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Lobbying By Any Other Name

August 23, 2013

New amendments to the laws on lobbying under the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (first reading 17th July 2013) will have far-reaching consequences for groups who are not specifically standing in an election or supporting one candidate or party.  It is effective for the 12 months in the run-up to any election and strictly regulates the campaigning groups can do during this period.  The White Paper read in January 2012 from which this Bill comes can be found here.

From the Explanatory Notes to the Bill available on the government website:

“The Bill makes provision in three areas:

–            It establishes a register of professional lobbyists and a Registrar of lobbyists to supervise and enforce the registration requirements.

–            It changes the legal requirements for people or organisations who campaign in relation to elections but are not standing as candidates or a registered political party.

–            It changes the legal requirements in relation to trade unions’ obligations to keep their list of members up to date.”

I’m not opposed to the Bill in its entirety.  Lobbying does need to be made more transparent, and there should be limits to the amounts political parties can receive in donations.  There should never be a link between specific policies and payments from lobbying groups.  Any group, company or individual that may profit from the consequences of policy being enacted should have that self-interest clearly and openly declared before any dialogue between them and the politician/party begins.  I am fairly sure that everyone can agree with that.

Trade Unions also have political tie in their donations to the Labour Party (or whichever party the particular Union may donate to; not all Unions may do so).  Such political affiliations should also be declared at the point of lobbying.  Neither should affect a group’s ability to lobby, merely provide a transparent context within which such lobbying occurs.  Any individual with an actual vote as to whether a policy shall be enacted in law should, however, be disallowed from voting if it can be shown that they may gain financially or personally from the result of any vote, whichever way the vote may go.

This Bill reaches much further that such ties as those detailed above.  It restricts the voice of political activist groups of all political persuasions.  It suppresses the work of action-specific protest groups such as Amnesty UK, Changes.Org and 38 Degrees.  These groups are designed to act on specific issues, and with particular remits which are already clearly understood.  There is no specific personal or company gain to be made by their campaigning other than that which is clearly stated in their opening position.

Restricting these voices suppresses one of the main ways in which people can express their opinion in a meaningful fashion.  Collective actions get attention and give a clear indication of the way in which the public are leaning.  Mass actions have met with success in formulating and amending political opinion and social expression.  In particular, with the advent of the internet, online pressure groups have become a huge tool in mobilising actions and publicising and disseminating information.  The recent and successful case heard in the High Court by a combined effort of Save Lewisham Hospital and Lewisham Council against Jeremy Hunt and the Government was in part so successful because of the public pressure and fund-raising efforts of myriad social networking pressure groups and by disseminating information via Twitter and Facebook.  Jeremy Hunt is now appealing this decision, and I have no doubt that the internet pressure groups will be mobilised once again.

All groups which campaign on political or social issues will be affected by these legal changes.  Non-political groups who decide to act on issues, such as the National Association of Women’s Institutes who campaign on such things as midwife provision or care in the community for those with mental health issues, or local community or churches/faith groups who have various community-related campaigns, or even charities who lobby on issues specific to their causes, will all have their positions detrimentally affected by this bill.  Limits are imposed as to the amounts groups can spend on campaigns during an election period and also restrictions within geographical areas.

Campaigns cost money and a lot can happen in the year before an election.  The cost cannot always be predicted ahead of time.  Putting such restrictions on any type of campaign is silencing.

Election periods are precisely the time when candidates need to hear the voices of the people.  Voices should not be suppressed at any time in a political process which claims to be democratic.  My fear with this Bill is that it is too overreaching and not specific enough, and that it does not address the actual problems within lobbying.  It does not differentiate between groups aims and intents; I realise this is a big question but it is not hard to list motivation behind lobbying intent when one can separate under financial/political/community/policy gain, for example.  All people lobbying wish to ‘gain’, it is what they wish to gain and who or what would benefit that is important.  Is it misanthropic or philanthropic gain?

In the words of my beloved Sooterkin (link to his blog here) in his letter to Chloe Smith, MP, sponsor of the bill:

“As an “ordinary” citizen I find the proposals mooted under the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill to be wholly inappropriate. When we told the government that we want a curb on Corporate Lobbying and to make their dealings with our government more transparent we did not expect the government to interpret these requests to result in removing and curbing our access to government.  The people have more right to determine the future of our country than any corporation, bank or lobbying group. To restrict fund-raising of grass-roots groups such as 38 degrees, openrightsgroup.org, Amnesty UK and others is a deliberate attempt to curtail political debate and our right to hold our government to account.  By including citizen run Non-Party campaign groups in legislation aimed at restricting corporation influence on parliament is to restrict citizen involvement in our political system. Quite simply this is undemocratic and authoritarian.  We must be allowed to determine our own political system and that includes the ability to campaign, even if these campaigns are “embarrassing” or unpopular with the current administration.”

I’m all for transparency.  I’m not all for suppression and silencing the voice of the people, however it is expressed.  If you want your say, go to this link here and write to Chloe Smith, MP.

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