The government could face defeat in the House of Lords on Wednesday if it doesn’t make further amendments to its controversial lobbying bill, campaigners have warned.
The transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill, which is now reaching the end of its process through parliament, was put forward to restrict the lobbying of government ministers and senior civil servants.
The government was forced to alter the bill after charities protested that it would have effectively gagged them, and severely restricted their abilities to campaign on social issues in election years.
However, campaigners from Friends of the Earth have warned that in its current form, the legislation will still cause significant difficulties for charities.
Critics had originally said that the bill’s vague wording made it “entirely unworkable“, and warned that its implementation would be “harmful to democracy”. The Association of Professional Political Consultants – the lobbying industry’s trade union – suggested that the bill will only affect only 1% of lobbyists.
In November, ministers responded by announcing a six-week pause in the passage of the bill, after which many of the more controversial sections were amended.
The bill would have lowered the maximum groups could spend before having to registered with the Electoral Commission from £10,000 to £5,000 in England, and from £5,000 to £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Now, ministers want to raise the limit to £20,000 in England and £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The bill would also have introduced a pre-election UK-wide overall spending cap of £390,000. This has now been raised to £450,000, though still represents a significant cut from the current limit of £988,500.
However, charities still hold deep concerns over such rules. In particular, opponents say that because the spending limitations still include staff costs, many organisations will struggle.
“It is simply indefensible to stop charities and campaigning organisations, representing the concerns of millions of people, from speaking out ahead of elections”, said Liz Hutchins, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
The Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which was founded by Lord Harries to demand amendments to the lobbying bill, has urged ministers to take staff costs out of its calculations and cut other controversial restrictions.
“Ministers have recognised the force of the arguments put to them and have made important concessions”, Harries noted.
“However there are still some major issues that need to be resolved.”
Meanwhile, Hutchins added, “Over 100 NGOs support changes to the bill proposed by Lord Harries, which are now also backed by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour peers. Ministers should listen or face defeat in the Lords.”