Lobbying Bill to become law after Lords amendments fail

29 January 2014 The controversial Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is to become law after it passed through the Lords without amendments.

29 Jan 2014| News

29 January 2014

The controversial Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is to become law after it passed through the Lords without amendments.

In the ping-pong phase of legislation – in which a Bill is passed between the Lord and Commons – all three amendments made by the Lords in an effort to soften the government’s widely-opposed policies were rejected by MPs.

However, in a rare occurrence, a change proposed by the Lords to exclude staffing costs from the amount of money a third party organisation can spend in the run-up to an election produced a tied vote at 245 to 245.

Unfortunately for the thousands of charities, campaigners and trade unions that will be caught under the new law, when this circumstance arises an amendment is considered to have failed.

The Lobbying Bill is in three parts, none of which have been deemed to be well-drafted or strongly mandated legislation.

In Part 1, the Bill legislates to create a register of lobbyists. However, an extraordinary loophole has been allowed to pass, in which small charities may be included on the register but the lobbying departments of major industries such as tobacco and the insurance industry will be exempt.

Those on the register will have to comply with Part 2 of the Bill, in which strict limits are imposed on how much charities and campaigners can spend in the year before an election. This part of the Bill has caused the most controversy, after charities said their ability to campaign on matters in the public’s interest will be curtailed.

Following widespread criticism, the Coalition conceded to a higher limit on allowed spending for third parties in the run-up to an election, but refused to exclude staffing costs. It was argued that larger charities may distort the democratic process by using their resources to back campaigns that would lead to one MP being voted in ahead of another.

It is worth noting that the Charity Commission already disallows all charities from political campaigning.

This point has rightly caused heated debate in the Commons and the Lords, as the government was accused of trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. The only outcome of Part Two of the Bill, it was argued, would be to silence opposition and those trying to highlight ongoing problems in the UK that may be troublesome to the ruling party. As a result, the Bill earned the nickname the Gagging Bill.

Part 3 of the Bill has been the least covered by the media, but should be of great concern to workers and trade unions. This section seeks to impose unprecedented scrutiny on trade unions, including a stricter certification process and unrealistic expectations put on the accuracy of trade union membership lists.

Trade unions are being told to keep their membership lists up to date, but with thousands of workers moving address without alerting their union, cancelling their membership, switching to a different union and joining unions every day, the constant flux in membership details makes this an extremely difficult task.

However, the new law will open the possibility of such administrative errors being used to fuel injunctions made against unions prior to industrial action, which could stop workers from standing up for their rights.

As anyone would be allowed to apply to see the membership lists, members’ confidentiality will also be undermined and many fear continued blacklisting of trade union members would ensue.

The Regulatory Policy Committee, a panel heavily weighted towards business leaders that the government set up to independently monitor so-called “red tape”, gave Part 3 of the Lobbying Bill a red warning. The Committee stated that the burden on trade unions was unacceptable and that the impact assessment provided by the government was not clearly set out.

The Bill went ahead unchanged.

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, described the legislation as “a bad, partisan Bill entirely devoid of merit”.

The Bill will now be put forth for Royal Assent and it seems likely the Coalition will achieve its aim of having the new laws in place in time to effect the 2015 General Election.