Lobbying Bill: Its implications for the charity sector

Europe: Back to the Drawing Board?: Nick Clegg

By Patrick Nash

This month MPs debated the second reading of the Lobbying Bill in the House of Commons. The story has gripped the press and charity leaders alike, but in the wake of a reported Government U-turn I will discuss its implications for charities, its limitations and how the changes could affect the third sector.

The Lobbying Bill, or ‘charity gagging Bill’ as it has been nicknamed by some, introduces a statutory register of consultant lobbyists and establishes a Registrar to enforce the registration requirements.

The Bill also proposes to regulate election campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties, and strengthens the legal requirements placed on trade unions in relation to their obligation to keep their members updated.

Rushed and confusing

Committee Chairman and Labour MP Graham Allen called the Bill “an object lesson in how not to produce legislation,” as he believes the Government has not consulted with affected parties and little pre-legislative scrutiny appears to have occurred.

Similarly, a cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has called the Bill “unnecessarily rushed” and has called for it to be withdrawn amid claims that the legislation failed to recognise issues in the lobbying industry.

Charities

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “This Bill is about creating even greater transparency in the way people and organisations interact with government and politics, to give the public more confidence in the way third parties interact with the political system”. However, it has been argued that, in practice, the Bill could punish charity lobbyists and allow corporate lobbyists to slip through the net.

The proposals plan sets a £390,000 cap on the amount any organisation, bar political parties, can spend during elections on electoral purposes, and it is the draft’s clarity around the definition of ‘electoral purposes’ that is likely to lead to confusion. This is because the new Bill says that activity could be deemed to come within the terms of the act if it affects the outcome of an election, even if that was not its purpose.

As a direct impact of the Bill, we could see up to a 60 per cent reduction on the amount charities are allowed to spend in the 12 months leading up to an election, as there is so much activity that could be considered to have a ‘political impact’.

In addition to this, the definition of electoral expenses has been broadened. It initially encompassed the cost of election related leaflets and posters, but now includes many other costs such as staff wages and other overheads meaning the reduced budget will now have to cover a lot more.

Wales

There are also potential flaws in the proposed Bill concerning devolved nations. For example, will those who try to lobby ministers and officials in Cardiff Bay be covered by the new legislation?

Earlier this year, the Welsh Assembly’s standards committee suggested that the rules surrounding contact between AMs and lobbyists should be strengthened and made more transparent – but the committee stopped short of recommending a statutory register of lobbyists in Wales, as its current arrangements are “essentially sufficiently robust and fit for purpose”.

Positive outcomes

Following widespread condemnation of the Bill from the media and the public alike, it is suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg may be backing an amendment that would see a substantial redraft allaying many of the third sector’s concerns.

Whether this is the case or not, what can certainly be taken away is that the interests and needs of charities are still held in high regard by the public and any attempts to mute the civil society won’t be taken lightly.

I will be sure to keep you updated you on the Bill’s developments. As a partner of many charities, we would love to hear where you stand on this matter. Share your thoughts with us below.

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