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Alun Cairns MP and Rob Wilson MP: Sense and nonsense on the Lobbying Bill – a response to ConservativeHome and others

DoubleAlun Cairns is the Member of Parliament for Vale of Glamorgan and Rob Wilson is the Member of Parliament for Reading East.

Today ConservativeHome reported on the opposition from the Left to the new Lobbying Bill, which also covers trade unions and election campaigning by organisations which are not political parties, such as charities and campaign groups.

The Guardian had reported on the opinion of one barrister from the radical chambers founded by Cherie Blair that the Bill will have a “chilling effect on freedom of expression” by charities and third sector organisations. The Leftist commentator Owen Jones warned that the Bill “will crush democratic freedoms”, endorsing the TUC’s verdict that the bill is something “worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship”. The online campaign group 38 Degrees has been getting its followers to write to MPs claiming that the Bill threatens a “vital part of British democracy. It would gag campaigning from much-loved charities and community groups for the entire year before a general election.”

Never mind the fact that the Bill brings in a statutory register of consultant lobbyists for the first time, enabling people to see on whose behalf the lobbyists who meet ministers and civil servants are working. This new register will cover around 700 lobbying organisations and will put the onus on Ministers to answer for their contacts. And never mind that the Bill will force trade unions to at least maintain accurate membership records before claiming a democratic mandate from their members for hugely inconvenient strikes.

This morning, ConHome formally added its backing to many of these concerns, echoing 38 Degrees’ warning that the Bill threatens to restrict the free speech of the “third party groups who contribute so much to the vibrancy of our democracy”. Specifically ConHome is concerned that the Bill “is so loose in its language and so vague in its drafting that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way said to potentially affect an election will be caught up in the rules it lays out.

The first point to note is that the Government has made it clear that organisation campaigning only on policy issues will continue to be exempt from regulation. But third party campaigns which promote or enhance the standing and prospects of parties or candidates should be fully recorded and disclosed.  I think most of us can envisage where the distinction would lie. The Bill will require third parties spending over £5,000 - not an insignificant sum of money – on campaigning material with election purposes to register their spending with the Electoral Commission so it can be made open and transparent.

Vague warnings about third party groups getting “caught up in the rules” and suggestions that they will end up being “bombarded with paperwork and the fear of prosecution” are overblown. The intention behind the legislation is clear and sensible. As with almost all legislation, uncertainties about the practical application will be ironed out as the Bill passes through Parliament and will be further clarified in the regulations and practical guidance.

Others have raised objection to the changes to third party spending limits. As the Guardian breathlessly claimed, the Bill “not only slashes this limit to £390,000, but also broadens the definition of what counts as spending”. In fact, only two third party groups went over the newly proposed spending limit for third parties at the 2010 general election. One was UNISON – whose political affiliations and ambitions are obvious. The other was “Vote for a Change Ltd”, a now dissolved company whose directors included prominent Left-wing activists, and which spent over half a million pounds advising people on how to vote tactically in each constituency to bring about a hung parliament and hinder the prospects of a Conservative majority.

Again, it seems reasonable and sensible to reduce the influence of outside money on politics and our elections.

ConHome is also concerned, as David Allen Grenn has argued, that “unless the government re-thinks its proposals, then a number of bodies – such as Conservative Home – are going to be caught up in misconceived and illiberal legal regime." Mark Wallace adds that the Bill risks strangling the blogosphere in regulatory red tape. This is simply wrong. Where a blog is simply posting comment pieces they are exempt in the same way newspapers are. If a blog was helping to promote electoral success by, for example encouraging support for a particular party (organising campaign activity, or taking out an internet ad saying ‘vote x’) then they may be covered.

Getting the balance right on lobbying and campaigning is difficult. But ordinary people don’t want to see our political system in the pockets of corporate donors, shadowy lobbyists, or overly powerful campaign groups or trade unions bent on pursuing particular agendas. ConHome is right to argue that every aspect of life can be political in one way or another, but wrong to say that we can’t distinguish between what should properly be regarded as party political campaigning and people’s concerns about particular policies and decisions. The measures in the Lobbying Bill deserve constructive discussion and engagement, not hysteria.


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