Today Big Brother Watch’s logo appears alongside some groups you might not expect us to share a platform with – from Labour List to the League Against Cruel Sports, the Taxpayers Alliance to Christian Aid. The reason we are all united? The Lobbying Bill, which the House Of Lords begins debating today.
We’ve previously warned about the threat to freedom of speech this bill poses, bringing into regulation organisations that campaign on policy issues at local and national levels, not to mention blogs like ConservativeHome. Their blog this morning summed up the position aptly:
“There is a perfectly valid debate to be had about lobbying, and about how best to make politics transparent. But the Bill is so poorly drafted, and its Parliamentary timetable so rushed, that in its current form it poses a real regulatory threat to people who are simply taking part in our national life by campaigning on issues of legitimate concern to them.”
When the best reassurance is that the law will not be enforced to the full, or that an unaccountable regulator will have huge discretion on interpreting it, then clearly Parliament is failing to properly legislate.
That problems exist is no surprise – the legislation, particularly Part 2, were not consulted upon, there was no pre-legislative scrutiny and the parliamentary timetable has barely allowed for a debate, let alone effective scrutiny.
While the Government has tabled several amendments, the Bill remains an unclear, rushed and fundamentally dangerous piece of legislation. A wide range of organisations remain united in urging the House of Lords to grasp this issue, while still asking the Government to pause Part 2 to allow for meaningful scrutiny and considered drafting.
Criticism has not been limited to outside of Parliament. Graham Allen, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, has said: “This bill is an object lesson in how not to produce legislation. There was little or no consultation with those affected. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny. And the bill is now being rushed through the House in a way that indicates a lack of respect for Parliament. We can all agree on the need for transparency about lobbying and effective regulation of third-party spending. But this bill contains serious flaws.”
Equally, Hywel Francis, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, said: “My Committee’s view is that the overall effect of part 2, on lower spending limits, lower thresholds for registration and increased numbers of campaigning activities, may well be a chilling and adverse effect on free speech and freedom of assembly at a particularly important time—the run-up to general elections.”
Freedom of speech, particularly where issues of public policy are concerned, is too precious a freedom to undermine with rushed legislation. Existing law is already unclear in this area and the new bill exacerbates these problems. Legislation should be clear and certain – this legislation is neither, and that uncertainty will silence groups who cannot afford to take the risk of being found in breach of the law. Public debate will be much poorer as a result.