Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Government counts the cost after messing with charities

Gagged: Charities face new legislation if the Government's lobbying Bill is passed

Andrew Lansley was the Cabinet minister who drew the short straw last week and had to introduce the Government's lobbying Bill in the Commons.

He found himself at the centre of a parliamentary melee, as MPs from all sides piled in with their objections.

Lansley spent an hour arguing that the Government was not trying to gag charities. Local MPs weren't swayed.

Jim Shannon told him the Bill "will catch grassroots campaigners in the crossfire".

Margaret Ritchie called it "a Trojan horse to introduce a range of measures that will impair the functioning of civil society and third-sector organisations".

Lady Hermon was also concerned: "We have wonderful charities in Northern Ireland that will be criminalised under this Bill if they happen to organise a rally or campaign in the run-up to an election," she said.

Labour had a field day. "This Bill is hurried, badly drafted and an agglomeration of the inadequate, the sinister and the partisan," said shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle.

The Government won the vote with a comfortable majority, but not the argument. Within days Lansley had tabled 23 amendments to his own Bill.

Downing Street is now aware of the political damage caused by a very public spat with the Girl Guides, Oxfam, the Royal British Legion and every other well-loved charity in the country.

But those of us who live under Westminster's laws should be more concerned with how sloppy the legislative process has become. Sammy Wilson was correct when he said that the "ambiguity and concern" about the proposals could all have been avoided by proper pre-legislative scrutiny.

Lady Hermon pointed out that the Bill makes no guarantee of the independence of the new registrar of commercial lobbyists.

Something fundamental to the protection of an industry the Government is seeking to regulate and constrain has simply been left out.

Jeffrey Donaldson warned the Government's plans could restrict local MPs from acting on behalf of the five seats held by Sinn Fein.

"People living in those constituencies often want parliamentary representation and so come to other members representing Northern Ireland constituencies in order to gain it," he explained.

MPs had just nine hours to raise these and dozens of other problems with the legislation, a legacy of Tony Blair's 1997 government which, elected with a massive majority, strictly controlled the time for the Commons to debate Bills.

The Lords is now the only place where legislation is given proper scrutiny, the last line of defence against the stream of inadequate legislation that governments churn out.

Which is probably why all three main parties are committed to 'reforming' it.

'Charities will be criminalised under this Bill if they have a rally'

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