Design = to intend or construct according to plan
Default = an action taken in the absence of choice or sufficient awareness
In recent weeks many have set out clearly and convincingly why the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is receiving its second reading today, is nothing short of a direct threat to the voice of civil society, freedom of speech, and the fundamentals of democracy. Here is a selective recap in case you missed them:
"By design or default this Bill will severely restrict the ability of organisations like HOPE not hate to function and combat fascism, racism and other forms of extremism. It is nothing more than a Gagging Bill, limiting democracy, political involvement and criticism." 1
"Part 2 of the bill either needs to be amended radically or derailed in its entirety. It is an almost existential threat to charity campaigning." 2
"It is tempting to think this is just poor wording, but it follows other attacks on the freedom of the voluntary sector to engage in policy debate..." 3
So is this Bill a deliberate threat or simply ill thought-out and lacking in clarity?
The Cabinet Office has stated that the bill will not prevent charities from supporting policies advocated by political parties, and that charities will not face major new restrictions on campaigning. However, the text of the draft bill suggests otherwise. The Government has a real opportunity to clarify their intentions by taking this bill off the track now, taking time to consult on and enable proper scrutiny of their proposals. They can ensure the bill has the stated and desired effect of stamping out lobbying sleaze - and is not a gagging mechanism.
I am a glass half full person and a problem solver but am finding it very hard to not feel cynical when a bill like this is being pushed through as quickly as possible. It was presented to Parliament on 17 July, the day before it's summer recess began and will have its second reading today, the day after the House returns. This means there has been no proper consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny.
It is ironic that a government bill about transparency lacks transparency and clarity about its intentions. We already know that it would fail to capture the vast amount of lobbying and lobbyists. A recent study by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) showed that Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' ministers held 988 meetings with lobbyists in 2012, but only two were with consultant lobbyists, leaving the other 986 without a need to register under the current proposals. APPC said "The Government's plans are likely to result in less transparency with fewer organisations and individuals actually having to register than under the current self-regulatory regime the lobbying industry operates." 4
The bill fails to tackle the elite privilege that is so embedded in today's politics: back-door networks that permeate the decision making process; private dinners; and elite clubs offering lobbyists "unrivalled networking opportunities". 5 Instead, there are clear indications that it will prevent charities, small groups and local communities from speaking up on issues that matter to them. As Owen Jones said in a recent piece "There is no question that British democracy is at the mercy of wealthy and corporate interests, but the Lobbying Bill takes aim at our hard-won freedoms instead." 6
I'm even more concerned that this Bill is indicative of a wider mood.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a key tool for people wanting to expose truths and improve openness and transparency. (What would we know of MP's expenses without it?) It is potentially under threat due to Government plans to make it easier for authorities to refuse requests on costs grounds and limit the "inappropriate burden" they can be. But what exactly is an "inappropriate burden"? Public authorities are already protected against vexatious requests.
Unlock Democracy says "three of [the Government's] core proposals would make it easier for authorities to refuse all Freedom of Information Act claims, while the fourth has already been dealt with by new guidelines from the Information Commissioner. The effect of these new proposals would be to make it far harder to get information out of the government - especially for local and specialist journalists." 7
Judicial Review is used by people to challenge decisions that they disagree with, demonstrated by the recent Save Lewisham Hospital campaign and the longer-standing No Third Runway campaign. But this too is under threat. David Cameron announced plans to cut back the amount of judicial reviews at court - but Judicial Review is about justice, not numbers. This was compounded by a derisory six-week consultation period on this vital issue, run over the Christmas period.
These challenges to some of the fundamental tools of our democracy form a worrying trend that make it difficult to feel wholly convinced that there is not some grand design behind all this.
We do not want a return to the nineteenth century where charities are simply about sympathy and philanthropy. Nor do we want a society where the ability of people to legitimately express views, concerns and opposition is restricted. Charities have a rich campaigning history and are a vital voice for people who may otherwise be marginalised or underrepresented.
So is it design or default? You can only act by default if you don't know or have no choice. The growing mound of evidence, including legal and expert opinion, on the damaging impacts of the draft bill, means that not only do we all know, but our government and politicians of all parties now know as well. Let's see now who will stand up to preserve fundamental democratic rights.
4. "APPC statement on Lobbying Transparency Bill etc": http://www.appc.org.uk/appc-statement-on-lobbying-transparency-etc-bill-17-july-2013/