Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Lobbying Bill: the work isn't over yet...

One of the best things about being a WI member is that you are part of a bigger movement. For (almost!) 100 years, WI members have been working in many different ways to make improvements to their communities and wider society (think ‘Keep Britain Tidy’, equal pay and breast cancer screening, to name a few areas that have been the focus of WI campaigning). Several times a year, we open up the doors of 104 New Kings Road for members to visit our HQ and explain all about what we do. Part of that is explaining our campaigning, and our successes, of which members are rightly very proud. Members walk out of 104 at the end of the day with their heads held a little higher knowing what they’ve helped achieve.

Britain has one of the most vibrant democracies anywhere in the world, and charities and voluntary organisations are proud of the role they play in enhancing that democracy. But for the last few months, our ability to campaign in the way we always have has been under threat.

The very contentious Lobbying Bill (the ‘Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14’) has seen WI members spring into action to defend our right to campaign for non-political purposes. We never thought that we’d be facing a threat like this, but a lot about the Lobbying Bill has taken everyone by surprise.

The Bill worried us for a number of reasons: it was introduced to Parliament without any prior consultation with NGOs or the regulator; it was confusing and poorly drafted; and it proposed changes to election campaigning seemingly without any evidence of what was wrong with the present system.

The devil was in the detail: drastic slashing of the money that organisations would spend to have to register with the Electoral Commission (the independent regulator of elections) would bring thousands of small charities into a regime with onerous reporting requirements. It cut how much money charities could spend overall on campaigning and collated ‘coalition’ campaign spending, making joint working on issues – something that would use charity resources more effectively - financially damaging. The kinds of activities to be regulated were widely expanded, even beyond what political parties have to account for in their campaigning rules.

In short, we had serious concerns that the plans would compromise WI members’ ability to campaign and even to engage in public debate through our historic resolutions process. It was unclear whether our work with important coalitions would be restricted e.g. with Stop Climate Chaos for instance. In short, many of the things that our members value about WI campaigning were in jeopardy.

NGOs banded together and over the last few months have been energetically working to tell parliamentarians and the government what damage the Bill would do. A Commission was created, chaired by Lord Harries, which undertook rapid consultation with the sector and produced two reports outlining a better way forward. People wrote to MPs, attended public meetings, tweeted, petitioned, blogged and tried to let everyone know what was at stake.

Over the past week in the House of Lords, we have seen some important breakthroughs. Bishop Harries introduced amendments that the government accepted, and there was evidence that the government had listened to us. But the Bill is still a threat – not all of its most damaging parts have been removed. Over 130 NGOs and 160,000 people have signed a petition for further changes to the Bill proposed by Lord Harries.

What we need now is for the positive changes in the Lords to be accepted by the Commons, as the Bill goes back to scrutiny by MPs for a final time. Peers from all sides of the House have worked hard to make the Bill better, a task made all the more challenging considering the tight timetabling of the Bill’s stages. Charities and campaigning groups are urging ministers not to try to force MPs to overturn all that good work when the House of Commons votes on the Bill today. In two months’ time, 104 goes on the road with our Inspiring Women conferences being held around England, Wales and the Islands. It’s a great opportunity for us to talk about campaigning and get more members involved. But will the Lobbying Bill ruin the party? We can only hope the government sees sense in the final parliamentary stages of the Bill…

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