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UK lobbying law could stifle climate change debate

Proposed legislation governing charity campaigns heavily criticised by MPs, NGOs and green groups

Prime Minister David Cameron faces intense unrest over his plans to regulate lobbying (Pic: Parliament/Flickr)

 

By Ed King

New lobbying laws proposed by the UK government could shut down discussions on climate policy, fracking and nuclear energy ahead of the next election.

That’s the stark warning from charities, campaigners and MPs ahead of a debate in the House of Commons tonight.

The ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’ was published in July in response to claims business and trade unions had undue influence over national policy.

If passed it would impose a spending cap of £390,000 on “election material” published by NGOs, trade unions and other lobbying groups 12 months before the election.

In its current form it would also mean small campaign groups or bloggers would have to register as lobbyists, or face breaking the law.

Green groups like the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF say the rules could apply to long-running environmental campaigns, forcing them to pick and choose what areas they focus on over that period.

The UK election is set to be held in May 2015, six months before UN talks on a global climate change deal are set to conclude in Paris. It’s unclear how the proposed rules could affect campaigning ahead of this summit.

Election law expert Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix says the new rules are “likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, putting small organisations and their trustees and directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern”.

“The bill as currently drafted is entirely unworkable and may limit charities’ and other groups’ ability to speak out on issues of concern”, says the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

Mat Hope at the Carbon Brief website observes that limits of £9,750 campaign spending per constituency could make mounting local campaigns against fracking or windfarms difficult.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has indicated he is unlikely to back the bill as it stands. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas warns it could “shut down legitimate voices” and has branded it “sinister”.

That’s a theme Dr Chris Simpkins from the Royal British Legion picks up on in the Telegraph, warning the bill could silence smaller charities.

“This Bill may have the effect of quieting the voice of Big Society for the twelve months before each election,” he says.

“Democracy requires a conversation, so let us talk about how to achieve decent aims – greater transparency and getting ‘big money’ out of elections – without unintended and stifling side effects.”

Others point out draconian legislation may be impossible to implement in a world of blogs, international websites and social media. Douglas Carswell, a Conservative MP, says the bill “swims against the technological tide”.

“What I find offensive about this Bill is its patronising presumption that the voters need to be protected from having their opinion and judgment moulded by money,” he writes.

“What I find most absurd is that none of this actually tackles the problem of lobbying.”

The BusinessGreen website reports that some green NGOs would consider breaking the law should the legislation pass.

“It’s completely unworkable,” it reports a source as saying. “You could define almost anything as political and effectively shut down all campaigning activity for a year.”

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