A spoonful of sugar.. taking my own medicine on the Lobbying Bill

One of the key parts of advice I often give campaigners when looking to lobby our elected representatives is to have your three killer points at the ready at all times and to be explicitly clear about what you want that person to do about it.

I know many MPs will be looking at this issue in some detail and will come armed with questions on the intricacies of the bill – but I wanted to get down on paper the three key arguments we need to get across.

You say potato…

The Government says that the definition used in the bill is not substantively different to the previous definition that was used in the previous Act (PPERA). We disagree and this is why:

  1. The wording is quite technical but we’ve moved away from looking at whether campaigning activity‘ can reasonably be regarded’ as ‘election material’ to looking at whether activity can be deemed ‘for electoral purposes’ which may have ‘the purpose of or in connection with affecting the prospects of parties or candidates’. Even from a lay perspective, we think the former wording is much clearer.
  2. Our legal advice tells us that ‘The proposed definition of that which is ‘for election purposes’ appears to be broader than the previous definition of election material by reference to apparent intention: something which is ‘in connection with’ affecting (the prospects of candidates at an election) is at least arguably wider than that which is ‘reasonably regarded as intended’ to do so.’
  3. And we are not alone in this thinking – the Electoral Commission says: ‘The new definition has been framed in a way that leaves a great deal of scope for us to interpret the meaning of the legislation, subject to being over-ruled by the courts as the result of a challenge.’

Essentially it’s the uncertainty that will cause so many problems – bad legislation will lead to unclear guidance, and a tough job for the Electoral Commission to work out where the precise boundaries lie. In the words of the Electoral Commission; ‘some of our readings of the law will be contentious and challenged, creating more uncertainty for those affected.’

The sound of silence…

One of the key points of debate around the Bill has been how far charities talking about policy issues will be affected. The Cabinet Office has suggested that charities should still be able to give support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve their charitable purposes – that charities that are not caught by the old rules shouldn’t be caught by the new rules.

Again, we disagree. The activity undertaken doesn’t have to have the intent of influencing the election (as with the old rules, the Electoral Commission will look at effect as well), nor does it have to refer to specific policies or candidates for it to be considered ‘for election purposes.’ For instance, a local community group could campaign for or against a proposed bypass road. If local candidates subsequently express a view on the issue the campaigning activity could be deemed to assist candidates’ election campaigns.

This essentially leaves the judgement up to both the charity and the Electoral Commission to judge which way the political wind was blowing on a particular issue at a particular time. Campaigners through no fault of their own may be subject to regulation, even if it had acted apolitically and had no intention to support any candidate’s campaign.

I (don’t) know what you did last summer…

The other major issue on the Bill is about timing. The Bill was introduced as the summer recess kicked in (17 June), and is due to be debated on only the third sitting day since then (3 Sept). The deadline for amendments will be this very Thursday leaving Parliament and campaigners drastically short of time to consider the arguments before them and come forward with constructive solutions. We accept that some of this activity should be regulated but the bill as drafted will inhibit a huge range of activity from national charities through to local community groups.

There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny and a lack of consultation with organisations that might be affected by the changes in order to ensure they are clear and workable. If enacted the provisions will come into force in May next year leaving only a matter of weeks for organisations to prepare for the new rules.

Parliament knows that fixing bad legislation is a lot harder than taking the time to get it right. At present this Bill is exacerbating a problem rather than solving it – while the old rules are far from perfect, rushing this bill through will create a bureaucratic and legal nightmare.

So if I got stuck in a lift with my MP…

Ideally the government would drop Part II in order to consult widely on the changes that are necessary to balance necessary transparency measures with regulatory burden.

Failing that, MPs should seriously consider any motion that will allow more time to explore the issues, the implications for charities and other voluntary groups and to bring forward constructive solutions.

The message loud and clear should be: Please consider any motion that gives both Government and Parliament more time to get this right, it’s simply too important to get wrong.

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Chloe Stables, External Relations Manager, reflects on the latest political developments affecting the voluntary and community sector.

One Response to A spoonful of sugar.. taking my own medicine on the Lobbying Bill

  1. Pingback: Does the lobbying bill really gag charities? | broken cameras & gustav klimt