The government’s controversial lobbying bill was defeated in the House of Lords on Wednesday, as peers voted in favour of amendments relaxing some of the restrictions that charities say could effectively gag them.
Peers from all parties backed a move, tabled by Lord Harries, to stop some staff costs from counting towards spending limitations. There were 237 votes for and 194 votes against.
The transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill, which is now reaching the end of the parliamentary process, 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.
Critics had originally said that the bill’s vague wording made it “entirely unworkable“, and warned that its implementation would be “harmful to democracy”.
However, even after ministers made concessions to relax the bill, the House of Lords deemed that more needed to be done.
A petition of over 130 charities and campaigning groups and 160,000 people supported Lord Harries amendments.
“The government’s heavy defeat on the issue of staff costs reflects the strength of concern about the lobbying bill in the House of Lords”, said Liz Hutchins, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
“Over 130 charities and campaigning organisations and 160,000 people backed a petition for the amendment, but this is still a dangerous bill which will stop charities from raising genuine concerns ahead of general elections.
“Ministers must think again before this bill becomes law.”
Critics say that even after this victory, the bill would slash charities’ overall spending limits in a campaign year by 60%, introduce “unworkable” constituency spending caps and restrict organisations from campaigning together.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, which has supported the campaign against the bill, said, “Poor process, lack of consultation and absence of scrutiny has produced bad legislation that fails adequately to address serious abuses of lobbying by big money interests, while harmfully shackling voluntary organisations.
“The government must now look to its own claims about free speech and democratic participation and have the courage to undertake a fundamental rethink about an unjust and ill-balanced bill.”
The government still has the power to overturn the peers’ vote, when the commons votes on amendments put forward by the lords.
A proposal to exclude charities from the effects of the bill altogether was rejected. This will instead be reviewed after the 2015 general election.