Belfast Telegraph

Why lobbying crackdown 'chill factor' leaves me cold

Paul Connolly

History is littered with victims of the law of unintended consequences. I fear lobbyists could become yet another example. Now, it's not like me to come rushing to the aid of lobbyists and, in particular, those of the political persuasion.

At its murkiest, lobbying is a cloak and dagger world, full of clanging egos, the sloshing of money and that funny whooshing sound people make when they sail too close to the wind.

But that's extreme; in general, lobbying plays an important role in political and civic life. And particularly so in Northern Ireland, where we have no Opposition and no second chamber to scrutinise legislation.

How does an impoverished local charity battling, say, to defend the dignity of elderly people in a neglected care home get its message across?

It can speak to the local newspaper and perhaps follow that with a social media campaign. But a high-profile campaign would be likely to upset the very residents they want to protect.

So, perhaps, softly-softly is the answer: lobby the local MLA, the health minister, the BMA, perhaps – all perfectly legitimate.

Another example. The EU is a complex place, where bureaucracy and obfuscation make the corridors of power mysterious to ordinary folk. If you're a farmers' group, concerned at an aspect of a nitrates directive, or the loss of EU grant aid, the labyrinthine thickets of Brussels are well-nigh impenetrable. One solution: hire a lobbyist to get your message across. The key is transparency. When lobbying is transparent, it is fair and democratic. When palms are greased, or influence peddled in secret, then it's not.

A series of scandals has prompted the Westminster government to clamp down on dodgy dealings with the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. Known as the Lobbying Bill, it contains some unwelcome – indeed, undemocratic – schedules.

The proposed register of lobbyists, as currently drafted, would create chaos and not tackle the dodgy practices which caused the problem in the first place. It will have a "chilling effect" on charities, trade unions, businesses and others campaigning on matters of policy in the run-up to a general election. Websites and blogs could be forced to shut down.

The whole thing is so rushed and over-egged that it could become yet another assault on freedom of expression in the UK.

Surely David Cameron et al, having witnessed the devastating blunderbuss of Leveson on the 99.9% of well-behaved newspapers, now realise that a sledgehammer is no way to crack a nut.

Readers' Editor is now on Twitter. Tweet me with scorn, praise and your pearls of wisdom on @BelTelReadersEd.

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