Brighton MP speaks out about ‘gagging’ bill

Posted On 04 Sep 2013 at 9:18 am

The Green MP for Brighton Pavilion spoke out about the coalition government’s attempts to clean up lobbying in a House of Commons debate yesterday (Tuesday 3 September).

And on her website Caroline Lucas described the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill as a “gagging” bill.

In the Commons debate on the purpose and principles of the bill – known as the second reading – she questioned the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley.

He dismissed fears that the bill would gag charities.

She said: “The very fact that the Leader of the House is having to say he will come back to the House to address our concerns shows that this bill is incredibly badly drafted.

Caroline Lucas

Caroline Lucas

“But the point I want to make is that recent freedom of information requests reveal that Treasury officials met fracking industry representatives 19 times in the last 10 months about their generous tax breaks.

“Yet the public are denied any further details of that lobbying on the grounds that it could prejudice commercial interests.

“Is the Leader of the House not ashamed that this bill will drastically curtail the ability of charities to campaign in the public interest on issues such as fuel poverty and energy but do nothing to curb such secretive corporate influencing?”

Mr Lansley said: “Of course the bill does not constrain the ability of charities to campaign.

“Let us look back at 2010. Only two charities registered for expenditure for electoral purposes and they spent very little.

“The campaigning by third parties at the last election was not in any substantial way undertaken by charities.

“It was undertaken by other third parties – trade unions, companies, campaign groups and so forth.

“The idea that charities are in any way constrained is completely wrong.”

 

Later in the debate she called for “financial transparency so that we can see a genuine, good-faith estimate of how much money has been spent on lobbying activities and thus compare what the large multinational corporations are spending versus non-profit organisations”.

Dr Lucas wrote about the bill – or draft law – on her website, describing it as sinister and terrifying.

She said that the lobbying bill would shut down a range of legitimate voices while not doing enough to improve transparency.

In a blog written before the bill’s second reading she said that the part of the bill that would set up a register of lobbyists did not go far enough.

At the same time, she said, the creation of new legal requirements for third party organisations such as charities in the run-up to elections would suppress legitimate campaigning.

In the blog she said: “The lobbying bill would have horrifying implications for the way politics – and political campaigning – are practised in this country.

Andrew Lansley

Andrew Lansley

“Outrageously, it would suppress a range of legitimate voices while doing very little to expose the murky world of lobbying.

“It’s very much a bill of three distinct parts – one broadly welcome but inadequate, one of significant concern and one plain sinister.

“Part 1 of the bill would set up a register of lobbyists. I’ve been calling for this for some time and it’s long overdue.

“People have a right to know about the various different influences on the decisions being made on their behalf.

“But whereas other parts of the bill go too far, this one doesn’t go far enough.

“As it’s worded, only a small proportion of the people meeting with ministers and officials, many of them from powerful companies, would be defined as lobbyists.

“Instead of restricting itself to the very narrow group of ‘consultant lobbyists’, the scope of the bill should be much wider, so that it shines a light on the way lobbying works.

“As the Unlock Democracy group is arguing, the legislation should do far more to improve transparency, particularly around the financial aspects of lobbying.

“For example, the amount paid to lobbyists by clients should be in the public domain, as should information on any public office they have held in the past five years.

“And the registrar should be required to report to Parliament each year on the administration of the act.

“Part 3 of the bill – which has been interpreted as an attempt by the government to embarrass Labour over its candidate selection processes – imposes new requirements on unions.

“Their obligations to provide membership information to the independent regulator, who would gain new powers, would be further tightened.

“Unions have very legitimate concerns that this would create another barrier to the right to take industrial action. Whether this is deliberate or an unintended consequence, it’s worrying.

“But it’s Part 2 of the bill that alarms me the most.

Caroline Lucas at a protest against fracking at Balcombe

Caroline Lucas at a protest against fracking at Balcombe

“By imposing a quite astonishing range of requirements on campaigning organisations in the run-up to elections, it would effectively shut down legitimate voices seeking to raise awareness on issues of legitimate public interest, whether it’s on NHS reform, housing policy, or wildlife conservation.

“Campaign spending limits for third-party organisations – such as charities and pressure groups – would be drastically cut and the definition of what constitutes campaigning broadened.

“And there would be new forms of regulation for organisations lobbying on issues at constituency level.

“Some of the potential implications of this are frankly terrifying.

“In the months preceding an election, it would be harder for campaigners to criticise the policies of a particular political party.

“Organisations would have to deal with a new bureaucracy and be obliged to constantly ask whether they could continue many of their day-to-day activities.

“Perhaps most worryingly, the power to stand up against racist or extremist parties could be curtailed.

“So we’d have the perverse situation where the BNP, which as a political party would be exempt from these rules, would be protected, whereas the activities of those campaigning against them would be severely restricted.

“We can’t allow this to happen. I’ve co-sponsored a reasoned amendment to the bill and next week will be hosting a meeting with representatives of Unite, Hope not Hate and other affected organisations so they can put their concerns to MPs ahead of the bill’s committee stage.

“They are right to be concerned. In the name of transparency, the government has published a frankly chilling bill which would effectively suppress the debate that it is essential in a healthy democracy.”

The bill was given its second reading by 309 votes to 247. Dr Lucas voted against it while Simon Kirby, the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, was in favour. Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove, did not vote.

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