Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Lobbying Bill: it's still got little to do with Lobbying

The critical Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill had another airing in Parliament yesterday. And interesting it was too, to see MPs on all sides turning on the appallingly-drafted legislation. 

Specially good to see such MPs as David Davis defending charities for what they are - independent non-political bodies working for public benefit - and not as part of some paranoid, McCarthy era-like conspiracy. 

In Mr. Davis's assessment, "It is a bill that has attracted opposition precisely because it goes to the heart of all that those organisations do — not what they stand for, but what they do and how they execute their duty in society". He is absolutely right. Speaking up for the people and causes they serve is a fundamental duty of charities, which is why this bill is such a threat to all of civil society- not some imagined cabal of lefties.

He cited opposition from charities as diverse as "Christian Aid and the British Humanist Association, Greenpeace and the Countryside Alliance, or the Royal British Legion and the Salvation Army". Hardly the stuff of 'reds under the bed' fantasies.

Does Benedict Brogan in yesterday's Telegraph really believe that "civil society" exists purely as a proxy battlefront for the "left's" side in "the shadow politics of the 21st century"? Even a blogger in the Spectator thought this was taking it far too far.

The more insidious side of this argument is in the approach to civil society that some Government MPs have suggested. They confuse natural democratic dialogue with electioneering, and suggest an "audit" of civil society to help them to root out any dissenting voices. The aspiration seems to be for "a little list of public enemies", as the Spectator put it, of charities whose charitable aims are obstructed by a government policy, and who thus campaign publicly to draw attention to such problems. But this is not evidence of a partisan campaign.

Where the weakness lies is in these critics' approach. Tackling political bias requires first a clear diagnosis. Rather than surreptitious briefings, it is way past time they produced an audit of civil society to back up their case. Evidence should come before action, and getting a measure of the problem – past and present – would help win an argument that is far better conducted in public debate than through intrusive and cumbersome legislation against charities. The government is right that we should know who is trying to influence our politics. And he is right that transparency is essential. The BBC, for example, could say more about the background of those who turn up on Today to criticise the government – or the opposition for that matter. Those hidden axes should be put on the table, along with the whetstone.

But let's be clear about the evidence. This Bill is opposed by everyone from Greenpeace to the Taxpayers' Alliance. The opposition to it does nothing to prove the fact that dissent against the government view constitutes coordinated, partisan campaigning. MPs of all parties, like David Davis, who recognise the difference between democratic dialogue and partisan agitation, will stand up for free speech and a new Bill that increases public trust in politics.

So lastly, we should not forget what the public wanted from this Bill before it appeared. The problem it is meant to fix is opaque corporate lobbying, not charities which are constantly working to be the most transparent contributors to political debate. 

Paul Flynn MP highlighted the Bill's conspicuous lack of substantive controls on corporate lobbying. He said part two of the Bill is part of a "Machiavellian game" to distract "from the main problem with the Bill", its lack of substance on legislating against lobbying. 

Charities should not be used to distract from the loss of trust caused by other groups.

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