Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland MPs unite to criticise lobbying bill

Houses of Parliament
Image caption Northern Ireland MPs have united to criticise the lobbying bill

Politicians from Northern Ireland have united to criticise planned new regulations governing the activity of charities and similar organisations.

The proposals are contained in the Lobbying Bill, which is being considered by MPs at Westminster.

The bill proposes that anyone paid to lobby ministers and civil servants should disclose who they work for.

It also seeks to limit how much can be spent, by organisations other than political parties, during elections.

Known officially as The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill, it would set a £390,000 cap on the amount an organisation could spend across the UK during elections.

It also aims to alter the legal requirements on unions to keep their list of members up to date.

The South Down MP Margaret Ritchie is opposed to the bill. The SDLP MP said the proposals would "act to gag and restrict the work of charities, trade unions and civil society organisations".

She added that such organisations have "a democratic right to participate in these important debates in the run-up to elections and to inform wider society on their views on social and economic issues".

'Overdue'

A number of organisations have voiced their opposition to the bill. They include Oxfam, the Royal British Legion, and the Salvation Army.

The bill is also opposed by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action. Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey, said: "This bill appears to be badly thought through and will have shocking consequences if it becomes law in this format."

He added: "Every day in Northern Ireland, groups of people come together to raise awareness of issues that concern them and get support from MPs and MLAs to make positive changes in their community. These new laws will have a serious impact on their ability to do this."

The government says the changes are necessary and long overdue.

Conservative MP Andrew Lansley, who is the Leader of the House, told MPs there should be limits on the amount charities and other organisations could spend on helping a party or candidate at election time.

He told MPs: "We should not seek to prevent lobbying but to make it transparent about who is lobbying whom and for what."

Speaking in the Commons, the East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said a number of organisations regarded the bill as "bad legislation".

He said the proposals would mean additional costs for charities and he said the DUP could not support the bill.

The East Belfast MP Naomi Long said she had serious reservations about the proposals.

She told the BBC that "if passed in its current form, it could result in a significant reduction in the involvement of civic society in voicing their support or opposition for major decisions".

The Alliance MP added: "I believe it requires major change to make it fit for purpose."

Most of the bill would apply to all of the UK, although the provisions on trade unions' membership lists would not affect Northern Ireland.