Monday 2 September 2013

The Protection of Corporate Lobbying and Silencing of Legitimate Political Debate Bill

In September 2013 MPs will debate a new law designed to silence opposition to the government. Under the guise of an "anti-lobbying bill", the Tory led coalition plan to bring in new legislation to severely curtail the abilities of charities, religious organisations, protest groups and trade unions to voice opposition to the government.

The legislation which the Tories are trying to rush through parliament is called the "Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill". If the Tories were had a grain of honesty or integrity about their intentions it would be called the "Protection of Corporate Lobbying and Silencing of Legitimate Political Debate Bill".

The Lobbying bit

After it was first published before the summer recess, most people focused on the appalling ineffectiveness of the proposals to regulate lobbying. Many critics noted that practically all forms of lobbying, including direct donations to political parties by corporate and private interests will remain totally unaffected by the legislation and that corporations could sidestep the legislation easily, simply by bringing their lobbying operations "in house".

The bill won't even cover 80% of lobbying activity. The only lobbyists that will be effected are registered lobbying agencies, who will presumably suffer large losses as their clients flee in order to pursue the numerous less transparent methods of influencing the government that this bill utterly fails to address.

The bill will do nothing to prevent wealthy individuals and corporations from buying political influence through party political donations (direct donations to MPs who then "coincidentally vote in ways beneficial to their donors) or directly to political parties (such as David Cameron's secretive cabal of wealthy Tory party donors called "The Leaders Group").

It won't stop paid lobbyists like David Cameron's election adviser Lynton Crosby from having influential roles in politics. It won't stop people with significant lobbying interests, like George Osborne's father-in-law David Howell, being appointed as advisers and ministers in areas where they have blatant conflicts of interests with their lobbying activities.

The lobbying regulations won't increase transparency when it comes to which organisations have been lobbying which politicians on particular issues, neither will it open up the murky world of lobbyists targeting their political advisers (SPADs) as was witnessed in the Jeremy Hunt Sky TV debacle.

The lobbying bill won't do a thing to stop the revolving doors between governments and corporate interests (Wonga and the Tory party is a high profile example of this), and neither will it prevent corporate interests being invited to actually write government legislation on their behalf.

The silencing of dissent bit

After realising what a disgraceful shambles the first section was, most commentators focused their criticism there, without bothering to analyse the meaning of the second section of the bill relating to "non-party campaigning" and trade unions. Upon closer examination, this part looks even more concerning, as it clearly resembles an attempt to silence criticism of the government, under threat of fines and imprisonment.

It appears that the first section relating to lobbying is simply a fig leaf behind which the government have tried to hide a brazen assault on freedom to criticise the government.

One of the most blatant assaults on the freedom to criticise the government is the dramatic reduction in allowances for registered charities and non-political organisations, from £989,000 in an election year, down to £390,00 and the reclassification of how these figures are calculated so as to include all kinds of things such as transportation costs, market research and the hosting of public meetings.

£390,000 may seem a lot to you, but it really isn't when you consider that this limit doesn't apply to each branch of a charity or protest group, it applies to the entire organisation, and if several organisations band together, the limit will apply to all of them together. Take Cancer Research UK as an example. If this bill passes, then they will be prevented from spending anything more that 0.07% of their turnover on activities that could be deemed to have an impact on elections and they could face criminal prosecution. If Cancer Research band together with half a dozen other charities to produce a public information campaign, under the new legislation the activities of all seven charities will be capped at £390,000 between them.

Another example of how this legislation is totally unfair comes from the protest group 38 Degrees, who have calculated that £390,000 divided between their 1.7 million members would amount to just 23p each, not even enough to buy a single second class stamp.

The ambiguous way in which this bill targets anything which may impact on an election, whether or not that is the intention, seems deliberate. It is a way of intimidating charities, trade unions, religious organisations and protest groups like 38 Degrees into remaining silent on important issues (such as protecting the NHS, introducing fair taxation, fighting poverty, public health, education, financial sector reform, civil liberties, the privatisation agenda) in election years.

It seems that these limitations won't just apply in the year before general elections, it seems they will be applied before European elections and local council elections too, meaning a near continuous constraint on organisational freedom to comment on politics in any way.

The protest group 38 Degrees are at the forefront of the campaign against this blatant attempt to stifle legitimate political debate, but they are far from alone, the Electoral Commission (the guys that will supposedly police these new rules) have described them as "flawed and unworkable".

The National Council For Voluntary Organisations (a large group of charities) has asked whether this bill is rushed and badly written or whether it is deliberately intended as a "Trojan horse" in order to curtail the freedom of charities to campaign for their causes. Another 100 charities have also criticised the proposed legislation.

Trade Unions have reacted with horror as the scope of the "Trojan horse" element of the legislation becomes clear. Joint co-operation between various unions will be made more difficult to such an extent that the Trade Union Congress will effectively be banned in election years. Another absurd element to the legislation is that the arbitrary spending limit of £390,000 will mean the smaller the Trade Union (or charity, religious group or protest site) the greater their proportional influence will become.

Unsurprisingly, the heads of the four main lobbying agencies have attacked the bill too, claiming that the half-baked way the bill has been designed will mean even less transparency in the lobbying industry and a register of lobbyists with hardly any names on it.

George Kidd, chair of the UK Public Affairs Council, described the bill as both "a damp squib" and "a white elephant"  that will "end up doing more harm than good" [source]
Tamasin Cave from the pressure group SpinWatch, told the committee that the addition of charities and campaign groups into the lobbying bill was a "deliberate act of divide and rule, that has the signature of Lynton Crosby all over it." adding "this bill, as it stands, is worse than nothing. It is bogus" [source].

Ian Snowden of the Institure of Economic Affairs (a think tank) said that "The unintended consequence of such regulation will be more informal drinks in the pub and fewer official meetings, leading to less transparency and more scope for scandal" [source]

Religious groups don't seem to have cottoned on to how much of a threat this bill represents to their freedoms to raise ethical concerns over government policies. In the same way that the bill looks set to disincentivise various charities or trade unions banding together to promote a unified message (as this will limit their spending to £390,000 between the whole lot of them), this will also prevent religious groups from banding together to produce documents like this (which could easily be interpreted as being likely to have an impact on elections).

Who does this legislation benefit?

So it is pretty clear that this legislation will hinder the freedom of expression of a whole range of organisations including, but not limited to charities, protest groups, religious organisations, trade unions, political blogs (such as LabourList and Conservative Home), think tanks and legitimate lobbying organisations.

The government will obviously benefit, because if this bill passes, they will be able to instigate legal action against any of the aforementioned groups that talk about politics too much during pre-election periods. This new power to instigate legal action is clearly designed to intimidate charities, protest groups, religious organisations and trade unions into not daring to criticise the government in the lead up to elections for fear of being dragged into the courts by the state.

The other main beneficiaries will be the lobbyists that use the non-transparent means that are not covered by this legislation. They will benefit as clients flee the scrutinised arena of the lobbying register to the darker corners of the industry that the Tories clearly aren't bothered about regulating. Why on earth would these clients stick with registered lobbying agencies and face public scrutiny, when they could just avoid the legislation in one of the many ways outlined above?

One of the issues that many commentators seem to have missed is the role of the mainstream corporate media in all of this. If religious groups and protest sites like 38 Degrees are to be silenced from talking about politics in the lead-up to elections, then how on earth is it right that the corporate media are allowed to openly propagandise for the political party of their choice? Surely if charities and trade unions are going to have their freedom of speech curtailed to just £390,000 worth of influence, the mainstream press must be curtailed in a similar way. Anything more than £390,000 spent on material that may influence the general election (including payroll costs, distribution costs, research, overheads ...) and they should be hauled before the courts. This would leave Rupert Murdoch's News Corp UK and the Daily Mail Group in serious trouble because they spend far more than that amount per day on generating their total output, much of which is highly political in nature.

This scenario clearly won't happen because the Tories are quite happy to have a baying right-wing press supporting their every step towards totalitarianism. The press will be exempt, because the Tories wouldn't want to interfere with the freedom of the press (unless of course they are demanding that particular newspapers smash up their hard drives, intimidating the family of journalists by arresting them under anti-terrorism legislation or shutting down traffic to "esoteric" or "extremist" blogs like mine by introducing wide ranging Internet firewalls under the guise of child protection measures).


If this bill is allowed to pass it will create the absurd situation where the right-wing press are allowed to openly propagandise for the Conservative party throughout election years, whilst any charity or protest group that dares put their head above the parapet to criticise one government policy or another will face the prospect of being hauled before the courts.

When it comes to lobbying, this bill will push the corporate lobbying industry further underground and drive business away from the minority of lobbying organisations that will actually be made to sign up to the register.

Farcically it will lead to the situation where corporations and wealthy individuals will still be free to buy direct access to the Prime Minister, other politicians and their advisers (by signing up to his £50,000 a year "Leaders Group" for example) and lobbyists will still be able to walk the corridors of power (Lynton Crosby) and speak in parliamentary debates on the subject on which they work as lobbyists (David Howell), yet if a trade union or protest website dares to point this disgraceful state of affairs out to the public, the government will be able to delve into their financial affairs and have them prosecuted under this "anti-lobbying legislation".

What you can do

The two ministers behind this outrageous piece of legislation are Chloe Smith and Andrew Lansley.
Here are their email addresses:
Unfortunately government ministers are under no obligation to respond to your letters and emails, unless they happen to be your constituency MP. If you would like to write to your local MP about this issue and see what they have to say about it, please use the following link.
One other thing you can do is to share this article as much as you can in order to let other people know exactly what the Tories are planning to do under the guise of anti-lobbying law. If you think this article is a bit too long, then there are several other articles on the subject that are worth sharing.
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