of elections.
* More from Ekklesia on the Lobbying Bill, including links to briefings: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Ekklesia is an active supporter of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info