Why the TUC wants an urgent meeting with government on the Lobbying Bill
Proposals in a bill slipped out as Parliament broke for the Summer, and due to be debated as soon as MPs return, will gag the TUC, trade unions and every campaign group in the country in what can only be seen as a “chilling attack on free speech”.
The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill will make organising the 2014 annual TUC Congress or organising a TUC national demonstration in the 12 months before the 2015 General Election into criminal offences.
The Bill does this by making three changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisation in the 12 months before a general election – breaching these will become a criminal offence:
- Changing the definition of what counts as campaigning – at present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The new Bill will instead regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy could affect how people vote, this will severely limit any organisation’s ability to criticise government policies in the run up to an election – not just unions, but charities, NGOs and local campaign groups.
- Reducing the spending limit for third party campaigners to £390,000 – the amount that third party campaign groups can spend in the year before an election will be reduced by more than half to £390,000.
- Including staff time and office costs in expenditure limits – currently only the costs of election directed materials, adverts and activities are regulated. The Bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now also be included in the limit. £390,000 may buy a lot of leaflets but any major event involves significant staff time.
The notes on clauses for the Bill have more detail of how it would work.
As the costs of all organisations involved in an event are added together and this total counts against the limit for each group involved, the 2014 TUC Congress or a national demonstration would not just take the TUC over the annual limit but each member union as well. And whilst the TUC Congress will be regulated, political parties’ own conferences happening in the same month would be given an exemption in election spending limits.
Organisations that campaign locally face even tougher challenges. Spending has to be allocated under tough limits by constituency. Every penny of spending will have to be tallied and reported – this will severely limit campaigns such as those run by Hope Not Hate against the BNP, or local grass-roots campaigns such as those against hospital closures or road building.
It is an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. Instead it is a crude and politically partisan attack on trade unions, particularly those unions who affiliate to the Labour Party.
But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election. No organisation that criticises a government policy will be able to go overdrawn on their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.
The Committee stage will take place on the floor of the House for the three days of TUC Congress the week after. This is no coincidence. The government broke pledges that the lobbying bill would be published in draft form and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee. Even though the restrictions on third party campaigning make the Bill a constitutional measure, there has been no consultation process or cross-party talks.
The definition of the term “for electoral purposes” which is inserted into section 85(3) of PPERA by subsection (3) is cast in broad terms so as to capture all expenditure by a recognised third party that is incurred for the purpose of, or in connection with promoting or procuring the electoral success or enhancing the standing of a registered political party or parties or candidates. It doesn’t rely solely on the intent of the third party; the effect of the expenditure must also be considered. Any campaign expenditure which satisfies the definition outlined by new section 85(3) will be counted as controlled expenditure, regardless of whether those incurring the expenditure actually intended it (or also intended it) for another purpose.
Any expenditure on a matter set out in this list during the relevant period for an election will need to be accounted for as controlled expenditure. Thus, for example the full fees and costs in the 365 days before a UK general parliamentary election associated with any advertising, unsolicited material to electors, or manifestos, or with the organisation of any rallies or events, would count as controlled expenditure.
Today we’re seeking an urgent meeting with Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith to protest at the way this damaging Bill is being rushed through without the proper consultation. Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies, but we expect there is going to be a very wide revulsion at this outrageous attack on freedom of speech.