As a presupposition, I should probably point out that to most people the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill (catchy, I know) isn’t, in its own right, at all important. But democracy is about being transparent, and private lobbying interests could subdue government priorities that affect millions of us in an indirect way.
We’ve seen over the years why this £2 billion industry needs to be regulated. David Cameron’s U-turn on plain packet cigarettes whilst his policy adviser, Lynton Crosby, is employed as a lobbyist by tobacco firms is just one example.
The unfortunate truth about the Lobbying Bill is that it simply is not fit for purpose. As ever, it doesn’t solve the real problem; in fact, only 1% of the commercial lobbyists it was designed to limit will be in any way affected.
If you're Tesco or G4S, this ‘Gagging Bill’ won’t make the slightest difference in the way you influence government policy. Rather, it is the charities and campaign groups who will be hampered in their attempts to raise awareness of a particular issue. It seems like the government saying that they know better.
I am a member of a group called the Youth Alcohol Advertising Council, which scrutinises alcohol adverts to determine whether they are illegally trying to appeal to young people. It’s run by Alcohol Concern, who co-ordinate the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse. As such, I would be placed on a statutory register of lobbyists if the Bill passes. That is simply ridiculous.
Furthermore, a charity like Oxfam would be banned from spending more than £390,000 in an election year; the ‘Enough Food IF’ campaign couldn’t have been launched in 2015 with this in place. Although, what is more chilling is the impact it will have on local, small scale campaigns, with a cap of £9,750, or £800 a month, in a single constituency. A cynic might argue that this is subtle union bashing.
That means if you want to set up a group to support or oppose a new wind farm or potential housing development, you can’t spend more than £800 if it’s an election year. The repercussions for planning could mean that controversial plans are submitted quietly in an election year to prevent people from being able to fully speak out against them.
Even if you’re running a small campaign, you still might have to submit your accounts to the government to ensure that you aren’t breaking the limit. This is unnecessary bureaucracy for anyone and state snooping of the highest level. A blogging site like Backbench, or any other which is active in campaigning, could come into the Gagging Bill's remit - and all this because the Tories and Lib Dems don't want the unions to pump cash into marginal seats in 2015.
Undoubtedly, this is a poorly written bill, rushed in after summer recess. As David Babbs, director of 38 Degrees, says, “in a healthy democracy everyone should be able to speak up and make themselves heard.” The irony is that with this new Lobbying Bill, the only people who will be able to properly influence politicians any more are, well, lobbyists. You couldn't make it up.
By Jake Pitt