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Interview: what was really going on with the lobbying Bill?

Graham Allen MP, chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, talks to OurKingdom about the highly controversial lobbying Bill that has just been passed by parliament.

Flickr/brianjmatis

Oliver Huitson: The lobbying Bill has now passed. How effective will the law be in achieving its stated aims of taking big money out of politics and rebuilding trust in politics – do we now have transparency in lobbying?

Graham Allen: Absolutely not. The law is very ineffective, and only partial, and I think a lot of that is because parliament wasn’t effectively involved in the first place. If we can stick to the lobbying part for a moment (part 1 of the Bill), in a proper democracy, parliament and government are partners and the government should put to the House of Commons a Bill and say ‘over to you, do what you can, try and improve it as best you can’. And what we did early on was to get the consultation paper in front of our Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, and on the lobbying we took lots of evidence and submitted a report to government thinking they would produce a Bill having listened to what we said. But at least there was a degree of consultation on that first part.

And the consultation that we undertook revealed that the document that the government had produced ahead of the Bill was deeply flawed. And everyone from all points on the spectrum — lobbyists, people who don’t like lobbyists — just about everyone said this just isn’t good enough, it isn’t going to wash. So we came in with a few ideas, sent those to government and then we would expect within a couple of months there to be a serious exchange; the government would respond to our report and there would be some give and take, the government would listen and produce a decent Bill. That didn’t happen.

The government ignored what we said for almost a year and only then responded to us in the most cursory way, I think it was a couple of lines basically. They only responded when they felt obliged to because they were just about to issue their Bill — we didn’t realise that at the time. So one day before parliament rises for its summer recess the government produced a Bill. And that Bill not only repeated most of the flaws we had identified on the lobbying part — and didn’t tackle any of the scandals that had been in the public domain over the last couple of years or so — but it had also bolted onto it this enormous second part designed to constrain the participation of the third sector, the voluntary sector and charities in the next general election, which was quite extraordinary.

So my Select Committee, which has people of all parties on it and of all political persuasions, to a man and woman were absolutely outraged at the way the government had tried to do this. And the best we could do was to say we will try and do our job as members of the select committee, and do some pre-legislative scrutiny, by coming back from the summer break earlier than everyone else, and taking evidence and producing in really quick time a report on the Bill. So we did that and, as I said, even last week this was the pattern all the way through, the government pushing stuff through the House of Commons, abusing the rules.

Government controls the House of Commons's every daily agenda and every dot and comma and they use that power to exploit their position of being able to push stuff through. Well, OK, that’s an exercise of power but unfortunately it doesn’t result in good legislation because the people who have the task to look at this just don’t get a chance to do their job properly, so there’s a bigger picture here about executive control of parliament, of which this is a demonstration. And those people still living in the deluded world where we have parliamentary sovereignty rather than government or executive sovereignty. Hopefully at least some of them had their eyes opened.

OH: What — or who — do you feel was the government’s main target in this legislation?

GA: I think in a way they were trying to tackle a problem that everyone had identified at the time of writing manifestos. Clearly, because they left their consultation for a year, there was no sense of urgency about trying to tackle this at all. So I think they probably felt "well it was a live issue around the election, it’s died away" and they weren’t that bothered. But then a number of other lobbying scandals appeared, so they produced a half-hearted measure which didn’t command any consent whatsoever. So their audience, it’s very hard to say. I think they just kept it on the backburner and then they thought well this is a handy little bill to tag on an enormous chunk of stuff, that they, for one reason or another, unknown, wanted to have a go at the voluntary and charitable sectors.

OH: Is that your impression, it’s more aimed at charities and voluntary organisations  rather than the unions, for instance?

GA: Yes, the union thing was very half-hearted, barely has any impact that I can see. If you wanted to attack the unions in the way Thatcher and Tebbit did you could do a much better job. I think they felt obliged to mention unions because of Falkirk going on in the summer, so they thought something to do with the unions might allow them to embarrass the opposition.

OH: For commercial lobbying, is this business as usual then?

GA: Very much business as usual. The lobbying industry don’t like it because it doesn’t address the extremes that have caused the scandals, and the people who want to keep an eye on lobbyists don’t like it because it’s very partial. So it affects a tiny percentage of those who are lobbied, and it doesn’t really impact very strongly on those who do the lobbying. Even up to the last moment we were trying to get senior civil servants on the list as those regarded as the lobbied. We repeatedly made a powerful case that if you wanted to do this properly then clearly you’ve got to have the senior civil servants on the list of those who should write up what’s gone on when they’ve met people from outside. But no — they’re excluded. SPADS (special advisers) are excluded, again people that have been involved in the scandals, so it just doesn’t do the job.

OH: The second part of the law, on charities, what impact do you feel this will have on participation and civil society?

GA: I think the word used a lot is “chilled”, and in a sense it’s almost not what is in the Act, it is what people fear might be the consequences. And I spoke repeatedly on this as the chair of a charity, and I will do my damndest to make sure my charity doesn’t get involved in the election in any shape or form, however legitimate, because you only need one court case — as a charity you live hand to mouth — and to be hit by legal fees, even if proved right in the end, then the whole organisation is skewed by the financial impact and the need to defend yourself. It’s just too big a risk.

Graham Allen MP. All rights reserved. So a lot of people like me and others will just say "don’t participate" in what should be the celebration of democracy, the lifeblood of democracy, particularly since we now know when the election will be, we now have fixed term parliaments. So for the first time in my political lifetime you’re able to campaign for a year or so and have a really good debate with people and get ideas out there. And charities and voluntary organisations will not be part of that, because they will fear that somebody, maliciously, or someone on the opposite camp to them, let’s say the League Against Cruel Sports versus the Countryside Alliance, may want to make mischief with the other side, so to speak, although those two organisations and many others of diametrically opposed views have worked together to oppose this Bill.

 

OH: The Liberal Democrats have said that the law  will successfully stop big money buying elections — is that the case?

GA: I don’t see what has changed that would do that. There were laws around before this one which seemed to me perfectly adequate, I don’t know which big money they were thinking of. And it’s rather odd, in this process, no-one has really said what it is we’re trying to do here, what problem we’re trying to solve — we don’t have that sort of money in the run up to campaigns, we don’t have the American over-indulgence in terms of financing candidates at election time, not least because we don’t allow candidates on TV and radio.

And it just seemed really difficult, even to this day I can’t quite put my finger on what the motive was. Some people said it was to try and have a go at the unions who campaigned alongside the Labour party, others said Lord Tyler was the evil genius behind this because he had an obsession with PACS in America, but we can’t have those in the UK. Others said the Lib Dems were afraid of the National Union of Students hitting their key targets, but actually no-one really was ever clear what the motive was.

OH: If we talk about process for a minute, how would you describe the legislative process behind this Bill?

GA: I think it demonstrated in the clearest possible way how much government controls parliament. And the government have refused to bring forward the proposals that they promised to in the Coalition Agreement, which originated in the Wright Committee of which I was a member, that there would be a House Business Committee. In other words ordinary MPs, duly elected, should have some influence on their own agenda — although we said that the people who represent the government or the alternative government would be a majority on that committee. Without that you get things occurring where, for example, the Bill came out of the Lords on a Tuesday evening and was put on the floor of the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, giving people no time whatsoever to put in considered amendments, giving people in a democracy no time whatsoever to understand what things were being proposed and therefore what they wanted to lobby their MPs about.

It is a complete travesty of the democratic process, proof again that government rules parliament, and frankly a very good argument for a House Business Committee, at the minimum, and a proper written constitution at the end of the day so that all of us can understand what the hell the process is all about, and the relationship of the key institutions of the state. That’s a long way off.

OH: Why was the government so determined to push this Bill through against such widespread opposition?

GA: It seems to be such an enormous political own goal. OK, sometimes you have to do certain things because you have something very clear in mind about what you want done and what the purpose of the legislation is, and that was never, and still isn’t, particularly apparent. It was hard to understand at all points what the government was trying to achieve here and I still search for that answer I’m afraid.

OH: The UN rapporteur on freedom of assembly said this legislation “tarnished” the UK’s democracy, is that a fair comment?

GA: I don’t think it tarnished it because it was already tarnished, but what it probably did was reveal to a wider group of people how unfit for purpose our parliament is, so it was a good point to make.

OH: Final question – what will be Labour's response?

GA: I wouldn’t know because I’m not on the front bench, I’m a parliamentarian, elected for the first time ever by all parliamentarians to be a Select Committee chair, and to chair a Select Committee of people elected in a secret ballot by their parties for the first time. So one of the demonstrations of how things might be in the future is that the select committee represents parliament when the front benchers in the House of Commons represent either the government or the alternative government.

So we unwittingly, or inadvertently, demonstrated that parliament itself can have a voice on an all-party basis, and we put in an enormous amount of amendments, put in an enormous amount of work, to do our duty by the House of Commons and produce reports on the Bill at various stages in incredibly quick time. And possibly as an optimist I could say this might demonstrate how things might go in the future if ever we had a separately elected executive, as most democracies do, which in one bound would free parliament to hold the government and executive to account. Should I live so long . . .

OH: So you’ve heard nothing yet as to whether Labour is going to announce that it will repeal the Act?

GA: Well, that’s down to the front bench. I would have thought it would be scarcely believable if Labour, having fought this Bill at every point, didn’t make clear that this Bill was so flawed and so full of holes, and so incapable of doing the job that it should, that it would not be replaced by something that could do the job, that could tackle lobbying, and would restore the freedom that for many years has applied to the activities of charities and voluntary organisations in the election campaign — that’s something we should relish and promote, not be equivocal and timid about.


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About the authors

Graham Allen is the Labour MP for Nottingham North. His ambition is to turn the UK into a democracy. He has written “Reinventing Democracy” and “The last Prime Minister; being honest about the UK Presidency”, and in 2010 was elected by Parliamentary colleagues as the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.

Oliver Huitson is a former Co-Editor at openDemocracyUK and a freelance journalist. He contributed chapters to Jenny Manson's 2012 book, Public Service on the Brink, and NHS SOS (2013). He has written for The Guardian, The New Statesman, Vice and the BBC. He is on Twitter as @OllyHuitson


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