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New lobbying rules could threaten free speech

When the Government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill was published just before the summer recess, the proposal to set up a statutory register of lobbyists was the focus of most attention.

These plans have been roundly criticised as being weak and nonsensical.

However, what has slowly emerged while MPs have been on holiday is that the Bill also contains measures that could have deep implications for ‘third parties’ — individuals and organisations that campaign in a general election but do not stand as political parties or candidates. The BMA would be included in this definition.

Under the current rules, third parties must register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend more than £10,000 on campaigning in England (£5,000 in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland) and report their campaign expenditure to the commission.

The proposed legislation lowers the spending threshold at which a third party must register with the Electoral Commission and then have its spending regulated. In England, that threshold would drop from £10,000 to £5,000; in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would drop from £5,000 to £2,000.

Without a doubt, most third-party organisations would need to register. Moreover, the Bill would reduce the total that registered campaigners can spend on regulated activity in the year before the UK general election by 60 to 70 per cent — in England, that would mean a limit of £320,000.

These limits would apply to a broader definition of activities that could be considered election-related — not just manifestos and advertising, but other publications discussing policies, events, media activity and even the staff costs associated with these.

The Trades Union Congress, for example, fears its annual conference in a general election year would become illegal if the Bill is passed.

There’s now a growing sense of alarm about what this could all mean in practice, particularly for non-political organisations such as charities and non-affiliated unions, whose routine work could be subsumed by these new requirements. The National Council of Voluntary Organisations has written to the Government, warning of the Bill’s ‘disastrous unintended consequences’ on everyday work.

The new rules are complicated and will create uncertainty for organisations trying to comply. Worryingly, there are fears the Bill could affect the ability of organisations to speak out. Given all the recent reviews that have taken place in the NHS about patient safety, it would be very regressive if organisations were unable speak out about poor care in the run-up to an election.

Needless to say, if the Bill is passed, its impact could be deeply disturbing, especially as it raises concerns about what this would mean for freedom of expression — and it is hard to see how that would benefit democracy.

Some feel the Government is attempting to steamroller this legislation through, with a second reading scheduled this week followed by just three days of committee stage.

The BMA is working with a raft of other non-political organisations to press the Government to think again.

Robert Okunnu is BMA head of public affairs

Read about the BMA's response to the Trade Union Administration Bill