By Mark Wallace
Follow Mark on Twitter.
Today will see the Second Reading of the Lobbying Bill (or the “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill”, as it's known by those with breath to waste).
Alongside representatives of a wide range of organisations, including the British Legion, Guide Dogs, the Wildlife Trust, Oxfam, the Children’s Society, the British Youth Council, the Quakers in Britain and LabourList, I will be going to Portcullis House to raise our concerns about it with MPs .
It's now two weeks since Paul warned of the threat the Bill poses to the independence of blogs like ConservativeHome. The more we examine it, the more damaging it looks. As David Allen Green wrote for us last Friday:
"…unless the government re-thinks its proposals, then a number of bodies – such as Conservative Home – are going to be caught up in misconceived and illiberal legal regime."
This isn't just about blogs – though for obvious reasons we believe the blogosphere should not be strangled by regulatory red tape. The Bill is so loose in its language and so vague in its drafting that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way said to potentially affect an election will be caught up in the rules it lays out.
Remarkably, it takes no account of the intention of the organisation when judging whether its actions are regulated. If you print posters and organise public meetings on a local issue, with the result that one or more local candidates in an electon picks your issue up – even if you never asked them to – that victory could be interpreted as meaning your campaign might influence an election result. Overnight, you would become subject to a strict and complex system of red tape, with serious sanctions for breaching it.
That means regulatory intervention on everyone from charities, micro single issue groups opposing a bypass or supporting a new bus route through to, yes, online commentators like the ConHome team.
The impact would range from the niggling and wasteful (such as the requirement to fill out forms reporting even zero donations on a weekly basis during an election period) right through to criminal sanctions. Even the Electoral Commission has expressed concern about the "uncertainty" the Bill would create – and it is the body which will be charged with administrating the new rules.
Essentially every aspect of life is, or can be, political in one way or another. At a time when we are struggling to encourage people to become involved in politics, bombarding them with paperwork and the fear of prosecution for doing so would be a gross mistake.
Plenty of people believe that there is a need for new legislation on lobbying, while plenty of others point out that what scandals there have been in recent years were elaborate media stings exposing sins which are covered by existing laws. Neither side's aims are served by restricting the free speech of the third party groups who contribute so much to the vibrancy of our democracy
> For any MPs interested in this issue, Mark and representatives from a range of other organisations will be available to discuss our concerns in Room T of Portcullis House from 10 – 11.30 this morning.