This week saw the latest stage in our campaign to make drastic changes to the Lobbying Bill as it moved through to the Committee Stage debate in the Lords.
But despite the government having agreed to a pause in the passage of the Bill back in November, in effect admitting that it needed to be looked at in more detail, they failed to launch any formal consultation over the last 6 weeks or take on board almost any of the amendments tabled at Committee Stage.
If the Bill passes in its current form, it would massively restrict our ability to campaign together and fight poverty around the world. Although the original intention of the Bill to make lobbying more transparent would be a positive step, as the Bill currently stands it would not address any of the scandals of access and influence that led to its creation.
And worryingly for our work, the main changes proposed in the Bill would make coalition campaigning virtually impossible during a full year before any election, including elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and for the European Parliament.
No real changes at Committee stage
We had hoped to use Committee stage to win the argument for major changes to the Bill. We mobilised supportive Lords to table amendments in line with the recommendations from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement which was formed in opposition to the Bill and has united over 100 charities and campaigning groups.
And there was a good turn-out in the chamber where peers across the House ably set out, yet again, the threats the Lobbying Bill poses to legitimate campaigning.
But Ministers responding in the debate brushed aside the majority of amendments proposed, giving very little indication that they plan to introduce any major changes at Report stage, and certainly nothing like the scale of change we need to avoid being ‘gagged’.
Government not telling the whole story
Worse, we are worried that the government isn’t telling the whole story on the implications of the Bill for our work. They keep repeating that campaigning activities will not be caught by new restrictions unless they “can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success” of a party or candidates.
Whilst this is true, it is only part of the definition - our legal advice says that the full definition is much broader than what was presented to the House of Commons by Ministers in the debate, and if passed in its current form could severely damage democratic engagement it this country.
The next stage in the campaign is the Report Stage in the House of Lords on 13th and 15th January 2014. We’ll be ramping up the pressure ahead of the vote to make sure Peers understand that the government is not telling them the whole story and that we, as civil society, demand that they fix or scrap this Bill.