Comment: The lobbying bill is a Trojan horse for an attack on free speech

By Nigel Stanley

Back in June several peers were suspended and an MP resigned the whip after they'd been caught in yet another lobbying sting.

In response the government proposed the lobbying bill – details of which were published as parliament broke up for the summer recess. The proposals will be debated in early September, with the bill's committee stage taking place during the TUC's 2013 Congress. This timing is no coincidence, and says everything about the real intent of the bill.

Lobbying is a toxic issue that needs to be addressed. But this bill does nothing to clean up lobbying or to keep big money out of politics.

We initially feared that the transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill would be a crude party political attack on unions. But whilst it does include plenty more red tape for unions (and employers), the provisions go much, much wider.

The TUC believes the proposals gag the TUC, unions and every campaign group, and are a chilling attack on free speech. 

The bill will, for example, make organising the 2014 annual TUC Congress or organising a TUC national demonstration in the 12 months before the 2015 general election criminal offences.

The bill does this by making three changes to the regulation of campaigning by non-party organisations in the year running up to a general election. Breaching these would become a criminal offence.

Firstly, it redefines campaigning. At present only activities designed with the intent of influencing an election result are regulated. The bill will instead regulate activity that may affect the result of an election. As any criticism of government policy can affect how people vote, this would severely limit any organisation's ability to campaign against government policies before an election – tying the hands not just of unions, but also of charities, NGOs and local campaign groups.

The bill also slashes the spending limit for third party campaigners by more than 50% to £390,000. However by widening the list of costs included in expenditure limits, organisations would be even more restricted in what they can do. Presently only the costs of election-directed materials and activities such as leaflets and advertisements are regulated. The bill proposes that staff time and other costs should now be included within the limit – £390,000 may buy a lot of leaflets but any major event also involves significant staff time. This is why a national TUC demonstration would be likely to  fall foul of the new rules. 

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 TUC's 2014 Congress would not just take the TUC over the annual limit, it would do the same to each of its 54 member  unions. While the TUC conference will be regulated, political party conferences areto 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 would severely limit campaigns such as those run by Hope not Hate against BNP candidates or local grassroots campaigns such as those against hospital closures or roadbuilding. 

The sum total of these changes will have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech. As a result of this bill, no organisation that criticises a government policy or that of a political party ¬will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.

It's hard to believe that ministers across the coalition have intentially signed up to such a draconian and illiberal bill. We cannot have democratic debate closed down for everyone bar a few political parties in the year running up to a general election.

Once the affect of the proposals is better known around both Westminster and the country, we hope ministers will take stock and go back to the drawing board. Making an effort to consult stakeholders, building genuine cross-party consensus and allowing genuine parliamentary scrutiny of such an important constitutional issue would be a good place to start.

Nigel Stanley is the TUC's head of campaigns.

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