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A threat to democracy

30 August 2013

THERE is growing concern about the workings of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which has its Second Reading next Tuesday. This focuses on the Bill's ill-thought-out second section, which covers third-party lobbying during an election year. First, the point at which a campaigning body must register drops from £10,000 to £5000. Second, the amount that can be spent nationally is capped at £390,000, instead of £988,000, as at present. Third, whatever is spent would come out of the political parties' electoral budget, and would therefore need their approval. And there are a number of niggling things: the full cost of a joint campaign by several charities is set against the tally of each of them; election years, including for local government and the European Parliament, are frequent and not always predictable; the new rules place costly and burdensome administrative duties on the charities; and so on.

Objections have come from a range of charities, among them the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Tearfund, Oxfam, and the Salvation Army. Last Friday, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Chloë Smith MP, attempted to reassure campaigners: "Charities will still be able to give support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve their charitable purposes. The Bill does not regulate attempts to engage with the policy of any political party, having a view on any aspect of the policy of a party, or any attempt to influence the policy of a party. Such activity would only be captured if it was promoting the electoral success of, or enhancing the standing of, political parties or candidates."

This seems clear enough, except that the wording of the Bill allows for a much less generous interpretation. For example, it states that campaigning that is deemed to enhance a candidate's or a party's chances of success comes into the scope of the Bill "even though it does not involve any express mention being made of the name of any party or candidate". One can imagine instances of campaigns that are subsequently adopted by one political party. Indeed, this is often the object of a charity's campaigning. At that point, the Electoral Commission, which is to police this legislation, might well decide that the charity's campaigning was promoting the party's electoral success.

The intention of the Bill is clear and laudable: to regulate political campaigning by proxy. But at a time when all parties lament the lack of political engagement by the electorate, the consequences of this poorly drafted legislation might seriously damage the democratic process by silencing people's voices.

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