There is little time to act before the Lobbying Bill goes through parliament. If it is not stopped, the consequences could be disastrous, writes Paul Hartley

A new law is being debated in parliament which, if passed, may have the effect of criminalising national campaign groups like the People’s Assembly. The catchily titled “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill” is nominally a means of regulating the lobbying of politicians, which has been the cause of so many recent scandals. However, the clear need to clean up corporate lobbying is being used as an excuse to introduce laws that will gag political campaigners and trade unions.

The Tories campaigned in the 2010 election on a pledge to clean up “sleazy lobbying practices” in Westminster after a number of scandals hitting the Labour government, and two peers being excluded from the House of Lords. This pledge became a commitment in the coalition agreement to a new statutory register of lobbyists. Once in power, however, the Tories appeared to forget their pledge, and became involved in plenty of sleazy lobbying practices of their own, from News International’s many links to the government, to Tory co-treasurer Peter Cruddas’s resignation over offering access to senior government members for large sums of cash. For three years they put off creating the new law. In May, Tory MP Patrick Mercer and three Lords were caught by undercover reporters accepting money to do parliamentary work, and the government was finally forced to act on its election promise.

The bill that was published in July shocked everyone. Not only was it put to parliament mere hours before the summer recess, evidently to bypass a key stage of scrutiny. Not only did the proposed lobbying register appear to do next to nothing to tackle any of the problems of lobbying – Tamasin Cave, director of Spinwatch, describes it as “a fake register, backed up by bogus justifications.” To everyone’s astonishment, the bill was published with several additional clauses that will have the effect of curbing trade union political activity and imposing draconian restrictions on political campaigners.

The bill is rapidly becoming known as the gagging bill, and it has attracted criticism from across the political spectrum. The legal firm Baites Wells and Braithwaites has said that “the bill could severely restrict civil society campaigning activity and may even be in breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.” General Secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady described the bill, with good cause, as “a highly partisan attack on trade union relations with the Labour party”. Limiting the political influence of trade unions is a clear aim of the bill, and its publication so soon after the row over Unite’s role in the Falkirk candidate selection is almost certainly no coincidence.

What does the bill do? First, it will cut the overall limit that third parties – unions, charities or activist groups – can spend on campaigning in an election year by 60%, from the current limit of £989,000 to £390,000. As an illustration of the effect of this reduction, Frances O’Grady warned that when she next addresses the TUC annual meeting she risks committing a criminal offence because “the cost of the congress will take us over the limited ration of dissent the government plans to allow in the 12 months before the 2015 election.”

Secondly, any expenditure on political activity above a limit of £5,000 will have to be declared. At the same time, the bill will widen enormously the scope of the activities that will be regulated. Currently, only published election material designed to benefit a party or political candidate falls under within scope of regulators. In contrast, the new bill will control any expenditure “incurred for election purposes” – which will now include money spent things such as rallies, events, polling, media work, staff costs and transport.

However, the devil is in the absence of detail. Because the phrase “for election purposes” is not clearly defined, any activity by a campaign group, from a grassroots activist group to a large charity, that can be regarded as having an effect on voters’ behaviour – in other words, any political activity at all – will now fall within the scope of the expenditure limit.

Andrew Lansley, when presenting the bill to the House of Commons, argued that the new law will only target groups that directly campaign on behalf of a party, and that it involves no significant change to current law. This is not true. As the explanatory notes to the bill make clear: “The definition of ‘for election purposes’ does not rely solely on the intent of the third party; the effect of the expenditure must also be considered.” Spending will be regulated “regardless of whether those incurring the expenditure intended it (or also intended it) for another purpose.” In other words, a group’s spending can be regulated even if it does not intend to influence an election in any way.

Even the Electoral Commission, whose job it will be to regulate campaigning activity, has complained that the bill will give it “a wide discretion to interpret what activity will be regulated as political campaigning,” and said that “it is likely that some of our readings of the law will be contentious and challenged creating more uncertainty for those affected.”

To understand just how broadly the new law can be interpreted, take the example of the Stop the War Coalition. Although Stop the War is not party political, its stance on the bombing of Syria can be interpreted as having the indirect effect of harming the standing of the Tories, who support military intervention, and influencing the outcome of an election. Its activities would therefore fall under the scope of the bill, and its annual spending on all political activity – from publications, rallies and the cost running offices – must fall within the £390,000 spending limit. A large coalition that holds events national and explicitly campaigns against government policy, such as the People’s Assembly, would be in immediate danger of criminalisation.

At the moment it is unclear what the government’s intention is in introducing so inflammatory a bill. However, Tamasin Cave gave the following explanation: “I have no doubt in my mind that even if it does not have the fingerprints of Lynton Crosby on it, it has the influence of Lynton Crosby on it, because we are seeing divide-and-rule tactics…Knowing how the industry works, it is not unusual that campaigns such as this are run, and Lynton Crosby is a lobbyist.”

Whatever the government’s intentions, the bill cannot be considered to be anything other than a ruthless attack on democracy and free speech. After the remarkable victory in the Syria vote last week the government is looking weak, and it has already indicated that it might back down on this bill. But there is little time to act before the bill goes through parliament. If it is not stopped, the consequences could be disastrous.