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28th Aug 2016

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UK transparency law could hinder EU campaign groups

On the eve of the 2010 UK General Election, Conservative Party leader David Cameron spoke of "the next big scandal waiting to happen", an issue that "goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics", a problem "that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money".

This "next big scandal" was described by Cameron at the time as "corporate lobbying", that is, the attempt by businesses and other organisations to influence political decisions.

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  • The unofficial name of the bill is the 'gagging law' (Photo: g.rohs)

The actual result of Cameron's part-time crusade against non-party-political influences on government has been a piece of legislation which finally passed through parliament at the end of January.

Officially it's known as the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2013. Unofficially it's known as the 'gagging law'.

And with good reason.

While the act as a whole is misdirected, transforming a democratic right such as lobbying or, to put it another way, the ability to put one's case to an elected representative, into an object of suspicion, it is the government's attempt to regulate 'non-party campaigning' that will really stifle non-party-political voices.

According to the act, organisations not registered as political parties, be they campaign groups, charities or other groupings yet to be defined, will have to work with the UK's election regulator, the Electoral Commission, to ensure that in the run-up to elections, the cost of their work, if it can be 'reasonably' seen to be influencing an election, does not exceed certain financial thresholds.

The national threshold for a campaign in England during a designated election period (which could be up to a year) has been set at £20,000 (€24,000) and £10,000 for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

For a campaign that addresses an issue in a constituency (for example, the closure of a hospital), the threshold is just £9,750. Crucially, campaign expenditure will include a group's staffing costs.

It's not difficult to see how this could affect the ability of countless groups to propagate their ideas or pursue their causes.

In the months-long run-up to a European Parliament Election, for instance, a group campaigning around immigration, or indeed membership of the EU, could 'reasonably' be seen to be influencing the election.

They would therefore be subjected to what one member of the House of Lords called a 'bureaucratic nightmare', not to mention a strict financial limit on their campaigning.

As Susannah Compton, a campaigner at 38 Degrees, a group at the forefront of opposition to the act, told EUobserver: "Campaign groups now face an almost unfeasible burden being placed on their everyday activity . . . This is a pretty catastrophic piece of legislation for the whole sector."

Yet, as Compton sees it, there was one positive to have emerged from the act: it galvanised resistance from a remarkable range of campaign groups and organisations, from the animal rights-oriented League Against Cruel Sports to the pro-fox hunting Countryside Alliance.

"I don't think that I've seen a coalition as broad," Compton said, "it really was a civil society campaign, from beginning to end."

Still, as it stands, the Transparency of Lobbying Act does not look as if it's going to help clean up politics as its Conservative architects contend.

Rather, it looks set to further cleanse the political sphere not of corruption, but of the public itself.

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