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Lobby bill ignores big money abuses, but attacks civil society & trade unions

The government comprehensively lost the argument on the Lobbying Bill yesterday in the Commons. The Labour attack was relentless and well targeted, and the Tory defence weak, hesitant, and defensive. We must press hard for significant amendments in next week’s 3 days of committee stage on the floor of the House.

It was called the worst bill ever presented to the House of Commons – a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Everything about the bill is wrong. There was an item in the Coalition Agreement in 2010 promising a statutory register of lobbyists. Nothing was done in 2010, or in 2011, or in 2012. Then in 2013 on the last day before the Commons adjourned for the summer recess – always a bad sign – this bill was published with a notice that the government intended to force it through in the minimum time possible.

The bill as published abruptly added in two additional sections, both highly damaging, which had never previously been discussed or consulted on. The relevant Select Committee, on Political and Constitutional Reform, had sought details from the government a full year before, but it took that long for the government to reply – and then only in two paragraphs!

Part 2 of the bill drastically and outrageously curtails the activities of charities and third-party groups in the 12 months leading up to a general election. Their total permitted expenditure in that year is being cut by 70%, and because that includes staffing costs it is being cut even more. The definition of ‘election campaigning’ is being dangerously widened, and there is great uncertainty and fear about exactly how the prohibition on activities “for political purposes” will be interpreted, which could have a chilling impact on the freedom of expression of charities and all third-party activists. This is steamroller bulldozing to crack a nut. Why is the government so terrified about charities, whilst casting a blind eye over the notorious and massive abuses of big corporate lobbying?

Then there are the nasty little anti-trade union provisions. All unions with more than 10,000 members will have to submit an annual ‘Membership Audit Certificate’ to the Certification Officer in addition to the annual return which they already make. The Certification Officer will have the power to require production of ‘relevant’ documents, including membership records and even private correspondence. What is the rationale for these draconian provisions when not a single complaint has been made to the Certification Officer about these matters?

Why, when big money is being let off the hook completely, are trade unions being screwed down to tighten a system which is already operating perfectly satisfactority over issues entirely extraneous to lobbying? There can be little doubt that the real motive behind this section os the bill is to help employers mount injunction proceedings when union members have voted for industrial action, by seizing on minor if not minuscule flaws which the Court of Appeal would previously have considered ‘de minimis’ or ‘accidental’. This is about inserting yet further minute technical or bureaucratic obstacles or hurdles in the path of trade unions carrying out ther perfectly proper and legitimate activities.

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