The Blog

If This Is 'Transparency', Let Us Worry

Fortuitously the start of my work placement with Unlock Democracy, a lobby for constitutional reform, coincided with the reassembling of Parliament post-recess, which heralded the passage of the trumpeted "Transparency Bill" in to legislation. It revealed to me - a huge politics geek - a lot about how public policy is made and influenced in the United Kingdom.

Volunteering, offering free labour to nurture and progress a cause you love, is considered a crucial life experience, and not only for students maturing an ethical viewpoint or seeking a better idea of work; campaigning in some form or another is a key aspect of individual development.

Fortuitously the start of my work placement with Unlock Democracy, a lobby for constitutional reform, coincided with the reassembling of Parliament post-recess, which heralded the passage of the trumpeted "Transparency Bill" in to legislation. It revealed to me - a huge politics geek - a lot about how public policy is made and influenced in the United Kingdom. Equally, although the Bill offers intriguing insights in to the real processes of politics, I wish perhaps the past few days had been duller.

This legislation is worrying for three reasons. Firstly, it has been drafted by an isolated few who have obviously ignored any nuanced advice from charities and campaigns they only courted totemically, for Part 1 of the bill at least, in its pre-legislative phase, raising the case that the government must stop and rethink. Secondly, the actual content of the legislation itself is radically altering how the third sector can legitimately work with the political system, by the rankest means: dubious definition. Thirdly, it'll malign, stigmatize, and ultimately discourage participation in democracy and, most dangerously, voicing political critique.

Arguments put forth by Andrew Lansley, the ceremonial leader of the house during the Parliamentary debate last week, betray a misunderstanding of the potential effects of the bill; we can only guess whether or not this is coy. Claiming the campaigns of "third-parties", who nearly always welcome regulation - the lobby of the press is worth noting too in the interests of fairness - are "distorting activities" which pervert electoral outcomes, he argued that the Bill creates a "transparency regime" necessarily curtailing undue political influence. A reading of the bill exposes this is a lie and nauseating double standard.

Lansley reassures us that lobbying of arguably the greatest public interest, by Shell, WWF etc. would be disclosed by the contemporary practice of publishing ministerial meetings, but most lobbying activity salient to big public agendas and the capital flows involved i.e. environment, health, transport, is not pursued through ministers of the crown, or their permanent secretaries.

The contemporary regime, supposedly enhanced by the anything-but-a-proper-lobbying register is only the first drop of hardened water at the tip of a concealed iceberg. Alan Whitehead MP voiced to Parliament last week that 97% of lobbyists would not be obliged to sign the register, because the bill defines "lobbying" as only a specific kind undertaken by agencies. In-house lobbying is completely overlooked. bSkyb, Lynton Crosby and many other figures undermining public trust would remain untouched. The fact is that those civil servants who are actually writing the policy, who are most routinely targeted by lobbyists, are not even considered relevant by the proposals.

It's important to recognise that the industry and transparency campaigners alike are united against the bill and that the majority desire regulation and high visibility in order to legitimise their profession, which is a crucial part of liberal democratic politics, often done fairly, often undermined by the worst offenders. They believe that a comprehensive and robust lobbying register with industry regulation and a code of conduct is absolutely necessary in order to hold governments to account.

Uniting an unusual and unlikely constellation, boasting the tax payers alliance alongside the TUC, Guido Fawkes with Owen Jones, Part 2 of the bill is particularly callous, restricting action by charities and campaigns on the assumption that there's a problem in our society that they have undue electoral influence, although the government has sought absolutely no research to validate this idea.

It's widely known that during elections political parties and their candidates are not the only agents campaigning. An enormous range of "third-parties" advocate specific issues they consider important i.e. a local hopsital, electoral reform, tax policy etc. There is already effectively regulated in a way welcomed and adhered to by the sector. The new bill radically changes this and jeopardises charity action by introducing punitive rules.

Under existing law the explicit intention of a campaign is recognised in their activities. Generally they tend to promote a singular aim rather than explicitly backing parties or candidates. Under the bill, if an organisation like UnlockDemocracy produced a manifesto to raise the profile of constitutional reform issues, it could feasibly influence an electoral outcome if a voter was convinced by the case and equally by a candidate who expressed a passion for it. The intention of UnlockDemocracy is to promote the single aim, not a particular candidate, but under the new rules, this wouldn't really matter and UnlockDemocracy's campaigning would be prevented from happening, along with other organisations and local campaigners across civil society.

Moreover the regulated period won't just be during a general election campaign, for which important rules also already exist. Under the bill, the campaigning period considered relevant is a full year before (consider how many months there are till the election in 2015). This could gag organisations such as Shelter or Rethink holding the government to account, particularly as the definition of electioneering under the bill are so broad that nearly anything can count. Furthermore, not only are spending caps more than halved, what has to be included has drastically increased. Staff time, research, writing related to a campaign must all be included. Worst of all, if you're in an alliance with other organisations, your spends are aggregated. It's seemingly making ordinary campaigning crucial to political liberty impossible, or at the very least, feared.

Until the cabinet office, whose two-faced tributes to a 'big society' and the valiance of liberal democracy are betrayed by this badly drafted bill, accept there are serious amendments to be made, they are only leaving us to conclude that a piece of legislation ostensibly designed to make visible the influence of big business in politics, is itself a "distorting activity," politicking at its worst, designed to discourage criticism in the run up to a general election. It is they, not Oxfam or the British Legion who are the biggest threat to vibrant, participatory democracy in our polity.