Damage limitation and alliance building: gains of campaigning on the Lobbying Bill
While the government has had its way overall, as parliamentary arithmetic finally dictates, the 130 NGOs gathered under the banner of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE) won some very significant concessions from government earlier in the process, as a direct result of their campaign.
While the Bill will be bad law, and will need challenging at every opportunity when it comes into effect, the hard work of civil society groups in limiting the damage inflicted by government and building a huge coalition across significant differences of policy and opinion on other issues.
This showed precisely why the groups the government has wanted to gag are so important to a genuine democratic process and to free speech.
The changes secured were:
1. Amending rules for organisations ‘working to a joint plan’ (coalitions) to exclude small-spending organisations (A39).
2. Excluding some costs from controlled expenditure:
* Translation into Welsh (A44)
* Disability access (A44)
* Safety and security measures (43)
* NI parades (42)
* Clarify volunteer costs are excluded (A44)
3. Raising the threshold for non-party organisations to register with the Electoral Commission to £20,000 for England, £10,000 for Scotland, Wales and NI. (A46)
4. Raising the spending limit for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by £20,000 from the 70% cut initially proposed. (A47)
5. Reducing the regulatory period from 1 year to 7.5 months for the 2015 General Election (A30-35).
6. Introducing a review of non-party campaigning rules after the 2015 General Election (A118).
7. Withdrawing post-dissolution spending caps in constituencies (A53).
8. Reduction in some regulatory burden (A50 A5)
The civil society coalition should be really proud of those achievements, in spite of the disappointment of not securing the amendments so skilfully drafted, deployed and argued for by Lord Harries and colleagues. .
This is a mess of a Bill; very bad law, as many have said. A good number of issues will now be for the Electoral Commission, which has already warned on workability (or lack of it), to fathom. NGOs and charities will need really clear and favourable guidance if they are not to be tied up in knots and put off from campaigning on legitimate policy issues.
The Electoral Commission have said they want to hear from NGOs and the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement will set up some round table discussions to make sure the necessary voices are heard before the guidance is written.
The Labour Party and other smaller parties (the SNP, Plaid, the Green Party, etc.) have consistently opposed the Bill at every stage of the process. They should all be congratulated. Many NGOs are now keen to see these parties commit to scrapping the Bill in part or in full. They need to commit to themselves before the General Election, because any party is much more likely to act if it has made a very public pledge before it takes office or participates in future legislative process. A timescale is important so that any commitment does not slip.
We at Ekklesia want the parties to commit to scrap the Lobbying Act, to review non-party campaigning regulation within 18 months of the General Election; and to bring in a new, workable law within two years of taking office -- based on proper consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and aimed at tackling the true problem of unaccountable, corporate lobbying, not shackling non-party organisations and trade unions.
More analysis will follow on the legal issues around the Bill as it becomes law, and possible responsive strategies by NGOs and others.
With thanks, once again, to the remarkable Liz Hutchins of Friends of the Earth, and other CCSDE staff.
* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill
* Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement: http://civilsocietycommission.info
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrow
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