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A dog’s breakfast? It’s much worse than that

Why the government’s Lobbying Bill is such a dangerous and shambolic mess

Tory MP Douglas Carswell noted that Graham Allen MP had described the government’s Lobbying Bill as a “dog’s breakfast.”

But, Carswell added, “he is wrong of course. Far more thought has gone into pet nutrition than into this Bill.”

In fact, Carswell is himself wrong. No political party could, without great thought and ingenuity, introduce a Lobbying Bill which will have no impact whatever on lobbying, but which will indulge their favourite sport of bashing the unions, which has nothing to do with lobbying.

Everything about the Bill is wrong.

There was an item in the coalition agreement in 2010 promising a statutory register of lobbyists.

Nothing was done in 2010 or in 2011 or in 2012. Then in 2013 on the last day before the Commons adjourned for the summer recess — always a bad sign — this Bill was published with a notice that the government intended to force it through in the minimum time possible.

The Bill as published abruptly added in two additional sections, both highly damaging, which had never previously been discussed or consulted on.

The relevant select committee, on political and constitutional reform, had sought details from the government a full year before, but it took that long for the government to reply — and then only in two paragraphs.

Part two of the Bill drastically and outrageously curtails the activities of charities and third-party groups in the 12 months leading up to a general election.

Their total permitted expenditure in that year is being cut by 70 per cent, and because that includes staffing costs it is being cut even more.

The definition of “election campaigning” is being dangerously widened and there is great uncertainty and fear about exactly how the prohibition on activities “for political purposes” will be interpreted, which could have a chilling impact on the freedom of expression of charities and all third-party activists.

This is using a bulldozer to crack a nut.

Why is the government so terrified of charities, while turning a blind eye to the notorious and massive abuses of big corporate lobbying?
This has been a sleaze-ridden government. Tory Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas was secretly recorded offering access to government in return for large donations.

Members of the government attended invitation-only events organised by the Chemistry Club, with the company paying up to £1,800 a head to meet ministers, senior government advisers and MPs at a series of events.

Political lobbyists were paid thousands of pounds to help broker a meeting with Liam Fox through Adam Werritty. Bell Pottinger was secretly filmed boasting about its access to the heart of government, including its ability to persuade David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on its behalf as well as its exclusive access to figures like William Hague.

Last year the Tory Party website openly offered donors the opportunity to attend events where Cameron was present, inviting supporters to join the “premier supporter group,” the Leader’s Group, whose annual membership costs £50,000.

More recently, Tory MP Patrick Mercer resigned the party whip when details of yet another lobbying scandal emerged.

What links all these lobbyist abuses?

It’s the fact that not one of these scandals will be covered by the government’s Bill.

Most starkly of all, Cameron’s election strategist Lynton Crosby lobbies on behalf of big tobacco, private health-care companies and fracking companies, among others, while at the same time working for Cameron.

Yet the Bill won’t catch Crosby. The government has left a large loophole that lets Crosby get round being on the register.

The Bill is comically narrow. It only covers “consultant” lobbyists so that it is estimated that it will only cover about 100 organisations — not the 700 the government claims — and 1 per cent of ministerial meetings.

It won’t cover, for example, lobbyists working in-house or operating in law firms.

Thus the Department of Business held 988 meetings with lobbyists last year, but only two were with “consultant” lobbyists who would have to declare the meetings under the new law.

The Bill sets up a new register with much lower standards of practice even than the current voluntary register — for example, it makes no provision for a code of conduct.

Loopholes could mean that lobbyists will be able to keep their client lists secret and there will be no duty even for “consultant” lobbyists to declare how much they have spent on lobbying.

Above all, the Bill omits any provision for a code of conduct backed by sanctions.

Then there are the nasty little anti-trade union provisions.

All unions with more than 10,000 members will have to submit an annual “membership audit certificate” to the certification officer in addition to the annual return which they already make.

The certification officer will have the power to require production of “relevant” documents, including membership records and even private correspondence.

What is the rationale for these draconian provisions when not a single complaint has been made to the certification officer about these matters?

Why, when big money is being let off the hook completely, are trade unions being screwed down to tighten a system which is already operating perfectly well over issues entirely extraneous to lobbying?

There can be little doubt that the real motive behind this section of the Bill is to help employers mount injunction proceedings when union members have voted for industrial action, by seizing on minor if not minuscule flaws which the Court of Appeal would previously have considered “de minimis” or “accidental.”

This is about inserting yet further minute technical or bureaucratic obstacles or hurdles in the path of trade unions carrying out their perfectly proper and legitimate activities.

The government comprehensively lost the argument on the Lobbying Bill on Tuesday in the Commons.

The Labour attack was relentless and well targeted, and the Tory defence weak, hesitant and defensive.

MPs must press hard for significant amendments in next week’s three days of committee stage on the floor of the house.

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton. For more of his writing visit www.michaelmeacher.info/weblog

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