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A Porridge of Bureaucracy

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Last week the government was forced to introduce amendments to the Lobbying Bill to fix some of the problems in the legislation. But they've barely touched the surface. It remains a bad bill that gags charities and campaigners while letting vested interests off the hook.

Today in the Lords, the parts of the bill affecting NGOs and campaigning organisations will be debated, and Coalition ministers will again be forced to defend the indefensible.

This weekend The Observer reported a UN rapporteur describing the Bill as "stain" on democracy. He went on the say that although this has been "sold as a way to level the electoral playing field, the Bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens - particularly those engaged in civil society groups - to express their collective will. In doing so, it threatens to tarnish the United Kingdom's democracy."

Part two of the Bill was supposed to shine a light on campaigning around elections, but will instead tie up voluntary organisations and charities in red-tape - and that's despite the amendments so far forced on the government by outrage from within the third sector. Hundreds of NGOs are still going to have to register with the Electoral Commission and make detailed reports of spending (including on staff) by constituency, even though this is not how they work. The very complexity of this Bill is designed to bog down these organisations in a porridge of bureaucracy.

The overall effect will be reluctance from the sector to challenge government action. No wonder there's speculation that the real motivation is a fundamental reluctance on the part of the Coalition to defend its record ahead of the next election. We'll be looking therefore for further changes to the Bill on staffing costs, as well as bringing in measures that would make constituency limits more workable.

Some peers are keen to exclude charities from electoral law entirely but the Charity Commission, the Electoral Commission and the Commission on Civil Society led by Crossbencher Bishop Harries are all opposed. They say that this amendment is not the best way of protecting charities, and that it would open up the possibility that people will see setting up a charitable arm as a way of avoiding electoral rules. Something that will of course, undermine them in the long term.

It is a view that has been echoed by Unlock Democracy, which says that charity exclusion could "open up the very real potential for corporate lobbyists to exploit this loophole and actually set up charities to create the type of Super-PAC style funds that this Bill is purported to address". We'll therefore be trying to make changes that benefit the rest of civil society as well as charities.

This is a bad Bill that the government should be ashamed of. It introduces a register of lobbyists so limited that it is not worthy of the name and might actually make things worse. It wraps unions in red tape. And it means companies and trade associations can continue to lobby in secret while charities and campaigners are gagged. It really is a vivid example of how David Cameron and his ministers always stand up for all the wrong people.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister in the House of Lords

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