‘Gagging Bill’ put on hold as government fears defeat

[Picture: PR Week]

[Picture: PR Week]

The Coalition government’s latest attack on democracy has been halted before it reached the House of Lords, after ministers realised peers weren’t going to put up with it.

The ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration’ Bill was due to be discussed by peers this week, but the part dealing with third-party campaigning such as that carried out by charities and popular organisations has been put back until December 16 after a threat to delay the entire bill for three months.

The government wants to “rethink” its plans to restrict campaigning by charities, it seems. Hasn’t it already done so twice before?

Andrew Lansley tabled a series of amendments, including one reverting to wording set out in existing legislation, defining controlled expenditure as any “which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”, on September 6.

But the plan was still to “bring down the national spending limit for third parties, introduce constituency spending limits and extend the definition of controlled expenditure to cover more than just election material, to include rallies, transport and press conferences”, as clarified by the government’s own press release.

Lansley published further amendments on September 26, claiming that these would:

  • Remove the additional test of “otherwise enhancing the standing of a party or candidates”. This is to provide further reassurance to campaigners as to the test they have to meet in order to incur controlled expenditure. A third party will only be subject to regulation where its campaign can reasonably be regarded as intended to “promote or procure the electoral success” of a party of candidate,
  • Replace the separate listings for advertising, unsolicited material and manifesto/policy documents with election “material”; this is the language used in the current legislation that non-party campaigners and the Electoral Commission are already familiar with, and on which the Electoral Commission have existing guidance,
  • Make clear that it is public rallies and events that are being regulated; meetings or events just for an organisation’s members or supporters will not be captured by the bill. “We will also provide an exemption for annual events – such as an organisation’s annual conference”,
  • Ensure that non–party campaigners who respond to ad hoc media questions on specific policy issues are not captured by the bill, whilst still capturing press conferences and other organised media events, and
  • Ensure that all “market research or canvassing” which promotes electoral success is regulated.

But this blog reported at the time that anyone who thinks that is all that’s wrong with the bill is as gullible as Lansley intends them to be.

As reported here on September 4, the bill is an attempt to stifle political commentary from organisations and individuals.

New regulations for trade unions mean members could be blacklisted – denied jobs simply because of their membership.

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 are likely to accelerate the process, turning Parliamentarians into corporate poodles.

Where the public wanted a curb on corporations corruptly influencing the government, it is instead offering to rub that influence in our faces.

In fact, the Government’s proposed register would cover fewer lobbyists than the existing, voluntary, register run by the UK Public Affairs Council.

And now a bill tabled by Andrew Lansley has been given a “pause” for reconsideration. Is anybody else reminded of the “pause” that took place while Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act was going through Parliament? In the end, the government pushed it through, regardless of the screams of outrage from the medical profession and the general public, and now private health firms are carving up the English NHS for their own profit, using Freedom of Information requests to undermine public sector bids for services.

In the Lords last night, according to The Independent, ministers were pressured to include in-house company lobbyists in the proposed register, if it is to have any credibility.

But Lord Wallace said the proposed “light touch” system would be more effective and the register was designed to address the problem of consultant lobbying firms seeing ministers without it being clear who they represented – in other words, it is intended to address a matter that isn’t bothering anybody, rather than the huge problem of companies getting their chequebooks out and paying for laws that give them an advantage.

We should be grateful for the delay – it gives us all another chance to contact Lords, constituency MPs and ministers to demand an explanation for this rotten piece of legal trash.

If they persist in supporting this undemocratic attack on free speech, then they must pay for it at the next election.