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Clause 27 — Changes to existing limits

Part of Access to Mental Health Services – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 10th September 2013.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 6:45 pm, 10th September 2013

In the 10 minutes that remain, I need to complete my remarks.

On amendment No. 66, upon registration with the Electoral Commission, third parties become entitled to incur controlled expenditure up to a higher limit and will have to comply with other regulatory requirements. The Bill lowers the thresholds in order to identify greater numbers of third parties that campaign in the political process. It is right to distinguish which organisations incur expenditure campaigning at elections and to ensure that their funds are fully accounted for. Reducing the registration thresholds, as proposed by the Bill, does not preclude third parties from campaigning. This is a point that, I am afraid, a number of Members have made: that a requirement simply to register will stop organisations campaigning. That is not so. The requirement to register will mean that the expenditure that they can incur is controlled. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Caerphilly will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 165 proposes that until the Electoral Commission has undertaken an assessment of the impact of clause 27 on political parties and on third parties and that report is laid before Parliament, the provisions of clause 27 may not come into effect. I have been asked why we have settled on the cap. Clause 27 amends the third party limits for controlled expenditure. These limits would be the equivalent of 2% of the maximum campaign expenditure limit for political parties. For third party campaigning across the UK, this would be £390,000. As hon. Members will be aware, currently the level at which it is set does not cover or catch any of the third party organisations.

Setting a cap at £390,000 would, as I stated earlier, capture two organisations that currently spend slightly above that cap. We think that that would, first, provide equality of arms in relation to the examples to which the Chair of the Select committee referred—the League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance. It would ensure that one organisation campaigning in favour of something could not be heavily outgunned financially by another campaigning on the opposite side of the argument.

If at the next general election, the threshold were set where it is currently and the 30 organisations that registered all spent at their current limit—the £1 million, or just under, that they are allowed to spend nationally—they would have been able to outspend, very heavily, each of the political parties. Our view is that election campaigns are about political parties fighting and setting out their stalls, with, of course, third party organisations campaigning as well, but it should in principle be a battle between political parties.

Clause 27 also lowers the expenditure thresholds at which the third parties must register with the Electoral Commission: the thresholds are set at £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As I stated, the Government’s assessment is that that would affect a total of 30 additional non-party organisations, not charities, as I stated earlier. Thirty additional non-party organisations might be caught by the lower threshold. The Government have already published an impact assessment on the provisions of the Bill, which considers the impact of the lowered registration threshold. It assessed that only a small number of third parties would be required to register and become subject to the regulatory framework. This will not create new administrative burdens for already registered third parties but, as I stated, may affect 30 additional non-party organisations.

The impact assessment also considered the impact of the lower spending limits. At the last general election, the largest 10% of third parties spent more than the remaining 90% put together. As I stated, only two organisations spent more than the new lowered limits that the Bill proposes. That demonstrates that the current spending limit is so high as to be ineffectual.

The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee listed a range of organisations that he said gave evidence to his Committee. I asked him whether any of them had told him in their evidence that the Government’s proposed cap of £390,000 would affect their ability to campaign politically during the next general election, and he did not respond. I suspect that he did not respond because none of them intended to spend that much. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he is about to tell me which of those organisations said they would spend above £390,000.