Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Lobbying Bill: the noble Lords speak sense

Lobbying Bill: the noble Lords speak sense

At last, we have it. Some sense being spoken on all sides of the House about the Lobbying Bill. It's just a shame that I'm talking about the House of Lords - which we know will always have the time and sense to discuss legislation properly - and not the Commons. The Government must see from yesterday's debate that their Transparency Bill is fundamentally opposed by Peers of all parties, plus the Crossbenchers. It remains a solution in search of a problem to solve.

Of 40 speeches made in the debate, a mere 3 were in support. Two from the Ministers proposing the Bill, and one from Lord Tyler who has been a consistent supporter ever since it appeared in the Commons this summer.

A few highlights from the debate:

The Bishop of Derby: "Very few people are members of political parties or of the professional lobbying groups that pursue political lobbying in a smart way, but millions of people are involved in charities and faith groups. ... Politics needs this political energy for the common good and all the signals—as we can tell from our e-mail inboxes —are that this source of political energy is being closed down and discouraged at the very time we are wringing our hands because the great public are not interested in political parties, elections or the democratic process.”

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Labour): “This is not emergency legislation or law that requires fast-tracking. … we are concerned that lack of understanding about any new rules and arrangements might dissuade charities and campaigning groups within our communities from participating in campaigns, with the potential chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association. Reform of non-party campaigning regulation requires careful consideration and we need time for that. That is why we are recommending a pause in the legislative process, as has been suggested by other Members of this House. We are asking for more time to be allowed for further consideration of the measures.”

Lord Horam (Conservative): "It is important not to damage civil society or freedom of speech. In my view, the original Bill cast its net too wide as regards Part 2. ... I remain concerned about Clause 27 and the lowering of the threshold for registration. This seems unnecessary. The big spenders—the Bill is about them—already register and are caught by the reduced cap and the wider scope of what is to be controlled, but why go so far down the route to seek to register groups that are spending £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

The Earl of Clancarty (Crossbench): "This Bill has been driven by two engines, self-absorption and self-regard—self-absorption because it wilfully misunderstands and ignores both the way in which campaigning works and its meaning to society, and self-regard because it assumes that government and party politicians are more important than public discussion. I fear that the Bill will put Westminster further into a bubble."

I could quote the whole debate, which was excellent, but these comments give a good idea. They speak for themselves.

The debate made clear, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the Bill must be paused. I hope Peers will not only keep up the pressure for this, but also listen to the Report of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (, which will be published next Tuesday. It will take a detached and constructive view of the debates that should have been had before this Bill was introduced to Parliament. It will advise the Government as to how to improve our democracy rather than curtail it. Let's hope they listen.

And on a happier note, I had coffee at the Commons with our new shadow third sector Minister (or civil society if you prefer) Lisa Nandy MP. Always good to see someone who has had a career in our sector taking up this role. Lisa worked in Centre Point and the Children's Society so has a clear view on the role our sector can play campaigning and providing. We talked about the origin of the role and the fact that Ed Miliband was the very first Third Sector Minister (as he reminded her when she was appointed, she told me).

She clearly relishes the opportunity to get stuck in and good luck to her. Its been a strength that there is strong cross party support for our sector, and we have a Minister in Nick Hurd MP who also understands and supports us - even when some colleagues on the backbenches would like a more combative approach. I enjoyed lunch last week with Chris White MP, conservative and the promoter of the great Social Value Act and we were discussing how to maintain that support . We have always enjoyed a strong consensus across the parties about the role of our sector. We must hope that arguments about pay , campaigning or lobbying do not undermine that.

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