Adversity makes strange bedfellows. The old proverb isn’t wrong. In the ongoing debate on the lobbying bill which continues in the House of Lords today, the alliances formed to defend civil society’s free speech have ranged from the strange to the downright improbable.
What else would cause the Lancashire Badger Group and the Countryside Alliance, or the Christian Institute and National Secular Society, to work together in public? Where else would the TUC join with lobbying industry bodies in mutual outrage?
This scale of opposition is rare. This week, the Lords should seize their opportunity to make the bill fit for purpose.
When the lobbying bill entered parliament, one day before summer recess, it was expected just to regulate corporate lobbying, as the public wanted. Lobbying is by no means intrinsically bad, but as David Cameron himself admitted in February 2010, it was ‘the next big scandal’ that promised to weaken the public’s trust in politics.
Cameron’s response at the time was sensible enough. He called it “absurd that a tiny percentage of the population craft legislation that will apply to one hundred per cent of the population. Instead of locking people out of this process… we need to invite them in.” Many were pleased at the time, thinking ideas like a public reading stage for bills might actually improve the public’s view of politics. How far we have come since the election.
Far from being the grand restorer of public trust in politicians and lobbyists, the lobbying bill has been decried by MPs as not worthy even of a ‘dog’s breakfast’. It has swept any meaningful action on lobbying under the carpet, and further privileges the voices of political parties and the media in pre-election debates. This is particularly short-sighted at a time when some charities count members in their millions, while no political party has more than 200,000.
The bill’s second part profoundly threatens the freedom of speech of charities and campaigners in the year before a general election. Clause 26, which decides whether part 2 covers a given organisation, widens the type of spending civil society groups must register with the Electoral Commission in the year before an election. Unlike the equivalent registration threshold for political parties – who spent over ten times more than civil society in 2010 – it includes all staff costs and many conferences and public events. The rest of part 2 then heavily reduces the national allowance by 60%, and only 2% of this may be spent in one constituency.
Baroness Jay concluded last week, for the Constitutional Reform Committee, that these spending limits leave them “concerned about the restrictions on [civil society’s] right to freedom of political speech”. She added that “this constitutional right should only be interfered with where there is clear justification for doing so.” The only evidence offered for part 2 was “a perception of a lack of transparency” in non-party campaigning – this is not enough justification.
However outrageous the Bill may seem, however, I hope it will open up several long-overdue debates about our country’s democracy in the coming century.
First, we cannot allow even popular governments to force through constitutional legislation without trying to consult the public or carry out pre-legislative scrutiny. Graham Allen MP was right to point out that “parliament has been disrespected; parliament has been abused.” Groups like 38 Degrees greatly increase the number of politically-engaged voters, who government must keep onside for laws to be credible.
This week, this principle means the Lords must listen to the report of the Commission on Civil Society and Democracy, an alliance of over 50 civil society groups chaired by Lord Harries (former Bishop of Oxford). It will publish the findings of its national consultation next week, which has been an excellent replacement for public consultation in such limited time.
Second, our country needs to ask how we enable charities and campaigners to speak for their beneficiaries – who usually have little other democratic voice – without being marginalised by political parties and the media. It is telling that even the Commission on Civil Society, whose signatories represent millions of UK voters, has received little media coverage. This week, peers should oppose lowering the spending threshold for civil society groups.
Lastly, we must still argue the case to truly ‘keep big money out of politics’. The government has not demonstrated why they should limit the voice of civil society – where millions of people donate a few pounds each to a cause – while leaving areas like party funding and corporate lobbying untouched. These areas are where unaccountable millions of pounds influence our politics, not charities.
This leaves the lobbying bill both a grave threat and an opportunity. In the short term, part 2 must be properly amended to disarm its attack on civil society, by rewriting clause 26 and increasing the spending thresholds in clause 27. This is also a good time to start debating other, important questions of democratic representation.
In the run-up to 2015, the bill offers a golden opportunity to any party which offers to repeal it and write a proper one in its place. That, at least, shouldn’t be too hard.
George Bangham is a policy officer at ACEVO, the charity leaders’ network