Lobbying Bill ‘shambles’ blasted as Westminster rejects Lords amendments

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  By Owen O’Donnell
 
The Scottish Government has launched a scathing attack on the UK Parliament’s Lobbying Bill, which was debated in the House of Commons this afternoon, deeming it as “a shambles”
 
Proposed amendments that were made by the House of Lords to the controversial bill, intended to reduce the amount of undue influence that some organisations have on political parties, were rejected by MP’s with 310 votes to 278 in the Commons today.

The result was met with dismay by Perth MP, Pete Wishart, who described the bill as, “a shambles”.

He added: “An active, challenging and politically engaged civic society is a hallmark of democracy and the lifeblood of live political culture, every bit as much as a free press and free and fair elections. I have grave concerns that a side effect of the Bill will be to restrict the space where citizens can ask questions about public policies that affect their lives.

“The cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has already commented that the lobbying bill had been “unnecessarily rushed”.  In their report, the committee said: “We do not believe that the government has… provided a satisfactory account of the basis on which the new levels for registration and expenditure by third parties have been set.

“Despite modest improvements being made in the House of Lords- they are in no way satisfactory. And the Government still continued to resist the more significant improvements.

“While I recognise the need for a lobbying bill which encourages openness and transparency, the legislation as it stands pleases no one save the government. It is not surprising we have received unprecedented inquiries about this. We value and welcome the contribution third parties and charities bring to debates and I will continue to argue for a sensible lobbying bill”.

The Lobbying Bill was introduced partly as a response to the Labour candidate selection row in Falkirk where Unite the Union were accused of trying to influence the process to ensure that a candidate of their choosing was picked to replace incumbent MP Eric Joyce who will stand down in 2015.

However, Westminster was advised in September by The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to withdraw the bill, which their published report found to be “seriously flawed” and “being rushed through the House in a way that indicates a lack of respect for Parliament.” The Chair of the Committee, Graham Allen MP said at the time: “This Bill is an object lesson in how not to produce legislation.”

The bill, which has also been criticised for its proposals to inflict heavy legislative restrictions on charities and third sector bodies, particularly the amount that they can spend in the year before a General Election, was also attacked by senior political campaigner, Liz Hutchins, from the environmental lobby group, Friends of the Earth. Ms Hutchins said:

“The Government comprehensively lost the arguments today but won the vote.

“This poorly conceived Lobbying Bill will severely restrict charities and campaigning groups from speaking out on behalf of their supporters ahead of elections.

“Peers must once again stand up for democracy when the bill returns to the House of Lords.”

The SNP have proposed an amendment to the bill to not apply to charities registered in Scotland under the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005.  The amendment proposed by SNP MP, Dr. Eilidh Whiteford, was welcomed by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations who have previously supported amendments made to the bill by the party.

John Dowie, Director of Public Affairs at SVCO said: “SCVO welcomes the amendments proposed by Dr. Eilidh Whiteford MP and the solution they present for charities. The Office for the Scottish Charity Regulator has clear guidelines for charities and their role in politics and as such the current proposals in Part II of the Bill represent nothing more than double regulation.

“However we believe MPs must also consider the impact on other voluntary organisations, such as co-operatives and community interest companies, who are not registered charities as they too have a role to play in a healthy democracy.”