Lobbying reforms in the so-called gagging bill are still causing serious concern for some MPs, as the legislation, which proposes a cap on charity campaign spending but is accused of doing little to curb the activities of lobbyists, returns to the Commons after it was ridiculed by peers.
Despite a six-week 'pause' brought about by an outcry
from charities and other groups, the political and constitutional reform select committee said still more changes were required and accused the Government of showing a “contempt for Parliament”.
The House of Lords inflicted a string of defeats on the Government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill.
The committee has tabled a series of amendments, warning that while the legislation had been improved it remained “far from perfect”.
In a report, it noted that most concessions had dealt with fears about the impact on charities and not “serious concerns” about the “very narrow scope” of proposed lobbying regulation.
A new register must include “all those who lobby professionally and all those who offer professional advice on lobbying, whether they are third party or in-house lobbyists, including those working for law firms, trade associations and think tanks”, it said.
Contact with senior civil servants should also be covered, the committee said, after the House of Lords succeeded in having special advisers included in the scope.
And the purpose of each instance of lobbying must be made clearer.
In its present form the Bill would “do little to increase transparency about who is lobbying whom and for what purpose”, it concluded.
In a critical report, the committee called the Bill “an example of how not to make legislation”.
It welcomed the Government’s commitment to a post-election review but complained that Parliament was being asked to agree a Bill “that is acknowledged to be imperfect”.
“The haste with which Lords amendments are returning to the Commons is yet another example of the way in which this Bill has been rushed through Parliament,” the MPs said.
“The timetable that the Government has imposed for this Bill indicates a contempt for Parliament and a lack of belief in the value of parliamentary scrutiny.”
Committee chairman, Labour MP Graham Allen, said: “Yet again, the committee has had to produce a report in a matter of hours, thanks to the timetable imposed by the Government.
“The Bill has been improved since it was first published, thanks to amendments made in the Commons and the Lords.
“However, we remain seriously concerned that about the very narrow focus of the Government’s lobbying register.
“Without the changes that we recommended in our original report, to expand the register to cover all those who lobby professionally, and all those who offer professional advice on lobbying, the Bill will do little to increase transparency.
“In our original report, we called on the Government to raise the thresholds at which third parties would have to register with the Electoral Commission.
“This, and other changes that we called for, have now been made. But we would still like to see further changes, including restoring the spending limits in England, Scotland, and Wales to their current levels.
“We continue to regard this Bill as an example of how not to make legislation.
“It should serve as a reminder to future Governments that consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny are vital elements of the process of producing good legislation – not mere formalities that can be dispensed at the convenience of the Government.”
Peers have voted to simplify election period spending restrictions which charities said were unworkable and to include the lobbying of special advisers in new regulations.
Ministers’ plans to cut the amount charities in England can spend on campaigning during the “regulated” period leading up to a general election before they have to register with the Electoral Commission from £10,000 to £5,000 were scrapped in favour of a £20,000 cap.
For charities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the threshold will rise from the current limit of £5,000 to £10,000, rather than cut to £2,000.
They have also conceded that for the next general election in May 2015, the regulated period for third parties – which would normally be 12 months – will start on September 19 2014, the day after the Scottish referendum.
Baroness Williams of Crosby said it was “frankly ludicrous” that the legislation was returning immediately to MPs.
“It does not enable the Commons to take into account the very careful and deliberate thought given in this House.”
Friends of the Earth senior campaigner Liz Hutchins commented: “We should all be worried when governments try to restrict people speaking out about politically contentious issues ahead of elections.
“This is a bad Bill that has been marginally improved in the House of Lords following concern from hundreds of charities and campaigning groups on behalf of their supporters.
“MPs must not overturn these changes when they vote again on this Bill.”