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Lobbying Bill public meeting

event report

There has been a lot of concern expressed by voluntary organisations about a bill passing through Parliament at the moment. Technically known as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, the bill is more commonly called the Lobbying Bill or Gagging Bill. This bill would affect the amount of money that an organisation would be able to spend on political campaigning in the year before an election.

This bill was brought before Parliament without the proper consultation required for a measure that would affect a great number of charities and NGOs. To remedy this, Manchester FoE, together with campaigning organisation 38 Degrees, organised a public meeting at Chorlton Central Church to allow people to question local MP John Leech, as well as Ian Palmer of 38 Degrees and Beth Plant of the Manchester Alliance for Community Care.

Beth was concerned about the ambiguous wording of the bill—she was unsure if voluntary work would be counted—and that it would add an extra burden to already increasingly stretched organisations.

Ian said the Electoral Commission had first been notified of the bill the evening before it was published, and Graham Allen MP had said the bill was ‘an object lesson in how not to produce legislation’. He also mentioned it adding to admin costs for small organisations, and it would be hard to decide when a campaigner was doing political work and when not.

John said the concern about the bill arose out of misunderstandings on both sides—the Government and those organisations objecting. He pointed out that some provisions of the bill weren’t new, but had already been brought in by the previous Labour government in 2000. Also, he claimed there was a danger of one organisation spending huge sums of money in a single constituency, with the aim of unseating the MP. In answer to the objections put by charities, John said their campaigning would be non-political anyway (in line with charity law) and the bill would only cover ‘expenditure that could reasonably be regarded as intended to procure or promote the electoral success of a party or candidate’.

According to John, press releases and ad hoc replies to the media would not be covered; press conferences would. Annual conferences of organisations would not; market research, canvassing and public meetings would. Some FoE literature would fall within the scope of the bill. He also said that if a political party uses an NGO’s leaflet for its own purposes (presumably without the NGO’s consent or connivance) this would not count as electoral campaigning. John disagreed with the interpretation of Oxfam’s lawyers and a range of legal experts consulted by 38 Degrees.

In our opinion, the wording of the bill leaves a lot open for debate as regards what precisely it would cover. Our campaigners Pete and Ali said the bill as it stands has ambiguities and should be paused to allow for a proper consultation to take place.

Manchester FoE would like to thank 38 Degrees for helping to organise this event, our hosts Chorlton Central Church, John Leech MP and not least Enid Pinch of the Society of Friends for chairing the meeting and ensuring an often lively crowd kept to the issues being discussed.

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