Lords express concern at “rushed” Lobbying Bill

Ahead of the House of Lords’ second reading of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill on 18 October, the HL Constitution Committee published its report on the Bill which identifies “significant concerns” about the content and handling of the bill. This follows the earlier fairly critical report of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on which we reported earlier.

The Parliamentary web site quotes Baroness Jay of Paddington, the chairman of the Lords’ Committee, as saying

“The committee is concerned about the restrictions on the right to freedom of political expression that will result from the proposal to limit third-party expenditure at general elections. We think this constitutional right should only be interfered with where there is clear justification for doing so.

“We are also concerned that the lobbying bill will not achieve its objectives of increasing transparency and restoring public confidence. We have therefore recommended that the House of Lords considers whether the limited definition of lobbying in the bill, which excludes in-house public affairs work and covers only communication with ministers and permanent secretaries, will provide adequate transparency.

“We are critical of the hurried way in which this legislation has proceeded, which has resulted in a lack of consultation. Bills of constitutional importance such as this should not be rushed through Parliament.”

Comment

The committee was critical of two aspects of the Bill:

– whether the significant lowering of the cap on expenditure at general elections by third parties is justified, given the fundamental constitutional right to freedom of political expression; and

– the narrow definition of lobbying in the bill, which excludes “in-house” lobbyists and covers only communications between professional consultant lobbyists and ministers or permanent secretaries. Their lordships were encouraged to consider whether such a definition is appropriate.

The committee noted the lack of consultation by the Government on the proposals, including with the Electoral Commission, and the lack of clarity on the Bill’s likely impact on campaigning in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the issue.  Anyone with even a basic understanding of the “dark arts” of lobbying will question the motivation behind the Bill in its present form, when a significant part of the lobbying that is undertaken in the UK will be unaffected, yet stringent controls are proposed for “non-party campaigning” and Trade Unions.

It is significant that this recent report emphasises the constitutional issues at stake, and is critical of both the content and the handling of the Bill. We await the Lords’ Second Reading with interest.

David Pocklington

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