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Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:32 pm, 8th September 2016

My Lords, as I understand it, the Government have put on hold the rules regarding the lobbying activities of organisations that receive taxpayers’ money. They are right to do so because their thinking is very confused.

It is not anti-government to seek the best welfare for our fellow citizens. It is not anti-government to seek the highest standards of health and safety. It is not anti-government to seek the highest standards of truth and accuracy in reporting the news. It is not anti-government to have a say in genetic manipulation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who is not in his place, that it is not anti-government to seek higher standards of conservation. These are some of the voices to which my noble friend Lady Hayter referred—the real-world experiences, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, put it—voices which tell us where government policy is failing and where our priorities should lie. These voices want a say in shaping society, not by revolution or violence but by balance—the kind of balance about which my noble friend Lady Jowell spoke. These voices need to be heard. They are not voices that the Government should seek to silence because they are funded by the taxpayer. It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that the very reason these organisations are sometimes funded by the Government is that both seek the same ends. But democracy and the welfare of society are the not the only reasons why the Government should listen to trade unions, charities and civil society. These organisations are also the voices of progress—social, scientific, medical and commercial—based on experience, as my noble friend Lord Griffiths put it.

We are debating the Investigatory Powers Bill at the moment. Technology has given us new ways of communicating—ways that make our lives easier, our communications quicker, more social and more fun. But these ways are also available to criminals and terrorists. This Bill will clarify to what extent our communications can be intercepted and recorded by the authorities. Previously, powers of interference and access to records were created as and when the need arose. However, in debate on that Bill, we hear quite clearly the voices of civil society, reaching a balance between the commercial interests of the communications business, the concerns of our national security and our right to privacy. Without the voices of civil society, charities and trade unions, I doubt whether a satisfactory balance would be achieved on the Bill.

More technology is on the way which will require this kind of balance. Let us take, for instance, the changing world of work. Several million people are now working off digital platforms. It suits the operators to say that these people are self-employed so that the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity pay, training, safety, pensions and tax are nothing to do with them. It is left to the state to pick up these costs through welfare payments and tax credits. I am sure lobbyists for platform operators and internet service providers put a very good case to the Government for their own commercial objectives. But what about fairness and costs to the public? Trade unions, civil society and charities—yes, sometimes even funded by the Government—are the ones speaking up for these things, and fairly soon some sort of balance will have to be agreed. Digital platforms themselves could be required to ensure that users comply with current regulations, and workers could belong to some kind of trade union co-operative. Then neither workers nor users would be vulnerable to exploitation.

In many other areas of new technology, charities are in the front line to achieve balance. We hope that some of our more serious medical problems will be eliminated by genome editing. For some, altering our chromosomes and genes can be a terrifying prospect. It is contrary to the faith of others. Yet it holds out the prospect of quick and relatively cheap medical miracles. Unless charities and civil society set about explaining these issues through some sort of public understanding campaign, to encourage sympathetic public opinion, the benefits of this wonderful medical research will take a long time to be accepted, if ever. I hope the Government are lobbying the charities and giving them donations to help with this work, for the sake of the nation’s health.

Lots more things are coming down the line where a balance will have to be achieved between commercial interests, security and the public good: the internet of things and digital money, to name but two. My noble friend Lady Hayter is absolutely right to move this debate and I congratulate her. Uncertainty on how to respond to the changes brought about by new technologies will lead to inaction and lost opportunity unless the input from society brings about acceptance and understanding, through balance and fairness.

For the sake of progress and the public good, the Government should listen to all these voices equally and not give disproportionate influence to company voices, nor quieten the voices of tax-supported charities. We need them all equally to better inform our decisions.