Natascha speaks out against Lobbying Bill

Read Natascha’s speech below and for the full debate held in Parliament on Tuesday 3 September 2013 click here.

5.16 pm

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): I want to read out something that the Leader of the House said about introducing legislation on lobbying in an Opposition day debate in June:

“The other way forward is to be clear about the standards expected, based on the Nolan principles, and to ensure that all those who exercise responsibilities—and all those who seek to influence them—are subject to the necessary transparency in their actions and contacts, and held accountable for their actions, so that we can see who is doing what, and why. For those who seek to influence the political system without the necessary transparency, there will be clear sanctions available.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2013; Vol. 565, c. 175.]

3 Sep 2013 : Column 245

That is beautifully put, but it is not what the Bill does. If it were what the Bill did, most hon. Members would support it.

On lobbying, we all agree that transparency is absolutely important, but so is the need to raise standards in the lobbying industry and to make those rules apply equally and fairly to everyone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) just pointed out, 97% of lobbying activity will not be captured by the Bill. The way to improve things would be to ensure that everyone is captured by it and that they abide by an industry code, to make sure that we raise standards and that they apply to absolutely everyone.

The worrying thing is that, instead of doing that, the Bill will limit what civil society organisations do in campaigning on policies in which they have a legitimate interest, because Governments of any persuasion do not like effective campaigns against them. Whether from business, charities or trade unions, the Government find them embarrassing, and they would much rather silence them. Sometimes, as with the Bill, a Government need to be embarrassed into not doing what is wrong.

For instance, we might not like what Guido writes about us on his blog, but we should fight any legislation that would curb his ability to do so. It is salient to think how many people are members of the organisation, 38 Degrees: 1.7 million members subscribe to 38 Degrees. For us as political organisations, we collectively do not add up to that many people. For us to dismiss 38 Degrees as an organisation where people press the send button and something inconveniently pops up in our inbox is to dismiss those people who we represent in our constituencies who are legitimately engaged in political activity at a time when we are complaining about how people are disengaging from the political process.

We need to consider something that Len McCluskey said recently: the combined membership of Unite also adds up to far more than the combined memberships of all registered political parties, and they pay an awful lot more to be members of Unite.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): As I understand it, 38 Degrees was invited to be briefed by the Government on the Bill but did not turn up, which is sad.

Natascha Engel: I do not see the relevance of 38 Degrees not turning up to a briefing, which would almost certainly have been largely pointless as the Bill would gag the activities that 38 Degrees legitimately wants to undertake in the run-up to a general election.

Paul Flynn: Does my hon. Friend think that there might well be a Machiavellian motive in the Government drafting the Bill as they have, which has meant that the great majority of the speeches today have been about the non-existent excesses of charities or trade unions, and that we have neglected the fact that the Bill woefully fails to address the terrible excesses of lobbyists?

Natascha Engel: That is exactly right and it is why the debate today has been a missed opportunity. We would all like to do something quickly about curbing the excesses of the wrong kind of lobbying, but the Bill captures the right sort of lobbying—exactly the sort that we as politicians should encourage. We want people to influence the way that we make decisions because it is their democratic right to do so, and those are not the sort of people that we want to criminalise.

It is on trade unions that I have the greatest problems. In the run-up to the 2005 general election I worked as the trade union liaison officer for the Labour party, and straight after the general election I helped to co-ordinate the last round of political fund ballots, so I know from personal experience just how heavily regulated trade union political activity and financial matters are. They are extremely heavily regulated. Membership records are up to date. Trade unions must have up-to-date membership records; otherwise they would be cutting down their own income. When they ballot members for strike action, they need to know who those members are and where they live, and when they want them to participate in internal elections, it is in their own interest that their membership records are up to date. They are also kept up to date by law.

Trade unions are democratic and accountable institutions. The Leader of the House implied that trade unions are somehow unaccountable institutions. That is absolutely not so. Any trade union member has the right to opt out of paying into a political fund. Members may choose not to pay the political levy. Every 10 years they are balloted about whether they want a political fund in their trade union. Also, in those ballots every 10 years—we are going into the fourth one now—more than 90% of members who vote are in favour of keeping their political fund. These are massive figures, which we as political parties can only dream of.

It is important to remember that freedom of affiliation is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. Before we rush into changing the way that these very important institutions work in society, we should reflect more carefully on what the perfectly foreseeable consequences of such legislation could be. The Bill is badly drafted. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) that it may be a deliberate attempt to do something else.

Mr Anderson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Natascha Engel: I need to finish quickly so that other Members can come in. The Bill is badly drafted because it is badly motivated. It is a panicked response to corrupt activities that have been taking place and are already against the law. The current law captures everything that has happened in the past, but it was broken. It needs to be better enforced. The Bill will do nothing to change people’s behaviour, but it will stop non-party campaigners speaking out for or against candidates and policies 12 months before a general election. That worries me.

I look forward to voting against the Bill tonight. I hope it goes the way of the boundary review, Lords reform, the alternative vote referendum and all the other pieces of gerrymandering dressed up as constitutional reform, and that it ends up in the bin.

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