Lords, Lobbying and Legislative Standards

Posted on: November 7th, 2013

This week the House of Lords once again forced the Government to back down on key legislative proposals. This time it was Part 2 of the Lobbying Bill that seeks to limit spending by third parties, including charities, on issues that might influence voting intentions at an election. As drafted, the Bill could prevent a charity whose policies were more acceptable to one party than to another from carrying out its business.

The proposal came out of the blue, without consultation with those affected and just as Parliament was rising for the summer recess. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (PCRC) held unusual recess hearings. It reported on 5 September that the Bill was flawed and asked for it to be withdrawn for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Chair of the Committee, Graham Allen MP, said: “This Bill is an object lesson in how not to produce legislation. There was little or no consultation with those affected. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny. And the Bill is now being rushed through the House in a way that indicates a lack of respect for Parliament.”

As these things go, that is a pretty tough condemnation. But it was water off the back of the Government who pressed on with the Commons stages, completing them all in 5 weeks over the Party Conference season.

Earlier in the session the PCRC had produced a special report designed to avoid just these sorts of problems by setting agreed standards for the preparation of legislation and creating a Legislative Standards Committee to monitor the application of those standards. The Government response from Andrew Lansley was dismissive of the need for either the standards or the Committee: “It is the responsibility of government to bring forward legislation of a high standard and it has comprehensive and regularly updated guidance to meet this objective.” Guidance does indeed exist. The problem is that the Government observes it when it is convenient to do so and ignores it at other times.

This is not the first time that a major Government Bill has had to be “paused” while problems are sorted out. The BGI view is that if we are going to improve the quality of our legislation, and avoid the kind of shambles we are now seeing with the Lobbying Bill, we have to have clear standards consistently applied.

The House of Commons is beginning to show that it is prepared to be less supine than in earlier years. Hopefully the PCRC will be prepared to follow the example of the House of Lords and insist that Parliament is not asked to deal with badly prepared and presented legislation. The PCRC should not take “No” for an answer to its proposals on legislative standards.