Nineteen months after the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts announced his recommended reforms to the lobbying act and the government finally delivered its verdict on Friday: thanks, but no thanks.
The Cabinet Office wouldn’t go so far as to say that Hodgson’s proposals had been rejected, choosing instead to say that there would not be enough space in the legislation programme this parliament.
The Cabinet Office decision is telling for a number of reasons.
First, the lobbying act is clearly flawed, and yet it still won’t be amended. The charity sector has continually raised the alarm about the law over several years, culminating in more than 100 charities writing to the government last month. The fact that the government went so far as to commission Hodgson to produce his 2016 report shows that it too clearly has concerns; but, once again, government is not willing to budge despite the strength of evidence presented to it.
Second, Hodgson’s recommendations in his 2016 report were sensible and proportionate. His suggestion that the regulated period ahead of a general election should be reduced from a year to four months was an improvement and showed foresight. As Hodgson predicted in his report, the 365-day requirement could prove problematic in the event of an unexpected general election, as happened earlier this very year. His recommendation to narrow the scope of the act to capture only electoral campaigning clearly intended to influence the public also seemed a wise improvement to an act that contains many statements open to interpretation. But if sensible and proportionate suggestions no longer win the day, then what does?
Third, and perhaps most worrying, is the government’s reason for not implementing Hodgson’s recommendations. The argument the government has made is that there is not enough space in the legislative programme to pass the necessary law. But given that Hodgson was calling for relatively minor tweaks to the act and his recommendations appeared to enjoy support from across the political spectrum, where does this leave any charity-related legislation this parliament?
There have been rumblings within Whitehall about the possible effects of a weak minority government that largely only has eyes for Brexit, so is this a firm indication of just how difficult it has become to get any primary or secondary legislation through in this parliament? This could, of course, have negative ramifications for charities that are campaigning for new laws or amendments to existing ones. Conversely, however, it might make it harder for the government to pursue measures that are unpopular with charities but require parliamentary time.
Fourth, the Cabinet Office announced the decision to not pursue Hodgson’s recommendations, rather than Tracey Crouch, the recently installed Minister for Civil Society, who resides within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The letter sent last month by the sector was addressed to Crouch directly, but there has been speculation that she was keen to distance herself from the government response given that she appears keen to start afresh with the sector. Crouch’s office wouldn’t be drawn on her involvement in the decision not to take forward Hodgson’s proposals, but said in a statement that she wanted to work with the charity sector to ensure it has "complete confidence to continue non-party political campaigning". But it begs the question what influence Crouch genuinely has within government if she hasn’t been able to convince her colleagues that the lobbying act requires reform.
On Friday, Hodgson speculated whether the government had kicked his recommendations into the long grass or merely parked them in the pavilion. It looks like they’re firmly in the outer field and will remain there indefinitely. The question now is where does this leave any other charity polices that require parliamentary time?
Andy Hillier is editor of Third Sector