The BMA is urging the government to go back to the drawing board if it is really serious about reforming elections and campaigning legislation.
Doctors leaders are pleased there will be a pause for up to six weeks to allow consultation on part two of the government’s controversial lobbying bill, agreed in the Lords yesterday.
But the association believes that the Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is too flawed to be amended through the proposed round of consultation and may need to be scrapped.
BMA council chair Mark Porter said the association acknowledged there were ambiguities in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which needed resolving.
But he said far more time was needed than would be available in the next six weeks. He called on the government to consider separately a fuller consultation on such reforms and not use the lobbying bill to bring in the changes.
Limit on activities
He said: ‘The BMA has been very concerned that public-spirited organisations seeking to provide commentary, influence public policy or impartially campaign on issues before an election could find their activities dramatically curtailed by this legislation.
‘The government has repeatedly said that it did not intend the bill to restrict free speech. We urge ministers to step back from the legislation, consider what it wants to realistically achieve in relation to election and campaigning reform and then consult properly on its proposals.’
The legislative pause was suggested by the government just before the bill entered its Lords committee stage. This move was to counter a proposal by Lord Ramsbotham that part two of the bill should be scrutinised by a specially appointed select committee. Lord Ramsbotham had described part two of the bill as ‘beyond repair’.
The government is now deciding what the pause will entail. During the last legislative pause, for the Health and Social Care Bill, there were listening events and a consultation to respond to.
The BMA plans to engage with the process when the details are finalised.
Freedom of speech curtailed
Part one of the bill, which proposes setting up a statutory register of lobbyists, will not be affected by the pause.
The BMA has repeatedly warned of the unintended consequences of part two of the bill, which changes the legal requirements for organisations such as charities and the BMA that campaign on issues in the year before a general election.
These include widening the scope of ‘controlled expenditure’, which would trigger the need for spending to be monitored by the Electoral Commission, and lowering the amount that could be spent on election-related material. It would be a criminal offence to breach these limits.
The BMA has said this would curtail free speech and stifle debate.
The story so far