Wales politics

Charities and ministers clash over Lobbying Bill

Once upon a time consultants were men and women in white coats who arrived at your hospital bedside to ask whether it still hurt quite as much.

These days the word "consultant" has been claimed by those in other professions, from salesmen to estate agents, from gym staff to lobbyists. Sorry, that should read political consultants. Or possibly, consultant lobbyists, as the UK government's Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill has it.

That Bill will create a register of consultant lobbyists to find out who's lobbying who - and who is paying them to do so. Its introduction follows a series of scandals, many of which have the word "gate" added as a suffix by newspapers. At first glance, the new law would affect only those who lobby the UK government and its senior civil servants or permanent secretaries.

But the Welsh government also has ministers and a permanent secretary. So will those who try to lobby ministers and officials in Cardiff Bay be covered by the new legislation? The cabinet office tells me that the Bill will cover lobbying of the UK government only.

So what's the position in Wales? Earlier this year, the assembly's standards committee suggested that the rules surrounding contact between AMs and lobbyists should be strengthened and made more transparent - but the committee stopped short of recommending a statutory register of lobbyists in Wales.

There's no doubt that some non-party groups in Wales will be affected by the Bill. There will be limits on how much they can spend in the run-up to elections to the National Assembly for Wales.

Groups such as the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and charities such as Oxfam say they will fall within the scope of this part of the Bill. Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs have accused the UK government of trying to gag its critics during election campaigns.

Commons Leader Andrew Lansley, who is taking the Bill through the house of commons, disputes that. He argues that charities will only be affected if they campaign for particular candidates or parties.

He told MPs: "I'm at a loss to understand from the point of view of charities how they think think this legislation can impact adversely on their ability to campaign for their charitable purposes on policies and issues."

UPDATE: The government won the vote, although ministers faced awkward questions during the debate and newspapers suggest Downing Street may be ready to rewrite parts of it. Montgomeryshire MP Glyn Davies wrote on Facebook afterwards: "Another 'awkward' debate today on (wait for it) Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill: Second Reading. Snappy title! Very few rebels tonight, but also few happy with the Bill as it stands. Predict lots of change before third reading."