How the lobbying bill became the charity gagging bill

A man with his mouth gagged
All rights reserved. Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpeace
Charities and campaigning groups have lined up to condemn the 'charity gagging bill'
Image caption: 
Charities and campaigning groups have lined up to condemn the 'charity gagging bill'

When David Cameron described the access
of business lobbyists to government as "the next big scandal", we thought he was making a prediction.

But his lobbying bill, otherwise known as
the 'charity gagging bill', seems so deliberately controversial, and is being
rushed through parliament with such unseemly haste, that we're wondering if he
was actually making a promise.

The UK lobbying industry is a £2bn anti-democratic powerbase, providing influence over legislation
to businesses with the means to pay for it. There are plenty of good reasons
for businesses to provide the government with their views, but when arms firms
are lobbying to have corruption investigations abandoned, or car firms are
lobbying to weaken pollution controls, the absolute minimum we need to ensure
we still live in a real democracy is transparency.

No one needs to be shut out
of the public debate, but if we don't know who's lobbying who, then the risk of
powerful vested interests having undue influence over policy is obvious.

On the positive side, the new bill
has a provision for compiling a public register of lobbyists. However, this
only covers the 20% of people working for lobbying firms. The majority,
working in-house for large companies, will be exempt. So far, so desperately
inadequate. Wait until you hear what the bad bits are.

The second part of the
legislation has nothing to do with either corporate lobbyists or transparency. It
is intended to limit the ability of non-profit charities and similar groups to
campaign on issues of public interest.

Specifically, the amount charities,
unions and campaign groups would be allowed to spend during the 12 months
before an election on work which might have political impact has been cut by
over 60%. At the same time the definition of electoral expenses has been broadened
from the cost of election related leaflets and posters to include many other
costs such as staff wages and other overheads, so the reduced budget will now
have to cover a lot more.

The hugely increased bureaucratic burden,
particularly onerous for small, local campaign groups, and the bewildering lack
of clarity on which aspects of which activities count as electoral, have led the
Electoral Commission to describe the changes as unworkable.

The restrictions are not just
applied to explicit party endorsements. When Help for Heroes lobby for better
prosthetic limbs for military veterans, that could be an implicit criticism of
the current government, and were they to publicise a big improvement in this
area, that could be an implicit endorsement. Whether something is electoral is
judged by whether it could potentially affect the election, not whether it is
intended to.

When one of our media
officers takes a call from a journalist on renewable energy, that could be an
election expense. Climbing the Shard to highlight the dangers of oil drilling
in the Arctic could be an election expense, and my writing this blog,
particularly since Labour announced that they oppose the charity gagging bill,
is an election expense. The NSPCC lobbying for legal protection for children in
care, and any awareness-raising work they do around the issue, could be too.

you're campaigning for a new hospital in your constituency, or against one
being closed, for or against a new bypass, free school or bird sanctuary, or
any issue on which politicians or their parties have expressed a view, then
what you're doing is electioneering, and the government wants you to do a lot
less of it.

How will all of this affect
corporate lobbyists? Not very much. Big companies don't generally rely on
elections and public opinion to sway politicians. They tend to get better
results from informal one-to-one chats in corporate hospitality boxes,
fact-finding missions to exotic locations, and the occasional quiet country
. But that doesn't mean they're not affected at all.

So long as we lack a properly thought through lobbying transparency bill, the best hope the public has of
discovering who is influencing their elected representatives is the constant
questioning and probing from charities and campaign groups. And the best hope
for causes which might be opposed by big money interests is those same
charities and campaign groups.

And so the charity gagging bill removes
the single biggest restriction on the power of corporate lobbyists, and replaces
it with a register covering less than 20% of the industry - a percentage which could drop further as companies avoid scrutiny
by taking their lobbying in-house. The bill privileges undemocratic, behind-the-scenes
influence over open, public debate.

Cameron has delivered the next
great political scandal. A piece of legislation intended as a watchdog for corporate
lobbyists, stopping them from hijacking legislation, has apparently been
hijacked by corporate lobbyists who have pulled all of its teeth and trained it
to bark at the postman and play dead for burglars.

It's been suggested by those with
a party political bias that Cameron is using this bill to try to prevent
independent scrutiny of his government's record in the run-up to the election, and
that the whole thing is Clegg’s desperate attempt by to dodge the revenge of
the National Union of Students for his tuition fees betrayal.

A more generous explanation might
be that Chloe Smith, the junior minister guiding this bill through parliament,
has been a bit naïve and allowed herself to be led astray by silver-tongued lobbyists.

But that excuse only works for
the draft. If the coalition passes the bill, having been fully informed of its
defects, then we can only assume that they want to increase the power of
corporate lobbyists, cripple civil society and restrict free speech in election
years to politicians.

Of course, charities and campaign
groups’ ability to criticise the charity gagging bill will be restricted by the
charity gagging bill. But we will have the chance to witness, for the very
first time, the entirety of British civil society united behind the same
campaign priority. Cameron will finally get to meet his Big Society.

If you’re interested in joining the team of volunteer Greenpeace lobbyists who are currently meeting with their MPs to stand up to this Bill, sign up here.

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