The fight to block the Transparency of Lobbying Bill
In the summer of last year the Westminster government introduced a bill to reform lobbying activity. On the face of it this is an area that needs to change as there is a need for greater transparency on the activity of lobbying companies, on meetings between politicians and civil servants and lobbyists, and on how policy decisions are implemented.
However when the Bill reached draft stage it was clear that was not what the government had in mind and many in the voluntary sector believed that it posed a threat to the legitimate activities of organisations trying to influence policy and, indeed, to the democratic process itself.
It included proposals which seemed designed to make it either too difficult or simply impossible for charities, unions and other interest groups to campaign on political issues in the 12 months before a general election. The Bill covers the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and further enquiries established that it covered Stormont Assembly Elections as well.
Previously charities and other groups could spend up to £27,000 on campaign materials in Northern Ireland during the build up to an election. The Bill proposed cutting this to £11,000 – including, for the first time, overheads and staff costs. The limit per constituency was set at £9,750, with charities being forced to register with the Election Commission if they plan to spend more than £2,000.
Breaches of the new law were to be classed as criminal offences and the bill was made more draconian by a clause widening the definition of election-related activity to include work that could affect the outcome even if that was not its purpose.
Remarkably the Bill only applied to “third party” lobbying, excluding direct lobbying by big business.
To make matters worse the government had scheduled the consultation period for the summer months in breach of established guidelines and was intending to rush the Bill through parliament in the spring. Affected organisations therefore did not have sufficient time to respond.
It was clear from the outset that the Bill posed a serious challenge to the activities of community and voluntary organisations and that a sustained campaign was necessary. However there was a complicating factor. Head of public affairs, Lisa McElherron explained: “Devolution means that these days most of our activity is directed at the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and yet this was a Westminster Bill which posed a different form of challenge. We therefore forged a partnership with our sister organisation in England, NCVO, in order to co-ordinate activities and maximise impact."
The objectives NICVA set for the campaign were as follows:
- Block the Bill completely. This was obviously the preferred option, but it was also clear that the government were absolutely determined to push it through
- Delay the Bill, allowing for proper consultation and appropriate amendments to defend members’ interests
- Clarify the Bill to make it clear that it did not affect members’ legitimate operations
NICVA alerted members to the seriousness of the issue. Around 30 became very active in the subsequent campaign, significantly increasing its reach and firepower.
Those involved used social media to spread the word and engage with politicians to gain their support.
All Northern Ireland MPs were briefed. This was executed so efficiently that when it came to the vote every single one supported NICVA’s position.
NICVA also worked with the Commission on Civil Society and Engagement which was set up to review the Bill, consult widely with affected parties and report to parliament with findings and recommendations. The Commission visited Northern Ireland and reported back that it was particularly struck by the importance of civil society in Northern Ireland and so NICVA members’ observations and concerns were very clearly reflected in the subsequent report.
How the Campaign Progressed
Although there was little local media coverage the national press gave the issue a lot of column inches. It was alleged by several media outlets that the Liberal Democrats were behind the bill and that one reason why they were trying to force it through the House so quickly was to prevent he National Union of Students attacking them over the their policy U turn in relation to university tuition fees.
There was much criticism of the bill as being poorly drafted and of undermining civil society and the democratic process itself.
The opposition had immediate impact, with the government clarifying its proposals by saying that they would have no impact on the voluntary sector.
The government also accepted some of the recommendations of the Commission. Others were accepted by the House of Lords but subsequently overturned by the Commons. The Bill was passed into law in January of this year.
The first objective of repealing the bill altogether failed, given the government’s determination to force legislation through and the Coalition’s majority in the Commons this was probably inevitable.
The second objective was partially successful: the Bill was not delayed but, through the Commission, there was consultation and there were some important changes made. There also has been clarification both from the Electoral Commission and government that gave some comfort to charities, but the new laws are still to be tested and the true implications will ultimately be for the courts to decide, if prosecutions are carried forward.
The Commission has a full breakdown of what has been achieved here. Two significant changes for Northern Ireland include a £20,000 increase in the spending limit for campaigns, instead of being cut as originally proposed, and all parades in Northern Ireland are excluded altogether.
The Current Position
In July of this year the Electoral Commission published a guide to the Act. However it is 300 pages long and some charities in England have criticised it has being unclear. Thankfully the English-based Directory of Social Change has published a flowchart to help charities there navigate their way through the law
It is downloadable here.
There is considerable confusion as to the full implications of the Act – and many organisations are very reluctant to register as “non-party campaigners” fearing that this could pose reputational problems with the general public.
All charities should ensure that they are compliant – or they could face serious consequences: to break the new law is to commit a criminal offence. It will be particularly important to ensure that all campaigning activity is directly supporting a charity’s purpose and that charities do not promote or support individual candidates or parties in elections.
The law is currently untested, unclear and we are yet to discover its full implications. One of the changes secured by the Commission was to ensure that rules around non-party campaigning will be reviewed again after the 2015 General Election. For NICVA the campaign goes on: the bill is flawed, anti-democratic and unenforceable and should be repealed at the first opportunity.
One development that many in the sector find especially disturbing are remarks made by the new Charity Minister at Westminster Brooks Newmark, who in his first public statement said that charities should “stick to their knitting” and not engage in the political process. Mr Newmark subsequently resigned after sending explicit photographs of himself to a woman he thought was a Tory party activiest. She turned out to be an undercover reporter working for the Daily Mirror.
Join the Conversation...
We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.
Join Our Newsletter
Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.