I beg to move amendment 101, page†13,†line†31,†at end insert—
‘( ) In section 94(1) of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, after subsection (1) insert—
(1A) During a regulated period no controlled expenditure is to be incurred by any third party that is in receipt of public funds in the 12 month period prior to the start of the regulated period.”.
( ) In section 94(2) after “schedule 10” in line 3, insert “or by (1A) above.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 66, page†13,†leave out lines 32 to 35.
Amendment 165, page†14,†line†2,†at end insert—
‘(3) Subsections (1) and (2) may not come into force until such time as the Electoral Commission has placed before Parliament a report on the impact of subsections (1) and (2) on relative controlled expenditure by political parties and non-parties in regulated periods.’.
Clause stand part.
Even this Parliament did not exist under the benign reign of the Empress Pulcheria, so I am afraid that I am unable to propose doing that.
The purpose of my amendment, which I think fits very well with the clause, which I support, is to limit the ability of people in receipt of public funds to intervene in elections, particularly general elections. In this country we do not have state-funded political parties. We have Short money and Cranborne money to help the parliamentary activities of Opposition parties, but we have consistently decided that the state would not fund political parties and that they would instead be funded by private donations, trade union donations and business donations. It therefore seems to me to be completely wrong for third parties that might depend on subventions from the state for a large part of their income to be able to campaign as third parties in general elections.
It would not in any way affect the Church of England and, anyway, should the Anglican Church intervene in elections, that would be a constitutional impropriety. It has long been the case that it is thought improper for peers to involve themselves in general elections. Members will recall that Lord Salisbury would not intervene for that reason; he let others campaign for him. It would not be constitutionally right for bishops to intervene in general elections. The Church of England is not affected by my amendment and it is not, as a general rule in its putting forward of the gospel, getting public money.
I am sorry to disabuse the hon. Gentleman, but if the Church of England or other religious bodies host any kind of hustings and exclude, say, a fascist from them, they will be caught not only by the Bill, but even more so by the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, because those bodies receive public funding. Local church buildings were given specific amounts in the last Budget.
The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We heard during the debate on the previous clause that if a third party invites some but not all of the candidates to a hustings meeting, that may be part of the election expenses of the people involved. The Bill makes no change to that situation. It has always been a difficulty. It is an issue at every election and rightly so, because it would be entirely arbitrary for third parties to decide which party they liked and which they did not.
Remarkably and unusually—perhaps uniquely—the hon. Gentleman has not done his homework. This Bill expands the definition of what constitutes expenditure and his amendment worsens it further and particularly and brutally picks on the Church of England more than any other organisation by hitting it with bureaucracy and the inability to host political events.
Again, I am in disagreement with the hon. Gentleman, who, surprisingly, I often agree with about many things. The amendment does not change in any way the definition of election expenditure. It leaves it as it is set out in the rest of the Bill. As I have said, that definition leaves unchanged the situation for people hosting hustings meetings. What I am doing makes not one iota of difference—not one jot of change—to the Church of the England. It will still be able to host meetings in churches and it would still be in difficulties if it decided not to invite particular candidates. That is quite right, because at the heart of democracy is the notion that candidates should be treated equally.
The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that British Telecom, Arriva, Stagecoach, Heathrow, Virgin Care, Tata Steel and farmers in his constituency are all in receipt of large amounts of public money. Is he really saying that none of them may make statements that could be taken as interventions in a general election?
The hon. Lady is ignoring the detail of the Bill and carrying on with the absurd scaremongering to which we have been listening for more than a week. A farmer in my constituency who is in receipt of subsidies would have to register as a third party and, according to the terms of clause 27, spend more than £5,000 to be in any way affected by my amendment. If only the farmers in my constituency were so rich that they were scattering £5,000 hither and yon, my own campaign might be the beneficiary of such largesse.
That is a gloriously roundabout way of examining this issue and it gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to a wonderful nanny who campaigns for me and who is now hard at work looking after my four children, which is a great thing for her to be doing. She was a volunteer when I campaigned in Glenrothes and therefore would in no sense have been caught by this clause. Although any payment that is made to her does come from me, it is not money that I receive from the public.
Thank you, Sir Edward.
In response to the point made by Helen Goodman, British Telecom and Arriva are not going to establish themselves as third parties in a general election. What is the idea—that British Telecom is suddenly going to send us messages saying “Vote Labour” or “Vote for a particular candidate”? That is an absurd suggestion. Is Heathrow airport going to focus on a particular candidate?
On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said:
“A lot of campaigning organisations, including the NCVO…receive a lot of money directly from the Government, and they are now spending that Government money lobbying the Government. That seems a terrible waste of public funds.”—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 236.]
First, that creates a somewhat misleading picture because obviously the majority of an organisation’s funds are not spent on lobbying the Government. Secondly, will he concede that he has a wider agenda on this?
I am more than happy to say that this is the tip of the iceberg and that as the Titanic steams towards that iceberg, it is about to emerge to cut a swathe through its side. I firmly believe that it is absurd for the taxpayer to dish out money that is then spent paying lobbyists to lobby the Government. That is not why hard-pressed taxpayers pay income tax, VAT and other duties.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is relatively new to the House. Let me point out to him that British Telecom provides assistance to the established political parties that it does not provide to independent candidates. Passing clause 27 with his amendment would therefore mean that British Telecom would be caught by the provisions of the Bill.
As an established candidate before I was elected in the last election, I did not receive any help from British Telecom. I had no idea that British Telecom was funding the campaigns of candidates up and down the country. If that were a purely commercial activity, it would be mistaken in doing so because it would alienate half its customers who would dislike the party that it decided to support.
We have heard throughout these debates Opposition scaremongering about all these third parties lined up waiting to support individual candidates, with the question of whether that is against charities law or constitutionally improper being cast to one side. That is being brought back in the context of this clause. It is absolutely clear from the Bill, from what the Minister has said and from the law as it currently stands that these bodies—charitable bodies, in particular, but also firms such as British Telecom—are not going to be third parties because they do not and, indeed, should not intervene directly in the election of individual candidates or in supporting individual parties.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is talking out of his hat. The fact is that a lot of large private-sector businesses are donors to political parties, and that is an intervention. Is he saying that if they had been in receipt of public money, they should not be making these interventions? When they give money they are also making statements, not only about individual candidates but about parties.
The hon. Lady is wrong to say that I am talking out of my hat because if I did, Sir Edward, I would be out of order and you would therefore not allow it to take place. Third parties that merely donate to other political organisations are not third parties under the terms of the Bill. To be a third party under the terms of the Bill one needs to be campaigning in such a way that one is advancing the campaign of an individual in a particular constituency or a political party across a number of constituencies. Under the terms of the Bill, giving £10,000 to the Conservative party does not require registration with the Electoral Commission as a third party. All it requires is for someone to register their donation and be a legitimate British company, as covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Bill is limited in scope. It cuts the amount that third parties may spend, and my amendment would ensure that people receiving Government funding do not become third parties. That seems not only reasonable but something that the Opposition in particular should support.
People may think that the Government are benign and particularly kind and well-disposed towards them, but it is not impossible to imagine a Government who were more cynical or less honest in their approach, and who saw that they could give funds from the many billions they spend. The Government spend more than £700 billion a year, and parties in election year spend £20 million—£20 million to £700 billion: there is a huge amount of money in the Government trough, and to extract a little of that to fund those they like but not those they do not like, or to get support from friends who can use it in an election campaign, is an impropriety that a Government more cynical than this one might be tempted to use. That is why Oppositions should be nervous—rather than uninterested—at the prospect of public funding being used to support third-party campaigns in general elections.
Let me return to my original point: we in this country have decided that parties will be funded privately from sources of funding that are not dependent on the state. Having made that decision, it is illogical to say that third parties can come in, interfere in our general elections, spend money in seats spread across the country, and support particular parties with money they have received directly from the state. That would be an abuse, but it is an abuse currently allowed under the law.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. There is public support for candidates in this country. We have a mixed economy because we all get free delivery of our manifestos to households in our constituencies.
The hon. Lady is right that there is a free post, but parties are not publicly funded. They receive no cash for the free post; it is done without any cash transfer to parties, and they have no control of the money that comes to them. My point that parties are not funded by the state is right. There is Short money and Cranborne money, which I mentioned, but that is specifically for parliamentary activities, not campaigning.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Is there a larger purpose here? Public funds—taxpayers’ money—is given to organisations to execute a social purpose. For that money to be used to interfere in elections is nothing short of an abuse of taxpayers’ money and trust.
The British Legion will not become a third party in a general election because it is against charity regulations for it to do so. It would be an outrage if one of the most admired and apolitical bodies in this country suddenly started saying that people should vote Conservative—let alone say that people should vote Labour, heaven forefend! Charities are not there to intervene in general elections. They have specific tax benefits and their ability to fundraise is dependent on them being charitable, not political, and there is a clear difference. There is no question of the Royal British Legion becoming a third party in a general election. That is the classic scare story that we hear again and again from the Opposition, who wish to obfuscate and confuse matters because they are worried that their trade union masters will, under this clause, have the amount they can spend reduced. They hide it; they camouflage it under this complaint on behalf of the Church of England, the Royal British Legion, and so on.
We should be concerned about third parties spending money in a way that is less regulated than political parties themselves, or having the ability to spend more and with lower effective limits on what they are able to do. The clause succeeds in doing that and would make no difference at all to charities or the Church of England. My amendment would further tighten the clause. As I have said, the Opposition should be enthusiastic about it, because it is wrong for Government money to be used by third parties when they have received it not for political activity but for their general activities of whatever kind.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and interesting speech, and perhaps he can help hon. Members who, like me, are concerned about this aspect of the Bill. Will he give us examples of organisations that tread the fine line of political campaigning that would be caught by amendment 27?
The Government and the taxpayer hand out very large amounts of money to third parties. Therefore, those parties should say either, “We will not take those funds,” or, “We want to be free to campaign.” They have the choice.
The hon. Gentleman reveals to the Committee that he does not understand how voluntary sector finances work. Voluntary sector organisations have restricted and unrestricted money. When organisations such as Shelter get money for public sector contracts, it is restricted and must be used on the service. The money used for campaigning comes from voluntary donations.
The hon. Lady is not entirely accurate. If she were to trouble herself to look at the NCVO accounts, she would see that the largest contribution of non-allocated money—£500,000—is from the Government. When the NCVO spends unrestricted money on campaigning, there is a very good chance that it is Government money, which seems improper. I am well aware of the distinction between restricted and non-restricted money. Unfortunately, many Government grants are not sufficiently restricted and therefore can be used to lobby the Government. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) challenged me on that—I am concerned about that too, but it is not the specific point I am making.
Charities should be able to campaign for their fundamental beliefs, but lobbying the Government with the Government’s money—taxpayers’ money—is a suspect activity. We do not pay our taxes to allow bodies to oppose or support the Government.
I would be shocked if Atos wanted to campaign. The idea that it should become a third party and campaign in seats is a monstrosity. Atos would be covered if it wanted to register as a third party, which is highly unlikely.
The hon. Gentleman would have been caught by his amendment. Is it not the case that he took great pleasure in being photographed repeatedly at such events held by major landowners when fighting, quite legitimately, for his seat? Those who host such events would be caught by the amendment, so his proposal is almost suicidal.
The hon. Gentleman assumes I have a much more salubrious social life than I have. I wish I constantly enjoyed a round of garden parties during general election campaigns. I am sorry to disappoint him that that is not how life is in North East Somerset. I am afraid that the picture he conjures is false. That situation does not arise under the Bill. Ingenious though his vision is, it does not get away from the fundamental point that Governments have a duty to spend taxpayers’ money carefully. They also have a duty of trust to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not misspent on purposes for which it was not intended. The Government, who are very powerful when in office, have a particular obligation not to fund their friends who can then use the money they receive to support the Government’s efforts to remain in office. That is a risk that the Opposition have pooh-poohed, but it is a real risk.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way, but he did not really answer the question of what problem he is trying to fix. If there is no proof of that happening, then it is a bit like me saying that I will stop kicking my dog when I do not own a dog. I am concerned that he is coming up with a complex and technical solution to a problem that may not even exist, although it may, in theory, potentially exist.
If my hon. Friend had been listening to all of the debate outside the House, which I am sure she has been, she will have seen that many bodies contributing to it are publicly funded. They receive money from the state that they are now spending on lobbying the state. It is therefore not the greatest leap to assume that there are bodies in receipt of money from the state that might be interested in elections. Why? Because they are the ones complaining that the Bill is so unfair on them. If they are complaining that the Bill is so unfair on them, it must be because they intend to spend some of that money on elections. My hon. Friend must therefore see that the case is made by the people she is oddly supporting. They have given a warning about what they intend to do. Having been warned, it is surely sensible to stop this happening and to say that it is wrong for taxpayers’ money to be used to fund third parties’ election campaigns.
If I had not taken so many interventions I would have finished. The key point is immeasurably simple. There is a duty of care with taxpayers’ money. There is a risk of impropriety if it is spent by third parties on elections. That impropriety is a greater temptation to a sitting Government who control the purse strings than it is to the Opposition who do not. It is something that ought not to be allowed. We do not fund our political parties for their campaigning. We ought not to fund third parties. We ought to make it illegal.
May I start my comments on clause 27 by declaring a non-financial interest in organisations in the third sector? I am the chair of the conservation and wildlife all-party group, the secretariat for which is provided by the Wildlife Trusts, and I am a vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports. I am proud to be associated with both organisations.
Clause 27 depends for its validity on clause 26, which we have just discussed. In my opening remarks, therefore, I want to make it absolutely clear that if the Government’s intention is to rewrite clause 26 at some point—as they have indicated this afternoon that they will—the Opposition are justified in not supporting the subsequent clauses that depend on it. The Electoral Commission made this point in its latest briefing notes:
“We recommend that once the definition of controlled spending is confirmed, the Government and Parliament should consider again what spending limits will provide the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and controls on undue influence.”
In that context, the Opposition will find it difficult to support clause 27 as it stands. Indeed, we still fail to understand how the Government can support their own clause 26 when they considered in the previous debate that it needed rewriting, but there we are. We will listen carefully not only to the Minister but to the esteemed
We support taking the big money out of politics and we support sensible controls on the money spent by third parties. That is why we introduced the cap on third party spending, ensuring that we would never be like the United States, where unaccountable organisations can spend vast sums of money. We have no objection to a tough cap on third party spending.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the provisions in the Bill do not even attempt to tackle the very issues she is talking about? In the 2010 general election, the main political parties spent £31 million; third parties spent £3 million on campaigning activities in that year.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that I will come to in due course.
This Bill puts the cart before the horse. Our contention is that this is the wrong way to tackle the very serious issues at stake and that what we actually need is an approach that focuses, first, on taking the big money out of politics and then places changes to third sector funding in the context of this much more fundamental and necessary reform of election funding. Let us be clear: that is the right way to tackle the issue because, to put it quite simply, the big money is not in third party spending. Political parties nationally—as my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne has said—spent £31 million in the 2010 election, compared with just £3 million by third party campaigners. The biggest third party spender spent just 4% of the £17 million spent by the Conservative party.
While the Government claim that this is an attempt to take the big money out of politics, they do not even mention the real source of the problem: the amounts spent on election campaigning by political parties. If the Government are serious about taking the big money out of politics, they would be looking at a reduction in the overall expenditure cap for political parties during election years. If the Conservative party, in particular, is serious about taking the big money out of politics, it will withdraw this mess of a Bill and commit to meaningful reform. This is a bad, and badly drafted, Bill and it is very unlikely that, however much it is amended, it will stand up to serious scrutiny as a fair and workable piece of legislation. It is a Bill found wanting, partly because of the lack of rigorous consultation and partly because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, as the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out.
I have noted the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this issue in the past. I point to the answers given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland earlier: funding agreements between the state, local government and charities tend to make it virtually impossible for charities spending public funds to spend them on any other purpose.
This is a dog’s dinner of a Bill and, as Mr Jenkin said a short while ago, even that description of the Bill is an insult to dog nutrition. So let us be clear: our invitation today to the Conservative partners in the coalition is to place reform of third party spending in elections clearly in the context of a cross-party consensus on political party funding and political party spending. We need to see a cap on donations to political parties—our leader has suggested a cap of £5,000 —and we need to see meaningful reductions in spending limits by political parties in general elections. We need to stop this spending race, which sees spiralling sums of money spent on successive elections. No more dodgy dinners in Downing street; no more bankrolling of the Conservative party by a tiny number of wealthy City donors. The Electoral Commission itself has made it clear that reform of third party spending is needed, but not like this. Clause 27 has caused huge consternation in the third sector, because if passed into law, it would play a major part—along with the other clauses in part 2—in effectively gagging the third sector in election periods. The changes will have a chilling effect on our national debate in the year before the election. That cannot be right for any modern, 21st-century democracy.
In an earlier debate, our hon. Friend John Mann raised with the Deputy Leader of the House, who is no longer in his place, the scenario in which charities would not be allowed to campaign in his constituency, yet political parties could spend £250,000 there, as they did, trying to undermine him and make him lose his seat. Is that not the real scandal of this Bill? It does nothing to address that concern. It will affect charities, who have a genuine right to lobby, but do nothing about such abuses of power.
Our hon. Friend John Mann articulated clearly the feelings of parts of many organisations in the third sector, who feel aggrieved that they are being picked on, as it were, in this Bill while the big spending takes place elsewhere.
The sceptical among us could be forgiven for thinking that in part 2, and clause 27 in particular, the Government appear to be trying to insulate their record and policies from legitimate democratic criticism. For example, a number of recent high-profile third sector campaigns could well have been stymied if this Bill had been in place. They include campaigns such as Stonewall’s equal marriage campaign or the Royal British Legion’s military covenant campaign. Indeed, as has been made clear on a number of occasions this afternoon, the National Union of Students could find it difficult to hold Members to account in the forthcoming election period.
It is perfectly possible that the Bill could also prevent the coalition of charities campaigning for plain packaging for cigarettes from making its case in the forthcoming election period. That is how serious the effect of this Bill could be. Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation could suffer the dampening effect of this Bill, and thereby become reluctant to make their case, while at the same time Lynton Crosby—a lobbyist for the tobacco industry—is working from the heart of the Government machine in Downing street. At a time when trust in politics is at an all-time low, why do the Government want to restrict the one part of our politics that is doing a good job in engaging people from all backgrounds in our political process? Why do the Government want to risk lowering the reputation of our political culture even more?
Clause 27 also illustrates a worrying trend on the right in politics—the challenge to the role of charities in the Prime Minister’s big society. Let us take the recent speech by the Justice Secretary, who proposed in an article in the Daily Mail recently that we ought to curtail the use of judicial review because—in his words—
“judicial reviews are launched in order to try to disrupt Government policies, such as those initiated by anti-HS2 campaigners or by those who believe it is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on subsidising people in social housing to keep spare rooms.”
More and more, we are seeing challenges to a vibrant civil society—challenges that, if acted on, would contribute to an insulation of Government from the crucial checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy.
I would like to draw the hon. Lady’s attention to a problem with how clause 27 will apply to Northern Ireland—I should have intervened on her a little earlier, but I am sure she will not mind my intervening now. She will have noticed that the limit on controlled expenditure will be reduced in Northern Ireland from £5,000 to £2,000—not £2,500, but £2,000. I would like her and her colleagues—and, of course, the Minister—to address the fact that charities like the National Trust are national, covering the United Kingdom as a whole. Will the National Trust’s national expenditure or its expenditure in Northern Ireland be caught by the limit?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. The reduced limits for the devolved Administrations relate not just to Northern Ireland but to Scotland and Wales. I do not think the Government have thought clearly about the fact that many third sector organisations in the UK are UK-wide, so I take her point.
Does my hon. Friend think that there is even a modicum of reason behind the proposal to reduce thresholds based on the fear among those on the Government Benches that an individual might decide to campaign on a third party basis and put large amounts of money into such a campaign? The legislation might catch the organisations that she has described, but does she agree that it would be very easy for an individual to be vague about such arrangements, as has happened in America with third party political action committees and related individual-funded organisations? In such circumstances, the provisions would not work.
I will comment on the reduction to the thresholds presently. Suffice it to say at this moment that the Electoral Commission itself has suggested that the thresholds might even need raising, rather than lowering.
There is a real suspicion out there in the third sector that, unfortunately, many Conservatives would like to see charities pare down their role, shrink their campaigning brief and concentrate instead on welfare provision.
That fear has already been borne out in this debate. There is nothing wrong with charities providing help and support for the sick, the young and the old, or for animals in distress—indeed, there is everything right about it—but they also need the freedom to campaign for the legislation and funding that are necessary to make the world a better place.
“many charities need to renew their sense of mission, spending less time at conferences and more time valuing their volunteers. They should concentrate resources on helping people rather than campaigns, lobbying and administration.”
And Priti Patel—
The hon. Lady will know that I was expressing my concern that the chief executive of Save the Children had had a pay rise of some 22% since 2010, while many of our constituents have been struggling to get by. It is right that we should ask the charities to refocus on their front-line mission and to help people rather than helping themselves.
I believe that the issue of third sector chief executives’ pay is being used as a smokescreen to conceal a real attack on the sector’s legitimate role of holding elected representatives to account and campaigning for the changes in society that it believes need to take place.
There is a legitimate role for third sector organisations in making their case to elected representatives, as they have done, but some charities’ pay is out of control and their administrative expenses are too high. In those cases, not enough help is reaching the front line. I am concerned about the alleviation of poverty and about helping people in need on the front line, and it is really important that charities should have those values—
Thank you for your guidance, Sir Edward. All I would say is that many third sector organisations listening to this debate will have been very interested to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Dover.
Some—not all—Members on the Government Benches are clearly intent on curtailing the third sector’s crucial work of shining a light on inequality where it exists, and of campaigning and highlighting the need for changes in public policy, based on their experience and expertise.
One organisation that has made a great contribution, under the previous Government as well as this one, is the Royal British Legion. It has campaigned for the rights of veterans, and I was on the receiving end of some of that campaigning when I was a Minister in the previous
Government. Its effective lobbying has changed the law under both Governments. Is it not ironic that Conservative Members who have signed up to its campaigns are now saying that such campaigning should no longer take place?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it would be interesting to trawl the websites of many Members to see the lists of charities that they support on a regular basis. I imagine that every Member of the House supports the Royal British Legion and its campaigning work, and would want that work to continue.
As I said earlier, clause 27 plays its own role in gagging the third sector by reducing the threshold for registration and reducing spending limits on controlled expenditure. Under amendment 66, tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend Wayne David, the threshold for registration would be returned to the status quo, thereby protecting smaller charities and community groups from being caught by this legislation, making it virtually impossible for them to participate in the democratic process.
On unintended consequences, has my hon. Friend considered the implications of the Oldham East and Saddleworth election petition judgment, whereby the number of votes influenced by the action was not a consideration? By implication, the amount of spending by which one might breach the rules would not in itself be the issue; rather, it would be whether there had been a breach. The complexity of the rules could lead to election petitions and to elected Members being thrown out of the House.
I thank my hon. Friend. What he said provides further evidence to show how this Bill was not properly thought through before it was brought before us. It shows, too, the amount of work that should have been done and the issues that should have been sorted out before it was brought here.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware—I hope so—of the paper produced by the House of Commons Library, which shows that under the Bill’s proposals, the limits on third party spending in Wales are coming down to £24,000 and to £10,000 in Northern Ireland. That would mean that in Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be impossible to employ anybody in a voluntary sector organisation to run any kind of campaign for one year in four.
I agree with my hon. Friend on that point.
As I was saying, our amendment is designed to return us to the status quo on thresholds and to help protect smaller charities and groups from being caught by legislation, making it virtually impossible for them to participate in the democratic process. That must be right, and the Electoral Commission has suggested, as I pointed out earlier, that the threshold should be raised. Let me quote from the evidence given by Jenny Watson to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
“We said again in our written evidence that one practical thing that could be done to make a difference to the Bill would be to raise the thresholds at which people have to register, and we have a particular concern about that as it relates to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because those thresholds are low.”
Let me ask the Government why the voice of the regulator is being so badly ignored in respect of this legislative process. Why is the Electoral Commission being ignored? We will listen with interest to the Minister’s response on that point.
As far as the limits for controlled expenditure are concerned, our position is clear: the limits need to be defined in the context of meaningful reform of the funding of political parties and of their ability to throw big money at election campaigns. In other words, the Government need to withdraw the Bill and to rethink. They need to enter into meaningful negotiations with the other political parties and to commit to proper consultation and scrutiny of proposals as they emerge, in relation to both political parties and the third sector.
In concluding my remarks, I ask the Minister to think again about not just specific points in this clause, but something more fundamental. The Minister is a Liberal Democrat; I ask him to take back to his Conservative partners the message that the Government’s whole approach to this issue needs to be looked at again. “Think again” is our message to the Government, who should commit to discussions designed to produce meaningful reform within which we can place sensible changes to the rules on third party funding—changes that we can consult on with confidence, knowing that we have done the right thing overall in changing our politics for the better.
Let me, just for a moment, return to our earlier debates, and ask Members in all parts of the Chamber to accept with good grace the Minister’s offer to rewrite clause 26. I do not want any Member in any part of the Chamber to talk about U-turns, or to gloat. I think that the Government have realised that the Bill is flawed in considerable part, and that, to their great credit, they have recognised that clause 26 needs to be rewritten along the lines suggested by John Thurso and by my Committee.
No such magnanimity, however, can be extended to clause 27. Clause 27 is the clause that is the most obnoxious to the charities that many of us support and view with great pride. Two things are being attempted. The first is to tie up those charities in red tape, with massive, indeed unprecedented amounts of reporting, and the second is to impose limits on their spending that are far more fierce and far more rigorous than those that currently apply.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the outcome of clause 27. Does he agree that the clause cannot be read in isolation, but must be read alongside the redrafted clause 26, because the two are connected? What we as legislators cannot do today is make a decision on clause 27 that is separate from our decision on the Government’s new version of clause 26.
I hope that as we proceed—and it should not be forgotten that we are only at the second stage of the process, given that there was no pre-legislative scrutiny—we shall be able, bit by bit, to pull the Bill back into some sort of rationality. I do not expect it to be perfect, and I think that we shall need to revisit it in a year’s time, but I also think that we should put our shoulder to the wheel, as our charities and voluntary organisations are asking us to do. We do not have much choice: we should do the right thing by them. I hope that as the Bill proceeds through its various stages, there will be a number of opportunities for us to ensure that it is, if not a masterpiece, at least something that will tumble along rather like a wagon that has square wheels but is travelling in roughly the right direction.
Has my hon. Friend’s Committee had an opportunity to consider the ramifications of the electoral judgment in Oldham? Everyone is concentrating on the impact on charities and third parties, but we should also consider the impact on candidates. If a third party were to spend a penny more than was allowed on promoting a candidate, an election petition would succeed. The ruling on the election petition at Oldham was based on a precedent 100 years ago. Is it not possible that election petitions, whether valid or not, will be issued regularly on the basis of a few pence?
The simple answer to my hon. Friend’s question is no: the Committee has not had time to look at those matters, and neither has anyone else. The unfortunate fact of the way in which this process was rushed through—the Bill was presented the day before the House rose, and was given a Second Reading the day after it reconvened—did not allow for any of the sensible accountability that the House should expect.
My hon. Friend has, however, made an excellent point. Indeed, excellent points have been made from all sides throughout the debate. I think that we should value what Members can bring to bear on this process, and I think that if the Government care to listen—and they are starting to listen—we will end up with a much better Bill.
Has my hon. Friend’s Committee given any consideration to the possibility that this is a hybrid Bill and if it passes—I hope it does not—it will be subject to legal challenge and judicial review because of the discriminatory way in which it deals with charities?
Again, no, we have not had the time to do that. My Committee produced a very hurried response, which required its members to come back in the recess to take evidence. We ought now to take the time to have a proper look at such issues and get these provisions right. That is one of the reasons why I urge the Committee not to agree to that clause 27 should stand part of the Bill.
We have done well today. A lot of people have been involved in helping the Government to see the truth. We have got them to it on clause 26, but on clause 27 we still have a great deal more work to do. I do not want to box the Government into a corner, but I think the best way to proceed is to decide that clause 27 should not stand part of the Bill so that there is then a period in which they can rewrite it and make it acceptable.
I agree with the argument being elaborated by the Chair of the Select Committee. The Electoral Commission says it finds it difficult to understand the rationale behind the Government’s proposed changes. On clause 27, has my hon. Friend discovered the Government’s rationale for arguing for a reduction in the thresholds for third sector organisations so that many more are caught?
I am afraid I must give the third negative reply in a row: we have not discovered that rationale, but the search goes on and I am determined that before the end of this process—before Her Majesty signs this Bill into law—we will have discovered it. Until then, it is the job of all of us across the House to try to make this Bill less hurtful, harmful and oppressive to the charities that we all care about. A small step has been taken today, which gives great cause for optimism, as does the fact that the Minister accepted an amendment from my Committee last night and even adopted it as the Government’s own. I was very grateful for that. It shows we can move forward.
We are engaged in an incremental process, and Parliament has an important role to play in it.
John Mann seemed to imply in his recent intervention that a local charity that spends a small amount of money in support of a candidate in a constituency would be caught by these limits. If that is the case, we do not need to debate it any further, as it is clear that that should be ruled out. If any charity or community organisation is engaged in promoting any candidate or political party, that is outwith the purpose of the charity or community organisation, and what it spends on that should be counted as election expenses.
I am sure the Chair will rule me out of order if I return to previous debates, but suffice it to say that, under the current definition in the Bill, if an organisation is seen to enhance the standing of any candidate, they will be caught by this, and that is such a—
Order. Many Members want to contribute to this debate, and I know that the very experienced Member speaking will want to get back to the point very quickly.
Thank you, Sir Edward, but I had seen the Government Whip running round trying to roust up a couple of speeches from the Conservative Back Benches so I assumed we had a little time. I will try to be more concise, however.
The proposal is to tighten the current spending limits, but they have served us well. As far as we could ascertain, they have elicited not a single case or complaint. We heard the same response time and again: “We have already got limits. Why on earth do we need to change them?” Again, there seems to be no clear rationale for doing that. But the impact of lowering the limits is, obviously, to reduce the amount of money that charities, voluntary sector organisations and others can spend in pursuit of their legitimate objectives. If people go crazy and start to spend them on illegitimate objectives, they will get caught by existing legislation, let alone future legislation.
Which are the organisations that are going to go wacky? They are the Royal College of Midwives—yes, probably—Action for Children, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Royal British Legion and Oxfam; those organisations gave evidence to my Select Committee about their concerns. They are not fringe; they are not just within the bounds of legitimacy. They are mainstream bodies, many of which have been going for 100 years or more. The National Trust is another—it is almost a newcomer, having been going only since the 1920s, I believe. I could also mention Christian Aid, the Stroke Association, Girlguiding, the Woodland Trust, the Royal Mencap Society, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and the Salvation Army. They are big and can look after themselves. They can get a brief and some legal advice. More chilling is what might happen to others who gave evidence. What about the Foyle Women’s Information Network and the Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service? They cannot take a risk of being interpreted, under the definitions in this Bill, as being even marginally in an area of transgression.
In the hon. Gentleman’s last sentence he moved off the main point he was referring to, which was the cap. Did any of the organisations he just cited as having given evidence to his Committee say that they intended to spend more than £390,000 on supporting a political party in the 12 months before the general election?
Give me the time to undertake accurate pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and I will give the right hon. Gentleman his answer.
What we should be doing in this place is adding to the rich tapestry of our democracy, not emaciating, frightening, chilling or putting a shadow over it. We should not be having people who fear engaging with their politicians and fear being part of our electoral process. We should have people who say, “We are welcome. Parliament is passing something that says, ‘Come in, we want to hear you. You are the big society. We want to listen to what you have to say.’” Are we saying that today? No, we are not, as we can see when we look at clause 27. This House should be sending out a much more positive message to those organisations, and to everybody else who wants to support and develop our democracy.
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to take an intervention, and I appreciate his patience. He has recognised that clause 27 has particular implications for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. May I urge him to use his persuasive powers on the Deputy Leader of the House and his colleagues on the Front Bench to ensure that when they amend clause 26, as they have agreed to do, and, in line with it, clause 27, they consult not only the Opposition, including him, but representatives from the regions?
Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who has responsibility for constitutional affairs. I think they would be receptive, because they are affable and approachable, and they have always been understanding of what the House needs. Unfortunately, the people we need to persuade are not here. They are not listening to our debates, but we need to make sure that that message gets to them. Inconvenient as it may be when we get e-mails and letters from the big organisations I mentioned, that is their cry for help. They are requesting us to get that message over not to the people on the Front Bench at the moment, but to people a little deeper in the No. 10 and Whitehall machine. Those people must start to listen.
What amazes me is that we started off more than 16 or 17 months ago with a lobbying Bill. That was what we were looking at, and it was what my Select Committee was looking at for more than a year. We were pottering along, not very urgently, as it looked like the steam had gone out of it. There was a lot of stuff going on around the election period, but there was no great rush. When we completed our consideration, some members of our Committee—former members who are in the Chamber today—had moved on to greater things. Being on my Select Committee is a great way of getting promotion—he says, trying to fill one or two vacancies. Those people had moved on to other things before the Government got around to answering the report; it took them more than a year. The report was about lobbying.
I shall give way shortly to another distinguished member of my Select Committee.
The incubus of parts 2 and 3 developed suddenly just before the recess. Suddenly something changed and the pace of activity rocketed from lethargy and sloth to knee-jerk and hyper-speed to get this thing out into the parliamentary domain and through the House without due consideration. We need to ask some questions about that and consider not giving the all clear to clause 27—the most offensive clause in the whole Bill—without that proper explanation.
It was the Government’s response that was at fault. Significantly, the Electoral Commission was very clear in its recommendation on restrictions on spending. Surely it is important that the Government should listen to such bodies, which have the experience.
Absolutely. The Electoral Commission comes before us quite a lot and it is pretty hard to get anything off the straight and narrow out of those people. They are impartial civil servants—it is like talking to the Boundary Commission or comparable public officials—who take their jobs seriously. It is impossible, even with the talents I have on my Committee, to lure them into the political domain, quite rightly. I urge hon. Members to read what the Electoral Commission said in evidence about the spot it has been put in by how the Government have rushed the Bill through. I shall make a couple of points on that in a moment.
It used to be a lobbying Bill, but now it is a lobbying Bill and some. It is the “and some” that causes the problems. However, as we discovered during yesterday’s debates, the lobbying provisions apply to Mencap and Save the Children. I had not realised their massive significance in general elections in Britain. I thought they were a helpful adjunct and were interesting, challenging and demanding, but I had not realised that they decided the outcome of general elections. This lobbying Bill, however, leaves out some of the biggest beasts in our political firmament. It does not catch the people who said, “It’s The Sun wot won it,” after a general election. It does not capture those people, such as Rupert Murdoch, who have massive influence. So, even on its own terms, before
My hon. Friend is making another excellent speech and has clearly done a splendid job. Was he as surprised as I was to look at the explanatory notes on the Bill, and particularly on clause 27, and see that Scotland is allocated a mere £35,400? Can he, with all his experience, tell me what I should say in my constituency if one third party wanted to campaign in favour of fox hunting and the other against it? For example, how could they employ people based on what seems to me to be a ridiculous amount?
I do not want to get drawn into too many specific cases, but my right hon. Friend highlights one issue, which is, when two charities who wish to pursue their legitimate aims are at variance with each other, how do they not, in an election year—because it is known when the election will be; it is 602 days from today—launch legal action against each other? Such bodies can be a bit litigious. Will the League Against Cruel Sports allow the Countryside Alliance to get away with something that might just be embarrassing? Instead it will say, “Let’s see if we can nudge them into court; let’s tie ’em up a little bit.” Or is it possible—Simon Hart is in his place—that the Countryside Alliance might even say to the League Against Cruel Sports, “You have stepped over the line here,” with such amounts of money as my right hon. Friend Mr Clarke referred to?
Then in comes the police force. Who will be the police force? It will be the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission will be pushed in between two contending charities to be the referee—to push those people apart. And do what else? If it is informed by one slightly malicious party that an infringement is going to take place, does it have to send its own people? Do they have to stop people getting on the platform? Do they take down the advertisements outside? What are we doing making the Electoral Commission the thought police of free speech in this country—a job it does not want and has not asked for, and was not even consulted about before it picked up the Bill at The Stationery Office? It was not even consulted about the proposed change to its role.
I am conscious of the justified blandishments of the Chair. I had assumed that I was being required to speak to take us somewhere towards the Division, but I will conclude quickly.
First, thresholds for registration are in clause 27. My Select Committee said:
“In the absence of any evidence that there is a need to lower the threshold for third parties to register with the Electoral Commission, we recommend that the Government revert to the existing levels. To this end, we recommend that clause 27…is removed from the Bill.”
Secondly, as far as the Committee could see, there was no justification for the new lower spending limits. Witness after witness came before the Committee, and not a single one said, “This is fantastic. We have been waiting for ever for the Government to do this on spending limits.” The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:
“The cost limits are reduced in a way that is neither explicable, nor relevant.”
The NCVO does not know the basis on which the Government decided on the new limits for expenditure, adding:
“One may suggest that they are arbitrary.”
That is why we set our face against those limits, and we say to colleagues in all parts of the House that until there is a proper justification of that, we feel that clause 27 should not progress.
Finally, as a chair of a charity and a trustee, I will remake the point that I made the other day in respect of clause 27. If there is even the faintest question mark over the hard-earned money of my charity, due to the possibility that we may get sucked into legal action and have to pay someone else’s costs on a six-figure basis, I am looking at having to sack people. I am not going to do that. It is no good, Minister, restraining, by some technicality, something that I have worked very hard to create.
I respect the Minister, who has been put in a very difficult position by some of his colleagues. I respect him when he says, “Don’t worry, Graham. That’s going to be okay. You’re not going to be caught.” There are many barristers and lawyers out there who live by the fact that people make technical mistakes. If I make a technical mistake by asking whether I can write to every candidate in the next general election and tell them about the wonders of early intervention, which my charity pursues, and I do it in slightly the wrong way, I put at risk the whole enterprise, and I am not prepared to do that. The Government are chilling me—stopping me engaging in the process.
If the hon. Gentleman, formerly of the Select Committee, will allow me, I must make progress because many others wish to speak.
The risks that I have outlined are the consequence of the Government not being clear, not consulting and not drafting the Bill in a sensible way.
I will finish on the Electoral Commission being the free speech police. In an excellent contribution, Mr Davis suggested that the Electoral Commission would be the IPSA for elections. If that argument does not win over colleagues who are still wavering, I do not know what will. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on what they have done on clause 26. That is eminently sensible. It should enjoy the support of the whole Committee, but on clause 27 the Committee must send a further signal to the Government and to the second Chamber, so on behalf of the all-party Select Committee, which was voted in by colleagues throughout the House—for the first time ever, we have elected our Select Committees—and on the basis of a unanimous report, I ask Parliament to support me in voting no on the Question that clause 27 stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Allen, who speaks to the Committee with great experience, but on this occasion I cannot agree with him. I support my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg and the wording of his amendment:
“During a regulated period no controlled expenditure is to be incurred by any third party that is in receipt of public funds”.
There has for some time been a problem with using public money to get involved in our political system, and that has caused me considerable concern. The Public Administration Committee looks at charities, what they do and how they act and operate. The findings of some of our investigations are a matter of grave concern. There has been a tremendous change over the past 15 to 20 years in the third sector and how it operates, which makes my hon. Friend’s amendment relevant, but also means that clause 27 and the Bill in general should be brought to this Bill Committee.
In the past 15 years the state funding of charities in Britain has increased significantly, while restrictions on political lobbying by charities have been substantially relaxed. Some 27,000 charities are now dependent on the Government for more than 75% of their income and the voluntary sector receives more money from the state than it does in voluntary donations. That fact is pointed out by the Institute of Economic Affairs in its report entitled “Sock Puppets”. It is important for us to be aware of that.
The hon. Gentleman has just said that there has been a significant increase in public funding to charities in the United Kingdom. Does he recognise that much of that increase can be traced to the fact that many services are no longer provided by the public sector and instead are contracted out and commissioned in that way? Organisations that, among other things, are providing services at good value for money to the public would be caught by the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman strengthens my argument, because the point I was coming to is this: if an organisation is in receipt of public money for providing a service, is it really acceptable and justifiable for it to be able to lobby and spend money to warp our political system for the purposes of getting more of it? Personally, I do not think that it is.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that one of the strengths of the voluntary sector in the United Kingdom is its right to have an independent voice and for it not to be assumed that, because those organisations are paid to deliver services, that independent voice should be muted?
It has been argued that state funding weakens the independence of charities, making them less inclined to criticise Government policy. In fact, there is a sense that there is a deeper problem. There is a risk that Governments could fund or create pressures groups with the intention of seeking to create a sock puppet version of civil society by giving the illusion of grass-roots support for new legislation. That has become widespread and even has a special name: Astroturfing. We all know that grass-roots campaigns being set up and “Astroturfed” is increasingly an issue, so much so that it has become part of our dictionary.
When constituents write to the hon. Gentleman on a number of different causes that have been mentioned in the debate, does he consider those individual pieces of correspondence to be an illusion if they are facilitated by a charity or a charity campaign? I certainly do not; they are the voices of my constituents.
I was sent spontaneous e-mails on the Bill by a number of constituents. I believe that a number of Members of the House received such spontaneous e-mails, which of course had not been written by anyone else whatsoever. In response to those e-mails, I set out my position on charities and my concerns about pay in the boardroom and the amount spent on administration. The shadow Minister said that she is certain that people will be listening to the debate and will e-mail me right away to criticise me for the position I have taken, but many of the considered and detailed replies I received from those constituents who had e-mailed me with the so-called spontaneous e-mails said, “Actually, we see where you are coming from on charities and agree with your concerns. We think that they are important and that it is legitimate to raise them.” Far from what the shadow Minister thought the reaction would be, I had considerable support from people who, as she knows, would not naturally be supportive of me, or indeed my election.
I feel the need to respond. I do not think that I said that third sector charities would be e-mailing the hon. Gentleman; I said that they would be listening very carefully to what he was saying in his interventions.
I thank the hon. Lady for that clarification. I think it is important that we represent our constituents. Following my direct responses to the 38 Degrees e-mails, many constituents replied and said that they saw that as a matter of great concern and that they agreed and had considerable sympathy with the position I had taken. I must say that I was surprised by that support. Having been forthright in my response, I did not expect to find much support from that particular quarter. I think that there is a message for Opposition Members to take away and consider, just as there is for Government Members. State-funded activists are engaged in direct lobbying of politicians and indirect lobbying of the public using taxpayers’ money, and I think that blurs the distinction between private and public action.
I also think that we all have a trust to uphold, in relation to the votes of supply and the impost we put on our constituents for the funding of Government and public money, to ensure that it is spent in a way that is targeted at particular social purposes and need. My concern is that if taxpayers’ money then finds its way back into arguing for more money to be spent on particular things, or indeed on the election of particular candidates or parties at an election, that is an abuse of the public trust that we are sent here to represent.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a case that I have made in the past. Government Front Benchers are listening and I hope they will consider introducing tougher restrictions on the abuse of public funds, so that all of us who care passionately about taxpayer value and reducing taxes, cutting the deficit further and faster, and reigning in waste and excessive public spending are able to ensure that our constituents get better value for money from the Government and that their money is not misspent, but spent on the social purposes for which this House votes.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman does not understand the financial reporting that charities have to undertake in this country. The reality is that if a charity has a service level agreement or project agreement, those funds cannot be used for any purpose other than that to which they are contracted. His case is falling apart the longer he stays on his feet.
My particular concern about the state funding of charities and outsourcing of services is that they should not be in a position to use that money to lobby for more Government funds. The third sector’s increasing reliance on Government largesse has provoked lots of discussion and caused considerable concern. Critics have accused Governments of using statutory funding to silence belligerent charities or to politicise good causes.
“Guido Fawkes” says:
“A charity that relies in the main part on taxes is no more a charity than” a lady of the night
“is your girlfriend.”
On the serious issue of lobbying for more money, we should be cautious and ensure that it is not misspent and that the regulation of lobbying should catch up with the fact that the third sector has changed dramatically in recent years and, indeed, that the historic restrictions on political campaigning and political involvement by charities, on which the Charity Commission used to be very firm, have been relaxed.
I have considerable concerns about Shelter, which provides not shelter but advice and which is often engaged in campaigning that many Members would view as political.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, if a charity commissions an opinion poll that uses spurious or skewed data to publish a result that the charity then uses to suggest that one political party is good and another is bad, the use of taxpayers’ money in that enterprise would be wrong?
The hon. Gentleman shouts that it is illegal, but the problem is that it actually happens, because the restrictions on political campaigning have been relaxed in recent years in a way that they were not in the past.
I am astonished at the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Charities are restricted to act within their charitable objectives and that is enforceable by law. Indeed, some have been questioned in the past and if they are found guilty they will receive their dues. A lot of charities are being chilled by what the Government are saying, but they will be put in the deep freeze by his comments, which reveal the true purpose of a number of Members.
I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. He says that charities are restricted from political campaigning. If that were the case, they would not mind or object to this Bill. The issue is the direct engagement of some charities in political campaigning. My concern, which I have raised time and again, is that there should be a much greater focus on ensuring that charities target help on the front line and walk the walk rather than talk the talk.
Like several Members, I have had more correspondence about part 2 of this Bill than about any other issue since being elected. The undemocratic nature of the Bill has shocked my constituents, as well as charities across the UK. I urge the Government to listen to the voice of the people and this House and make radical amendments to the Bill rather than try to force something through that is clearly not fit for purpose and has not had adequate consultation.
While I am absolutely in favour of transparency in lobbying, the Government need to make a clear distinction between those lobbying for commercial gain and those trying to engage with the democratic process of bringing about social change that aids the wider population. As it stands, the Bill makes little distinction between a multinational that is pushing Government for a policy to aid their bottom line and a small charity like GROW in my constituency, which campaigns for the voice of vulnerable women in Rotherham. I must apologise, Ms Primarolo, because I need to correct that—the Bill does of course make a distinction, as the multinational could take its lobbyist in-house and thereby circumnavigate the Bill, whereas the charity will be financially burdened and gagged by it.
Clause 27(1) seeks to reduce by 50% the level at which a non-recognised third party such as a charity, voluntary organisation or social enterprise can spend on campaigning before they need to register. If left to stand, the clause will bring thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of charities under regulation for the first time. If this happens, charities that are already facing huge cuts under this Government will be forced to shoulder an immense burden of new administration and a whole tier of extra costs. As a former CEO of charities, I can assure Members that they can ill afford the staffing or financial burden that clause 27 will impose. The reality is that charities will just stop campaigning. This Bill will literally take away their voice and the voice of the millions of people they represent.
I am confused about the distinction that the hon. Lady is making between charitable campaigning, which is reasonably protected by this measure, and party political charitable campaigning, which is of course illegal under charity law anyway. What aspect of charitable campaigning is she worried will be wrongly interpreted, and why is the existing legislation not sufficient to deal with that?
First, why do we need a new Bill if the existing legislation is working? As a specific example, if GROW, my local organisation that protects women who have suffered domestic abuse, was seeking a change of which I was very supportive and was saying, “Sarah is very supportive of this”, I worry that that might fall within the new provisions.
No, I am sorry—I will not.
Amendment 66 would remove the 50% reduction in financial thresholds, and I support that. Indeed, I would like to go further and support the removal of clause 27 in its entirety. That position is also supported by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which says in its report:
“We have not seen adequate evidence for setting the new thresholds for expenditure at the levels imposed by Part 2 of the Bill. The Government must explain the reasoning behind its decisions during the passage of the Bill. Even if the Government can make the case for imposing lower levels, it must be able to give a convincing account of why it has chosen these particular limits as opposed to any others. If it cannot do so, we recommend that the existing levels continue to apply until such point as the case for change has been made.”
Order. Before I call the remaining speakers, I want to make it clear that I intend to call the Minister at quarter to 7, and I will sit the Member down at that time if they do not sit down themselves. Three Members still wish to contribute, and I hope that each of them will be very brief.
Like other Members, I rise to voice my overall concerns about clause 27. I will support the call by Mr Allen to vote against clause stand part. I also support amendment 66, which would keep limits as they are. We have heard no justification for the change proposed in the clause either to the threshold or the limit, and we have been given no example of anybody who has created any sort of difficulty. No scandal has been painted for us; we do not even have a scandal in waiting that anyone can point to. For part 1 of the Bill, however, we know of scandals that are completely untouched, and the message is “carry on regardless”.
It would also be remiss if we did not address some of the nonsense offered about amendment 101. Some might think it is a mad and daft measure that will get nowhere, but parts 2 and 3 of the Bill came out of nowhere. Amendment 101 is already gaining traction, and we are told that there will be an even harder version of it on Report. I therefore think that it needs to be fully and fairly reported. Not only would the amendment restrict the use of public funds for campaigning, it basically states that nobody can do anything that would come under controlled expenditure if they receive public funds, even if they are not using those funds for anything that might be defined as controlled expenditure. Therefore, if a charity, community or voluntary group receives funding, whether from the local council, a European programme, a Department or another public body, perhaps under a service level agreement, it can in no way use the advocacy side of its role in anything that might involve controlled expenditure.
In the context of Northern Ireland it is important for organisations that work and engage with young people who are otherwise disaffected—turned off by the political process, and in many ways socially disconnected—to get public funds. It also good that in election periods they ensure there is discussion, political conversation and an opportunity for political parties, and others, to engage. Nothing is done that is unfair or gives advantage to any party. Indeed, the kind of hustings that are called put all parties on their mettle.
It is also good that women’s groups get funding, although it is often not enough. Groups such as Foyle Woman’s Aid in my constituency, or the Foyle Women's Information Network, sometimes get small amounts of money, or big amounts for the big and important services they provide. It is important that they too are part of the democratic conversation at election time, because that helps to move the debate on in Northern Ireland from the traditional binary divide that our media keep getting us caught into. All parties complain that we are constantly brought in to rehearse and refight the old arguments. We say we want to fight on wider social and economic points, but we are not able to because those who help to lead, stimulate and support people in the political process to try to move politics in Northern Ireland on to those issues—it is a contest of priorities, policies and performance in relation to socio-economic, cultural and environmental issues—have been told, “No, butt out; just let the parties do it their way. Leave control and influence around elections to the media.”
The hon. Member for Nottingham North said that the biggest people who influence elections and have all sorts of ulterior influences and interests at stake and in play are the big powerbrokers of the media. They are not touched by this Bill or anything else that the Government propose.
I want to say a few words about the contributions from the hon. Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), and I am glad to follow Mark Durkan because he made such an eloquent case. In a way, we should be oddly grateful for the contributions from the hon. Members for North East Somerset and for Dover, because they showed the nasty agenda behind this Bill. There is a real risk that someone might be taken in by the sanitised version that we hear from the Minister, who tells us that there is nothing to worry about. However, when we hear the kinds of ideas that those hon. Gentlemen have about the activities of charities and other organisations, we are right to be worried about the Bill.
I want to challenge the overall presumption of what amendment 101 is about. I disagree with the essential premise that just because someone receives public funds, they should be neutered for a whole year in what they can say. I worked for a development organisation for 10 years, and we did a lot of advocacy on trade, aid and debt. Our advocacy was based on our experience in the field, working alongside people living in poverty. Yes, we received Government money towards that programme in the field, but if that were somehow to mean we that were not able to speak out about what we saw and the conclusions of our experience, that would be a travesty of the public debate for which this country used to be famous.
I am deeply worried. The hon. Gentlemen confuse engaging in public debate during an election period, which amendment 101 states is a whole year, with electioneering. There is a big difference between the two. The idea that we cannot tell the difference is foolish, and in any case, laws govern involvement in electioneering, so we do not need the amendment.
I shall spend just two minutes on the clause 27 stand part debate, so Jim Shannon can make a speech. I agree entirely with Mr Allen. Again and again, Opposition Members and some Government Members have challenged the Government and asked, “What problem are you trying to fix?” but we never hear an answer. The hon. Member for Dover eventually came up with one charity but, I must say, gave no evidence—he cited Shelter with no evidence. We cannot make policy on the basis of prejudice, which the hon. Gentleman appears to want to do. We should make policy on the basis of evidence, which is what I sought to do in a previous amendment.
If we get rid of clause 27, we can start again and think about what we want the Bill to do. I do not think we want the Bill to shut down legitimate public and policy debate and engagement in such debates from the wider public. Other people would not expect hon. Members to do that, which is why I join the hon. Member for Nottingham North in saying that we need to get rid of clause 27.
Charities and the Christian organisations tell me that the Bill will reduce the financial threshold at which a third-party campaigner must register with the Electoral Commission. Under the newly broadened range of activities, if a third party plans to spend £2,000 or more in the year leading up to the general election, it must register with the Electoral Commission. The Christian Institute and the Royal British Legion are concerned about that—the hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of charities that have the same concerns.
That is a unique problem for charities, many of which hold events at the Long Gallery in Stormont in the Northern Ireland Assembly for, for example, children in care, cancer awareness-raising or women’s rights, to name three of dozens of important issues. The events are costly to hold—it is highly possible that a charity will spend £2,000 or more in the year before an election without purposely seeking to enhance one candidate over the other. The charities set out to achieve a goal, but the Bill will disadvantage them greatly. I do not believe that the Government have acknowledged or understood the key issues Opposition Members have described.
Registering with the Electoral Commission at the low threshold will create disproportionate administrative burdens on charities and regulatory bodies. One point that has not been made in the Chamber is that the limit will apply to partnership working. For example, if two charities work together on a single-issue campaign and spend £2,500 each, they must both report expenditure of £5,000, which is nearly half of the limit of £11,000 in Northern Ireland.
The awful part of the measure is that, significantly, it will become a criminal offence to exceed the spending limit. The charities will not only be stopped from campaigning; they will be criminalised, which must be wrong. I cannot understand how the Government can say that that is not the case.
Other hon. Members have indicated that there will be changes to the Bill in the House of Lords. Let us pray for those changes. If those changes are made before we debate the Bill again in the House, we will have got what we wanted, but it is a pity that the Government cannot acknowledge that point.
Under the Bill, there is a significant possibility that the legitimate campaigning efforts of community and voluntary organisations will be unduly curtailed, and perhaps even criminalised, which undermines the efforts of charitable organisations to advocate for the most disadvantaged in our society. It could also prevent politicians from hearing those voices. Would it not be a terrible tragedy if we the politicians did not hear the voice of the charitable organisations that want us to campaign on their behalf to make life better for our constituents?
The Bill must not unduly impact the vital work of the community and the voluntary circle. I support hon. Members who are trying to do away with clause 27. I ask the Government to realise they are heading the wrong way.
Order. Before I call the Minister, I thank hon. Members for assisting in ensuring that we can hear the Minister reply to the debate before the votes.
Thank you for assisting with that, Ms Primarolo.
I suspect that the plaudits—admittedly some were lukewarm—the Government Front Benchers received for shifting the ground on clause 26 will not be repeated in relation to clause 27. This is perhaps not the occasion to ask Jacob Rees-Mogg to explain how it is that someone who went campaigning with his nanny has become such a fervent critic of the nanny state. We may have to delay that clarification.
On the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s proposals, amendment 101 would amend clause 27 so that third parties in receipt of public funding would, 12 months before the commencement of a regulated period up to an election, be prohibited from incurring controlled expenditure in that regulated period. It would be an offence for them to do so. Many individuals and organisations receive public funding to undertake work—for example, providing services or carrying out research—that also further the Government’s aims. Preventing such individuals or organisations from campaigning during the regulated period for parliamentary elections, as the amendment requires, would be an excessive and unnecessary restriction. We have been clear that we are not seeking to stop organisations campaigning on policy issues, and we are not seeking to stop them campaigning politically, although we are seeking to reduce the cap in the way referred to by other Members. The intention of the Bill is to bring greater transparency to third party campaigning. It will not prohibit campaigning altogether, as the amendment seeks to do. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
The fact remains that, from a Government perspective, we do not want to be in a position where organisations currently assisting the Government are not able to campaign in election campaigns.
Amendment 66 would amend clause 27 so that it no longer lowers the expenditure threshold that third parties may exceed only after they register with the Electoral Commission. Clause 27 proposes that those registration thresholds be set at £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government are seeking to do that because we believe in greater transparency. We believe it is important that people understand who is campaigning in the course of election campaigns. It has been said, possibly by the Chair of the Select Committee, that that will have a huge impact on a very large number of charities. The Government’s assessment of how many extra charities will be included as a result of dropping the threshold is 30—just 30 charities would be affected. I accept that potentially 30 charities may be affected, but in practice the overwhelming majority of charities will not be affected.
We shall wait and see. The Government have assessed it and that is our assessment. I am not being forced to say it is 30. I am comfortable with saying that it is 30. That is what the Government believe to be the case.
The Government’s view is that we are including a wider range of organisations, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to advocate reducing the threshold to £500 he is welcome to do that, with the additional burdens it would impose on a much larger number of charities.
In the 10 minutes that remain, I need to complete my remarks.
On amendment No. 66, upon registration with the Electoral Commission, third parties become entitled to incur controlled expenditure up to a higher limit and will have to comply with other regulatory requirements. The Bill lowers the thresholds in order to identify greater numbers of third parties that campaign in the political process. It is right to distinguish which organisations incur expenditure campaigning at elections and to ensure that their funds are fully accounted for. Reducing the registration thresholds, as proposed by the Bill, does not preclude third parties from campaigning. This is a point that, I am afraid, a number of Members have made: that a requirement simply to register will stop organisations campaigning. That is not so. The requirement to register will mean that the expenditure that they can incur is controlled. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Caerphilly will withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 165 proposes that until the Electoral Commission has undertaken an assessment of the impact of clause 27 on political parties and on third parties and that report is laid before Parliament, the provisions of clause 27 may not come into effect. I have been asked why we have settled on the cap. Clause 27 amends the third party limits for controlled expenditure. These limits would be the equivalent of 2% of the maximum campaign expenditure limit for political parties. For third party campaigning across the UK, this would be £390,000. As hon. Members will be aware, currently the level at which it is set does not cover or catch any of the third party organisations.
Setting a cap at £390,000 would, as I stated earlier, capture two organisations that currently spend slightly above that cap. We think that that would, first, provide equality of arms in relation to the examples to which the Chair of the Select committee referred—the League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance. It would ensure that one organisation campaigning in favour of something could not be heavily outgunned financially by another campaigning on the opposite side of the argument.
If at the next general election, the threshold were set where it is currently and the 30 organisations that registered all spent at their current limit—the £1 million, or just under, that they are allowed to spend nationally—they would have been able to outspend, very heavily, each of the political parties. Our view is that election campaigns are about political parties fighting and setting out their stalls, with, of course, third party organisations campaigning as well, but it should in principle be a battle between political parties.
Clause 27 also lowers the expenditure thresholds at which the third parties must register with the Electoral Commission: the thresholds are set at £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As I stated, the Government’s assessment is that that would affect a total of 30 additional non-party organisations, not charities, as I stated earlier. Thirty additional non-party organisations might be caught by the lower threshold. The Government have already published an impact assessment on the provisions of the Bill, which considers the impact of the lowered registration threshold. It assessed that only a small number of third parties would be required to register and become subject to the regulatory framework. This will not create new administrative burdens for already registered third parties but, as I stated, may affect 30 additional non-party organisations.
The impact assessment also considered the impact of the lower spending limits. At the last general election, the largest 10% of third parties spent more than the remaining 90% put together. As I stated, only two organisations spent more than the new lowered limits that the Bill proposes. That demonstrates that the current spending limit is so high as to be ineffectual.
The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee listed a range of organisations that he said gave evidence to his Committee. I asked him whether any of them had told him in their evidence that the Government’s proposed cap of £390,000 would affect their ability to campaign politically during the next general election, and he did not respond. I suspect that he did not respond because none of them intended to spend that much. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he is about to tell me which of those organisations said they would spend above £390,000.
I am surprised that the Deputy Leader of the House wants to abdicate the role that Her Majesty’s Government have given to him, but I will make it clear again. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will pick up his remit, if he cannot do it himself. If the Government give us the time to do our pre-legislative scrutiny—time that we asked for—instead of putting a Bill before the House one day before the recess and taking Second Reading one day after, we will do that job and many others.
Having given the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee a second opportunity to state which organisations would be affected, I am afraid to say that he is unable to do so. I regret that. The impact assessment has been carefully prepared. Requiring the Electoral Commission to undertake another assessment is unnecessary, particularly if it would prevent a key provision of the Bill from being enacted before then. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment.
Concerns have been expressed about the cap in the Bill. We have set out why we think a national cap of £390,000 is appropriate. It would have affected only two organisations in the last general election. We have also set out why we believe that lowering the registration threshold to £5,000 would lead to greater transparency. People would be able to get more information about which organisations were campaigning in a general election. I therefore hope that the amendments in this grouping will not be pressed to a vote.
Having listened to this debate and the wonderful speech by my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, I have discovered that all the wit and wisdom of this House would like me to bring forward a more stringent amendment on Report to ensure that no money is ever spent from Government funds and coffers on lobbying. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
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