Backlash grows against lobbying attack on unions

Portcullis House, where many MPs' offices are based.
Portcullis House, where many MPs' offices are based.
Ian Dunt By

Lobbying reform groups have reacted with outrage at the government's decision to tack on an attack on Labour's funding to its response to the ongoing lobbying scandal.

Trade unionists were shocked yesterday when the government revealed plans to tackle third party lobbying also included attached measures tightening up regulation of trade union membership lists and forcing parties to include union funding of leaflets in their election spending limits.

"Regulating the unions without touching big business is a joke. This kind of tit for tat politics is why nothing ever gets done," Darren Hughes, director of campaigns and research at the Electoral Reform Society, said.

"This measure will fall over because this Westminster game-playing always ends up fizzling out. We want the parties to think about doing what's good for the voter, not what they think might hurt each other politically."

Director of Unlock Democracy Peter Facey said: "We have grave concerns about the government’s decision to bolt on a number of tangential party funding reforms onto the lobbying bill, seemingly in an attempt to play party politics with the issue.

"All three parties have expressed support for a cap on donations. Any attempt to legislate for some aspects of party funding without tackling this fundamental issue should correctly be dismissed as political game playing and not be taken as sincere in our opinion."

While Labour relies on trade union funding for much of its revenue, the Conservatives and to a more limited extent, the Liberal Democrats instead rely on a smaller number of big donations from wealthy supporters.

Most campaigners for reform of party funding back changes to union funding but warn that without some sort of cap on donations the move would unfairly target Labour while leaving Lib Dem and Tory funding unaffected.

"David Cameron is simply wrong to attempt to conflate the issues of party funding and cleaning up the lobbying scandal," said Jon Trickett, shadow Cabinet Office minister.

"It's a shabby and panicked way to deal with such an important issue facing our democracy.

"The best way to proceed if you want to take big money out of politics and clean up the lobbying scandal is to act on a cross-party basis."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The government is cynically trying to exploit a political sleaze scandal to crack down on unions – which are democratic and accountable organisations. We already have some of the most restrictive union laws in all of Europe and this move smacks of naked opportunism.

"Ordinary people want action to curb the lobbying power of rich men and mighty corporations. It would be better if the government focused on this rather than taking a politically motivated swipe at unions."

With a bill expected to be published before the summer recess, the government appears set on pushing through the changes before next May, when the spending limit period ahead of the 2015 general election begins.
It follows the suspension of two Labour party members of the Lords and the resignation of an Ulster Unionist peer following a sting by the Sunday Times newspaper.

That came hot on the heels of ex-Tory MP Patrick Mercer's resignation of the party whip following a separate sting on Friday.

The House of Commons commission is checking the validity of 80 parliamentary passes related to all-party group activity following the revelations.

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