by David Babbs Jan 20th, 2014
The Lobbying Bill, more commonly known as the “gagging law”, is back in the House of Commons this Wednesday. This is for a stage in the parliamentary process known as “Consideration of House of Lords amendments”.
This can sometimes be a formality, where changes to a piece of legislation made in the House of Lords are formally nodded through the House of Commons. But on other occasions it can be where the government seeks to reverse changes by asking MPs to vote them down.
We don’t know yet what the government’s intentions are for this Wednesday. But given that some of the most significant changes voted through in the House of Lords went against the government’s wishes, and involved the government losing a vote, there is reason to be concerned.
38 Degrees, along with all the other organisations who have come together to oppose the gagging law, is calling on MPs to vote to accept all the changes made in the House of Lords.
This is because none of them make the Bill worse, some of them make it significantly better. It’s still a bad piece of legislation, but the Lords amendments have made it less bad. MPs should not vote to make it worse again!
Here is a quick breakdown of the current state of play – what hasn’t changed, what has changed, and what aspects the government may seek to reverse.
What hasn’t changed:
The main thing that hasn’t changed is the definition of ‘controlled expenditure’ at the heart of the Bill. This is still the definition taken from the PPERA (2000) legislation, which many consider to be flawed.
The problem with this definition of controlled expenditure is that it catches any single issue campaigning that has become politically contentious (such as a local hospital closure, HS2, fox hunting or development budgets), not just truly partisan activity.
Controlled expenditure is “Expenditure that can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election for—
(i) one or more particular registered parties,
(ii) one or more registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties, or
(iii) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates.”
“A course of conduct may constitute [promoting or procuring electoral success] even though it does not involve any express mention being made of the name of any party or candidate.”
“In determining whether expenditure can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success it is immaterial that it can reasonably be regarded as intended to have another effect as well.”
This definition has not been changed in the House of Lords.
The retention of this definition means that all the subsequent provisions of the bill apply to a wide range of single issue campaigning activities, rather than just truly partisan political campaigning.
What has changed:
The government accepted the following changes when they were proposed in the Lords:
The following change was voted through in the face of government opposition, after being tabled by Lord Harries (crossbench), Lord Tyler (LibDem), Baroness Mallallieu (Labour), and Lord Cormack (Conservative):
Key remaining problems with the Bill
The changes set out above are significant. They reflect a significant amount of work on the part of many people – including 38 Degrees members, a huge range of civil society organisations, and a cross-party group of concerned peers. It is important that this progress is not undone.
However, the Lobbying Bill is still a bad piece of legislation. It will significantly reduce the scale of non-party campaigning possible for the year ahead of an election, including single issue campaigning. This is bad for democracy and constitutes an unjustifiable limit of freedom of speech.
Here’s quick summary of the big remaining problems:
Given the resistance of this government to further changes, at this late stage our best hopes for addressing these remaining problems are probably either that a future government repeals this law, or that significant changes are made following the post-2015 review.