Newcastle MP slates Lobbying and Campaigning Bill as ‘illiberal, partisan and undemocratic’

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04 Sep 2013

Paul Farrelly, Newcastle’s Labour MP, has launched a stinging attack on the government’s proposed lobbying reforms as a retrograde step that would muzzle charities, trades unions and critics of the coalition in the run-up to the general election.

The Bill, which was debated in the House of Commons yesterday, was drawn up hastily in reaction to recent undercover newspaper stings alleging influence peddling at Westminster.

Under the plans, however, only lobbyists working for consultancies would have to be registered, and declare their clients. Direct corporate lobbying – as happened with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, over the company’s bid for BSkyB – would go untouched.

The government has also been roundly criticised for using other parts of the Bill effectively to gag charities and campaigners, limiting the ability of unions and organisations such as the Royal British Legion and Cancer Research UK to fight for issues of concern in the year before a general election.

It also contains provisions relating to trades union membership, totally unrelated to lobbying.

Speaking during last night’s debate, Mr Farrelly said the Bill did little to address concerns about secrecy and the influence of deep-pocketed, vested interests on government policy.

‘Is it not in reality an opportunistic attack on the ability of groups in civil society, including trade unions, to deliver a message that might be unwelcome to the government?,’ he said.

‘Is it not also deeply disappointing that Liberal Democrat members of the coalition have signed up to the Bill, given their historic emphasis on civil liberties?’

In pressing ahead with the plans, the coalition has ignored offers by Labour Leader Ed Miliband of cross-party talks on funding of political parties, including limits on corporate donations – an issue on which the Bill is also silent, despite concerns about buying influence.

More widely, Newcastle’s MP also said the legislation would ‘tilt even further an already unlevel playing field’ as far as electoral influence was concerned.

‘At the next election the vast majority of the press will support the Conservative Party, yet the Bill will seek to restrain, for example, the National Union of Students and the education unions from reminding the government of their record on university tuition fees,’ he said.

As the plans currently stand, a strict spending limit would be imposed on ‘third party campaigners’, including charities and unions, compromising their ability to advertise and encourage debate over political parties’ policies and promises ahead of elections.
Speaking after the debate, Mr Farrelly said: ‘Not only is this Bill undemocratic, in the sense that it restricts the freedom with which campaign groups and members of the public can engage in an informed debate about the issues that affect them, it is illiberal and disturbingly partisan.’

‘Charities, large and small, do so much work to ensure that those people who need help most are not ignored or forgotten. So do trades unions and other professional organisations.  The government should be trying to help them, not gag them.’

‘If they disagree with government policies close to their hearts like the ‘bedroom tax’, or cuts to legal aid, they should be free to say what they like. The same goes for broken government promises, like university tuition fees, or indeed policies from any political party.’

Despite election promises by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for an effective register of lobbyists, and more transparency, the reforms would only affect a small part of the lobbying industry.

Concerns were raised yesterday that Australian lobbyist Lynton Crosby could still continue in his role as the Conservative Party’s election strategist, despite his firm’s connections with the tobacco industry and concerns about the ditching of legislation for plain cigarette packaging.

Independent elections watchdog the Electoral Commission has also joined the chorus of criticism. In the face of government denials, it has argued that the Bill could indeed deter charities and campaigners from speaking out on public policy issues ahead of elections.