Monday, 21 October 2013

Doctors warn government that lobbying proposals could limit public health campaigning.

There has been much concern expressed that the Lobbying Bill could limit the campaigning activity of charities. Now, doctors’ leaders have warned that the Government’s proposed legislation lacks clarity, is excessively bureaucratic and could severely limit organisations, such as the BMA, campaigning on public health issues, including smoking, during an election year.

The warning comes in a new BMA House of Lords’ briefing, released today (21/10/13) ahead of an important debate in the second chamber on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill on Tuesday 22 October 2013. 

The Lobbying Bill would severely limit the ability of charities to campaign in a year in which there is a general election. The proposals have received widespread criticism and most recently from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Lords Constitution Committee amid concerns that the proposals will curtail public debate by preventing charities, pressure groups, think tanks and other organisations from presenting information in the run up to an election. 

Some of these concerns have been recognised by the government, but the Bill still lacks clarity.  

Key points from the BMA’s briefing include:

Potential adverse impact on freedom of expression: The combined effect of vastly reduced spending limits and continued uncertainty around what activities fall foul of the Bill, such as production or publication of material made available to the public, would have a ‘chilling effect on freedom of expression.’

Lack of clarity: Despite the Government’s changes, it is still not evident from the wording of the Bill whether or not apolitical organisations, like the BMA, will be unduly restricted in what they can do. Absolute certainty is needed on whether and when the cost of activities will count towards ‘controlled expenditure’.

Excessive bureaucracy: The Bill currently proposes a system that would result in new administrative and regulatory procedures that would prove an immense administrative burden.

Dr Mark Porter, Chair of BMA Council said:

“Despite some improvements to the Government’s proposals, the Lobbying Bill still threatens to dramatically curtail the ability of organisations like the BMA to speak out on vital issues during the year before an election. This would include preventing doctors’ leaders from raising key public health issues, such as those related to smoking.

“The Government should not ignore the potentially huge and damaging impact of the legislation as currently drafted on all non-party political organisations. It cannot risk limiting our ability to speak on issues of public interest.

“We urge the Government to pause, listen and think again, rather than rush ahead with this ill-thought through piece of legislation.”

The government legislation as it currently stands could have the perverse effect of allowing lobbying by major corporations whilst restraining the ability of charities and other non-political organisations from campaigning. 

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