Yesterday MPs came back to debate the lobbying bill after its run through the House of Lords.
And the result is disappointing: while accepting the government’s amendments, MPs voted to reject the amendments, tabled by Lord Harries, on the scope of staff costs and constituency regulation.
The Lords must now consider what to do and either agree to the bill as it is, or make alternative proposals. Then, the bill is sent back to the Commons.
Whilst the hope is that the Lords will be able to make some improvements that are then acceptable by MPs, what is most worrying is that yesterday’s debate highlighted how much misunderstanding remains with regards to the impact that the bill will have on non-party campaigning. The reasons outlined by government for opposing Lord Harries amendments reveal that there is still a lack of appreciation of the fact that it is the combined effect of the old PPERA definition of ‘controlled expenditure’ and rules (particularly on staff costs and coalition campaigning) with the new rules on the Lobbying bill that completely change the parameters. As our briefing to MPs yesterday made clear, the changes achieved during the Lords debates made some small steps towards achieving a better balance between ensuring transparency and avoiding unnecessary restrictions. But these were narrow and technical changes that inevitably couldn’t solve some of the most problematic issues and simply tried to make the bill more workable. So their rejection is even more worrying.
The review after the 2015 General Election (a useful commitment by Government) will help fill this gap, until then and in the run up to the next election organisations across civil society will be so worried about whether or not they come within the scope of the rules if they campaign or speak up on issues of concern, and if so how they must comply with all the accounting and reporting, that many may simply refrain from doing so. MPs might then realise the blow they have caused to democratic engagement, and may no longer benefit from the valuable contribution that civil society often brings to their own constituencies.