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This month with Martin Horwood

I’ve never been gagged – it must be really unpleasant – but campaigning organisations and charities were worried that they would be because of a bill currently wending its way through Parliament: the Lobbying Bill or the Gagging Bill, depending on your viewpoint.

As ever, it ain’t as simple as some folks think. Most of the bill is designed to tackle the heavyweight commercial lobbying that many of the same campaigning organisations fear, rich vested interests to influence ministers. Many employ expensive ‘public affairs’ companies which aren’t actually very public. The bill would place them on an open,
transparent register.

The problem? Apart from not really going far enough – what about all those in-house corporate lobbyists? The bill would also extend to other organisations more of the kinds of spending controls that political parties observe during election campaigns. It wouldn’t stop particular policies being advocated – such as particular positions on Europe or overseas aid. But it would impose spending limits where particular candidates or parties were targeted. So no more of a ‘gag’ than politicians already impose on themselves.

In principle this is right. American elections have been twisted by big money and rich lobbying organisations. Here, we’ve always restricted spending to ensure fair play. And even a start at tackling shady lobbying is welcome. So I voted for the Bill.

But charities like Oxfam told me the bill was too vague. Charities can’t campaign for particular parties or candidates anyway, under charity law. But they thought too much of their spending might be caught so I also voted to amend the bill to try to safeguard charity campaigning. Which meant that e-campaign group 38 Degrees sent me thank you Jaffa Cakes and told their supporters I was a good thing. Even though I’d voted for what they called a Gagging Bill. MPs who didn’t vote for any amendments were treated to full-page local advertisements attacking them and the LibDems, to which they couldn’t possibly afford to reply in kind. Which rather underlines the need to agree some ground rules that work for everyone before we end up like the US.

Martin Horwood MP. To contact Martin, ring 224889, email, write to 16 Hewlett Road, Cheltenham GL52 6AA, find him on Facebook or follow @MartinChelt on Twitter.