With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 62, page 12, line 24, leave out subsections (2) to (4).
Amendment 46, page 12, line 28, leave out subsections (3) and (4).
Amendment 131, page 12, leave out lines 31 to line 3 on page 13 and insert—
‘“For election purposes” means activity which can reasonably be regarded as intended for the primary purpose of—
(a) promoting or procuring electoral success at any relevant election for—
(i) one or more particular registered parties;
(ii) one or more registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties; or
(iii) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates; or
(b) otherwise enhancing the standing—
(i) of any such party of parties; or
(ii) of any such candidates, with the electorate in connections with future relevant elections (whether imminent or otherwise).’.
Amendment 64, page 12, line 31, leave out ‘or in connection with’.
Amendment 168, page 13, line 30, at end insert—
‘() the amendments made by this Part shall not apply to elections to the Scottish Parliament, unless the Scottish Parliament so resolves.’.
Amendment 169, page 13, line 30, at end insert—
‘() the amendments made by this Part shall not apply to charities registered in the Scottish Charity Register maintained under section 3 of the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005 in relation to Scotland.’.
Amendment 132, in schedule 3, page 55, line 23, leave out sub-paragraph (3) and insert—
‘Any manifesto or other document setting out the third party’s view on the policies of one or more registered parties or of any category of registered parties or candidates.’.
Amendment 133, page 55, line 32, at end add—
‘in connection with an election campaign’.
Amendment 134, page 55, leave out lines 40 to line 4 on page 56.
Amendment 162, page 56, line 15, at end insert—
(c) in respect of staffing costs incurred for election purposes, as defined in section 85(3).’.
Amendment 167, page 56, line 15, at end insert—
‘(c) in respect of the remuneration or allowances payable to any member of the staff (whether permanent or otherwise) of the third party.’.
New clause 4—Charity or non-party campaigning
‘Nothing in Part 2 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.’.
New clause 6—Expenditure within third party groups
‘(1) Part 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (controls relating to third party national election campaigns) is amended as follows.
(2) After section 87 insert—
“87A Expenditure within third party groups
(1) For the purposes of this Part, third parties which have formed part of a group of third parties (“a group”), for the purposes of undertaking activities to influence the outcome of an election, have only a duty to account to the regulator for expenditure that the third party has incurred for election purposes, as defined in section 85(3), and not for expenditure by the group or groups of which they have formed part.
(2) Each group shall designate a person or persons responsible for reporting to the regulator expenditure by the group incurred for election purposes.
(3) A donation by a third party to a group for the purposes of undertaking activities to influence the outcome of an election shall count towards the expenditure limits established in section 94 and Schedule 10.”.’.
New clause 9—Impact of Part 2 on elections and referendums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
(a) an assessment of the separate and specific impacts of Part 2 of this Act on third-party engagement in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to the House of Commons in respect of constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and
(b) an assessment of the impact of Part 2 of the Act on referendums held or to be held in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.’.
New clause 10—Assessment of effect of third party campaigning on UK elections
‘(1) Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must set out a report that includes his assessment of the effect that the actions of third party campaigning has had at elections in the UK, which shall include—
(a) an assessment of the impact of third party national election campaigns as regulated by Part IV of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000,
(b) the impact of any other third party campaigns which in his opinion have had an impact on elections,
(c) evidence of public opinion on the benefits and adverse impacts of third party activity at election time, and
(d) an assessment of the existing controls on third party campaigning at elections in the UK, and how these compare to other countries.
(2) In drawing up the report under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) the Electoral Commission,
(b) the Charities Commission,
(c) the Governments of the devolved nations,
(d) political parties,
(e) such persons or organisations who campaign to affect policies or politics,
(f) such persons who may publish opinions, whether on paper or electronically, that may be intended to influence policies or politics, and
(g) any other person he considers could be affected by controls on third party campaigning.’.
Clause stand part.
Schedule 3 stand part.
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship and eagle eye, Mr Hoyle? Having regard to the point of order I shall keep my remarks as brief as I can.
Amendment 47 stands in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and is linked to amendment 46. I will also speak to new clause 4 although I do not intend to speak to any other amendments. Briefly, let me explain the context behind why I tabled these amendments. Part 2 of the Bill sets out limits and rules relating to non-party political campaigning. As I understand it, the Government’s intention is to draw a clear distinction between the activities of those such as charities and interest groups that seek particular policy outcomes that they promote to all candidates and parties in an election, against those third parties that seek to influence the outcome of an election by support or opposition to particular parties or candidates.
Our electoral system is based on a principle enshrined for many years that all political activity at elections, whether by established party or non-party groups, is regulated as to the amount of expenditure they may use. That is a long-held view. Our electoral system has held that unlimited funding on the US model is not how we wish to do our politics or elections, and that we should have expenditure limits. I wholly concur with that principle.
It is therefore right that non-party political campaigns should be subject to that principle just as much as parties—a point that was clearly accepted in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Indeed, if one were to reverse the argument, it would be very odd if non-partisan groups, or even charities, were to argue that they alone should be free to have an unfettered right to spend money with regard to who wins or loses an election, either in the country or an individual seat. Notwithstanding that principle, there are justifiable concerns about some aspects of the drafting of this Bill, and the amendments seek to address one such concern.
Clause 26, as drafted, amends section 85 of the 2000 Act. Amendment 47 paves way for the meat of the issue, which is amendment 46. It simply puts forward the proposition that we should leave the status quo in place. By deleting subsections (3) and (4), the amendment seeks to state that the Government wish to proceed on the basis that nothing has changed in that definition, so that is what we should have. My proposition is straightforward: let us stick with the status quo.
I thought it might be useful to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members if I intervened at an early stage to say that the Government have listened to the concerns expressed by charities. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House met the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on Friday. We intend to introduce amendments on Report that will address many of the concerns that my hon. Friend, Mr Allen and other hon. Members have expressed. I assure my hon. Friend that the concerns he is expressing will be addressed on Report.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. I was about to say that I hope the proposals find favour in the eyes of the Government and that they accept them. If he is saying that the Government accept the principle behind the proposals and would like to introduce on Report an amendment that does the same thing, it would be extremely churlish of me not to accept it.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and his attempts to amend clause 26, but Opposition Members have a lot of experience of the gap between what Ministers say and what they do. The clause is a noose around the neck of democratic election debate. It gags those who have a passion to play a part in challenging politicians, and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, it is a curb on the campaigning activities of trade unions, charities, Churches and others. If the Minister produces amendments on Report that do not do what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends want, will he vote against them?
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the status quo is perfection when, in recent years, groups such as the Countryside
Alliance and individuals such as Lord Ashcroft have, between elections, targeted huge resources in a few marginal constituencies to affect the result of the vote? Should not that abuse be reformed?
May I put on record my thanks to the Minister for making it clear that there will be clear words in the Bill that meet the hon. Gentleman’s proposal in amendment 47, and that meet the proposals of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform? The provisions must be clear in the Bill, and I welcome that the Government have engaged in the process on clause 26. There are 30 or 40 clauses, and I hope that a precedent will be used in relation to other clauses that are subject to equally fierce criticism from the charitable and voluntary sectors.
Has the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to read the NCVO parliamentary briefing from yesterday? It will seek legal advice on the new wording and go to the Electoral Commission. It expresses great concern that voluntary organisations could be subject to “ambiguous and damaging legislation” and makes the point that the
“list of activities that count towards controlled expenditure remain neither clear nor workable”.
The Minister’s suggestion that he has suddenly achieved great consensus does not seem to agree with the spirit of the NCVO briefing.
The hon. Gentleman has been generous in taking interventions. The Deputy Leader of the House has indicated that the Government will amend the Bill on Report, but what if the Government do not introduce the essential and necessary amendments to clause 26? What assessment has the hon. Gentleman made of the impact of part 2 of the Bill, unamended, on charities?
We are in Committee, and a great many amendments have been tabled. I will make a judgment on exactly what the Bill does at the end of Committee and Report. I have expressed concerns and tabled amendments, and would like to see how we get on.
The Electoral Commission has described the provisions of part 2 as making major changes that will widen the range of activities that are regulated if they are carried out for election purposes. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the measure could impact on newspapers’ ability to endorse either or both political parties and individual candidates, and thus impact on freedom of the press?
I am unlikely to get inspiration from anywhere, so my short answer is that I do not know. However, to my mind, nothing in the Bill should do that. I would be extraordinarily opposed to anything that sought to curb the press in that way.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. Does he agree that, when the Government clarify their position on clause 26, they should also clarify the problem they believe they are fixing in part 2 of the Bill? Does he agree with the Government’s assessment that there is too much campaigning at election time? How much democracy does he believe the Government will feel comfortable with?
I set out my answer to that question at the outset of my speech. I hope that nothing in the Bill stops any charity or voluntary organisation campaigning vigorously for a policy outcome. However, any third-party organisation or group campaigning on the outcome of an election—for or against a particular candidate or party—should be within the scope of the Bill and under the same rules as anybody else engaging in the political process. That is my understanding of the top line and I hope we can get to that position.
New clause 4 seeks to assist on precisely that point. It would mean that the intention of the Bill is clear and beyond doubt or peradventure. As I have stated, there is no intention to stop any group campaigning for a policy. My proposal would mean we have clarity that the purpose of the Bill is to stop people politicking for a particular result except within the rules.
On Second Reading, Mr Skinner asked about the student tuition fee campaign at the last election and said that it would not be allowed under the Bill. In fact, the student tuition fee campaign would not, as I understand it, be caught by the legislation. New clause 4 seeks to make that absolutely clear.
I support new clause 4 and the other proposals my hon. Friend has tabled. Part 2 of the Bill is still taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Following Friday’s meeting, it is clear that organisations such as the NCVO are reassured—[Interruption.] They are reassured but not entirely supportive of the Bill or of part 2. I encourage my hon. Friend to ensure that the Government continue their conversation with the NCVO and the charitable sector to ensure we get it right.
My hon. Friend makes a good point.
New clause 4 speaks for itself. The arguments I have made are quite clear. I hope my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will accept this extraordinarily well-drafted and brilliant new clause. At the very least, I should like a clear explanation why it might not be needed and how we can achieve the same result.
What a mess! In 12 years in this House I have never seen such an incoherent, poorly thought out, badly drafted Bill. The whole Bill is confused and contradictory, but I have to say that part 2 is woeful.
In this group of amendments to clause 26, we see a wide range of concerns that highlight the genuine breadth of concern with the proposed legislation. Let me remind the Committee that the Bill has had no pre-legislative scrutiny and that there was no attempt by the Government to consult the many organisations that will be affected. There was no prior consultation with the devolved institutions or even the Electoral Commission, which will have the unenviable task of ensuring that the Bill is implemented properly. Like the Electoral Commission, we believe there is a need to review and update the UK’s party and election finance laws. The Electoral Commission has made 50 proposals for change, but have the Government had any dialogue with the commission? The answer is no. They have simply pulled out of a hat these half-baked, ill-thought-out proposals.
We have just heard that the Government will bring forward new wording on clause 26. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend Wayne David encouraged the Minister to get to his feet and tell us whether he will do this time what he failed to do the last time, which is consult those affected before the wording is put before the House. Will my hon. Friend also allow us to correct the misapprehension, I am sure, of Andrew George, who said that the NCVO is now satisfied with the discussion it had on Saturday. If he reads the briefing that has been sent to Members today, he will realise that that is far from its position. It still has many anxieties regarding clause 26, let alone the even more important clause 27, which we will come to shortly.
Order. May I say that interventions are becoming somewhat long? To make sure that every Member is accommodated, I will cut the length of interventions.
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, has almost taken the words out of my mouth. He makes some good points.
Before I focus on my hon. Friend’s apposite comments, I would like to stress the fact that the Bill was published just before the summer recess. It is to the credit of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and its Chair that during the recess it sat in special session to consider the Bill. The Chair and other members of the Committee have come forward with a number of constructive amendments—amendments 132 to 134—on a cross-party basis. I am sure hon. Members will have noticed that during the recess their e-mail boxes were inundated with hundreds of e-mails from 200-plus organisations and charities ranging from Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Save the Children and the British Legion.
As a relatively new Member, I agree that we have had a huge amount of representations from the public—this is the issue on which I have had most contact from the public. Does my hon. Friend share my view that those representations are almost universally against the proposals, which are believed to be rushed and inadequate?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The wealth of concern expressed by voluntary organisations and charities across the board has been spectacular. They are all desperately concerned. They are drawn from civil society and are concerned that the Bill will undermine their ability to campaign on, and even raise, important issues in the run-up to general elections and other elections.
I would like to correct the intervention by Mr Allen. The NCVO indicated to me that it was to an extent reassured, and Stuart Etherington said the change in the Government’s position was tantamount to a significant step in the right direction. That does not mean, and I did not say, that the NCVO and the charitable sector are now completely happy with part 2 of the Bill—they most certainly are not.
I will refer specifically to the NCVO position and what has happened in the past few days, but I want to make this point first. There has been a groundswell of concern over the summer. Just a few days ago, before the NCVO meeting, the Leader of the House responded to concerns by saying, “Don’t worry, you’ve all got it wrong. We are absolutely certain that we are right and you are all wrong. This won’t affect charities and voluntary organisations at all.” That was the Government’s line. On Friday, as has been said, he changed his tune and indicated to the NCVO that there would be a concession. I would like to know what precisely the concession will be. The Deputy Leader of the House wanted to intervene a moment ago. Perhaps he can say precisely what the concession will be.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I thought it would be useful if he had on record what Stuart Etherington from the NCVO said in relation to clause 26—and it relates to clause 26 only, not to other clauses:
“I am pleased that the Government has listened to and significantly met the concerns of charities and community groups. I understand the Government’s intention was not to make their normal work subject to this regulation. We will work closely with the Government and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in order to deliver this intention.”
I am a little afraid that that might mean that the hon. Gentleman has to rewrite his speech. There is a clear undertaking from the Government to work with the NCVO to ensure that it, and indeed my hon. Friend John Thurso, are happy about clause 26.
I read the press release issued on Friday and I had discussions with the NCVO only this morning. It has issued a brief that updates its position, saying clearly—as I do—that it welcomes this movement, but that the Government have a heck of a long way to go. There is nothing to stop the Government today putting forward, on the Floor of the House, a written commitment to give us an outline of what they want to do. All we have had is a nod and a wink and a promise.
“The real vice of the new definition is the lack of clarity, and the consequent lack of certainty as to when expenditure…ought to have been included”.
That sets out the position clearly. It is very uncertain what is going to happen when this becomes law. We will then have a plethora of court cases and the law will be decided by precedent.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point that highlights the lack of clarity and the confusion at the heart of the Bill. We have heard the fine words of the Deputy Leader of the House on what the Government intend to do, but will he give us this commitment: will he put in writing, by means of a draft amendment that he can amend if necessary, what he has said to the Committee today? Will he provide that substantive material? Please reply.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that offer. I am sure he would prefer that the Government’s legal counsel ensured that they work to build up the amendment—on which we have already given an undertaking to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and, as Stuart Etherington has indicated, the NCVO—to ensure that, on Report, the fundamental concern of charities over the confusion that they say the Government have introduced into the definition of election materials and election purposes will be addressed.
I respectfully remind the Minister that the Bill was literally drafted on the back of an envelope in a couple of days. All we are asking is that the Government give us a draft amendment, subject to all the caveats that they want to put in about legal advice and so on, so that we have, in writing, the Government’s commitment. Otherwise many people will think that these are simply hollow words from the Government.
Does my hon. Friend think that the Government are advertising their incompetence by presenting us with some promise that, on Report, they will change the Bill, while suggesting that we all waste our time today dealing with a Bill that might be very different on Report? Why on earth do the Government not try to amend the Bill now?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Clause 26 and schedule 3 are absolutely central to the Bill because everything follows on from them. If the Government do not get this right and do not sort out what they are going to do here, everything that follows, frankly, does not make much sense.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely strong case. Is it not exactly this lack of clarity, confusion and chaos that will act as a net dampening effect on the campaigning activities of charities? No matter what detail comes out during this debate, a lot of them will look at this Bill and wonder whether they can carry on campaigning as they have done in the past.
That is a fundamental concern. Due to the intricacies of the Bill and its convoluted nature, we suspect that many charities and campaigning organisations will say, “How on earth can we comply with this in all reasonableness? The best thing to do is not to do any campaigning at all.” That is our concern.
My hon. Friend will have noticed, as we all did, that the Minister said that draft amendments will be tabled on Report, which fortuitously is a few weeks away due to the parliamentary timetable. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we do not want those amendments to appear on the day of Report, or a couple of days before. They should be produced well in advance. Would it not be right for the Minister to give an indication of when the draft amendments will be tabled?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We would seriously hope that the Government are learning lessons from their very obvious mistakes. One of the most obvious mistakes is the complete absence of any prior consultation. Even at this stage, we genuinely hope that the Government will learn the lesson. As the Electoral Commission has said, having apparently promised this concession, the Government need to consider how best to clarify the position of controlled spending before putting any firm amendments to Parliament.
Surely it is now appropriate for the Government to withdraw the Bill in its entirety and open meaningful discussions with all who are affected by it. It is surely sensible to extricate Parliament from the mess the Government have got it into. If the Government were to do this, we as the Opposition would play a constructive role in helping to revise electoral law, which needs to be revised, so that big money is taken out of politics. But let me be clear: the Bill cannot be put right simply by modifying the definition of electoral activity in clause 26. There is a need carefully to look at schedule 3 and at all the categories listed therein.
Amendment 167, in my name and that of my hon. Friend Angela Smith, refers to staff costs. The Government have said that they wish to equate the rules of third sector spend with the rules on political party spend. Yet in schedule 3 voluntary organisations will have to take into account staff costs even though that is not the case for political parties.
One of the issues for many of the organisations that have objected to the Bill is that they campaign jointly in the form of coalitions on key issues, yet the Bill would mean that they have to account for the total cost of the campaign for each individual organisation—in effect, double accounting.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Not only is the Bill a burden on individual organisations, it is a burden on them collectively. When organisations co-operate and co-ordinate their plans, the total spending of those organisations would count against the individual spending limit of each organisation. I have heard the Minister chuntering that that is already the case. It is not. The Bill seeks to modify, reinforce and extend what is currently the case and new clause 6 seeks to simplify reporting arrangements to the Electoral Commission. I hope that when the Government look at redefinitions, they also look at other aspects of the Bill such as this.
I want to give one further example of the incoherence of the Bill. Clause 26(6) says that if a person is charged with an offence of making an unauthorised expenditure, they will be able to defend themselves by referring to a code of practice issued by the Electoral Commission. Fair enough. That code of practice will be issued under paragraph 3(2) of schedule 3. But the Electoral Commission, of course, has not produced a code of practice. Indeed, as I said, the Electoral Commission has not even been consulted. Can you believe it? Talk about putting the cart before the horse. We are debating a Bill that, in part, has not even been drafted, let alone consulted on.
This is an inhibiting piece of legislation. It seeks to restrict and curtail civil society or, if hon. Members prefer, the big society. Its impact will be felt especially in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Electoral Commission is a very well-respected, impartial and apolitical body. It was not consulted about the Bill until very close to publication. The Bill contains a number of items that change the terms of reference of the Electoral Commission. It was not consulted about those changes. The Bill makes a group of respected civil servants, in a sense, responsible for policing the measure—perhaps by going in and tearing down bunting and signs, or arresting people who are breaking the provisions. The commission is deeply uncomfortable with being given this role.
My right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, makes a very good point. His specific points relate to a later part of the Bill but it is important, in this context, to reinforce what he has said. New powers are being bestowed on the Electoral Commission that it does not want because they will allow the commission to become judge and jury on a whole range of difficult and complex areas without a clear piece of legislation to rest on. Its concern is that it will be sucked into a legalistic quagmire, which is bad for electoral politics generally in this country. This is a recipe for chaos.
Amendments 168, 169 and 171, and my new clause 9, focus on the problems and uncertainty that the Bill creates in the devolved regions and nations. It has been said that the interface between this Bill and the currently existing rules is not straightforward. In essence, I would suggest that three things appear to be clear; the Minister can correct me if my interpretation is wrong. First, it is clear that clause 26 and schedule 3 will apply to all devolved elections, as well as to general elections. Secondly, it is clear that clause 31, which focuses on the registration procedures of the Electoral Commission, will also apply to devolved elections. Thirdly, it is clear that clause 27, with new registration thresholds, will also apply to devolved elections.
However, other aspects of the Bill, which I have not mentioned, will not apply to devolved elections. The application of the Bill to devolved elections is important because the conflict between the different aspects of the legislation will create enormous difficulties in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those issues are particularly important in those countries because the third sector plays a far greater role in the devolved institutions than it does in England. That is particularly so in Northern Ireland, where the impact will be greatest of all. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to be the president of the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services—I hasten to add that I am in receipt of no remuneration for that honorary position. I know that the relationship of the voluntary youth sector in Wales with the Welsh Assembly is healthy and positive. This Bill makes that relationship more difficult, yet there has been no consultation with any of the devolved Administrations.
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise those concerns. The upcoming referendum on independence in Scotland is just over a year away and will occur within 12 months of the next general election. A whole range of voluntary organisations in Scotland are already intending to make representations in that constitutional debate. Does he share my concern that they will get sucked into the issue of expenditure controls in the general election campaign, too?
Either my hon. Friend has seen my speech or she is telepathic, because I was going to make exactly the same point. There is an overlap between the referendum campaign in Scotland on the crucial issue of independence and the 12 months prior to the next general election, but the Government are yet to show any appreciation of the potential difficulties that could be caused in identifying the respective areas of spend. I would like a categorical commitment from the Government that they will provide a written statement setting out precisely how such difficulties could be avoided or, if they occur, addressed successfully.
It gives me no pleasure to say that this Bill is a monumental shambles. As the Financial Times said in its leader on Monday, the Bill ought to be withdrawn, and legislation affecting political funding and elections should be the subject of cross-party agreement. That should also involve the Electoral Commission in all discussions, as well as the charities and campaigning organisations that would be directly affected by the Bill. It is high time that the big money is indeed taken out of politics. It is also important that we as a House stand full square behind our collective desire to ensure that civil society is a vital part of a healthy democracy. It is a great shame that apparently the Government do not hold that view.
Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) at the beginning, because I am afraid to say that I largely agree with him.
I do not hold much of a brief for any of this Bill, but part 2 as it stands seems to be a very serious mistake. I am particularly concerned because it used to be a convention, at least when I came into the House, that we did not guillotine constitutional Bills, yet part 2 goes to the heart of our democracy and free speech, as demonstrated by the opponents to the Bill. I know of no previous Bill that had ranged against it Christian Aid and the British Humanist Association, Greenpeace and the Countryside Alliance, or the Royal British Legion and the Salvation Army. It is a Bill that has attracted opposition precisely because it goes to the heart of all that those organisations do—not what they stand for, but what they do and how they execute their duty in society.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although it is not such a broad constitutional issue, is it not also the case that the points we have raised about the implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are genuine concerns, not just points we are making today, and that if we do not get them right, there is a danger that we will produce legislation that is, frankly, unworkable?
That is why I start from my concern about the guillotine, because this is a Bill that in past decades—not past years, sadly—would have spent hours, days and weeks on the Floor of the House. It would have been preceded by a proper consultation, a cross-party agreement, a Green Paper and a White Paper—there was a White Paper, but as far as I could tell, it did not refer to part 2 at all. The Bill has not gone through what in my view would be a proper constitutional process and so will of course be subject to unintended consequences all over the place.
I accept that the Government will not have intended many of the consequences—I will come to some that they do intend in a minute. I accept that the deleterious consequences of the Bill were not intentional, but they arise directly from how the Government started the process. We had a brilliant report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, as chaired by Mr Allen, which could have provided a basis. That Committee could have been the vehicle for the process. The hon. Gentleman is right: there will be deleterious consequences, most of them unintended, but most of them because of how we have addressed this Bill.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has made it clear that it has similar concerns outstanding, despite the apparent movement by the Government on clause 26? It says in its brief:
“'We remain concerned that…voluntary organisations…may still be subject to ambiguous and damaging legislation. NCVO believes in a society where freedom of speech, the freedom to associate and the right to free and fair elections are all similarly inviolable.”
Let me pick up that point and develop it a little—we are principally talking about clause 26, but it also relates to later clauses, which will be dealt with later in the day. It is in this context that the comments from the Electoral Commission—the primary executing agency of this Bill—come into play. It uses the words “significant regulatory uncertainty”, saying that parts of the Bill are “impossible to enforce” and pointing out “significant issues of workability”. What are we doing? We are transforming a bureaucratic organisation, with the powers to make rules on policy campaigning, as well as to relax those rules, tighten the rules, amend them retrospectively and then apply them retrospectively to freedom of speech—something that is, by definition, oppressive. By definition, that will chill freedom of speech. This Parliament has created a bureaucracy without the ability to alter, change or amend the rules before—it was known as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. What we are creating in this Bill is—if we want a precursor of how this will play out—an IPSA for elections.
Let me turn to new clause 4. When it comes to political campaigns—whether electoral campaigns or other campaigns—the world is changing. Twenty-five years ago, I think only 8% of the population did not feel an affinity to one or other party. That figure is now 25%. All the political parties are declining—there is no party point in this; we are all dying on the vine as organisations. It is the nature of society that people’s interest in something tends to be more piecemeal than it was 25 or 50 years ago. This Bill is trying to swim upstream. It is trying to defy the nature of modern politics and the fact that political decision making now is by web-based campaigners, web-based petitions or 38 Degrees.
I get as annoyed as everyone else when I get campaigners from 38 Degrees writing to me—they say that they sometimes get dusty replies—but as Voltaire would have put it, I may disagree with what they say, but I defend to the death their right to say it. What part 2 does—not intentionally, but by accident—is jeopardise that entire tradition of our country. This is the home of free speech and this Chamber is the original defender of free speech, so what are we doing making these changes by accident? That is why I am concerned.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely strong point. Does he agree that 38 Degrees is facilitating the ability of our constituents to make their voices heard? It is not campaigning itself, separately from society. The Bill would cut down the ability of our constituents to make their voices heard on many crucial issues.
The hon. Gentleman invites me to commit political suicide by confessing that I have used 38 Degrees in some of my campaigns. Sometimes I am for, and sometimes I am against. The organisation is part of the modern mechanism, and it is not the only one. It was, after all, based on similar organisations in America and Australia. That is the way politics is going and, frankly, my constituents should judge me on whether I voted for the proposed Syrian war. They should judge me on whether I voted for tuition fees and on how I voted on this, that or the other measure.
If I may, I shall disagree with the author of new clause 4, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, on one point. He said that Mr Skinner was wrong to claim that it was an attempt to protect the Liberal party from the National Union of Students, but I was told by a member of the Liberal party that that is exactly what it was intended for. The raw truth is that, in our trade, we should be willing to stand by our principles and our aims, and by what we actually do. We should live or die by that, in political terms.
I want to make one more point, and I shall make it directly to the Minister on the Front Bench. As I have said, this section of the Bill deals with a constitutional matter and goes to the heart of free speech in our society. Undertakings have been given by those on the Front Bench—entirely in good faith, I imagine. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend Tom Brake has been teased about tabling a manuscript amendment, because that is not the way to do it. We should do it properly, with proper legal advice and taking a wide range of contributions from the very people who will be affected. What the Government should have done before the Bill was presented to the House should be done now. If it is not done now, and if what is presented on Report is unacceptable, it will probably still get through, although I shall vote against it.
I am on almost my last line, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not.
The Bill would probably still get through in those circumstances, but it is probable that the House of Lords, whose primary function is to act as a defender of our constitutional rights, would strip out the whole central section of the Bill. That is what it ought to do, and that is what it will do if the Government do not get the next stage right.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Davis. He has made an important and valuable contribution to today’s debate. When we debated the Bill on Second Reading, the most serious concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House related to clauses 26 and 27, so I am glad that we are debating this robust and constructive set of amendments this afternoon. I am also glad that the Government have acknowledged that certain aspects of the proposals are problematic and have agreed to table amendments on Report.
The principles and the workability of this part of the Bill are problematic, and I hope that the Government will look at it again. In particular, they have sought to distance their intentions from some of the scenarios that have been outlined by civil society groups, but we must concentrate on the actual text that will form the basis of the courts’ interpretation of the legislation. I reiterate a point I made the other day about the explanatory notes to the Bill, which state clearly:
“The definition of the term ‘for electoral purposes’ does not rely solely on the intent of the third party; the effect of the expenditure must also be considered.”
That illustrates the Bill’s ambiguity and lack of clarity.
The Electoral Commission has consistently raised the concern that, under this part of the Bill, it will acquire a wide discretion to interpret whether third party activities fall within the regulatory framework established by the Bill. Neither the commission nor I thinks that that is an appropriate role for it. Its role is to regulate, not to decide what should be regulated. I share the concern expressed earlier by the Chair of the Select Committee, Mr Allen, on this point.
The Electoral Commission has also expressed what I suspect are well-founded fears that, as things stand, any interpretation of regulated activity could be open to legal challenge. In the short time that we have been discussing these proposals this afternoon, we have already heard examples of organisations taking legal advice. The last thing any of us wants is for this to end up in protracted and expensive legal challenges. That would not be an appropriate way of deciding what the law actually is. We need clarity on the face of the Bill and in the explanatory notes. I observe that many of the amendments in this group share the common aim of clarifying and tightening up the Government’s definitions, and I shall be looking for assurances from the Minister that any amendments tabled on Report will tackle the issue of definitions, in order to avoid placing the Electoral Commission in that contradictory position—that conflict of interest, if you like—in relation to the job that it is being asked to do.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady; it is nice to be greeted so warmly when making an intervention. I welcome the Government’s promise of amendments on Report, although I am sorry that they will not be tabled earlier. A key issue relating to clause 26 that the Government need to deal with is the use of the words
“future relevant elections (whether imminent or otherwise)”.
Does the hon. Lady agree that charities and other organisations will not know what “imminent or otherwise” means, other than that the elections will take place some time in the future?
The hon. Lady provides a perfect illustration of the point that I was making. Parts of the Bill are so vague as to be nonsensical, and they will be open to all kinds of challenges. They are completely open to interpretation, and the words that she has just mentioned could mean 20 different things. It is exactly that kind of vague, ambiguous language that needs to be clarified. I worry that, at the end of the process, we shall be left with unnecessary complexity, unhelpful ambiguity and unintended consequences. I urge the Government to go back to the drawing board and take the time to consult properly with stakeholders on an appropriate and balanced set of measures to ensure that third parties can continue to contribute to the democratic process without having undue and disproportionate restrictions placed upon them.
I have particular concerns about the detrimental impact that the measures could have on civil society—and, in particular, on the voluntary sector—in Scotland. I shall not repeat the points made so eloquently by the hon.
Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) about the devolved Administrations and the disproportionate effect that the Bill could have on their legislative and electoral processes. This part of the Bill is a quagmire, and its consequences have not been adequately thought through. There has not been adequate consultation with key stakeholders, including elected parliamentarians in the Governments of the devolved Administrations, and it is important that we should take the time to go back and carry out that consultation properly.
One of the points that I made on Second Reading was that those third parties that are also charities are already regulated very effectively, and are explicitly prevented from engaging in party political activity. They are already significantly constrained in the activities they can undertake during an election period. In my extensive experience of the voluntary sector, charities—whether large or small—take those responsibilities seriously and tend to err on the side of caution when determining what they do when engaging with politicians and public policy processes in the run-up to elections.
The point has been raised about the possible effect of the provisions on the Scottish referendum. Is it not ironic that the Scottish charities regulator has confirmed that charities can participate and put forward their views on the issue of independence, given that that could come into conflict with the terms of the Bill? Incidentally, there is even a possibility that the Scottish Government could be considered a third party for the purposes of this legislation in the run-up to the referendum.
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. There has been a carefully considered process in Scotland, involving a partnership between the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, to ensure that we have a fair, democratic and open debate around the referendum. I agree entirely with him that it would be counterproductive if this legislation were to cut across that process. That is one more reason for us to go back and look at the process in more depth.
It is not just in the run-up to elections that charities and civil society organisations take these issues seriously—they take them seriously throughout the electoral cycle. Fundamentally, I do not think that charities should have to cope with an extra set of regulations that overlap so extensively with existing charity law and other forms of regulation that seem to be working well. Charity regulation is certainly working well in Scotland, and since the introduction of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator in 2005, governance has been strengthened across the voluntary sector, and accountability has improved dramatically right across the sector in the most recent few years.
Charities play an enormously important role in our democratic process. They not only make the voices of their members and service users heard, but they actively influence and shape public policy in ways that are already much more transparent and accountable than is the case with corporate lobbying. I can think of numerous examples of pieces of legislation that have been actively enhanced by the input of charities, with far-reaching consequences for the quality of life of thousands of people. I think in particular of the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002, which was significantly amended by the efforts of stakeholders, including a range of small specialist health charities and large campaigning organisations working together to influence legislation and make it fit for the 21st century.
When I look back at the kinds of activities undertaken, fully transparently and accountably, by the charities involved in lobbying around that Bill, I can see that some of them would almost certainly have fallen within the terms of third-party campaigning proposed in the Bill. Some of the smaller organisations, particularly those with perhaps only one or two members of staff, advocating on behalf of small numbers of people perhaps with a rare condition, would simply have opted out of that discussion because they would not have had the resources to navigate the regulatory framework. That would have been to the enormous detriment of the legislation that finally emerged. As a society, we are all better off because of the inclusion of such organisations in the democratic process.
I have been listening carefully to all the arguments, particularly those of the hon. Lady, but I would really like to know the answer to this particular question. She is talking about legislation and about what I would consider to be absolutely proper lobbying by charities and the voluntary sector to achieve the best outcome for that legislation. I welcome and support all of that, but I am unaware that any of that activity would fall under the provisions of part 2 of this Bill, so I would be grateful if the hon. Lady could help me on that.
The key point I am trying to make is that those organisations are already regulated, and we do not need any duplication of that regulation. A clear example I could give the hon. Gentleman would be the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. Had this Bill been in force, it would have coincided with the 2010 general election, so the cross-party political consensus created around that Act—world-leading legislation—simply would not have happened. It was the key role of civil society actors that enabled and facilitated the emergence of that consensus. That is one of the reasons I am concerned that the Bill in its current form will inhibit democratic debate and not move us any further forward.
To assist the hon. Lady—although she is making such a distinguished speech that she does not need any assistance—in response to that intervention, perception is very important. The substance shows that there are difficulties, a number of which have been identified, but the perception is such that over 200 individual organisations throughout the United Kingdom have expressed doubts and anxieties about the possibilities here—
They may all be wrong, as Mr Stuart says from a sedentary position, but a trustee would not gamble with the charity’s money, and would be chilled from engaging in perfectly legitimate political activity that we all celebrate at other times. That is why the Bill needs, at the very least, to be clarified in the way suggested by Dr Whiteford.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his helpful intervention. Speaking as someone who has been a trustee of charities, very small and larger, more robust organisations working in a highly professionalised environment, I know just how true what the hon. Gentleman said is. Trustees of charities are inherently quite risk averse: they cannot fall back on huge reserves, and they are very careful in what they do. As I say, it is already a very regulated sector and, for the most part, a well-governed sector. The bigger the charity—this applies particularly to the big campaigning charities—the more attention gets paid to governance and to ensuring that it is operating within the law.
Let me return to the issue raised by Lady Hermon about the complexities of the wording and drafting of this legislation giving rise to confusion. I allude to my earlier point about some of the explanatory notes, which clearly demonstrate the ambiguity in how the Bill is drafted. We need to remember that our debate in this House, where we all agree on intentions, is not what the courts will use when they are looking at the black and white of this legislation to determine the law.
I am anxious to make progress and conscious of the time constraints for this debate and the need to move on to consider further clauses. I am going to finish my speech shortly.
Increasing the regulatory burden on charities, which this Bill will do, will not improve transparency one jot, and it will not improve accountability. At best, it will add to and fuel the bureaucratic process, and at worst it will deter smaller organisations from engaging in public policy processes.
The purpose of my amendment 169 is simply to mitigate what I see as the worst potential side-effects of the Bill, but I believe that this part of the Bill needs wholesale redrafting, so I will be happy to support other amendments to that end.
The great irony of the Bill is that it fails to tackle the real problems in our culture of lobbying where certain parties have undue influence; instead, it creates a new layer of regulation on civil society actors who already operate with appropriate levels of transparency and accountability, many of which are already adequately regulated. This part of the Bill places obligations on some third parties that are not commensurate, proportionate or fair. I fear that it will be simply unworkable.
In speaking to amendment 169, I urge the Government to listen to those 200 organisations—not just to tell them that they are wrong, but to understand why they are concerned and accept that the drafting is well below par. Overwhelming concern has been expressed by civil society organisations about this Bill, which really needs a thorough overhaul.
I have been encouraged to speak to this part of the Bill. [Interruption.] I have not been whipped, although the Whips want to make progress. I have been encouraged to speak because some of the contributions have been very good. I am concerned, however, that there is a gap between the perception of clause 26 on controlled expenditure and the reality of that clause and what it does for controlled expenditure. My understanding of the law is that if a charity is engaged in an activity that might affect the outcome of an election, it needs to identify, first, whether that activity can be engaged in legally under charity law and, secondly, whether the activity would have an effect on the election. If it did have such an effect, the activity would, under current law, be considered to be part of controlled expenditure. I therefore think there has been a gap between the perception of the Bill and what it is actually trying to do.
I think that the contributions from John Thurso were very pertinent, as they tried to drill down on the important points. I was pleased to hear that the Minister will attempt to give some reassurance on Report about helping some of these charities. I am a big fan of Christian Aid, for example, and have worked with it on a number of campaigns. I have worked with other organisations, too, and I do not want any charities to be concerned or worried about the policy issues with which they can get involved.
I am a trustee of two small local charities in my constituency, and Stevenage has over 400 local charities and community groups. None of them has come to me with any concerns about the Bill. The concerns seem to come from many of the larger national charities. I am a big supporter of a number of those national ones and contribute to a number of their causes. I am proud of that.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the evidence given by the Electoral Commission to the Select Committee on this matter? It was concerned that the drafting was not good enough and would give rise to considerable problems, not just for these organisations but for the Electoral Commission in trying to administer the legislation.
I did read the Electoral Commission’s evidence, and noted the commission’ conclusion that it would need more resources—both money and people—in order to deal with the Bill.
I understand that under the present law, a number of charities would have to engage in the two tests of reasonability. They would have to ask first, “Do we want to be involved in an attempt to affect the outcome of this election, and is that allowed under the current charity law?”, and secondly, “Will the policy activity that we are undertaking be subject to controlled expenditure, as the law currently states?”
Like my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, I am a huge supporter of free speech, and would not do anything that would affect it. I should be very disappointed if any measure in the Bill led to problems in that regard. The Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Mr Allen, has made a number of impassioned contributions throughout the debate about the need for more pre-legislative scrutiny, and whether it should be the norm in the House of Commons.
How does the hon. Gentleman expect charities to arrive at the answers to the two questions that he posed earlier? Does he think that employing legal advisers and regulatory experts to deal with what is a very poorly drafted piece of legislation constitutes a good use of their charitable funds at a time when they are under so much pressure?
The hon. Gentleman will be surprised to learn that I listened closely to his speech on Second Reading, and I am aware that he used to work for Oxfam. He will know better than I that many people in Oxfam engage in the activities that we are discussing. Indeed, he said in his speech that he talked to legal experts about the issue. Activities of that type of are taking place at present.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had been encouraged to speak. Presumably, he was encouraged to do so by the Whips. Did the Whips explain to him that part 2, which was bound to incite the rage of charities all over the country, was in fact a smokescreen, which the Government will get rid of on Report? The whole point of it is for us to talk about this issue, and not about the great scandal of corporate lobbying, which the Government have not addressed in the Bill.
When I said that I had been encouraged to speak, I meant that I had been encouraged to speak by the contributions that had been made in the Chamber. If the hon. Gentleman took a moment to look at my voting record, he would realise that when the Whips encourage me to speak, it is often with the aim of discouraging me from speaking, because I spend a bit of time in the hon. Gentleman’s Lobbies.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on an excellent and well-balanced speech. He is teaching us that more unites us than divides us on these issues. In fact, on this occasion the division is between Parliament and Government, rather than between those on the Government and Opposition Benches.
May I correct, or rather add to, what the hon. Gentleman said about the Electoral Commission? In its evidence to our Committee, it said:
“we recognise that these are complex and potentially controversial changes that would need further thought and consultation before they are implemented.”
That view runs through the commission’s evidence, and underlines its fear that we are legislating in haste and will repent at leisure. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make another speech about this issue, probably at about the same time next year, if the Bill is passed in its current state.
I understand what the Electoral Commission said, and I agree that that view runs through its evidence, but, as a Back-Bench Conservative Member, I have noticed that no matter what happens in the House, everyone is always calling for more time in which to debate a Bill. I am pleased that we have an opportunity, for once, to debate the Bill on the Floor of the House. I do not want to take up too much time, because I know that a range of issues are still to be debated, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s main point that there should be more pre-legislative scrutiny.
Let me now return to my central point. I genuinely believe that it is not the intention of part 2 to damage charities. We all work with charities in our constituencies, and we all support them. The intention of part 2 is to try to prevent super-PACs, or political action committees, and similar organisations from investing large amounts of money in a small number of constituencies in a way that could affect the outcome of a general election. I do not think that any Member on either side of the House would want that to happen.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that we are not talking merely about a knee-jerk reaction from the 200-plus charities and organisations involved? Many, indeed most, of them have taken legal advice, and a considerable body of legal opinion has placed a huge question mark over the Bill. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that if we do not take that into account, we shall be on very dangerous ground.
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who made an impassioned speech earlier, but for every 200 lawyers whom he cites, I could probably cite 300 who would say something completely different, because, as he knows, it would be in their interests to do so.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He clearly agrees with me that we need to ensure that funds in individual constituencies for the purpose of delivering one particular result are brought under greater control. The Government have given a commitment, and I am prepared to accept it, but I want us to use the time that we have today to make absolutely certain that the fears and doubts about charities being chilled in terms of their engagement in public debate can be dispelled. We want Ministers to assure us of that, and to confirm that they are utterly committed to it.
That was a fantastic intervention. I said on Second Reading that a Committee stage debate on the Floor of the House would provide a great opportunity for Ministers to clear up some of our concerns, and we saw that earlier, when Tom Brake responded to what was said by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I think we should bear in mind the fact that we have been promised this Bill for three and a half years: the Prime Minister promised it three and a half years ago. There was a consultation exercise which closed well over a year ago, and which bore no relation to what is in the Bill. Now, after three and a half years, we are being told that we are waiting for an amendment which we should have before us today.
The hon. Gentleman has summed up why we have waited three and a half years for the Bill, and why we do not want to wait any longer. We want to get the Bill going.
I believe that the purpose of part 2 is to prevent a small number of large organisations from channelling money in a way that would affect the outcomes of elections, irrespective of the level at which that happens.
Its purpose is not to upset the local charities with which we all work, but to enable us to work with those charities to secure the best possible deal for our constituents and communities.
A new low has been reached in the handling of the Bill. I do not think that we have seen such a shambles since the last occasion on which the Leader of the House was involved with a piece of legislation. At least on that occasion there was a pause when the Government decided to go back to the drawing board. This time, we seem to be being expected to debate a Bill which the Minister himself, from the Dispatch Box, has said is not adequate and must be changed. I am pleased to see that the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Mr Walker, is in the Chamber, because I feel that the Committee should consider the process issues connected with the Bill.
It is peculiarly ironic that the Minister, Tom Brake, is a Liberal Democrat. One would think that, of all the things that the Liberal Democrats could defend, one would be liberal democracy. This is about the nature of our democracy, and I really think that the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition should learn to stand up to the Tory members. The Bill is clearly a highly political piece of legislation, aimed at defending Tory donors and attacking the civil society groups that might support any other political activity and any other political parties.
It is particularly worrying that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Miss Smith, has admitted in reply to a parliamentary question that the first time she spoke to voluntary sector organisations about the Bill was on Monday last week, at least two months after the publication of the Bill.
I do, of course, support amendment 47. I want to say a few things about my experiences working in the voluntary sector, as they help to explain why I am so horrified by the contents of clause 26. Before I was elected to this House I worked in three voluntary sector organisations: the Runnymede Trust, the Church of England Children’s Society and the National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries, which I ran. The Church of England Children’s Society, in particular, did a lot of campaigning work alongside all the many practical projects it ran. It is perverse to put a limit on the amount that voluntary sector organisations can spend on campaigning in the run-up to a general election because that is when they can most effectively influence the political process, as that is when the political parties are writing their manifestos and when candidates are standing for election and re-election.
The late lamented Member for Wolverhampton South West, Rob Marris, told me always to read the explanatory memorandum, and paragraph 60 says this about clause 27:
“the full fees and costs in the 365 days before a UK general parliamentary election associated with any advertising, unsolicited material to electors, or manifestos, or with the organisation of any rallies or events, would count as controlled expenditure.”
I am assuming that Ministers think this is completely acceptable because we are going to live in a world of fixed-term Parliaments where there is no possibility of any Government ever collapsing before the end of the fixed term or any circumstance arising whereby a general election is held at another time, but the Minister must acknowledge that the reality is that we can never be certain of when there will be a general election. A voluntary sector organisation might make a calculation that it can run a campaign, only for the general election to be held six months earlier than scheduled for some reason, in which case all that expenditure will be caught. This is wholly unfair and completely >unpredictable. I also hope the Minister will explain what the penalties will be for voluntary sector organisations that cut across these rules.
What is most worrying, however, is the wider implications for the voluntary sector. Mr Davis made it very clear that politics is changing and this is an attack on free speech in a civil society.
My hon. Friend is right to refer to the explanatory notes. One of the reasons why so many voluntary organisations are nervous about these provisions is outlined in paragraph 59:
“The definition of ‘for electoral purposes’ does not rely solely on the intent of the third party; the effect of the expenditure must also be considered.”
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for reminding me of paragraph 59, because I, too, had underlined it. That makes the situation almost completely unpredictable for voluntary sector organisations.
Is the hon. Lady saying these voluntary organisations are campaigning in support of a political party or for the election of a party candidate, because, of course, if they are not doing that, they are not covered by the controlled expenditure provision?
Yes, but that is the whole problem. They may not say, “Vote Liberal Democrat”, but if they say, “Don’t vote for candidates who voted for an increase in tuition fees,” everybody will be pretty clear what that means. The right hon. Gentleman’s party would be perfectly well able to go to court and say, “The effect of the expenditure must also be considered and it is clearly discriminatory against Liberal Democrat candidates.” That is the problem.
The sentence before the one I previously quoted mentions
“enhancing the standing of a registered political party or parties or candidates.”
In my hon. Friend’s opinion, would the Deputy Prime Minister pledging not to increase tuition fees on behalf of the National Union of Students have increased the electoral opportunities of that candidate in the 2010 general election
My hon. Friend is pointing to the very serious practical problems that everybody—both the politicians standing for election and voluntary sector organisations—will face.
“it does not involve any express mention being made of the name of any party or candidate.”
Therefore a charity that does not mention the name of a party or candidate could be covered.
That is right.
In the run-up to general elections, voluntary organisations often send e-mails and letters asking people where they stand on certain subjects, and after receiving the answers they send another message to their supporters saying, “Well, candidate X stands for what we want and candidate Y stands against it. If you think this is a big issue, we advise you to vote for candidate X, not candidate Y.”
If a charity advises their supporters to vote for candidate X rather than candidate Y, that could affect the outcome of an election and it would therefore have to be included within regulated expenditure under current charity law.
What Stephen McPartland says is right, but over the past few days and weeks we have all been reading the briefings from charities and they are not saying “If we do this it is controlled expenditure, and if we do that, it is not.” The problem is the doubt, and that will be resolved in court cases that will probably run for years, unless this Bill is heavily amended, which we are expecting from the Government.
My hon. Friend is right. The problems of substance and process in the preparation of this Bill are numerous and inter-connected. People working in voluntary organisations are always annoyed that politicians of all stripes want to associate themselves with their good works but often want to ignore the hard messages they receive from those organisations. They want to ignore the lessons based on the wide range of practical experience the voluntary sector can bring to the table. This Bill is institutionalising cloth ears on the part of politicians.
It is ironic that part 2 of this Bill should come from this Government, because when the Conservatives were trying to get elected they were proclaiming the big society. Vladimir Putin would be proud to introduce this Bill.
New clause 10, which stands in my name and those of the hon. Members for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and for St Ives (Andrew George), would require the Government to carry out a proper assessment of the effect of third-party campaigning on UK elections, because I want to know what problem the Government think they are trying to fix. Alongside the rest of part 2, the changes made by clause 26 would silence legitimate campaigning voices in the run-up to elections. Equally alarmingly, Ministers are trying to push through this clampdown without a shred of evidence that there is a problem with third sector organisations exerting an undue influence over elections in the first place. As many hon. Members have said, the best way to proceed would be to ditch the whole of part 2 and only introduce changes for which there is a robust evidence base—one that would attract cross-party support—and which could take place after consultation with all organisations affected. That is what new clause 10 proposes.
Some people say that organisations such as 38 Degrees are scaremongering and that the Government’s concessions demonstrate that everything will be fine, but Ros Baston, a solicitor specialising in political and election law, told a number of MPs at a meeting that I hosted this morning that they would be advised to read the briefing from the Electoral Commission itself. Many hon. Members have already quoted from that, so I will not add to that. However, I would point hon. Members in the direction of Sir Stephen Bubb, the chief executive officer of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, who says that even after these vague concessions have been promised
“the Bill remains fundamentally flawed. Our issue with it is not simply how it affects charities, but the fact it suggests they, and not other groups in society, are to blame for the public’s loss of trust in politics.”
He is very right in that assessment.
I strongly believe that there is a case for revisiting the current legislation, introduced by Labour in 2000 with the primary aim of preventing the emergence of US-style front groups working for particular candidates or parties, because the existing legislation has already been criticised for being heavy-handed in how it goes about achieving what is, of course, a laudable aim. As a result, some fiercely non-party political organisations are already saying that even the current rules have had some dampening effect on the freedom of charities and civil society organisations to campaign on policy issues—not for any political party or candidate—around the time of elections.
The crucial point must be to proceed on the basis not of hearsay but of a sound evidence base. It is right to examine the effect that third-party campaigning has had at elections in the UK and whether it has exerted undue influence over elections. It is also right to look at whether the activities of charities and civil society groups have harmed the public perception of the political system, as the Cabinet Office contends. But such a review must surely also look at whether the opposite is closer to the truth. It must ask whether existing rules are already too restrictive: do they make it unnecessarily difficult for the public to hear the opinions of those who might have different views from particular parties or candidates; are they imposing disproportionate limits on the ability of charities and others to engage in political and policy debate as one way of pursuing their charitable purposes; and are they preventing people from getting together to seek to influence the policies and positions of those who want to become their elected representatives?
Is that not the real point here: many of those charities and third-party organisations have engaged with the general public and brought them into the political processes in a way that all the political parties represented in Westminster have struggled to do in recent years?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, with which I agree wholeheartedly. I do not think that the main problem we have with our political system is over-participation; we need to be encouraging more people to participate, and that is exactly what is done by third-party organisations, such as the non-governmental organisations, the community groups—
The fundamental principle at issue today is the right of citizens to express their views and argue for or against a particular policy, and to do so by joining with others who share their concerns. It is that combination of the people who come together that we need to protect. We must not rush into changes that could make a bad situation worse when it comes to public engagement with the democratic process and elections. We need an even-handed and thorough review of the current rules. Like others, I am looking forward to seeing the details of the Government’s concession, but there is a real fear that even if their changes do what they claim they will, this Bill will still impose a dangerously anti-democratic chilling effect on legitimate voices seeking to raise awareness and stimulate debate on issues of crucial public interest, be it NHS reform, fuel poverty, housing policy or wildlife conservation.
As other hon. Members have said, charities already have to be non-political under charity law, and they do not need this extra layer of regulation. Other groups that do not operate as charities also play a crucial role in public debate, as do the trade unions. Such organisations include the World Development Movement, which campaigns on tackling the root causes of global poverty. Although that is surely an issue of cross-party concern, the WDM, like others, is fiercely independent from any political party.
If we change the meaning of “controlled expenditure” in a way that, alongside other measures, shuts down healthy public debate on policy proposals, we are sending a strong message to the public that, as Members of Parliament, we reject vigorous scrutiny of our policies and proposals, and we want to shut down challenges and silence those who disagree. The opposite should be true, particularly in the run-up to elections. I wish to quote briefly from comments made by the director of Green Alliance, an organisation with which many hon. Members work closely. He puts it clearly when he says that
“the Bill fundamentally misunderstands the difference between engaging in political debate and electioneering. It actively ignores the huge contribution that pressure groups and charities play in enriching democratic debate by raising public awareness, contributing to political thinking, and holding elected representatives to account. If it passes into law it will not only be harder for the public to hear the opinions of those that might have different views than the particular parties or candidates. It’s also very likely that avowedly party-neutral organisations will go quiet for fear of being in breach of the new Act.”
We should be seeking to encourage, not eradicate, debate, difficult as that may be at times. Such debate and challenge makes a positive contribution to accountability, policy making and public engagement in the political process itself. Too many people already feel turned off and disempowered when it comes to politics. Too many people feel that they do not really have an influence over the future of their neighbourhoods, their national Government or, indeed, international affairs. That is why I believe that the small concessions we are being offered this afternoon—or at least the promise of them some time in the future—are totally inadequate at this stage. We should absolutely reject clause 26. This Government once spoke about the big society, but we are seeing today a Government intent on smothering the big society and instead bringing forward a much smaller society, one that will be much less well-informed than it is today.
I rise to support the provisions tabled by my hon. Friend Wayne David. I wonder whether today we are living through a real-life episode of “The West Wing”, “Borgen” or a unique British combination of the two. We had a newly elected, husky-driven, Prime Minister coming into power saying that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen. We thought about all the elements that involved—the fact that people were concerned about elements of cash for questions and about big corporate donors who had meetings with people we knew not who—but we then discovered that the real villains were the Salvation Army, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, small charities such as those represented by the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham county and, horror of horrors, the Royal British Legion.
What was fundamentally bad about part 2 of the Bill to start off with was the fact that no consultation took place with the voluntary sector over the summer. I am appalled that we are undertaking our deliberations without hearing from witnesses who know all about the situation—those in the charities and voluntary organisations who have in-depth knowledge of how the Bill might affect them. A system of hearing from those bodies worked well for the Bill that became the Small Charitable Donations Act 2012 and it has been a mistake not to have an equivalent—however procedurally that would have been managed—for this Bill.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the irony that although many of these organisations have contributed massively to many other areas of legislation, on the very piece of legislation that will affect their ability to do that, they have not been consulted?
My hon. Friend could well write the episode of the soap opera that I was describing.
As a co-chair of the all-party group on civil society and volunteering, along with Andrew George and Baroness Pitkeathley, I was delighted to see the voluntary sector speak up loudly on this issue—rightly so, given the attacks on civic society in this Bill. I know that many hon. Members have been deluged with e-mails, letters, telephone calls and requests for meetings about this. We know the NCVO’s serious concerns from its briefing, and it raised the specific point of how damaging it feels the legislation would be for expenditure thresholds and activities and how they relate to small charitable groups.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. One thing voluntary groups do is use campaigns to raise their profiles so that they can raise funds to do more practical work. Their campaigning activities are part of all their work and it all fits together for them. The Bill will damage not only their ability to speak but, potentially, their ability to do some practical work.
That is absolutely right.
Many concerned voices were heard in last week’s debate and many thoughtful speeches, too, none more so than that of my hon. Friend Mr Allen, who is Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I do not quite concur with one small aspect of his speech, however. He said that
“one of the most wonderful parts of my life experience as a Member of Parliament is when we come towards a general election, and all those different bodies start to get hold of us, lobby us, knock on our doors, phone us and send letters—“Come to our meeting. You will not get our vote unless we know exactly what you are doing on this.” Someone on the opposite side then says exactly the same thing”.—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 205.]
In truth, although at times such meetings will be bliss itself and will be meaningful, sometimes they will frustrate and annoy many Members and the Government—any Government. That is why it is correct that the right of such organisations to do this must be protected at all costs so that they can put forward their view unhindered, without being entangled in red tape, and can speak truth to power unhindered by the certainties of this Bill.
I wonder how the Bill would affect the pro and anti-HS2 lobbies, the campaign for digital hearing aids, the campaign for the rights of Gurkhas to settle in this country and some of the campaigns run by the Royal British Legion.
Last week, 100 MPs were in the Chamber to take part in the “Get Britain Cycling” debate, in which Members from all parties said that we should attempt to get all the political parties to agree to that manifesto. Is that not a good example of exactly the kind of measure that could be hit by the Bill?
I agree totally.
I am sure that some Members will have read the beautiful article by the Royal British Legion’s director general Dr Simpkins in The Daily Telegraph last week, which told how:
“In 1921, a year before a General Election, The Royal British Legion successfully ran its first campaign, lobbying the Government to ensure that three-quarters of those employed on relief works were veterans of the First World War.”
Our tradition of charities being allowed to campaign on political issues germane to their charitable activities is at the heart of British life and our democracy. It has been established in case law since 1917, a year before universal male suffrage. Well before women had the vote, Lord Normand, in the case of Bowman v. Secular Society, held that a society whose predominant aim was not to change the law could be charitable when its campaign to change the law was merely a subsidiary activity. That tradition has a long pedigree in this country and I do not believe that it should be for tinkering politicians, perhaps fearful of the impact of Cameron and Clegg non-mania in 2015, to play with it.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument in defence of the right of charities to engage in civil society. However, does she agree that we are up against it on this point? Only eight months ago, one contributor to “ConservativeHome” said:
“When exactly ARE we going to stop funding these so called ‘charities’…? For example, ‘Shelter’ do absolutely nothing to practically help the homeless. Their sole purpose is to lobby government to increase the funding for housing and homelessness. And for this, they are funded BY the government! Crazy!”
Happily, I am not responsible for what people write on “ConservativeHome.”
The Prime Minister once spoke the rhetoric of a big society and a coming together of hearts and minds, yet today we are sitting in this Chamber to discuss a Bill that could mean that a consortium of cancer charities has problems campaigning with realistic staffing levels whereas pro-tobacco lobbyist Lynton Crosby has nothing more to worry about than how much tobacco to put in his pipe. This remains a calamitous, bureaucratic Bill and should be replaced by one that deals with the villains of the piece and does not attack the voluntary sector.
I just want simple answers to simple questions. I apologise for being absent from the debate, but I have been at a Delegated Legislation Committee.
When the Minister responds, may we have some clarity about the time scale for the amendments he is going to introduce? If the Report stage is to be on
Does my hon. Friend also think that it is important that the people affected by the clause, who were not consulted on the original drafting, should also be engaged in the process so that any obvious mistakes can be corrected before the amendments come to us?
That is my third point. If we are seeking to reach consensus, it is critical that all parties in this House are involved in those discussions and also that all parties outside the House that have expressed an interest or a concern are consulted. I am not happy with the whole process—I think we are procedurally in a mess.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he is saying on consultation. It is important that the Electoral Commission is added to the list of consultees, because it has the expertise and is charged with the responsibility of implementing the Bill.
Yes, that was my fourth point. We have to dig ourselves out of this procedural hole and try to ensure that we are not in the same wrangle when we come back on
It would be invaluable if, once the amendment was drafted, the Select Committee had the opportunity to consider it in some detail. The Committee has built up expertise on the Bill over some time and the amendments it has proposed have meant that we have been able to have a proper and constructive debate.
My hon. Friend is making a set of important points about process rather than principle, which is what he normally covers, and they are extremely valuable. Does he agree, in asking ask the Minister to set out the principles on which his proposed changes for introduction on Report will be based, that they should be principles for how he wants to change the status quo rather than how he wants to tinker with the Bill’s deeply flawed provisions?
The reason I want some general principles set out is that I, like many others, am completely confused about where we are at—what the Government’s intentions are, and the implications of the Bill. I have spoken three times in the series of debates starting with Second Reading, so I do not want to repeat the arguments that I have advanced, but I think that people are genuinely confused. If we arrive in this place on
I make this plea to the Minister: at least get some clarity today before we move forward. It is fortuitous that we have the conference break; that gives us the opportunity to get that right and to be fully inclusive in the process from here on in.
I shall speak to amendments 62, 64 and 167 and new clause 9.
I feel that I am speaking in a bit of a vacuum. I can speak to what is already on paper, and I can speak to our amendments, but we have no idea what the Government will bring forward as an amendment, and it seems to me a very higgledy-piggledy way to deal with legislation.
The real issue, of course, is that there has not been any consultation. There has been no time for anyone to look at this in advance. I had the privilege yesterday of meeting a number of third-sector organisations in Cardiff—some Wales-only organisations, and some that also operate UK-wide but quite properly have offices in Cardiff or other parts of Wales, which facilitates their engagement with the National Assembly for Wales. It is extremely important to consult—even to speak today, I found it essential to consult, listen to and read a lot of the material that those groups have kindly produced in a very short time indeed.
There was utter disbelief and anger that the Government had made no attempt to consult the organisations. Those are organisations that feed in regularly, whether to legislation or to Select Committee inquiries. They often do enormous amounts of research, and they help us by providing useful facts and figures and giving evidence that we can often use. I think of organisations—perhaps the RSPB—that are well respected, have a wide remit and often operate across the political spectrum, perhaps uniting groups of people who might not otherwise meet, to campaign together on a specific issue.
The Welsh Assembly elections are an additional challenge for groups operating in Wales, because taking into consideration the period in which the legislation would apply—12 months before a general election, plus the few months before a Welsh Assembly election, plus the European elections—a rather large chunk of any five-year period is a no-go area, when those organisations cannot operate. The real shame is that many of those organisations are involved in policy formation. Some of the work that they do—their ideas and discussions—results in substantial contributions to policy. If any one party were then to adopt that policy, the whole of the legislation could then apply retrospectively to many of the activities that they had carried out, including the staff time to put that policy together.
Not only would those organisations be less inclined to get involved in the work that is so vital to us, but the net would be flung far wider and bring in far more organisations, some of which are user groups, local groups, that have far less experience of such activity. For many of them, it would be much more practical to provide clarification of existing Charity Commission law and Electoral Commission advice, so that—
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the great and the good of the charity sector—groups of the type that she has been talking to—that would be affected? Has she, like me and many other Members, been contacted by a lot of constituents who see very clearly the dangers to the democratic process—constituents like Dr Kathryn Horridge from Rawmarsh, who said:
“I support greater transparency and accountability in the political process, and would like to see the influence of ‘Big Money’ over politics reduced. I’d support a new law which genuinely did this, rather than a law which gags campaign groups but leaves Rupert Murdoch and millionaire party donors untouched”?
My right hon. Friend made that point extremely well. Many people’s first political engagement may come about when they join a campaign on an issue that they feel strongly about, and to curtail that would discourage participation when we all recognise that the real challenge today is to get more participation and enable more people to have a voice in our society.
Another issue that will hit people very hard is the reduction of the financial limit in Wales. That will be £2,000, and there will be a requirement to declare many additional costs, such as staffing costs.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that, according to my reading of the Bill, the reduction in expenditure in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is greater in proportional terms than the reduction in expenditure in England? Would she share her thoughts? Why does she think that the UK Government have brought this iniquitous proposal forward?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, it makes it especially difficult when organisations are trying to influence policy both in the devolved Administrations and in the UK Government. So many areas overlap now. It can be big things such as climate change, which was mentioned earlier; it can be things like fuel poverty or it can be much smaller things, which are partly devolved, partly not. A lot of work is done by such groups in influencing both the devolved Administrations and more widely.
Many of these organisations also operate internationally and have international deadlines. I refer to the millennium development goals, the UN convention on the rights of the child and so on. Those organisations participate in worldwide activities whose timetable may fall within the wrong time in an election cycle and it may be more difficult for them to put forward their point of view. Some of them have even talked about making sure that some of their policies are dealt with in their overseas offices so that they are not caught by the Bill. There are a huge number of complications.
The other issue that particularly affects organisations operating in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland is that they are often in coalition with many other groups, some of which operate on a UK-wide basis and some of which operate only in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Accounting presents yet more complications, and they look with horror at the accounting detail that the Bill will require of them, which they will have to finance by paying someone to sort it out.
My hon. Friend is setting out perfectly the complexities arising from the Bill’s provisions. It will create not just an accounting minefield for those charities; it is potentially a legal minefield for them as well. Those charities and third-party organisations are fearful that if they fall foul of those provisions, they will end up in court.
Indeed, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Fear of legal action, doubt, not knowing and thinking that they could be involved in big legal costs are worrying those organisations and will effectively chill off any participation in a greater debate, which will be detrimental to our democracy in the long run. That is the key point about this part of the Bill. We would all like to see greater participation by people from all walks of life across the political spectrum.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to make this intervention and I apologise for not hearing the beginning of her speech. Does she agree that one of the side effects of the Bill is that it seriously undermines the devolution settlement? We have witnessed over the past 14 years the growth of democratic civil society in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Organisations that I am associated with, such as the Down’s Syndrome Association and Carers UK, greatly value the relationship that they have built up with the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The worry is that the opportunity that those organisations have to feed into policy processes will be choked off. We have a good relationship, as my hon. Friend says, with many of those organisations, which contribute across the spectrum not only to the UK Government, the UK Parliament and some of our Select Committees, but to the devolved Administrations, and that will be choked off. People in our constituencies will become less engaged, as we heard.
An important point was made in an earlier intervention, to which the Deputy Leader of the House should pay attention. I am not saying that he has not paid entire attention to every remark made this afternoon; I am sure he has. I refer to the fear that charities have about criminal offences being committed. They will not know about being in breach of the legislation until after the event. It is imperative that the Government write into the Bill that any new criminal offences created by it, particularly in parts 1 and 2, will not have retrospective effect. That is essential, otherwise the Secretary of State could not sign the section 19 notice stating that it is compliant with the European convention on human rights.
Indeed. The hon. Lady makes a very good point on that issue, as did Mr Davis. The key thing now is to move forward and get things right. I hope that, whatever the Government intend to bring forward for the next stage of the Bill, a proper consultation will take place. We would much rather see the whole thing scrapped so that we could start again, but if we are not going to get that, let us have the whole provision rewritten, with time for people to consider it, consult and come back with comments so that we can achieve a measure that is workable. As it stands, the proposal would be a disaster if it went through because it would curtail the very thing that we want to happen—greater engagement in our democracy.
I will start by welcoming back my hon. Friend John McDonnell—this is the first time I have been able to take part in a debate with him since his return. He is one of the most dogged, tenacious and conscientious MPs I have ever met. I am sure that Comrades Cameron and Clegg will have cracked open the bubbly in Downing street when they realised he had returned.
It is worth reminding the Committee that constitutional Bills have previously always been taken without any kind of timetabling or guillotining. The Bill is clearly constitutional, yet it has been very tightly timetabled. Indeed, some might say that it is being rammed through extremely quickly. There are certain specific questions that I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to respond to when he gets to his feet, to do with how the Bill will affect charities and campaigning organisations.
Hope not Hate, for example—I assume that most of us are familiar with it—campaigns with politicians of all democratic parties across England, Scotland and Wales. What if 12 months before a general election it issued a leaflet or organised a campaign that happened to mention that a certain candidate was or had been a member of the British National party? Would that be caught by the legislation, or will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us that that will be open to interpretation by the courts and judges? Would that count when it comes to the measures in the Bill that control expenditure of a political nature?
What if Hope not Hate had a campaign against the English Defence League? It could be argued that the EDL is not a properly constituted political party, but it has a political wing, the Freedom party, which could take Hope not Hate to court. It could say that such a campaign counted towards election expenditure because it could affect a parliamentary election result achieved by the Freedom party as the political wing of the EDL.
What about local hospital campaigns? The recent Save Lewisham Hospital campaign has caught the public imagination and at least three hon. Friends have been involved. What if the campaign took place within 12 months of a general election? It could easily be argued that that could materially influence an election outcome, perhaps in the borough where the hospital is situated or further afield in south or east London. The campaign to save King George hospital ran through a number of Parliaments, so it ran through a number of 12-month periods before general elections. It could be argued that it influenced the electoral outcome in certain parliamentary constituencies.
The Defend Council Housing group campaigns in various areas, and against both major parties. When the Labour party was in government, the group engaged in a number of campaigns that were very critical of the Government, and since the general election the same thing has happened with the coalition. Again, it could be argued that that might be caught by the legislation.
No, I do not, funnily enough. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was in her place, but earlier I referred to legal advice given to the NCVO by Helen Mountfield QC that made it clear that the problem is not that the definition of political campaigning has been redefined, but that it will be left wide open to interpretation. That will then lead, as sure as eggs is eggs, to court cases that could rumble on for years and lead to people being imprisoned.
My hon. Friend has hit on an issue. The explanatory notes make it clear that if a third party enhances a candidate’s standing, regardless of whether that is its intention or not, it will be covered by the Bill. Is that not the problem that my hon. Friend has pointed out by using the example of Defend Council Housing? If a candidate has a particular view on the issue of social housing, the campaign group’s expenditure will be captured by the provisions.
That goes to the heart of the problem in part 2 of the Bill, which has been hastily cobbled together over the past few weeks. I presume that is why the Government have tabled amendments to try to sort out the situation and redeem themselves in the eyes of a lot of charities, non-governmental organisations and others up and down the country.
I apologise, Mr Sheridan, for not having been present for the whole debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that the concerns are not just about localised campaigns, but about UK-wide campaigns and the difficulties facing charities in different parts of the UK in calculating whether they will have crossed the threshold, given that they will have no way of judging the impact of campaigns conducted via websites and e-mail on different parts of the country?
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the reasons I mentioned Hope not Hate is that it is a classic example of an organisation that conducts not only national but local campaigns in specific constituencies, boroughs and districts. According to Hope not Hate, with which I and many Members from all parties have done a lot of work in the past, its spending in the run-up to the next election will be cut by 70%. It also calculates, accurately, that its limit per constituency over the same period will be about £9,000. That will have a material effect on anti-racist campaigning in the run-up to the next election. As I have said, Hope not Hate campaigns with all democratic parties, not just one or two.
I cannot help thinking that part 2 is not entirely divorced from the fact that one or two Liberal Democrat MPs will be facing potentially strenuous campaigns by the National Union of Students in the run-up to the next election. One Member who springs to mind is the Deputy Prime Minister. For those who do not know Sheffield that well, I point out that his constituency is surrounded by a sea of student accommodation for a large university. I suspect that the Deputy Prime Minister is a little bit worried that the student voices that were sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats at the last election will now be saying, “Well, hang on a minute: the leader of the Liberal Democratic party stood on a specific pledge of not raising tuition fees, but he went back on it and voted for, and actually helped introduce, legislation that tripled tuition fees.” I do not think that that was a million miles away from his mind when he was considering part 2 of this Bill, and I think that is why it is receiving enthusiastic support from not all but certain Liberal Democrat Members.
I will finish with a couple of quotes that successfully set out the problem with part 2. First, the Royal British Legion, which is not particularly known for being a wild-eyed, left-wing organisation of agitators, has said—Members have probably seen the briefing paper—that the definition of “for election purposes” is “far too broad”.
“The Bill takes us from a situation in which everyone understands the rules on what charities can do and considers them reasonable, into a position where no one has any idea what the rules are, but could nevertheless face criminal prosecution for getting them wrong. This is what happens when legislation is rushed through with no consultation.”
I rest my case.
I am grateful, Mr Sheridan, to be called to speak in this debate for the first time in three days. That might have something to do with the fact that by the time I get fully to my feet the selected speaker is about to end their first sentence.
I am very glad that I am at this historic event, because I am sure that one day someone will write a book called “The Worst Legislative Atrocities”, which will of course include the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It will also include the Regulatory Reform Act 2001—initially a Bill so incomprehensible that in 2004 another Bill had to be introduced to explain what it meant. It will include many of the 75 Bills introduced by the previous Government that went through all their stages but, sadly, were never implemented. After all the efforts made by Parliament, in this House and the other place, to progress those Bills, they never went through. I believe that this mean, miserable Bill will also be seen as one of those Bills that demean the House and demean politics.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I have just come from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair. I congratulate the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on the great work that it has done; my hon. Friend is a member and its Chair is in his place. My Committee was seriously critical of the Government’s refusal to allow any pre-legislative scrutiny. One of the points made was that this has been a terrible waste of human resources—Members and staff alike.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
We are engaged in a comedy, a Machiavellian game where the Government are saying, “We are going to put this right. We are taking things out of the Bill, but not until October.” In the meantime, we can ventilate here and grind the air with our words, but it is all to no avail because the Government have deliberately put the charities provision in part 2 in order to withdraw it at a later stage. They know about all the e-mails that are coming through. They know that all that indignation and anger will be ventilated here and we will ignore the main lacuna in the Bill regarding the big scandal identified by the Prime Minister that he said was certain to come. We remember his words: “Everyone knows what I’m talking about.”
This is about lobbying. We know how it works—the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in the ear, the ex-Ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business to find the right way to get its way in the Conservative party. The Conservatives say, “We believe in competition, not crony capitalism.” Oh no they don’t. The crony capitalism endemic in the soul of the party is shown in the fact that those who have the deepest pockets can get the access and the influence. That is what is in the party and that is what it has failed to address. We have been taken in. All the attention on this Bill is focused on the attacks on lobbying by charities. Who has said that the main scandal in future will be the dreadful activities of the Royal British Legion, Save the Children and Oxfam? It is a non-issue that the Government have inserted in an attempt to distract us from the main problem with the Bill.
In the previous Parliament, I had the advantage of serving on the Committee that dealt with lobbying. Sadly, the report that we put out in 2005 was not acted on. In all the time since then, we have had terrible examples of the abuse of our Parliament and our system by lobbyists. When are we going to have a look at what happened with the previous Defence Secretary, who acquired absolution when he resigned from his job? We did not have an inquiry into the ministerial adviser who also resigned. We did not have any exposure of what Mr Adam Werritty was doing. What was he up to? Who employed him?
Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman has waited a long time to speak in this debate, but it would be helpful if he could limit his contribution to clause 26.
I was speaking to the clause and amendment 47, which is a sensible way of considering the Bill. I might be tempted to go into a Second Reading speech, which I should not do. I believe that if we continue to address a non-issue in the Bill, we will intensify the lack of trust in this Committee and this Chamber. That issue is what the Prime Minister spoke so eloquently about before he was elected.
We are failing to do our job as members of the Committee, and handing over a mess of a Bill to the other House to correct and knock into shape. I appeal to the Minister to tell us in his winding-up speech what he will do on Report. Are we wasting our time attacking a non-problem in the Bill? Are we doing what he wants us to do, which is catch the minnows in the shallow waters while the great big salmon swim by unhindered?
I have listened carefully to a number of contributions, and genuine concerns have been expressed. I do a huge amount of work with Mind and Rethink on mental health, and with my 100% support and advice, in the run-up to the next general election they will be setting a number of challenges for the main political parties about how people with mental health problems are treated. They will be seeking positive responses to those challenges, and I need categorical assurance from the Minister and those on the Front Benches that such activities will not be caught by the Bill before us.
To add to that point, does the hon. Gentleman think that MPs’ websites with links to charities might find themselves included in a charity’s costs if they are considered to be promoting a particular charity’s position in the run-up to an election?
The hon. Lady makes a constructive intervention, and no doubt the Minister will want to respond. Political engagement at whatever level in almost every form is greatly to be encouraged. I hope that the Government listen to the real concerns expressed today, and that that level of engagement is not suppressed.
I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee for his contribution to the debate, and I acknowledge the excellent work he does on behalf of mental health charities. I assure him that mental health charities that campaign on policy issues will not be affected by what we are debating today. I hope he will agree, however, that if during a general election campaign one of the charities he has referred to advocated support for a party or a number of candidates, that would, in effect, constitute electioneering and have to be accounted for.
My Committee reported in order to inform debates such as this, and we took evidence on this very issue from the Electoral Commission. The definition of “election purposes” changes and it now includes “enhancing the standing” of candidates. The Electoral Commission said:
“The new definition has been framed in a way that leaves a great deal of scope for us to interpret the meaning of the legislation, subject to being over-ruled by the courts as the result of a challenge. This effectively gives the Electoral Commission a wide discretion in deciding what the new regime means in practice…we do not think it is appropriate for us to have the sort of wide discretion over the meaning and scope of the regulatory regime that the Bill as drafted appears to provide.”
That is not my view or that of any member of my Committee. That is the view of the impartial and objective Electoral Commission. If it does not know, no trustee or person active in a charity can know at this moment.
I intend to follow the Bill closely. I hope that any charity worth its salt would not direct its members towards the candidate of a particular political party. I hope charities simply ask their members to take into consideration the responses they have received from the various candidates.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is precisely right, as hon. Members would expect, but does he share the concerns outlined by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? The explanatory notes do not mention supporting candidates; they mention
“enhancing the standing of…candidates”,
which is open to interpretation.
It is unusual for the Opposition spokesman to make a second speech in such a debate, but it is important to hone in on a few points that have been made on both sides of the Committee. There is a high degree of consensus, and very few, if any, hon. Members have made partisan contributions. All recognise the value of civil society and of it engaging fully in our democratic process.
Mr Davis spoke of how the nature of society is changing, and of how civil society is becoming more important in our democracy. We should recognise that and enhance such involvement. We have also heard how public policy is extremely important, particularly with regard to the devolved institutions, for campaigning organisations and the voluntary sector. Hon. Members have heard how charities do not simply raise money, but have a great deal of input into the development of policy in their respective areas, so public policy formation and charity work come together.
In my view, all those points have produced a unanimous view in the Committee. It is important that the Minister acknowledges the relatively uniformity of view in the Committee, and recognises the need for more discussion among hon. Members, and perhaps more importantly among those outside the Chamber who will be directly affected, including the Electoral Commission, charities and campaigning organisations.
Hon. Members have honed in on clause 26. I heard what the Deputy Leader of the House said at the beginning of the debate about amending the clause and schedule 3, so I ask him, in the next few minutes, to give the Committee a commitment that he will have a dialogue with the Opposition, the Electoral Commission and all the organisations that are concerned about the implementation of the measures.
This positive debate has shown that the Committee is not against change. All hon. Members recognise that change must take place, but we also recognise that, in a democracy, if change is to enhance our democratic process, it must take place on the basis of consensus and agreement.
I apologise for the fact that I will take some time to respond. We have been debating the matter for two or two and half hours, and it is appropriate for me to respond to many of the points that have been made. If I am unable to respond in the debate to the points hon. Members have made, or if I do not respond, they can take them up with me later and I will respond in writing.
The debate on Second Reading raised a number of important issues relating to clause 26, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend John Thurso and the hon. Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David), for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for the amendments they have tabled.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly criticised the Government by saying that the Bill was rushed, but then invited me to draft the amendment we had been discussing here and now, thereby short-circuiting any discussion with interested parties on that particular issue. In response to the specific request he and John McDonnell made on when an amendment will be tabled and whether there will be a process for engaging with the Opposition, the Electoral Commission and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, I can provide them with reassurance that that process will happen. I am happy to meet the hon. Member for Caerphilly to discuss proposed Government amendments. Discussions will take place with the Electoral Commission and the NCVO prior to them being finalised. Although the House will be in conference recess, the Government hope to table amendments at least a week before to give Members time to consider them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his positive comment. If he is giving a commitment to effectively redrafting clause 26, he will have no problem if the Committee votes against it tonight.
It will be up to the hon. Gentleman to make his decision. I have given an undertaking, and am about to give a more detailed undertaking, of what we intend to do with clause 26. It will be up to him to decide whether he feels that that is appropriate.
The main purpose of clause 26 is to align the activities that count as controlled expenditure for political parties and third parties. Many Members have referred to the
Electoral Commission’s objections to aspects of the Bill. As far as I am aware, no one has referred to what it had to say on the alignment of the definition of controlled expenditure for political parties and third parties, and I would like to put that on the record. Recommendation 29 of its June 2013 report states:
“The rules on PPERA non-party campaigning that is intended to influence voters should be changed so that they more closely reflect the scope of rules for political parties by covering events, media work and polling, as well as election material.”
That is what the Electoral Commission has to say about the importance of ensuring that the two measures mesh carefully.
What the right hon. Gentleman say is of course correct. Why, if he believes there should be greater alignment between the two areas of expenditure, does he want to introduce a staff cost to the voluntary sector that does not apply to political parties? He cannot have it both ways.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because it gives me the opportunity to underline that under the current definition of controlled expenditure, staff costs for non-party organisations have to be accounted for. This is not a departure; we are extending the requirement on them to account for staff costs to the new areas of controlled expenditure that we think should be covered, such as research.
The Deputy Leader of the House is absolutely right that the Electoral Commission says those words. My Select Committee read a little further than the right hon. Gentleman, and it is in our report for any Member to read. It says:
“However, crucially, they”— the Electoral Commission—
“added: ‘this would need careful consideration’. This careful consideration appears to have been lacking.”
I thank the Select Committee Chair for that further clarification of the Electoral Commission’s quote. What we are doing to bring these two measures of controlled expenditure in line is careful and considered. We may, if we have time, come to clause 27. I suspect that we may debate other aspects later.
The Minister talks about careful consideration. Will he produce a human rights memorandum on the Bill and will he allow my Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to produce a report? We only began to deal with this report today and we hope to report sometime in October. Will he allow us the opportunity to present that report to the House and for him to consider it?
On the human rights aspects, some Members have questioned whether the Bill is compliant. The Government’s assessment is that we consider all the spending limits in the Bill to be compatible with article 10 and have taken into account the amount that the third parties are permitted to spend under the reduced limits and the amount that they spend now. Clearly this has been given active consideration by the Government, as the hon. Gentleman would expect.
The main purpose of clause 26 is to align the activities that count as controlled expenditure for political parties and third parties. At present, the activities that count as controlled expenditure depend on whether we are referring to a political party or a third party. This means that spending by recognised third parties to assist a political party with the cost of an event would be captured as political party spending. However, if the recognised third party were independently to organise such an event itself—perhaps supporting that same party—such spending would not be caught. That highlights why we are trying to ensure that these two definitions—for third parties and for political parties—are brought into line.
We agree with the Electoral Commission that the current variation in what constitutes controlled expenditure for a political party and for a recognised third party is a potential gap in the regulation of spending in the UK elections, hence the intention behind clause 26. I believe that aligning the definition of controlled expenditure is a reasonable and sensible measure. However, to achieve this, the current definition of election materials needs to be revised. [Interruption.] I hope Members will let me finish what I am saying before trying to intervene. At present, recognised third parties incur controlled expenditure in connection with the production or publication of election material that is made available to the public. As a result, the Bill proposes to replace “election materials” with “for election purposes”; as we are aligning the activities with those of parties, we are also aligning the language of the test.
As we have said, the Government do not believe that we are significantly changing or widening the present test. Controlled expenditure would be incurred only where an organisation is promoting or procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. However, I am conscious, as are the Government, of the concerns raised by right hon. and hon. Members that charities and voluntary organisations will be caught by the proposals in clause 26 and that the new language leaves room for ambiguity. This is not the Government’s intention.
Will the Minister confirm that what he and the Government are proposing is that if a charity puts out a leaflet saying “Vote for people in favour of animal welfare”—I have voted recently in favour of animal welfare—and if, as happened at the last election in Bassetlaw, the Conservative party unwisely and unsuccessfully spends £250,000 sending direct mails to my electorate with pictures of some southern politician, the Conservative party will be able to do that but the charity will not?
On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the political parties have sought to get an agreement on party political funding and that that was not possible. He can speculate on where the blockage for that was. On the question of the charity, I can assure him that if his charity campaigned in the run-up to the 2010 general election, we will ensure that it has the same level of clarity about what and how it can campaign as it did then. I hope that he will acknowledge that some of the concerns expressed today about the uncertainties for charities about what they can and cannot do exists under the present legislation. Those charities already have discussions with the Charity Commission and the Electoral Commission, under the present legislation, about what they can and cannot do
So to confirm, the right hon. Gentleman is saying that the Conservative party could spend that money, which was wasted in Bassetlaw—or, indeed, it could spend it against him, very personally and directly—but that if a charity campaigned on how he or I voted, and if it persuaded us in the year running up to an election and then used its resources to e-mail its supporters or members, who then e-mailed us to congratulate us on how we voted, it could be caught out by the law.
We could continue this rather unfruitful dialogue, or I can restate that, whatever the charity to which the hon. Gentleman refers did in the run-up to the 2010 general election, we will ensure the same clarity about what it can do in the run-up to the 2015 general election, and there would be no difference.
I will give way shortly.
It might help the Committee if I set out in a little detail why the amendments in this group would not work effectively, along with some of the points we will need to address before Report. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross for his amendments, which in substance try to achieve what the Government want to do. However, in practice, there are some deficiencies in their wording, which means that we cannot simply adopt them now.
It is quite clear from today’s discussions that there is still some confusion among charities and third sector organisations about some of the wording in the Bill. I am pleased to hear that the Minister is willing to reconsider the precise wording, but when he does, will he bear in mind the fact that other organisations are also concerned about the impact of the Bill? They include the excellent Liberal Democrat Voice, LabourList and Conservative Home, which are equally unclear about whether part 2 applies to what they do.
When the amendment is made public—we have made a commitment to do that—I am sure that those organisations will be effective at lobbying us, and no doubt 38 Degrees will also want to communicate its views. We will be informed about whether the different organisations consider our amendment to be sufficient to achieve what they are requesting.
I am going to make some more progress.
The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross would alter clause 26, so that a third party would incur controlled expenditure only when it undertook activities that fall within part 1 of proposed schedule 8A to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as set out in schedule 3 to the Bill, and are incurred “for election purposes”. It would also remove the definition of “for election purposes”, which means that “for election purposes” would be undefined in the legislation. I can see that the objective of the amendments is to maintain the expanded list of activities that would count as controlled expenditure, but to revert to the existing definition, as used for “election materials”.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly seek to reinstate the current legislative arrangements. Recognised third parties would incur controlled expenditure only for “election materials” and only for certain activities, such as advertising and unsolicited materials addressed to electors. The Government believe that aligning the activities for which political parties and recognised third parties incur controlled expenditure is a sensible and reasonable objective. As I have said, this measure is advocated and supported by the Electoral Commission.
John Cryer referred to Hope not Hate. I agree with him that many of the things that people have said today will result from the Bill will simply not happen. However, given that Hope not Hate spent above the cap proposed by the Government, its spending would be constrained, so he touched on a genuine point. I will be meeting Hope not Hate to see whether we can address the concerns it might have. With organisations such as 38 Degrees and Hope not Hate increasingly switching to online campaigning activity, the costs of campaigning could go down, as it is much cheaper to campaign online via e-mail than by using postal mailshots. I will meet that organisation to discuss the matter in any case.
There is a potential gap in the regulatory regime when a recognised third party that undertakes public rallies and media events would only incur spending on election material made available to the public, whereas if that were done on behalf of a political party, the cost of the full range of activities would be captured. This objective should not be lost in the wider discussion relating to charities and voluntary organisations.
A further amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly seeks to amend the definition of “election purposes” so that controlled expenditure would be incurred only by a recognised third party when it was its direct purpose. It is useful to highlight to the Committee that, under the currently regulatory regime, the test for “electoral materials” has a subjective and an objective element.
Given what the Minister has just said, will he confirm that if a church or a synagogue were to organise an election hustings but chose explicitly to exclude a fascist candidate, that would be deemed to constitute electioneering against that candidate and would fall entirely within the remit of the Bill?
That is the kind of issue that can be taken up with the Charity Commission and the Electoral Commission under existing legislation to establish whether that particular activity constituted electioneering. Nothing that we are proposing would affect that.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North seek, as previous amendments have done, to strike a balance between the reasonable intent of expanding the range of activities that incur controlled expenditure, and addressing concerns over the activities of charities and voluntary organisations being caught. Amendment 131 seeks to revise the definition of “for election purposes” as activity that can reasonably be regarded as promoting or procuring the success of a party or candidate. As the Government have indicated, we support the principle of that aim, and we will table amendments on Report which I hope will address that concern to the hon. Gentleman’s satisfaction.
A further amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman proposes that donations by a third party to a third party coalition group should count towards the donor third party’s spending limits. That seems to suggest that such a grouping would register as a separate, new third party and be subject to the wider controls of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The intention appears to be to repeal section 94(6) of PPERA. That provision stipulates that when two or more third parties work together as a group or coalition in pursuance of a common plan, the whole of the expenditure they incur as part of that coalition must count against each third party’s spending limit separately. However, the drafting of the amendment would not explicitly repeal section 94(6). The amendment also fails to consider that removing the existing provisions on acting in concert would remove a key anti-avoidance measure from PPERA. If total spending by a group of third parties acting as part of a common plan was not counted in full against each individual third party’s limits, it would allow third parties to form many coalitions on single issues in order to evade their spending limits. That would remove a vital safeguard from the integrity of the rules.
Clearly we have. This comes down to the issue of whether the Wildlife Trust, which I suspect has members drawn from all parties and none, would as part of that coalition campaign in support of a political party or of a number of party candidates. If it did not intend to do so, it would not be covered by the legislation.
In respect of the amendment I tabled in line with the sentiment of my Select Committee—very much along the lines of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter
Ross (John Thurso)—I am receiving reassurances from what the Minister said, so I am happy not press it to a Division. We all look forward to seeing the actual words that will give life to both those amendments.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I shall move on to other amendments, but I want to take the opportunity to reassure him that we would seek to engage with him on the amendment we propose to table on Report.
Is it the message of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech that all the organisations and charities that are campaigning against the Bill should now intensify their campaigns until October in order to get something sensible from the Government on Report?
Far be it from me to encourage or advise charities. I am sure they will continue to campaign if they feel there is a need, but my hope and expectation is that, once the NCVO and other organisations have seen the amendment that we intend to publish to address their concerns about a lack of clarity on the definitions, they will be satisfied. They might not be satisfied on other elements, but we will wait and see how they respond.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire would exclude the part 2 provisions from applying to elections to the Scottish Parliament without the assent of the Scottish Parliament. A number of Members have commented on the Bill’s impact on the different Administrations, so perhaps I need to clarify the issue. For the most part, the Bill is focused on UK parliamentary elections, and many of the provisions will have no effect on elections to the Scottish Parliament. Spending controls operate by regulated period, rather than by election, so seeking to exclude Scottish Parliament election spending in those areas where there are common rules would create an unworkable situation. For those reasons and others, these matters are reserved.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan would exclude charities registered in the Scottish charity register. The Electoral Commission has highlighted in its amendment briefing that, as a general point, it does not see a case for charities to be exempt from the rules regulating third parties, and the Government agree.
Will the Minister outline exactly what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations about this Bill in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? What discussions has he had with the charity commissions that regulate charities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
I am afraid I will have to write to the hon. Lady. She will be able to judge for herself whether she feels that the response is suitable.
Lady Hermon intervened on the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and referred to future elections “imminent or otherwise”. I would like to clarify that that is an existing definition under PPERA, not something new that the Bill would introduce.
The Minister mentioned me, so I appreciate his giving me the opportunity to say that the Bill amends existing legislation, specifically the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is what we are discussing. The fact that a term already exists in legislation does not make it good. I would like him to explain what is meant by a future election being “(imminent or otherwise)”. It is in that Act. What does it actually mean?
I can assure the hon. Lady that, given that this term has been in legislation since 2000, it must be completely clear. I am going to move on.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I have met representatives of the voluntary sector to hear their concerns first hand. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and the hon. Members for Caerphilly, for Nottingham North, for Perth and North Perthshire and for Banff and Buchan that we will look closely at the drafting of the clause so that it is absolutely clear that we are not changing the current test. I apologise for repeating that. It must be the third, fourth or fifth time I have said it today, but I think it is important to make it clear to everybody what we are seeking to do. We believe that that would most simply be achieved, and the greatest reassurance would be given to campaigners and to the Electoral Commission, by a reversion to the situation set out by existing legislation, which defines controlled expenditure as expenditure
“which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”.
[Interruption.] I hear one of the Opposition spokesmen say that this is a shambles. I hoped to hear from him that it was, in fact, a case of the Government’s listening to the concerns expressed by charities and by Members on both sides of the House, and responding to them.
I thought that the Minister was in listening mode, but there we are. May I ask him one simple question? Does he intend to revise schedule 3?
I think that we shall have to wait and see—[Interruption.] As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, what we are seeking to do is to address the concerns expressed by charities about the lack of clarity in the definitions. We have indicated that we will revert to terms very similar to those used in the original legislation. I am sure that if he genuinely wants to address the concerns that charities have expressed, he will welcome that. As I said, we will return to the issue on Report.
In new clause 9, the hon. Member for Caerphilly calls on the Government to undertake a post-legislative assessment. New clause 10 also calls for such an assessment. We conducted an impact assessment, which we consider to be adequate, but the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North, may well wish to undertake a post-legislative assessment. The Leader of the House and I are both keen for post-legislative scrutiny to take place, and, in fact, would encourage Select Committees to carry out more of it than they do at present.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the amendment which would alter schedule 3 by appearing to narrow slightly the types of manifesto or documents that are included, omitting those which set out a party’s policies, but not the third party’s view of them. It would also remove the detail of the type of expenses that should be included in calculation of the amount of controlled expenditure associated with any manifesto or other document setting out the third party’s view on the policies of a party or candidate.
At present, recognised third parties incur controlled expenditure in connection with the production or publication of election material which is made available to the public. That will normally cover activities such as advertising, unsolicited material addressed to electors, and any manifesto or document setting out the policies, or the recognised third party’s view on the policies, of one or more parties or candidates.
While schedule 3 expands the range of activities that may constitute controlled expenditure, manifestos or policy documents—being election material—are already covered by existing law, and will remain so. They are simply described here in a different way. I therefore urge that the amendment is not pressed to a vote.
References have been made to press conferences and rallies. I know that the TUC has expressed fears that it will not be allowed to hold its rally. Our view is that the TUC would not promote parties or political candidates at the rally—especially given what is happening at the TUC conference today, where it could almost be argued that the TUC is supporting anything but the Labour party. [Interruption.]
I suspect that the House is becoming restless, Sir Edward, and that I need to move on very, very promptly. Members will be pleased to learn that I have reached the penultimate page of my notes.
I have explained to the hon. Member for Caerphilly that staff costs are covered by the controlled expenditure rules that apply now to non-party organisations. Therefore, by extending the definition of controlled expenditure, we are requiring them to account for staff costs in the areas that are now also covered by controlled expenditure.
I am not going to give way. I have made that point clear. I do not think the hon. Gentleman understood it, but I hope he does now.
The hon. Gentleman asked why staff costs are accounted for for non-party organisations but not for political parties. The role of political parties is entirely to campaign politically and therefore all the staff costs of any political party would have to be accounted for as part of controlled expenditure. I do not think he is advocating that.
I have come to the end of my notes. Having heard the firm undertakings the Government have given to engage with the NCVO, the Electoral Commission, the Opposition and a number of organisations that are going to respond to the amendment when it has been published in advance of Parliament returning, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross will think that we have done enough for him to withdraw his amendment.
This has been a substantial debate both in time and in content, and I am very grateful to all Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to it, and also for the widespread support—albeit some of it, I suspect, slightly unintended. The debate has raised an important question. I shall not refer to all the speeches, but I will make one point. I intervened on Dr Whiteford to reiterate a point made by the Chair of the Select Committee: that so much of this is about perception. My amendments are, by returning to the status quo, designed to get rid of one of the perceptions. I am therefore very grateful for the undertaking the Minister has given, which is that the substance of my amendment will be included in the amendment he will bring forward on Report, that he will consult with the Opposition and the voluntary organisations, and that the amendment will be published sufficiently far ahead of our proceedings on Report to be properly considered by everybody.
I have never managed to get any concession out of a Minister before in my life and it is a lovely way to celebrate my 60th birthday, so I will accept. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
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