Action plan to protect democracy

Tuesday 10th December 2013

cpt Chris Wood

Cross-party commission sets out action plan to protect democracy from ‘chilling effect’ of Lobbying Bill

Ministers need to urgently rewrite the Lobbying Bill to prevent significant damage to legitimate campaigning, according to a report published today by an independent cross-party commission, chaired by Lord Harries.

The report, from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, sets out a 12 point action plan to ensure transparent and proportionate regulation in election periods.  It warns urgent action is needed to improve a Bill that the Electoral Commission has described as ‘unenforceable’ in parts and which legal advice has warned will have a ‘chilling effect’ on campaigners.

Supporters of campaign groups from across the political spectrum will descend on parliament today to meet Peers and MPs and demand that they listen to the Commission’s report and implement its recommendations.  The Bill is opposed by a vast cross-section of UK civil society including the Taypayers’ Alliance, Conservative Home, Oxfam, The Salvation Army, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, The Wildlife Trusts and the Women’s Institute.

As it stands, the Lobbying Bill would drastically reduce the amount campaigners can legally spend campaigning on issues on which parties disagree in the year before an election and massively increase the regulatory burden.  At the same time it would increase the number of activities which would be monitored.

Campaigners have re-iterated that Part 2 of the Bill is so broadly drafted it could restrict campaigning in the whole year before an election.  Parliamentary candidates only have to account for their spending in the few months before an election.

The Commission’s recommendations include:

  • Treating campaigners in the same way as political parties by excluding staff costs from spending limits
  • Reducing the period covered by the legislation to six months ahead of an election instead of a year
  • Dropping the proposed tightening of spending caps for campaigners
  • Doubling the current spending levels at which campaigners have to register with the Electoral Commission
  • Scrapping the proposed constituency spending limit which the regulator warned may be unenforceable

The Commission warns that the Government has so far failed to make any meaningful changes to the legislation, despite acknowledging the need for a five week pause in the Parliamentary passage of the Bill to allow further work.

Despite being challenged to do so, the Government not been able to produce specific examples of campaigning it is intending to catch in the new law, while also failing to amend legislation to address concerns.

James Legge, Head of Political at Countryside Alliance said:

“It is unacceptable for the Government to be rushing ahead with legislation it has acknowledged is vague and potentially wide open to wrong interpretations by promising to give a quango the power to decide what the law means.  This uncertainly will hang over campaigns of all sizes and will see some decide they cannot take the risk of campaigning at all.”

Mark Goldrin, Chief Executive at Oxfam said:

“From fair trade and Make Poverty History to our championing of the anti-aparthied movement, Oxfam has always known it has to campaign in the world of politics to tackle the root causes of poverty.  But this is very different from being party-political.  We welcome the commission’s sensible package of measures that seek to bring transparency to election campaigning whilst allowing Oxfam to continue to champion the interests of the world’s poorest people.”

Dawn Varley, Director of Campaigns at League Against Cruel Sports said:

“There are more than 100 charities and campaign groups supporting the Harries Commission.  We may not always like what other organisations say, but we will defend their right to say it.  It’s not too late for the government to sort out this mess.”

The Commission acknowledged that it had not been able to solve all of the problems posed by the Bill during the short time available.  Outstanding issues including how to account for spending by coalitions of organisations must be solved before the law is passed.  It recommends a full-review of the law by Parliament following the 2015 General Election.

Notes

1. This is a crucial moment for the Lobbying Bill as it enters the delayed Committee Stage in the House of Lords on 16 and 18 December - after the Government conceded a five week pause.

2. Over 100 campaign groups support the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement which was set up following concerns that the Lobbying Bill could have a ‘chilling effect’ on campaigning, and following the failure of Government to consult any NGOs or the Electioral Commission before publishing the Bill.

3. The Commission’s First Report, was a  damning critique of Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill. It is available at www.civilsocietycommission.info

4. Since the pause was announced the Commission has undertaken consultation in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England and has today published a report setting out recommendations for how the government can improve the Bill. The report will be available www.civilsocietycommission.info

5. The launch for MPs and peers will be at 11:30am in the House of Parliament in Committee Room 3A.

6. There will be a photo call on College Green outside Parliament of Faith Leaders and Supporters at 11:00am. They will be posing with signage from their organisations to show the breadth of the coalition against the Lobbying Bill.

7. There will be a drop-in meeting for Peers, MPs and supporters at 1:30 in Committee Room 4.

8. The campaign will be tweeted throughout the day using #gagginglaw

Tagged with: Lobbying Bill