James Legge is the Director of Political Affairs at the Countryside Alliance
The Government’s self-imposed five week pause of the Lobbying Bill is coming to an end next week. To mark the occasion, the Harries Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement is publishing its second report, suggesting various changes to the law to get the 100 or so campaigning groups who oppose it off the Government’s back.
Among the tactfully-worded recommendations, you get a clear sense that most people, including Conservatives in both Houses I expect, are somewhat bemused by this piece of legislation, and are left wondering why the Prime Minister wants to have this particular fight.
If there is a really good reason, we’re all still waiting to hear what it is. So far, we’ve been given a raft of different possible explanations, including the need to restrict trade unions redirecting their political fund to marginal seats; the need to prevent American style Super-PACs; the need to stop UKIP funding massive anti-EU billboards, and the need to stop NUS going after Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam.
I can see the reason for addressing these issues, since nobody wants to see a situation where one group or individual can start spending a bucketful during elections to secure party political advantage. That money should, of course, be channelled through political parties in an open and transparent way. However, this Bill will not address any of these problems.
The political situation caused by this Bill is dire. Apart from the colossal opposition it has attracted (100 campaigning groups and charities are now backing the Commission), no one seems to be in charge, save for a disparate set of well-meaning Peers, who spend their evenings holed up with NGOs trying to craft amendments to this bit or that. Is Andrew Lansley still leading on the Bill, or is it Greg Clark? It is far from clear.
All these uncertainties are reflected in the Bill itself. The vagaries of the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) have always been controversial. If the Government had done even an hour of pre-legislative scrutiny before they published the Lobbying Bill (even maybe just a Google search for PPERA), they’d know that that Act was flawed (fourth result from the top) and hard to enforce despite the best efforts of the Electoral Commission. Why, then, was it allowed to form the basis of this Bill, which compounds the problem by introducing draconian restrictions on campaign spending without setting out clear definitions of which activities would be controlled?
We’re told by our erstwhile Peers, and all credit to them for seeing this situation as the political car-crash that it clearly is, that much of the detail that is missing will be worked-up by the Electoral Commission before the general election. Forgive me, but I thought quangos took their lead from primary legislation, not the other way around. The Bill needs to be clear enough so that ConservativeHome, local hospital campaigns, or the Countryside Alliance don’t need to spend a fortune on lawyers to be told “we’re not sure – the law isn’t clear”. This is a matter of the criminal law, and clarity is also essential as a matter of justice.
Had PPERA been amended, as the Bill proposes at the time the Hunting Bill was making its final way through Parliament, our opposition to the proposed ban would have been severely curtailed, if not silenced. Being cynical, one might suggest that if a future government wants to do something which would provoke considerable protest, such as banning hunting, then it should do so during the regulated period – when the ability of a campaign group to oppose it would be heavily restricted or even silenced altogether.
This Bill has numerous other implications which could be highlighted – though, sadly, space does not allow. Lord Harries and the Commission have filled 63 pages with concerns as well as recommendations for the Government suggesting how Ministers could fix this Bill. I sincerely hope that whoever is now in charge of it has Lord Harries round for tea this week – and listens to what he has to say on behalf of hundreds of organisations such as ours.