Charities and trade unions, including the National Union of Journalists, have attacked the Government’s proposed lobbying reforms as anti free speech.
MPs will debate the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill today amid fears that it could effectively “gag” charities and campaigning groups.
Provisions in the draft legislation include the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists and the imposition of a £390,000 cap on how much organisations other than political parties can spend in an election year. The bill will also give government new powers to monitor union membership more closely.
Campaigners have warned that the proposed measures will be unworkable and are an attack on freedom of speech.
The NUJ called the legislation “rushed” and “dangerous”, warning that it will be used to “stifle debate and campaigning”, especially as the spending cap could stop the staging of rallies and demonstrations by some organisations in an election year.
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “This bill clearly is not going to prevent the next scandal, nor does it represent a threat to big business or other special interest groups gaining preferential access to government. Instead it has been used as a tool to stifle debate and campaigning by a whole range of charity, community and civic groups and to harass trade union members.
“The NUJ must ask if the intended consequence of the bill is to stifle freedom of speech. If it is not, this section of the bill needs major revision. If it is the intent of the bill, then any MP or peer who believes in freedom of speech must throw out the whole section. The bill is also a malicious attack on trade union autonomy by this government."
The TUC has claimed it could even prevent it holding an annual conference in what general secretary Frances O'Grady called "an outrageous attack on freedom of speech".
The Commons committee which has been examining the bill held emergency sessions last week to discuss concerns about what its chairman called "rushed and ridiculous" proposals.
Labour MP Graham Allen, who chairs the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, said the bill would not open up the £2bn lobbying industry to effective scrutiny.
"Instead of addressing the Prime Minister's promise to 'shine the light of transparency' on lobbying, this flawed legislation will mean we'll all be back in a year facing another scandal. It is a dog's breakfast."
Addressing charities' concerns on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley said: "What I explained to them, and I hope the public will understand, is that we are not setting out in any sense to constrain any charity or organisation who wants to campaign on policy issues.
"The simple issue is that, as already exists at election times, if an organisation, a third party that isn't a political party, wants to spend a significant amount of money trying to influence that election directly, that is promoting a candidate or a party, then that should be registered and there should be limits on that just as political parties have limits on their expenditure."