The Government’s Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill has been receiving criticism from a range of sources ever since its publication. The chair of the Parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinising the bill, Graham Allen of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has described it as a “dog’s breakfast”. It’s worse that - it’s a defence of the shadow politics that is blighting democracy.
The Government’s proposals will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists and those who are paid to lobby on behalf of a third party. Perhaps most critically, they will set a £390,000 limit on the amount any organisation excluding political parties can spend ahead of an election, if deemed to be conducted “for election purposes” (campaigning for or against a specific party or targeted spending at a particular constituency). It also lowers the maximum that can be spent before groups have to register with the Electoral Commission, from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from £5,000 to £2,000.
In a letter sent to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith this week, major charities have called the bill “unworkable”. Shelter, Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group and many others are concerned that a “lack of clarity” in the bill could leave them open to prosecution, because the rules could apply to a range of normal and legitimate awareness-raising activities. As the charities stated in their letter:
“For many charities and voluntary organisations, raising awareness of issues affecting the people and causes they support is a routine and important part of their work and central to their charitable objectives. However the rules in the new bill risk seriously hampering their ability to speak up on issues of concern, including as part of their fundraising activities.”
The TUC is also challenging the bill as “an outrageous attack on freedom of speech”, since the new looser definition of ‘campaigning’ risks encompassing any activities that could be seen as critical of the government of the day - and has even expressed fears that the bill could make organising its 2014 annual conference a criminal offence.
In response, ministers claim the bill will only affect groups campaigning for a political party, and that organisations campaigning without any intention to promote a particular party will be exempt. According to this view, charities and unions will still be able to back specific party policies, just not directly promote individual candidates and parties.
This begs the question: why, by implication, is the indirect, even shadowy, promotion of parties and their agendas any more legitimate - for example by organisations such as think tanks?
One of the unremarked aspects of the proposed legislation is that it appears to have been partly inspired by the argument put forward by think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs - that some charities are in effect ‘sock puppets’, receiving public money which they then use to lobby government on their ‘pet issues’. The IEA’s argument derives from its desire to see lower public spending generally, but restricting what charities feel they can safely spend on ‘lobbying’ would from the IEA’s point of view presumably represent a useful contribution to this end. (The IEA itself has criticised the lobbying bill - not because it could inhibit legitimate activity by charities, but because it might limit the influence of business on policy, and because “to demand more than [current transparency regulations] would risk having confidences betrayed and privacy intruded upon”).
In principle, the lobbying proposals apply to think tanks as well. In reality, the proposals are likely to benefit think tanks as a ‘back-door’ channel to influencing policymakers (as long as greater transparency isn’t introduced at the same time).
Most charities have no problem with being open about what they do - it’s their purpose to publicise their activities, for example how they have tried to influence government to promote their causes. As Moira Fraser, Director of Policy at the Carers Trust, commented this week:
“I have no problem with being more transparent. I will gladly report who we’ve met, what about, and how much we’ve spent, as often as anyone likes. I do have a problem with misunderstanding what campaigning and lobbying is all about and how it helps people who otherwise don’t get their voice heard.”
In contrast, some think tanks - including the IEA - refuse to reveal their donors or what they spend on various activities. The only reason we know that cigarette companies have given money to the IEA (which has mounted a long-running campaign against plain packaging, for example), is because this has appeared in the accounts of the former (when you’re less open even than big tobacco, you know you’re secretive).
Our series of posts on the ‘shadow politics’ is about the way the political class behaves and the consequences of its actions. The way the political class works, especially its often incestuous nature, means that in effect there exists a kind of ‘shadow politics’, quite different from the public debate and policymaking process that is visible to the rest of us.
As we’ve argued previously, the problem is lobbying itself - the behind-the-scenes meetings, the privileged access given to some organisations and not others, including through the ‘sponsored’ events organised by think tanks at party conferences and elsewhere. Whether some think tanks deserve their charitable status is an issue for another time; the question here is which organisations will most likely be inhibited by the lobbying bill and which will most likely benefit.
Given that the current lobbying proposals could inhibit legitimate ‘political activity’ that is conducted openly, the corollary is that they could encourage more influence that is conducted furtively - such as a company ’sponsoring’ a think tank in a way that just happens to promote a change in policy they would benefit from (it’s surely short-sighted then for the likes of the IEA to oppose the legislation, since they are a likely beneficiary of it). In short, the proposals threaten the organisations and groups that work openly, transparently and accountably for real change, including popular public platforms such as 38 Degrees, while preserving the privileged and largely unaccountable access and influence that benefits private interests.
Unless it is stopped, the lobbying bill won’t challenge the shadow politics - it will enshrine it.
The 38 Degrees campaign against secret lobbying can be found here.