Image: UK Parliament, some rights reserved.
How do Governments snatch shambles from consensus? How could Parliament end its abuse by Government and fulfil its role not of running the country but holding to account those who do? The sad tale of the Lobbying Bill shows us how.
It’s a rare event when the Prime Minister, the opposition front bench, and politicians from all sides of the spectrum agree on an issue. However last year when the Prime Minister said that “the next big political scandal” may well be lobbying, we were all in agreement that something had to be done. A government consultation paper was produced and the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which I Chair, set to work to produce a Parliamentary view on a Statutory Register for Lobbyists. So far so good, but then began an object lesson in how not to pass law.
Despite all the earnest speeches, written promises in the Coalition agreement, and the PM’s assurances that reform of lobbying was essential, once our careful and detailed report was published, the Government had gone cold and our report which should have been properly replied to within 3 months was ignored by the Government for over a year. Then the media set up the Patrick Mercer and Tim Yeo cases.
From slothful to reactive, lobbying reform rocketed from bottom of the Government’s pile. A Bill was cobbled together with some surprise extras tacked on to the end. It was swiftly given its first reading on the day before the House rose for the summer.
Having appeared one day before we rose for the recess, the Bill was then given its Second Reading one day after we returned. Three working days: is that a world record for this Parliament? Those three days wouldn’t be nearly enough for parliament to provide any pre-legislative scrutiny to the new bill.
I recalled my Select Committee in the recess to fill the scrutiny gap as best we could. Members of my Committee and its staff worked incredibly hard to get a report in front of all MPs in seven days. We proactively sought evidence from all sources who overwhelmingly argued that the Bill did not work, deliver what it promised or do what was expected – it wouldn’t even cover the Mercer, Yeo or the other high profile cases. I believe in evidence-based policy making, yet the Government seemed set against listening to any of it.
Then we looked at the enormous bonus parts of the Bill which, unscrutinised, had been tacked onto lobbying. These were to limit the involvement of charities and the voluntary sector in the democratic process. Thousands of organisations were up in arms. Miraculously the Government united the bitterest of enemies in opposition to the Bill. The League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance were hand in hand opposing the Bill as intrusive and chilling of their rights to speak up for their issues and causes. Every MP got hundreds of objections. The opposition to the Bill was so far from the daily squabbles of party-politics. It was about coming together to help make this Bill as workable as possible.
Our simple solution for the Government was to pause the helter-skelter through Parliament and give the Bill proper scrutiny. Given a few months Parliament could have created a consensual Bill that would have been workable, and did what it set out to do. Instead the Government has bulldozed it through the Commons. We called it “a dog’s breakfast of a Bill”, but Douglas Carswell MP wittily argued that was an insult to canine nutritionists!
So we have a Lobbying Bill which does not tackle lobbying. It covers about 1% of lobbyists. It does not tackle the lobbied – only Ministers and Permanent Secretaries are covered. Yet it does regulate and reduce the ability of the charity you support to freely engage in the democratic process, especially in the last vital year before an election.
As I write the second chamber – not quite so clearly the creature of Government as the first chamber- has won a six week pause from the Government, so hopefully it will retreat from the worst excesses and omissions. We will see, because the record so far is a poor one. The indirectly elected Government denied the directly elected Parliament its rights to give proper scrutiny to the law of the land. Parliament has been disrespected; Parliament has been abused. The Government ignored my committee for over a year, and then one day before the House rose for the summer recess in July, we were presented with this Bill. It is not a Bill that my Committee had examined, it is not a Bill that the House had considered, it is not a Bill that was properly referred to the Electoral Commission, and it is not a Bill that was referred to third parties such as charities—10,500 of them.
This has been commonplace, but MPs and Parliament, even abused and whipped as it is, are now fighting back. The Wright Reforms mean Select Committee Chairs are elected by all MPs in a secret ballot, not appointed by the very Government they are meant to hold to account. Select Committees are elected in a secret ballot by their respective parties. Parliament can now at least heckle the Government steamroller.
If this Bill has taught us anything, it is that pre-legislative scrutiny should be put into Parliament’s Standing Orders as a mandatory part of the law making process so this shoddy treatment of Parliament and citizens cannot be repeated. It is fundamental for the operation of an effective democracy that the executive and the legislature work together in partnership to create good legislation. This whole sorry episode highlights again that convention and hope and protest will never be a substitute for clearly defined rights and duties of a proper separation of powers defined and protected in a written Constitution.
Until then, let’s lick our lips at the thought of many more “dog’s breakfasts” to come.