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Public opinion on lobbyists: Note the proximity of the words "corrupt", "cheats" and "influential".

Public opinion on lobbyists: Note the proximity of the words “corrupt”, “cheats” and “influential”. [Picture stolen from PR Week]

A Parliamentary Bill designed to prevent free speech by gagging political commentators, and to enable the ‘blacklisting’ of trade union members by having their names registered, has won the favour of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs this evening.

They voted to allow the inappropriately-titled ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’ to proceed to its committee stage after a debate today (Tuesday).

That stage will last for only a few days, during which it will be examined by a ‘committee of the whole House’ – in other words, the Bill is being guillotined; hurried through Parliament in order to get it onto the statute books after the least possible scrutiny. It seems that the government has something to hide.

Could it be the fact that the Electoral Commission, the organisation that would enforce the Bill’s provisions if it is passed into law, has made it perfectly clear that it is an attempt to stifle political commentary from organisations and individuals: “The Bill creates significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues in the year before the…general election, and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations”?

Could it be the fact that new regulations for trade unions mean members could be blacklisted – denied jobs simply because of their membership?

Could it be the fact that the measures against lobbyists – the Bill’s apparent reason for existing – are expected to do nothing to hinder Big Money’s access to politicians, and in fact is likely to accelerate the process, turning Parliamentarians into corporate poodles?

If so, then the attempt has failed, because all of these, and more, were discussed in today’s debate.

But don’t worry – we have the assurances of Andrew Lansley, Leader of the House of Commons, to keep us from losing sleep over it. The man who asked us to believe his so-called reform of the National Health Service would not lead to wholesale privatisation – and look at it now – took a telling question from Glenda Jackson, early in his opening speech.

She said the Bill “has created almost a fire-storm in my constituency. My constituents are appalled at what they regard as a gagging Bill. They wish to see a list of lobbyists that is transparent to ensure that Government cannot be bought — even though that is a debatable issue. They know that the Bill as it stands would prevent democratic voices from being heard.”

Mr Lansley’s response: “I look forward to the Honourable Lady having an opportunity after today’s debate to go back to her constituents, to tell them that the things they are alarmed about will not happen.”

Let’s hold him to that, shall we? Bear in mind that lying to Parliament is an expulsion offence, even if this particular government does not enforce it. David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have already defied Parliamentary convention by telling appalling untruths to their fellow MPs and walking back to their jobs; now it seems likely Mr Lansley may have done the same.

High on the list of opposition MPs’ concerns was the fact that the Bill does nothing to prevent lobbyists working directly for commercial concerns from approaching government ministers and trying to influence them.

“Recent freedom of information requests reveal that Treasury officials met fracking industry representatives 19 times in the last 10 months about their generous tax breaks, yet the public are denied any further details of that lobbying on the grounds that it could prejudice commercial interests,” said Green MP Caroline Lucas. “Is the Leader of the House not ashamed that this Bill will drastically curtail the ability of charities to campaign in the public interest on issues such as fuel poverty and energy but do nothing to curb such secretive corporate influencing?”

And Labour’s Chris Bryant had a query of his own: “Every single member of the public affairs team in-house at BSkyB will be able to visit as many Ministers as they want and every single lawyer employed by BSkyB to advance its case will be able to do so without any need to register. The only person who would have to register would be an independent consultant in a company that solely lobbies. How does that possibly afford greater transparency?”

Mr Lansley’s response: “It promotes transparency because if a representative of Sky visits a Minister in order to discuss that business, it is transparent that they are doing so in order to represent the interests of Sky. However, if somebody from ‘XYZ Corporation’, a consultant lobbying firm, visits a Minister in order to discuss somebody else’s business but it is not transparent through the ministerial diary publication who they are representing, that is not transparent. We propose to remedy that by making it transparent.”

Oh, well that’s all right then.

No it isn’t! It’s the complete opposite of all right! Where the public wanted a curb on corporations corruptly influencing the government, it is instead offering to rub that influence in our faces!

“This is one of the worst Bills that I have seen any Government produce in a very long time,” said Lansley’s shadow, Angela Eagle. The last Bill this bad might even have been the Health and Social Care Act 2012, and the Leader of the House of Commons had his fingerprints all over that one, too… This Bill is hurried, badly drafted and an agglomeration of the inadequate, the sinister and the partisan. From a Government who solemnly promised that they would fix our broken politics, the Bill will do the complete opposite.

“The Bill can best be summed up as furious displacement activity by a Government who hope that the public will not notice their problems with lobbying… they are trying to ram through their gag on charities and campaigners… so that they are silenced in time for the next general election, and they are trying to avoid the scrutiny that will show the public what a disgrace the Bill is.”

She said: “Three and a half years ago the Prime Minister, when Leader of the Opposition, told us that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen. He did not tell us then that he was going to do nothing about it for over three years but survive a series of lobbying scandals and then produce a Bill so flawed that it would actually make things worse.

“Under the Government’s definition, someone will count as a lobbyist only if they lobby, directly, Ministers or permanent secretaries and if their business is mainly for the purposes of lobbying. It is estimated that that will cover less than one-fifth of those people currently working in the £2 billion lobbying industry, and the Association of Professional Political Consultants estimates that only one per cent of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists would be covered.

“It would be extremely easy to rearrange how such lobbying is conducted to evade the need to appear on the new register at all. The Bill is so narrow that it would fail to cover not only the lobbyist currently barnacle-scraping at the heart of Number 10 [Lynton Crosby], but any of the lobbying scandals that have beset the Prime Minister in this Parliament.

“There is a real risk that the proposals will make lobbying less transparent than it is now. The Government’s proposed register would cover fewer lobbyists than the existing, voluntary, register run by the UK Public Affairs Council.

Moving on to part two of the Bill, she said, “In one of the most sinister bits of legislation that I have seen in some time, this Bill twists the rules on third-party campaigning to scare charities and campaigners away from speaking out. It is an assault on the Big Society that the Prime Minister once claimed to revere… It is clear that these changes will have wide-ranging implications for many hundreds of charities and campaigners, local and national, large and small.

“Some of them have told us that they will have to pull back from almost all engagement in debates on public policy in the year before the election. These changes have created massive uncertainty for those who may fall within the regulations in a way that the Electoral Commission has deplored.

“The changes will mean that third-party campaigning will be restricted even if it was not intended to affect the outcome of an election — for example, engaging in public policy debate. Staff costs and overheads will also have to be included in what has to be declared — something that does not apply in this way to political parties. The Electoral Commission has said that these changes could have a ‘dampening effect’ on public debate. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has said that the changes will ‘have the result of muting charities and groups of all sorts and sizes on the issues that matter most to them and the people that they support’.”

And on part three, which centres on trade union membership records, she said, “There appears to be no policy motive for the introduction of this new law other than as a vehicle for cheap, partisan attacks on the trade unions, of which only a minority are actually affiliated to the Labour party.

“Officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been totally unable to explain the problem that this part of the Bill is designed to solve. During a belated consultation meeting with the TUC — it took place after the Bill had been published — BIS officials could cast no light on why part three exists at all. Nor were they able to explain the origin of these proposals beyond their oft-repeated mantra that the provisions contained in part three ‘came out of a high level meeting between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister’. I think that revelation tells us all we need to know about the grubby, partisan nature of the measures.

“These proposals seem deliberately designed to burden trade unions with additional cost and bureaucracy from a Government who claim they are against red tape. This is despite the fact that unions already have a statutory duty to maintain registers of members. I understand from the TUC that neither the certification officer nor ACAS has made any representations to suggest that that was not already sufficient. The Government have to date failed to provide any evidence or rationale for these changes, so I can only conclude that this is a deliberate attempt to hamper unions with red tape because a minority of them have the temerity to support the Labour party.”

And she said: “I have serious concerns about the implications of these changes for the security of membership data. We all know that the blacklisting of trade union members may well still exist in our country. Blacklisting has ruined many lives and these changes could have some very dangerous implications, especially in the construction industry, where many are afraid to declare their membership of a trade union openly for fear of the repercussions.”

And Graham Allen, Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, lambasted the Bill. He said: “If someone wanted to do O-level politics on how to produce or not to produce a Bill, I am sorry, but this Bill would be an F — a fail, big time.

“Read the evidence from the Electoral Commission when I publish it in 48 hours’ time. It is damning evidence from people who should really all be on the same side to ensure this provision will happen.

“We should listen to people. Let us have some consultation; let Parliament do its job, smoke out some of the issues and attempt to resolve them. I have a fantastic all-party committee and we could do that job for Parliament, yet those things have been resolutely held at arm’s length.

“Perversely, we are trying to make a Bill that divides rather than keeps people together.”

It isn’t perverse at all. That is precisely the point of it.