MPs were dramatically called back to Parliament early this year from their summer constituency work to debate the important issue of Syria; but in the following weeks it has been the Government’s ‘Lobbying Bill’ which has been debated most in the House of Commons, and is an issue which I have received over 80 emails and letters about from constituents, local charities and campaign groups.
 
We have hundreds of charity workers and campaigners in Hounslow and many, like me, are greatly concerned by this Bill. The Bill was meant to be an attempt to clean up politics and make it more transparent – which I have previously called for – but it has ended up restricting the way people can engage in politics. Indeed, constituents have been calling it a ‘gagging bill’ on campaign groups, making it harder or even impossible for them to carry on their important work, and preventing non-politicians from speaking up on the everyday issues or the big decisions that affect us all. This is wrong on so many levels.
 
The Government published their ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Administration Bill’ just a day before Parliament broke up for the summer recess, and so it has been rushed through the House of Commons without consultation or engagement with the public. Where previously only those organisations directly involved in engaging in elections must register as a Third Party with the Electoral Commission, under the new proposals in the Bill every organisation which seeks to influence opinion in the 12 months before a General Election – either directly or as a consequence of its actions – must now register. The amount an organisation can spend is also being drastically cut, yet the scope of costs which have to be accounted for – such as staff time – has dramatically widened. I support taking the big money out of politics – but the big money today is spent by political parties, not charities and campaign groups, and so this Bill does nothing to address this problem, and is a missed opportunity.
 
For local campaigners and London charities, this Bill will have a chilling effect on our democracy and quality of national debate. It will prevent groups from running important and legitimate campaigns, as well as reducing political engagement. Large charities will be hit with new financial rules which mean that they will have to pull back from any public facing activity. Important groups such as the Royal College of Nursing could be stopped from warning residents for example about cuts to nurses at West Middlesex Hospital, organisations like the Daycare Trust stopped from highlighting how the Government has driven up the cost of childcare for local families, and voices such as the National Union of Students will no longer be able to hold the Liberal Democrats to account for their broken promises over tuition fees. For smaller Hounslow charities, they could be deterred from campaigning or engaging at all with candidates because they fear they won’t be able to afford the administrative burden required to report activity.
 
What is even more shocking is that this Bill is being rushed through Parliament in time for the 2015 General Election, meaning that from next year charities and campaign groups will be ‘gagged’ and the Government can try and hide its record and policies from voters.
 
I believe in a cleaner and more transparent politics, and that is why I support Labour’s call for real reform and statutory register of professional lobbyists, with a clear code of conduct backed by sanctions. I also believe in a better politics which is more engaging and more democratic, and called for this in the debate in the House of Commons earlier this month.
 
Many MPs rightly spoke out against this Bill in the House of Commons – with Shadow Leader of the House Angela Eagle MP calling it ‘one of the worst pieces of legislation’ she’s ever seen any Government produce in a very long time – but it shamefully still passed to the Lords. Even though there were some Tory rebels, not enough voted against their ‘gagging bill’.
 
With such local uproar, and the Government rushing the Bill through Parliament without giving local campaigners a chance to voice their concerns, I will be holding a public meeting next month in Hounslow on the issue to listen to residents’ concerns, and will continue to campaign against this Bill. If you would like to attend, or have any thoughts on the issue, please do get in touch.