“You have issued a generic reply, suggesting that perhaps you have had too many people raising this issue to be able to reply individually. Or perhaps Tory Central has issued you with a hymn sheet to ensure you all sing with one voice over this.
‘Liberal Democrats want greater transparency to make sure that those with large amounts of money cannot hijack our political system and be more influential on our democratic decisions than other members of the public’
Transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill
Thank you for contacting me about the progress of this bill. I am pleased that you and other constituents have taken such an active interest in these issues. Part two of the bill returns for debate in the house of lords this week, so I thought I would take this opportunity of writing back to you with the latest position as I see it.
I am very glad to report that many of the concerns that have been expressed by you and others have already been debated in the House of Commons are now being debated and discussed in the House of Lords. I have been clear from the beginning that I also had significant concerns with the bill as it was first published. Although my views may not be identical to yours or others who have expressed concerns so far, I have been active in trying to improve the bill and deal with concerns expressed to me, to others and to the government. I will now set out the current situation as clearly as I can. I apologise in advance that this is quite technical and complicated but I hope it is helpful to go into some detail at this stage.
Content of the bill
I would like to reassure you, firstly, that it is not and never has been my intention or the intention of any Liberal Democrat to gag charities or any other third party organisation. I am clear that this is not a ‘gagging bill’ and I believe that this description is exaggerated and inaccurate. Liberal Democrats want greater transparency to make sure that those with large amounts of money cannot hijack our political system and be more influential on our democratic decisions than other members of the public. This bill will not prevent anyone from expressing their views or joining with others to amplify their voices. It will however limit the amount of money that can be spent trying to sway votes at elections. We are very clear that it would be bad for everybody for elections in this country to become more and more like elections in the United States where huge amounts are spent to influence the outcome.
For those charities which are expressing concerns, I am clear that the vast majority of charities are not affected by this bill because they are already governed by strict rules which prevent them from engaging in political activity. If an organisation wishes to register as a charity under current rules they must prove that they do not spend money for partisan purposes, and were a charity to break these rules they would lose their charitable status. If this bill becomes law, charities will still have to behave as at present. By contrast, campaign groups which are not charities are currently entitled to call for changes to government policy and to criticise what any government is doing but they are not regulated by the same rules as charities are and have more flexibility in expressing party political opinions. This again will continue with no campaigning group being restricted in expressing their opinion. What will change under this bill will be that those individuals and campaign groups which are trying to influence the public to vote for a specific person or party will now have to meet new financial criteria. Charities are not allowed to try to influence people to vote in this way so cannot fall under the remit of this bill.
During the passage of the bill through the Commons, the government introduced a group of amendments relating to part two of the bill. I was one of the MPs involved in pushing for these amendments. These changes have made sure that the only additional categories of expenditure which will be caught by spending limits are market research or canvassing which involve the public at large and public meetings or rallies. The bill will not therefore in any way impact on an organisation’s capacity to communicate with its own members as some people have suggested. The bill as currently amended expressly states that ‘nothing in part two of this act shall limit the capacity of a charity or non-party campaigning organisation to comment on public policy in so far as it does not seek to influence the outcome of an election in so doing’. This was one of the amendments I promoted. To be outside the law, expenditure on public-facing work would have to be seen as attempting to promote or secure the success of a party or candidate during an election. This is a crucial and I believe entirely justifiable test.
Additionally, in my exchange with Tom Brake MP, the deputy leader of the House of Commons, on 9th October during the second reading of this bill, I was assured that not only had the government already been in contact with Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, but that Mr Etherington was also content with most of the new amendments and continuing to discuss any remaining issues. I have included an excerpt of the debate containing my intervention here (http://tinyurl.com/debatecontributions) for your information.
Some people and organisations have suggested that there have never been any restrictions on the campaigning which can be done at election time. This is incorrect. This bill is not the first of its kind. Laws like this have been in place for over a century, and one of the many aims of this this bill has been to update old rules to reflect modern campaigning. Until this year, I am not aware that any campaigning body has suggested that we repeal the 1883 Prevention of Corruption and Illegal Practices Act, which has limited expenditure at elections for 130 years. The new bill builds on the existing law (the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act) which was introduced by the Labour government and approved by parliament in 2000. That Act has applied in all elections since then without significant complaints or criticisms.
The campaigning group 38 Degrees has in particular been very vocal in its disagreement with this bill and MPs have been shown legal advice by them as to the possible effect of the bill. I have read this advice personally and can appreciate why those reading it would be concerned. However, I do not think that this advice explains why it is in any way unreasonable that non-party organisations have to complete the same kind of paperwork and meet the same kind of standards as political parties if they are trying to influence an electoral result, and in a similar way to a political party.
Despite this, I do understand some concerns that have been raised about the new requirements surrounding staff costs. The current rules state that non-party campaigners are required to account for staff costs incurred from the publication and distribution of election material. The bill as it stands extends this existing obligation to include staff costs in relation to canvassing as well as the organisation of press conferences, transport and public rallies. Many groups are concerned as to how they can be expected to calculate the exact amount of time it takes a member of staff to organise something like a press conference. It is my view and that of my Liberal Democrat peers in the Lords that it is not necessary to know the staff costs for event organisation and we would agree that asking groups to provide this will be unduly bureaucratic. As such the Liberal Democrat peers are now suggesting that the bill be amended to require only the staff costs incurred from canvassing in addition to the existing rules on election materials.
I also understand the concerns which some people have raised both about having a constituency expenditure limit and about the limit for campaigners who work together. Firstly, having a limit on the amount of money a group can spend in each constituency prevents a campaigner from putting a huge proportion of the nationally limited amount into one small geographical area. While I feel that this aim is very important, I recognise the bill as it stands is not clear on this matter. I am pleased that campaign groups have brought this matter to our attention and Liberal Democrat peers have now suggested that they intend to put forward amendments which provide clarification on this issue.
It has also been brought to my attention that there have been some problems with the financial limit for groups of campaigners who work together. If this is a problem, it is a result of the existing legislation and is not being caused by the bill. The 2000 Act has created a situation where if a large organisation spends say £385,000 on a national campaign and asks for help from a small organisation which in turn spends £5,000 on the same campaign, then because they have collectively spent the national limit of £390,000, neither organisation is allowed to spend any more money even on a totally different campaign. I am pleased that we now have the opportunity in this bill to correct this apparent problem with the current legislation; it may be difficult to correct this without creating more loopholes, but I also know that proposals are now being discussed and I will continue to monitor the progress of these.
Tom Brake MP, who is the Liberal Democrat minister involved with the bill, has I believe shown throughout this process that the government has never been closed to the views of voluntary organisations, charities, the Electoral Commission, or any others who play a crucial role in our democracy. However, I appreciate and share the concerns which many people have expressed about the speed at which this bill has been taken through parliament so far. Many organisations asked for the chance to be consulted and make representations on the bill, and I have always thought that it is very important they are all given that opportunity. During the second reading debate in the House of Commons, I expressly asked for the bill be given enough time before being sent to the House of Lords to allow all those who wished to make comment to do so. I once again have included for your information the excerpt of the debate containing my intervention here (http://tinyurl.com/debatecontributions)
More recently, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, has scrutinised the bill from a human rights perspective. Our committee has now published its unanimous report, which I helped to write. You can find the report in its entirety herehttp://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201314/jtselect/jtrights/61/61.pdf. My opinion of the bill is similar to the view of the committee as a whole. I was therefore very pleased to see that the House of Lords relied very heavily on our committee’s report during their debates and repeated our call to slow down the consideration of the bill.
Additionally, I was very pleased to attend the launch of the first report on part two of the bill published by Lord Harries of Pentregarth and the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement. A central recommendation of this report was that part two of the bill should be paused pending proper consultation and consideration. Lord Wallace of Saltaire, my Liberal Democrat ministerial colleague dealing with the bill in the Lords, also attended the launch and made it clear that the government would take heed of its contents and carefully consider its recommendations. You can find this report at the following websitehttp://civilsocietycommission.info/report-1-october-2013/.
I have made my opinion clear both in public and in private to the deputy prime minister and other ministers that the bill should be paused and proceeded with only the maximum consensus. I therefore also welcomed the fact that Lord Wallace of Saltaire agreed to a different timetable for considering the bill in the Lords, which delayed debates there on part two for a further five weeks, with it only now being considered today (16th December) and on Wednesday 18thDecember. I saw this pause as proactive rather than defensive, and believe that this has allowed much useful dialogue between the government and those with continuing concerns about the bill.
Whilst I was unfortunately unable to attend the commission’s launch of their second report on 10th December, one of my assistants was able to attend on my behalf and has now reported back to me. You can find this second report here http://civilsocietycommission.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Civil-Society-Commission-Report-2.pdf. I have no doubt that the government will review and consider the commission’s further recommendations.
During the discussions at the commission’s report launch, my Liberal Democrat colleague Lord Philips of Sudbury strongly argued that a clause should be added to the bill requiring all charities to be exempt from part two. Whilst the commission as a whole did not accept this argument, I do not expect Lord Phillips to be the only member of the House of Lords who wishes to put forward this idea for debate. I have been in contact with Lord Phillips in private about this matter to discuss his opinions and believe on balance that this would be a very good way forward. I am keen for this particular suggestion to be progressed further and can therefore assure you that I will take a continued interest in debates on this suggestion both in the Lords and in the Commons.
I have long campaigned for greater transparency and accountability in our political system, and I therefore believe that the stated aims of this bill are important steps which need to be taken to achieve this. But of course it is important that parliament gets the legislation right. It is important that we achieve transparency in political campaigning and do not place too many regulations and requirements on non-party organisations. I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the amendments already agreed by the House of Commons as well as the additional independent assessments on the suitability of the bill.
I am pleased that the government is still listening to campaigners and still willing to amend the bill further to clarify its intentions and reduce misunderstandings. This bill regulates what non-party election campaigners spend and not what they say – which is an important message that we must clearly express. I will continue to take a very active interest in this bill and trust that by the end of its passage through parliament the bill will have been amended to deal with at least the bulk of your concerns as well as the concerns expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP
MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark