Lobbying Bill Clears Commons Hurdle Amid Row
The Government's lobbying reforms have cleared their first parliamentary hurdle despite some Labour and Tory MPs fearing the proposals could gag charities from voicing their concerns.
Backbenchers argued the legislation failed to properly monitor large lobbying firms while putting unnecessary restraints on the ability of charities and think-tanks to speak out.
The legislation was given its second reading in the Commons by 309 votes to 247 - but the comfortable margin masked significant opposition across parties.
And Leader of the House Andrew Lansley was forced to deny the measures were a "dog's breakfast" and hinted at concessions later in the process.
The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill would set a £390,000 cap on the amount any organisation - excluding political parties - could spend across the UK during elections.
A statutory register of lobbyists would also be introduced to identify whose interests were being represented by consultant lobbyists and those who were paid to lobby on behalf of a third party.
The Bill was published in July following allegations about the influence of lobbyists on government decision-making as well as the involvement of peers and MPs with lobbying groups.
The Government has encountered fierce resistance from bodies including the Electoral Commission, which warned of "significant issues of workability".
Oxfam, the Royal British Legion, and the Salvation Army among others have complained that the legislation is so complex and unclear that it is likely to be "impossible" to follow, and the TUC claimed it could be prevented from holding an annual conference.
Concerns have been raised that the register will catch only a tiny proportion of those paid to seek to influence Government policy by excluding those for whom it is not their main business.
During a stormy debate, Tories including former Cabinet minister Cheryl Gillan, Tracey Crouch, Douglas Carswell, Angie Bray and Monmouth MP David Davis voiced strong reservations.
Shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle said the Bill would make lobbying less transparent while placing a "sinister gag" on charities and campaigners.
She said: "It's a Bill the Government should be ashamed of. It's incompetent, it's rushed, it's developed in a high level meeting between the Prime Minister and his deputy but with no other consultation.
"It's a cheap and partisan misuse of the legislative process for their own ends."
Mr Lansley insisted the legislation was "perfectly rational" and charities and other voluntary organisations need not be "alarmed".
He said the Government would amend the Bill if there was any chance it could prevent MPs going about their usual work.
"Let me give this assurance - we are very clear that we are in no sense seeking to change the boundary between campaigning on policies and issues which charities do and third parties do to a substantial extent," he said.
"Charities, think-tanks, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) should not be alarmed that this in any sense impacts on their ability to campaign on policy issues."