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Lobbying Bill could stifle election debate, Society warns

2 September 2013

A warning that the lobbying bill currently before the UK Parliament will not significantly increase transparency, and could stifle legitimate public debate, was given today by the Law Society of Scotland.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which is due to receive its second reading tomorrow, will make it mandatory for consultant lobbyists, who lobby directly on behalf of clients as their main business activity, to be listed on a new statutory register. In-house lobbyists, trade unions and charities, will not be subject to these requirements.

Under the bill, "consultant lobbying" is paid-for communication, on behalf of another person, with either a minister or a permanent secretary in the civil service. Communications with backbench and opposition MPs, UK Parliament committees, and civil servants below the rank of permanent secretary, will not be covered by the bill.

Michael Clancy, director of law reform at the Society, said that applying different rules to different levels of lobbyists would not significantly increase the transparency of lobbying activity at Westminster, and might give rise to confusion by the general public, who were unlikely to differentiate between consultant and in-house lobbyists.

He commented: "Much lobbying activity goes on at these levels [below those caught by the bill]. The bill will not increase transparency about these communications.”

In its briefing to MPs, however, the Society comments that if the proposals were to extend for example to those at a lower Government level or middle ranking civil servants, this could have
resource implications, as a significant amount of lobbying is conducted at this level.

The warning that the bill might stifle public debate arises from proposed amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, which Mr Clancy said were likely to increase the number of activities affected by the rules under the Act, and therefore the number of third parties required to register with the Electoral Commission. The briefing paper adds that reducing the thresholds for controlled expenditure may well have the same effect.

“By increasing the administrative burden, the bill could deter third party organisations, such as charities and non-political organisations, from actively engaging in public policy discussion, even where this is for non-political purposes", he said.

“We are concerned it could stifle legitimate public debate.”

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