The Independent View: Lobbying Bill protects multinational corporate interests at expense of charity campaigns

The Robin Hood Tax campaign is facing a tough opponent – not just from the usual source of the financial sector and their allies, but from legislation currently going through the House of Lords.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is due to go to its report stage next week. The Robin Hood Tax campaign cannot support it for a number of reasons, and we urge peers of all political colours not to rush the bill through just to get it passed in time for the 2015 election. The legislation would hamper our campaigning abilities whilst empowering those of our richer opponents. On whatever side of the Financial Transaction Tax debate you sit, this cannot have been the bill’s original intention.

The following is quite technical, but since these technicalities are so threatening to our campaign and others like it they are worth setting out – particularly for any peers considering the legislation.

Firstly, what the government are saying about ‘controlled expenditure’ as has functioned under the terms of the 2000 Political Parties, Referendums and Elections Act is only half the story at best. They claim that the 2000 Act – and the proposed lobbying bill – does not inhibit a campaigning group’s activities. This is patently false. Almost any and everything a campaigning group does in the way of advocating a particular issue can fall under the terms of existing, but particularly the new, legislation. As the Civil Society Commission have acknowledged there is currently a significant amount of legal ambiguity as to what charities, NGOs and the like can and cannot do, but under the new bill a draconian element is to be added to this mush.

The bill introduces new provisions over ‘controlled expenditure.’ This reduces the amount any charity or NGO can spend in the year before a General Election by a minimum of 60%, from just under one million pounds to around £390,000. But it also massively disincentivises the type of partnership working and ‘making every pound stretch further’ ethos that politicians usually praise to the hilt.

As a coalition of over one hundred charities, NGOs, and other civil society groups Robin Hood relies on joint campaigning. Yet under the legislation two campaigns each putting forward, for example, £10,000 towards a joint campaign will both see £20,000 counted against their individual spending threshold. This not only means the Robin Hood campaign will reach its spending threshold quicker, but it could potentially deter prospective coalition members from donating money. There has been some suggestion smaller charities will be exempt from such provisions, but we await the detail. As it stands charities will be forced to retreat to single issue campaigns which one might suggest suits politicians then more able to play one off against the other.

Secondly, the bill totally undermines the very type of charitable, volunteerist ethos that was at the heart of the Big Society agenda. Work carried out on a pro bono or in-kind basis for a given campaign will still count towards the new spending limits, even when (as is normal) such people waive their fee. For the Robin Hood Tax campaign, a recent promotional film written by Richard Curtis and starring Bill Nighy would likely fall under the provisions of the bill. Suffice to say, to account for even one day of these two people’s time, let alone hire a set, cameras, camera and support staff and so forth, is not cheap, and could well take up the entire campaigning budget for a year. It is through such celebrity led endeavours that charity, third sector and NGO campaigns often get our message across – and the bill robs us of that opportunity.

The Financial Transaction Tax is also a clear instance where, without freedom of speech for civil society, private sector interest can set the terms of debate. The UK media is rarely shy about latching on to poorly researched, nakedly self-serving pieces on behalf of the financial sector which inflate, exaggerate and occasionally invent arguments as to why the FTT allegedly could not work. They bring forward nonsensical numbers regarding the FTT’s theoretical impact on British jobs or GDP (somehow the success stories of Brazil’s very real £10bn a year FTT and growing economy never seem to make copy) in the knowledge that they will likely get coverage.

Without NGOs having the ability to provide balance this fast becomes the story. And if such a document is put out by a New York bank, or the Brussels office of a leading consultancy firm, it will not be properly regulated by the bill – yet many UK papers will still cover it. The debate on the FTT thereby becomes extremely one sided in the year prior to the General Election with politicians, potentially, being bullied by private sector capital (through the threat of lower donations) into taking an anti-FTT line when they actually believe it would be good for Britain. This is hardly the ideal state of affairs for a twenty-first century democracy.

The bill would seriously curtail the efforts of the Robin Hood tax campaign (and hundreds of charities and NGOs like it). Yet 2014/15 is a period which will see an EU-11 FTT introduced and high level development (and G8/G20) summits where the use of €34bn of estimated revenue will be debated. The world does not run to the British electoral cycle timetable. For campaigns with any form of international dimension the bill is extremely problematic.

We urge peers to re-consider this hasty bill which will bring a whole series of negative consequences. In light of such pressure the government has indicated it may offer concessions in some areas. But even if these changes are accepted (no guarantee as yet) there are, as NCVO note, ‘still some big problems with the bill, which need to be addressed in order to make it workable and ensure charities and voluntary organisations are not deterred from undertaking campaigning activities.’ It is not too late to go further.

 

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Richard Carr is a Policy Adviser at Stamp Out Poverty. For those who wish to read further, it is worth consulting the short FTT myth-buster Stamp Out Poverty have produced: http://www.stampoutpoverty.org/?lid=11539

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16 Comments

  • Many of the very well funded NGOs that lobby our politicians are indistinguishable from multinational corporate interests, even if they have wangled charity status.

  • The point of this bit of the law is to require AstroTurf groups that exist to get round the spending limits that apply to political parties at election time, to declare their income and expenditure.

    If you think it is drafted too broadly by all means suggesta better wiring. But since the definition of this activity is unchanged from PPERA, I am unpersuaded by all this.

  • I would be really grateful if someone could explain what the restrictions actually are and who they apply to? Do they apply to pressure groups like the TPA and Migration watch (which are not funded through charities and so dont get gift aid)?

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 10th Jan '14 - 4:44pm

    @Richard carr

    “The Financial Transaction Tax is also a clear instance where, without freedom of speech for civil society, private sector interest can set the terms of debate”

    Excellent post. It is outrageous that the Liberal Democrats are supporting the Tories in their attempt through gagging legislation to suppress and restrict freedom of speech in the run up to a general election. Are there really no depths to which they will not sink, no sacred principles they will not be betray?
    I urge all Liberal Democrat peers to support Lord Harries’ amendments. Better still, the wholly undemocratic bill should be thrown out. It is a squalid affront to our nation’s democracy and turns Britain into a banana republic.

  • Thanks for the additional technical details; this is indeed a squalid Bill as Mack says and should horrify all liberals who value freedom of expression and a free civil society. Let’s remember the Bill has three sections covering (1) consultant lobbyists, (2) Non-Party Campaigns – i.e. charities and community groups, and (3) Trade Unions. Notice anything missing? Yes, large companies aren’t covered.

    Are we seriously to believe that lobbying by voluntary groups poses a threat to the integrity of the system but that lobbying by large corporations is just fine and dandy and simply isn’t a problem? That is such a ridiculous proposition that it simply cannot be the real reason for this Bill. It looks much more like a big fat gift to the vested interests that some in the Coalition bow down before.

    Chris – So, you don’t like some big NGOs that behave, you say, like multinationals. Fair enough, but what has that got to do with this Bill?

    Joe – Is there any evidence that AstroTurf groups are a problem in this country? My impression (and I could be wrong) is that they are workaround by corporate interests in the US in response to the specific laws they have governing campaign funding. Our system is different and in any case is hamstringing civil society groups a fair price to pay for a Bill that may or may not work to contain AstroTurf.

  • Chris: you have a point, but it’s overstated. I’d agree that, for example, Age UK behaves a lot of the time like a conventional rather big business, Barnardo’s can squeeze out small local charities that are responsive to local concerns and the RSPB is a barely democratic juggernaut. All these organisations, though, also do good work which is not profit-motivated. Besides, one thing they are not is multinational – and most charities that are truly multinational, like Greenpeace, are not huge and don’t dominate anywhere.

  • Michael Parsons 11th Jan '14 - 11:44am

    In the good old days of Gagging Acts, transportation of trade union orators, punishment for formation of a Friendly Society etc. newspapers appointed a “prison editor”: someone already inside who took formal responsibility for the publication. Time to revive the tradition?

  • Good article on the flaws of yet another poorly thought through bill. It is unacceptable to strangle campaigning by charity groups on the one hand and then permit politicians to take the cash of corporate entities with the other.

    For anyone putting this name to the Bill, they should consider themselves to have failed in ensuring the UK has a healthy democracy. The measure is nakedly political and short-termist from attempting to handcuff some lobbyists but not others who operate below the media radar, some charity funded campaigning but not corporate-financed lobbying and trade unions but not foreign-born donors. To me, it succumbs to clientelism just in time for 2015.

    The only sensible option for the Bill is to dump it and permit parliamentary time to be used for things that really matter to people.

  • Andrew Colman 11th Jan '14 - 5:56pm

    Chris wrote “Many of the very well funded NGOs that lobby our politicians are indistinguishable from multinational corporate interests, even if they have wangled charity status.”

    This is an absurd statement. NGOs are funded my thousands or millions of donors or supporters. Multinationals are run by a handful (10s) of a few very rich and powerful people.

    It reminds me of Nazi Germans blaming Polish provocation for their invasion of Poland in 1939, as if the two sides were equal in military strength.

  • It is perfectly reasonable to have non-party organisations register and work within limits on spending. What is unreasonable is the terms of registration and the levels of those limits.

    @Joe Otten: The definition of activity requiring registration is NOT unchanged from PPERA. It has been returned to the PPERA definition after hard arguing, though that looked like a sop, given the other rubbish that remains.

    Campaigning groups of various sorts are still required to maintain full records for electoral purposes for a full year before an election (except this year, where some fiddle for the Scottish referendum has been slotted in), whereas parties only have to do so for the brief election period. Groups have to include staff costs where parties do not. The complexity of accounting for coalitions of groups, where each organisation is responsible for the activities and spending of all, is likely to be a significant restraint even on the provision of information.

    It doesn’t cover big companies, who can second their staff to government departments and ignore all this stuff, and it is unlikely to have any effect on Lord Ashcroft (for example).

    I have yet to hear any explanation of how the accounting requirements are applied in the case of an early election, which is still possible even in the world of fixed-term parliaments.

  • Andrew Colman 11th Jan '14 - 6:06pm

    I find the lobbying bill “anti liberal and anti democratic and thus consider .any MP who supports this bill is not a true liberal democrat. The bill needs to be scrapped entirely in its current form and a restart is needed with careful consideration of who the “real villains” are.

    It is the job of government to serve the electorate and business to produce goods and services people want. Thus corporations should not be lobbying politicians.By doing so they are effectively cheating the market and stealing from the community. How to stop this corruption is not clear, but it is clear that targeting campaign groups is wrong.

  • Michael Parsons 12th Jan '14 - 11:31am

    If a campaign group registered as a political party, or described itself as undertaking a political defence of its aims, does it escape this legislation? Or can 32 degrees be prosecuted but Raving Loonies not? Could we all stand as RL’s?How about an Anti-Politics Party? Stand for a Clean Benches Movement, campaigning that if no candidate gets more than 51% of the votes of the local registered electorate that seat should be declared vacant. Now that would be a democratic reform, giving our arrogant minority oligarchs the boot.

  • I despise any LibDem MP who does not do his/her detailed homework on this Bill and does not vote not according to his/her own informed judgement and conscience, but votes as told by whips party bosses .

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 12th Jan '14 - 10:25pm

    @ Tom Voute,

    I assume that you’ll therefore not despise those MPs who, having thoroughly read the Bill and agree with it, then vote for it. I also assume that you will equally despise MPs from other parties who vote as their whip tells them.

    But seriously, the volume of legislation that passes through Parliament makes it impossible for any one MP to read and understand all of it, especially as much of it is technical in nature. Usually, each party will have individuals, or groups who lead on an issue, and they will advise the rest of the group accordingly on how to proceed. Much of that will come down to trust in one’s colleague(s). And that’s why most MPs follow a whip.

    Frankly, I have concerns about this Bill too, and have worked with Unlock Democracy to help improve it, but using such emotive language isn’t going to have anywhere near as much impact as constructive lobbying.

  • A Social Liberal 12th Jan '14 - 11:04pm

    Mark said

    “the volume of legislation that passes through Parliament makes it impossible for any one MP to read and understand all of it, especially as much of it is technical in nature.”

    I might have some sympathy with this position if it was not for the fact that legal advice has been proffered to MPs by some of the charities concerned. I have myself made damned sure my MP (a tory) had a copy of that considered advice.

    However, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

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