COUNTRYSIDE ALLIANCE

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The Alliance's concerns over the Lobbying Bill

The Countryside Alliance has been mentioned in Parliament several times recently as the Lobbying Bill (the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill) makes its way through its various Parliamentary stages. We have written to MPs setting out our concerns.  We believe that Part 2 of ´╗┐on non-party campaigning is deeply flawed and remains so following Committee stage. We cannot support the Bill in its current form. It requires extensive amendment and a proper consultation process engaging charities, voluntary organisations and the Electoral Commission in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose. As such we believe Part 2 should be withdrawn. At the very least the timetable for the Bill should be amended to allow for a proper consultation and re-writing of Part 2.

While the Countryside Alliance supports the Government’s objectives to ensure that lobbying is transparent and that non-party campaigning is fair, we remain opposed to Part 2. I know you have all received extensive briefing on the Bill both at Second Reading and for Committee Stage but I would like to reiterate our principal objections which are:

  • The definition of “for electoral purposes” which unlike the existing wording in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) makes it impossible for an voluntary organisation or charity to know when their activity becomes for electoral purposes. Indeed an organisation campaigning on a given issue year in year out may find their activity suddenly falls within the definition of “for electoral purposes” simply because in an election period a particular policy or position is adopted by a particular party or candidate. This problem would apply both nationally and locally. While we understand that the Government intends to amend the Bill along the lines of the original wording in PPERA, we are far from certain this will address our concerns as the activities which are covered under Schedule 3 are so much broader than simply “election material” as in the existing PPERA.
  • New Schedule 3, which introduces new Schedule 8A into PPERA is copied from existing Schedule 8 of PPERA which applies to political parties. Many of those things simply cannot be applied to non-party campaigns. For example the expenditure by one political party to analyse and comment on another party’s manifesto is an election expense. To prohibit charities and NGO’s from commenting on the policies and proposals of parties seeking election is unacceptable. As it stands the Bill would shut down much debate during an election period just when such debate is most important.
  • These problems are exacerbated by the reduced thresholds for registration and the massive reduction in expenditure limits, coupled with the fact that non-party campaigners will be required to include staff costs in their expenditure calculations, which political parties do not have to do. The result of these combined changes will make it impossible for many NGOs to conduct legitimate activity contributing to free debate during election periods, or know with any certainty when they are operating within the law.

The sheer number and diversity of organisations across the political spectrum who have expressed these same concerns and have called for the Government to think again is the clearest evidence possible that something is very wrong with Part 2 of this Bill and that its impact on healthy democratic engagement in elections will be wholly negative in its current form.

We do not object to proper and proportionate regulation but legislation which stifles comment and debate and discourages political engagement must not be allowed to go ahead.

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