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On 22nd October, the House of Lords debated the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. As expected, the debate centered on sharp criticism over the rushed schedule of the Bill and the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny. The Lords particularly focused on the disadvantaged third sector in Part 2 and questioned the scope of the Bill, echoing the debates conducted by MPs in the House of Commons. The Bill will now pass to Committee stage, scheduled for 5th November.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab) described the Bill as being “just silly”, arguing that it is a “skeleton register of only consultant lobbyists, exempting 80% of the industry.”

Lord Tyler (LD) defended the Bill: “The Government’s intention—rightly, in my view—is not to regulate lobbying but to ensure that the sunshine is very firmly imposed on it. We need to know who has the ear of Ministers and other decision-makers. To my mind, including in-house lobbyists would be a red herring and would create a huge telephone directory-style registry, including a huge number of people who would actually be irrelevant to greater transparency. It would not improve the extent to which we could see what was actually going on, because it would lose the wood for the enormous forest of trees, and hide in plain sight what was being done in the name of those paying for it to be done.”

In another attack, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab), member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, urged the Lords for “a pause at some stage to allow [more in-depth scrutiny] to happen”, suggesting that such a pause “could take a number of different forms. It could take place before or even after Committee stage. That can be debated. This Bill is being rushed through Parliament and the consequences could be very serious. The law, when it creates unintended consequences, is bad law. One of the roles of this House is to ensure that we do not create bad law. The Government should listen to public clamour—indeed, there is a clamour out there—and I hope that the Minister will act accordingly.”

Criticising the Second Part of the Bill, Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) pointed out that the role of charities is underestimated: “Part 2 of the Bill, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has united an extraordinary number of organisations. I am not going to go through the list but will just mention the National Trust. It argues that its campaigning, which has brought about so many benefits in relation to the countryside which we now take for granted, would simply not be possible under the Bill. One of the reasons why charities and campaigning groups need to be consulted is that they are key players in keeping our democracy alive. With the drastic fall in political party membership and the indifference of so many to professional politics, it is these groups that arouse people’s interest and help to focus their concerns.” 

Big Ben

Lord Wigley (PC) questioned the extent of the Bill, asking “What is the position of a Minister who is approached in the context of his or her responsibility as a constituency MP? Again, do these constraints apply equally to Ministers and senior civil servants in the devolved Administrations? I support the point that the Bill should be wider in its application with regard to civil servants and, most certainly, policy advisors—the infamous spads.”

The Earl of Clancarty (CB) also criticised Part 2 of the Bill, by raising the issue that “It is a natural part of the process that all campaigning groups will wish to find supporters in Parliament who will promote their cause. However, the big difference between parties and their associated organisations on the one hand, and charities and campaigning organisations on the other, is that campaigning organisations follow the issues and support for the issues that they would wish to raise in Parliament, not the party.”

Baroness Donaghy (Lab) was one of many peers who pointed at the problematic definition of consultant lobbyists: “I remember chairing a meeting in which a number of professional associations connected with lobbying were proposing a voluntary code of conduct. The real problem is to identify what constitutes lobbying or a lobbying group. During the meeting it became clear that those who abused the process would never volunteer to sign up. We were talking to the good guys. I do not underestimate the problems that the Government have in establishing clear criteria and an effective registration system: it is not easy. However, this Bill will not stop the big players or catch the bad players. It needs a major rewrite and a cross-party approach.”

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon stated the following concern about the Government’s intentions: “We all recall the Prime Minister’s big idea, the big society, which seems to have disappeared from the Conservatives’ lexicon. It was not a big idea, of course, because millions of people in this country have always been active citizens. Charities are part of our DNA, and my Government worked closely with civil society and NGOs. Nevertheless, apart from concern about the increased burdens on civil society as a consequence of government cuts and withdrawing some of their obligations, I was glad that the role of civil society was being celebrated, and that participants were no longer regarded merely as service providers. It is astonishing that the coalition Government, whose Members in this House have strong links with hundreds of charities and faith groups, should seek to curb the work and to silence the voice of charities and others who wish to campaign, for a year before the general election. There has been much concern about this.”

Lord Whitty (Lab), finally, phrased his concerns in a manner that summarises the debate: “I regard Part 1 of this Bill as being probably well intentioned but very perverse in its effect. Part 2 may or may not be well intentioned but is certainly pernicious in its effect. Part 3 is just pernicious.”