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20 September 2013

Charities, lobbyists and will church hustings break the law?

Charities, lobbyists and will church hustings break the law?

On average once a year a politician or two is caught in a newspaper sting by reporters pretending to be lobbyists. The usual headline is of money grabbing politicians using their influence for gain. They'll arrange a meeting, ask a question, open their contact book. And the accusations ring loud and clear, politics is in a mess and lobbying needs cleaning up. Putting to one side for the moment the fact that it is often the politicians caught out rather than lobbyists, there is no doubt that greater transparency is required of lobbying. There's often a fear that money works its way to influence like water seeps out of a cracked cup.

In the light of the most recent high profile scandal the government announced it would bring forward its long awaited lobbying bill. They had consulted on this before, they had announced some proposals, but it had all gone rather quiet, with suspicions abounding this was part of some ongoing intra-coalition conflict. However, a bill was swiftly presented to parliament on the last day before the summer recess.

The bill does a lot less than many want, and potentially a lot more than even the government intend. Firstly, on the proposals relating to lobbying, most people who engage in lobbying activity would not be subject to the new regulations. I am a lobbyist and I wouldn't be affected. The proposals only require companies who lobby on behalf of other clients to register meetings with ministers and permanent secretaries, and they only have to do so if such activity takes up a substantial portion of time. Very few people would fit into this criteria, most meetings happen at a lower level, with departmental officials, and those conversations that occur between a minister and a chief exec or corporate lobbyist in the lift of a hotel, or while waiting at the bar, would not be addressed. The reasoning behind the government's exclusion of in house lobbyists is that their work is obvious, whereas for lobbyists working on behalf of third parties it might not be apparent who is exerting influence on the government. In their own right the proposals relating to lobbying are very poor and require a substantial rethink.

However, the most significant problems come in the second part of the bill where the government seek to amend the regulations for non-party campaigning. At present organisations which engage in activities which can be reasonably considered to be to the advantage of a particular party or candidate (or conversely to the exclusion of a particular party or candidate), have to register as a third-party campaigner if their expenditure exceeds a certain level. This registration places reporting requirements on the organisation and a cap on the total amount they can spend on election materials. The current proposals widen the groups caught by the regulations, includes more activity within their scope and reduces the total amount that can be spent.

The current proposals, which the government have committed to amend but in what way is not completely clear, capture organisations whose activities have the effect of influencing the outcome of an election even if this is not the intent. They also include plans to include many more activities by addressing all that is for 'electoral purposes' rather than just 'election materials' as currently the case. This will, if pursued, include staff time and costs used within 12 months before an election if this activity could influence an election. This means that a vast swathe of organisations not currently regulated could fall foul of the new rules. Charities pushing parties to pursue certain policies central to their purpose could be classed as trying to influence an election, they would be categorised alongside groups with a clear partisan purpose.

There's even the possibility that churches who hold hustings ahead of a vote could be restricted. If it's thought that a particular candidate did better in a hustings and that contributed to their electoral fortunes, for example in a narrow victory, the church or group of churches might be considered to have acted as a third-party. They would therefore be subject to onerous requirements to show their expenditure and be restricted to limits that a group of churches acting together in a constituency could feasibly breach. Added to this, if they had not registered as a third-party, and were considered to have effected the election outcome, they would be guilty of a criminal offence.

There are probably groups which need to be regulated who currently are not, organisations that despite not being a political party, operate in a manner that clearly aids particular candidates or party. But the bill before parliament needs urgent amendment, both to the range of groups which will be captured by the regulations, and the activities classed as for electoral purposes. The bill could stop church leaders speaking out against pay day lenders, or in favour of development spending, areas of policy where their belief makes a difference. If the bill did this it would be a huge backwards step for democracy.