I have written on this blog on many occasions about a piece of legislation that is currently in the House of Lords mid way between the Report Stage of the Bill and its Third Reading. The Lobbying Bill (or Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14) is a piece of legislation that risks implicating charities in process and bureaucracy if they engage with candidates in the period before an election. The criteria determining which charities will be implicated and for how long has changed substantially in the last few days. Last week the Government announced a series of amendments in anticipation of a debate in the Lords and last night the Lords completed their discussions as part of the Report Stage of the Bill. All but two of the amendments they discussed were agreed or withdrawn without needing a vote.
The first of these exceptions was an attempt by some Lords to give tax relief to donors to political parties in the same way that donors to charities get tax relief. Such a proposal is not without its merits, but only if the broader issues of party funding are also addressed. The Lords were correct to block this amendment in my view. The other amendment was proposed by Richard Harries (previously the Bishop of Oxford) to remove the need for charities and other organisations to account for staff time within their organisation when calculating how much they have spent on any ‘lobbying’ activity. This has two implications, the first is that a great deal less energy and charitable money needs to be spent on administration in performing these calculations, with less risk of challenges being made regarding who did what and why. The other main advantage of this amendment is that fewer charities and organisations will be required to register with the regulator that the Government has nominated for this purpose. This is because the basis for registration is how much money has been spent on the lobbying activity. By removing in-kind resources from the total, fewer charities will be caught up in the legislation. The Government do not support Lord Harries’s amendment, in part because it brings in an inconsistency with some other organisations that have to register for lobbying that do have to account for their staff time. Ironically the Political Parties themselves do not have to account for the staff time in their own costings so this is a case of do as we say, not as we do! The response to this amendment was that an overwhelming number of Peers agreed with the arguments made by Richard Harries and his supporters. The hansard account can be read here and it shows 236 Peers in support and 193 against. Sadly almost all Conservative and Lib Dem Peers voted against the amendment along party lines suggesting that they are more focused on their party loyalty than the needs of charities. Assuming that the Bill passes its third reading in the Lords, the next test is if this amendment along with the others are accepted in the Commons. This makes lobbying our MPs vital in the period before this Bill does return to the Commons.
Rather bizarrely after pontificating in the Guardian about a killer amendment that would remove all charities from the Bill, Baroness Shirley Williams did not table it herself. What a poor show! In addition Lord Phillips of Sudbury who did present the amendment, expressed surprise at the lack of support for their amendment from amongst charities with this epithet “the dear old charity sector which must be one of the slowest of any sector in our society to get the hang of things” With friends like Lord Phillips, we really don’t need worry about having enemies! He also went on to criticise the Charity Commission for not supporting their amendment. It is a shame they did not listen to Ros Baston, the lawyer advising the Commission that Lord Harries chaired. It was her advice that this sort of amendment would fail, as tempting as it would be to take that approach. Perhaps it is people such as Lord Phillips and Baroness Williams that are the slow ones after all!
It is clear that this Bill is still far too weak where it attempts to regulate the lobbying which David Cameron promised to resolve in March 2010. It still presents far too much of a barrier to organisations including charities involved in civil society, from engaging with democratic processes during election campaigns. It also risks drawing a very clear line between those charities that do engage and those that do not, changing the culture of those that do from being organisations that do good and work with all, to organisations that see lobbying Government as a core part of their work. However despite these reservations with the Government amendments and Lord Harries amendment the Bill is a great deal less damaging than was the case a week ago. We now need to ensure that all of these gains are not lost, and argue for much stronger legislation for the lobbying activity that this Bill completely ignores.