With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 60, in clause 27, page 14, line 10, at end add—
‘(3) Subsections (1) and (2) may not come into force until such time as the Electoral Commission has placed before Parliament a report on the impact of those subsections on relative controlled expenditure by political parties and non-parties in regulated periods’.’.
Amendment 61, page 14, line 11, leave out clause 28.
Amendment 103, in clause 28, page 15, leave out lines 26 to 35 and insert—
‘(2A) The Secretary of State may by order set limits applying to controlled expenditure which is incurred by or on behalf of a recognised third party in the relevant period in any particular parliamentary constituency in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
(2B) The Secretary of State may by order set limits applying to controlled expenditure which is incurred by or on behalf of a recognised third party in the post-dissolution part of the relevant period in any particular parliamentary constituency in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.’.
Amendment 105, page 18, line 25, leave out clause 29.
Amendment 106, page 23, line 25, leave out clause 30.
Amendment 62, in clause 30, page 23, line 30, leave out from beginning to end of line 35 and insert—
‘(5) If the Minister considers it appropriate to proceed with the making of an order under section 155 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Minister must lay before Parliament—
(a) a draft of the Order, and
(b) an explanatory document explaining the proposals.
(6) Sections 15 to 19 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 (choosing between negative, affirmative and super-affirmative parliamentary procedure) are to apply in relation to an explanatory document and draft order laid under section 155 but as if references to section 14 of that Act were references to section 155.’.
Amendment 107, page 23, line 37, leave out clause 31.
Amendment 2, in clause 31, page 23, line 39, at end insert—
‘(1A) In subsection (3)(a), after subparagraph (i) insert (before the “, and” at the end)—
“(ia) where that individual has received a Peerage within the last six months, details of any donations made by the individual to a registered party within the last 10 years.”.’.
Amendment 3, in clause 31, page 24, line 2, at end insert—
‘(2A) In subsection (3)(b), after subparagraph (ii) insert (before the “, and” at the end)—
“(iia) where any of the relevant participators in relation to the body have received a Peerage within the last six months, details of any donations made by the body to a registered party within the last 10 years.”.’.
Amendment 108, page 24, line 28, leave out clause 32.
Amendment 63, in clause 32, page 26, line 33, leave out sections 95C and 95D.
Amendment 109, page 32, line 14, leave out clause 33.
Amendment 64, in clause 33, page 33, line 20, at end insert—
‘(c) that controlled expenditure incurred by or on behalf of a recognised third party in any relevant part or parts of the United Kingdom does not exceed the limits in section 27 (1).’.
Amendment 110, page 35, line 33, leave out clause 34.
Amendment 111, page 37, line 14, leave out clause 35.
Following on from that interesting vote, I should like to point out that had 19 more colleagues voted for the amendment rather than against it, it would have been carried. I am sure that that will be noted by the thousands of people who have sent in requests to colleagues to consider their plight seriously. The fact is that those requests have been ignored by large numbers of Members of Parliament who might well feel that the voluntary and community sectors will be their supporters in the next election. I do not know whether the law will now mean that those people will be able to be prosecuted in some way, but I am sure that the voluntary sector and the charities will study the record with great interest. I also hope that they will study the record of our deliberations on clause 27.
Clause 27 is not about symbols or about gagging, as our previous discussions have been. It is about cash. It is about the ability of charities to put across their point of view, to have the money to do that, and to be able to enjoy the interaction with the democratic process that they have come to know in recent years. This is not about a Government handout or about some back-door way of influencing the Government. It is not about charities having to pay, as a professional lobbyist might.
It is about their freedom to enter the democratic process in an election year. That is a right that they have enjoyed, but it is going to be changed if we allow clause 27 to go through tonight. That is why I wish to notify the Chair that I should like to call a vote on amendment 102. That will allow every Member of Parliament to make a simple statement by answering a very straightforward, black-and-white, yes-or-no question. They could state that the activity that charities have hitherto enjoyed in interacting with our democracy in an election year is fine and that they should continue to be able to do so, and that whatever else we have said about the Bill, the expenditure limits set out before clause 27 are okay. Alternatively, they could endorse the provisions in clause 27.
Those Members who have laboured through the Committee and Report stages of the Bill have probably heard this before. When the Select Committee was denied the right to give the Bill proper pre-legislative scrutiny, we attempted hurriedly to pull together witnesses. They and members of my Select Committee—some of whom are in the Chamber this evening—gave up their time to do some really quick pre-legislative scrutiny. That is absolutely not the way to do it.
One thing that I can say about this Bill—and one thing that we will remember about it—is that there are lots of firsts and lots of examples of how not to conduct a proper legislative process. It may be that the Electoral Commission, set up to deal with these issues, has not been listened to. The Government attitude seems to be, “Don’t let’s talk to them; don’t even tell them that we are changing their terms of reference until very late in the day”; and “Let’s not involve the people who are affected until we have drafted a Bill and it is virtually ready to go into print. At that point, perhaps we will talk to them”; and “Let’s not involve Parliament—a body so contemptible and useless that we do not want to involve this bunch of clowns in a pre-legislative process so that evidence from outside bodies could be gathered and people could come in and provide some advice.” Parliament, it seems, deserves total contempt—“They do not get to do any pre-legislative scrutiny until after a Bill is published; and if they want to do that, we will give them three working days between the Bill’s publication and its Second Reading.”
If we reflect on all that, we can see that the absence of proper pre-legislative scrutiny is not the worst crime that we have seen with this Bill. When it comes to abuse of the legislative process, this is about as bad it gets. Our hope has to be that our unelected friends down the other end of the corridor in the other place will see that, due to the lack of time Parliament has had to discuss the Bill and the lack of input from those affected by it, clause 27 shows the legislative process at its most pernicious. Why? Because as yet—perhaps this is the night—no justification, no evidence and no reason has been given for why clause 27 should exist. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House has been working hard on this during the Bill’s parliamentary stages, and I am sure that tonight is going to be the night on which he is going to tell us why there is a clause 27. Our Select Committee looked pretty hard at clause 27. We asked the Government, as well as other people, to give evidence to us, but we could not find the reason for it. I remain optimistic that we are actually going to hear it tonight, which would be a good occasion for all of us and a parliamentary first on this Bill.
What the Select Committee said about the lack of evidence in this area was:
“We have stated already that we have not seen adequate evidence for the setting of the new thresholds”— the lower thresholds—
“for expenditure at the levels to be imposed by Part 2 of the Bill. The Government must explain the reasoning behind its decisions during the passage of the Bill. Even if the Government can make the case for imposing lower levels, it must be able to give a convincing account of why it has chosen these particular limits”—
I shall come back to that later in my remarks—
“as opposed to any others. If it cannot do so, we”— the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, comprising Members of all parties—
“recommend that the existing levels continue to apply until such point as the case for change has been made.”
Such was the summation and conclusion of the Select Committee on clause 27. No case has been made, and certainly no case has yet been made about the figures. Why have particular limits been chosen? Again, we are hopeful that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us this evening.
I understand that we may be seeking a vote at some early moment, so I shall speed through my remarks.
It is my understanding that clause 27 relates not to actual expenditure, but to the point at which registration has to happen. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view of the fact that registration is different as between England and the other parts of the United Kingdom?
I am afraid I do not have a view on that. Being the Chair of a Select Committee is almost like being Speaker Lenthall. I can speak only when my Committee has considered some evidence, and the time that we were allowed in which to consider Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in respect of England was not sufficient.
Today we have heard of an interesting new development relating to the Bill’s impact—now, allegedly, no impact—on the referendums in Scotland. As of yesterday, the Electoral Commission was awaiting a view on what the impact would be, and no impact assessment had been done until, today, we heard some words from the Deputy Leader of the House.
Let me repeat that the Deputy Leader of the House is a very reasonable man, and very easy to do business with—if that does not condemn his political career—but neither he nor the Leader of the House will decide these matters. I think that Mr Salmond may have a view. I think that other friends in Scotland—perhaps people who are litigious—may have a view. Then it will be the judges who decide, not that kind-hearted Deputy Leader whom we have here in the House of Commons. It will not be his judgment; it will be the judgment of others.
I would love to have had the chance to explore those additional points, and perhaps if we vote down clause 27—which is the objective of amendment 102—we will give ourselves the option of doing so. Perhaps we will give ourselves the option of allowing the Government to think sensibly about the expenditure limits, and will give the Government the option of making a case that they have singularly failed to make so far during the very truncated progress of the Bill.
Is this measure necessary? Lord Hodgson produced a very thorough report on the Charities Act 2006, in which he said that the current arguments were working very well indeed, and the Cabinet Office stated in its response that the regulations were working well. We have been searching hard for people who believe that there is a serious problem that we need to address. My hon. Friend Stephen Twigg said earlier that in many respects part 2 was a solution looking for a problem, and here we go again.
We still do not quite know where all this stuff came from, which is partly because when my Select Committee, on behalf of the House, examined a consultative paper on the Bill, that consultative paper was all about lobbying and lobbyists. What we have before us now is something that none of us knew about until the end of July, one day before the House went into recess. Lo and behold, we did not get a lobbying Bill; we got a lobbying Bill, a Bill on limiting the activities of charities, and a Bill on this, that and the other. We got two thirds of a new Bill added to the one third that had been given cursory scrutiny by Committees of the House.
No wonder my colleagues are a little confused, and no wonder people outside feel that there is a lack of clarity about what the Government intend. We can have meetings with Government officials, finally. We can have a meeting with a Minister, finally. But if a Bill has popped out of the ether at the end of July, and if press releases are issued as part of a spin on the Bill and people feel that they are inaccurate, that does not provide clarity; it just adds to the confusion. That is why I think it appropriate to use a word that became commonplace in another context, and to suggest that there should be a pause in the Bill. That would enable scrutiny to take place, would enable me to answer the question posed by John Thurso, and would enable the House to set up a proper process of scrutiny so that all the questions could be answered. How demeaning it is that the House cannot do that at present! We hope—fingers crossed—that the unelected people at the other end of the Corridor will help us out, and will put some of these matters right.
The case has not been proved. Whether we look at Lord Hodgson’s report on the Charities Act or at the Cabinet Office’s response, we see no evidence that people have demanded that these cuts in the expenditure of charities and limits on their ability to interact with us in an election year should be imposed.
I get a real kick out of the fact that we interact with our friends in the charitable and voluntary sector both in the normal way and when we come to a pre-election period, which is the point at which they can say, “Hey, come here. We want to hear from you. What’s your view on this? Where are you on the debate between badger cull or badger badge-wearing?” Stephen McPartland is familiar with that topic. “What’s your view on foxhunting? What about the League Against Cruel Sports or the Countryside Alliance?” That is the lifeblood of our democracy and it is writ large in our democracy in pre-election years.
What are we doing here? We are saying to people that we are going to freeze the amount they can spend in an election year, and that is not a fantasy; this will not be passed and then go away again until 2020, but it is going to happen in 2015. That is a real impact and people in the charitable and voluntary sector are screaming about it. Maybe it is all a get-up and they have all been wound up and they are gullible people being used for party political reasons, or just maybe it is wrong that we should cut the amount of money they can spend on their interaction with the political process and our democracy in a pre-election year.
Given the dog’s breakfast nature of this Bill, my money is on the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, my money is on the Royal British Legion, my money is on the faith groups, my money is on the Woodland Trust and all those wild outrageous left-wing or right-wing extremist organisations we have listed throughout this debate. Why are they up in arms? They are up in arms because they feel their freedoms and their ability to interact with our democracy are being curtailed.
I was listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest, but is he seriously suggesting that at the last two elections the Woodland Trust engaged in expenditure that would be precluded under this legislation?
I am not suggesting anything other than that the Woodland Trust and many other organisations are writing to the right hon. Gentleman, myself and every Member of this House. Today he will have received something from Oxfam and something from the faith groups and something from the RBL—and I am sure Members could remind me of other organisations who have passed representations to us today. They are concerned about this, and we should reflect upon that concern and say that in respect of clause 27 we are just possibly not getting it right.
I do not pretend to speak for all those people—and I certainly do not speak for the friends of the badgers, of whom I think the hon. Gentleman is the patron, if not the patron saint. These people are making their own representations through our democratic process—such as it has been—on this Bill, and they are making noise. They are saying the way we are doing this is not satisfactory.
I endorse the comments that have just been made and to say this is, perhaps, the piece of proposed legislation on which I have received the most correspondence. In Northern Ireland—and the other regions of Scotland and Wales—the threshold has for some reason been reduced by more than half to £2,000 for no good reason. No justification has been given for that at all. A number of cross-community organisations in Northern Ireland are exceedingly concerned about the impact on them and how they will be able to make representations to candidates in the run-up to any of the elections that are coming up in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady makes a clear and succinct point. The sad fact is that this provision is a mystery; clause 27 has no antecedents and no pedigree, and we are not sure why it is in the Bill. Nobody has asked for a reduction in the interaction. Many colleagues throughout the House want a greater interaction—dare I cite the Prime Minister talking about the big society? I welcomed those words, because I would like to see that. This provision does not welcome the big society; it shrinks the big society to a slightly smaller big society that feels unloved, chilled, unable to get its point of view over and unable to articulate the things that drive it to be in existence.
My reason for moving amendment 102 and asking colleagues in all parts of the House to support it is, again, to send a signal to the Government that they should think again on the issue—this is not the end of the process. They should go away, take good advice, perhaps even listen to this House and perhaps even set up an arrangement whereby further evidence can be taken. My Committee, which is all-party, and its unanimous report might be able to help in that, and we are keen to find a way forward that arrives at a consensus. The only way in which we will get that pause, and get the Government to have another think and a little more of a listen to all the people who are writing to us today on this issue—people whose credentials are unimpeachable—is by voting down clause 27 tonight. The only way to do that is to support amendment 102 and I urge all colleagues to do so.
Third parties may campaign in a relevant election up to a particular threshold without being subject to any electoral controls or restrictions on their activities. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets the threshold for third parties campaigning in England at £10,000, and at £5,000 for third parties campaigning in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Third parties may exceed these thresholds only if they register with the Electoral Commission as “recognised third parties”. They are then permitted to incur “controlled expenditure”, as it is defined by clause 26 of this Bill
Upon registration, third parties also become subject to spending and donations controls for the duration of the regulated period of the relevant election. The Bill’s intention is to ensure greater transparency of campaign finance, and so provides that a third party must register with the Electoral Commission as a “recognised third party” if it wishes to spend more than the revised threshold in the Bill—£5,000 in England or £2,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That will have the effect that more third parties will account for their expenditure and provide details of the donations they receive. It is not clear to me what the Opposition’s concerns about this provision are. It is about providing more transparency so that people can see who is campaigning locally in support of a party or candidates.
What is the reasoning for halving the expenditure threshold from £10,000 to £5,000 in England but more than halving the threshold in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Our threshold has been reduced from £5,000 to £2,000. Unless my maths escapes me, our figure is less than half what it was. What is the justification for doing that?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The reason is simply that the Government wanted to arrive at some straightforward figures—£5,000 and £2,000 in the respective nations—and we felt that given the size of those nations, spending £2,000 had a significant impact on the election campaign. Therefore, from a transparency point of view, we felt this was important to allow people to see who was actively campaigning in support of a party or candidates.
The Deputy Leader of the House says that the Government wanted a figure that was straightforward. Were the existing figures not straightforward enough? Who has been running rings around them? What has been the ambit of the abuse that the Government are trying to deal with? What problem has been solved? Problems have been created, but the Deputy Leader of the House has not told us what problem is being solved.
Order. Before the Deputy Leader of the House responds, I ought to emphasise what should be apparent to everybody—namely, that we are operating under very tight time constraints. There are amendments tabled by Pete Wishart about which he might wish, perfectly reasonably, to speak and others also wish to contribute. A degree of self-discipline is now imperative.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that guidance. The answer to Mark Durkan is that the provision is about transparency and making people aware of a wider range of organisations that are campaigning in constituencies up and down the country in support of a party or candidate.
Once a third party has registered with the Electoral Commission it may then only incur controlled expenditure to a maximum spending limit, which is currently set at approximately 5% of the potential party spend. That amounts to just under £1 million—£988,000—across the UK. Evidence from recent elections shows that the third-party spending limit for UK parliamentary elections, which applies separately for each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is so high that third parties are effectively unrestricted in their level of spending. That renders the limit ineffective as a spending control.
As Members will be aware, clause 27 lowers the spending limits for the purposes of UK parliamentary elections to 2% of the maximum campaign expenditure limit that applies to political parties campaigning in UK parliamentary elections. That is equivalent to £319,800 in England, £35,400 in Scotland, £24,000 in Wales and £10,800 in Northern Ireland. The Bill lowers the thresholds to increase transparency by identifying third parties that campaign in the political process, and I should have thought that Opposition Members would support that. Amendment 59 would amend clause 27 so that it no longer does that.
It is right to distinguish which organisations incur expenditure campaigning at elections and to ensure their funds are fully accounted for, but we recognise that there is a balance to be struck between transparency and placing regulatory requirements on third parties. We also need to take account of the spending limit in constituencies, to which I shall come shortly.
Amendment 60 proposes that until the Electoral Commission has undertaken an assessment of the impact of clause 27 on both political parties and third parties, and until that report is laid before Parliament, the provisions of clause 27 may not come into effect. A few hours ago, we had a lengthy debate on the impact assessments that the Government has carried out and that we would expect the Electoral Commission, as part of its normal duties, to conduct after the legislation is implemented and elections have taken place.
At the last general election, the largest 10% of third parties spent more than the remaining 90% put together. We are seeking a level playing field for the different third parties that might oppose each other in the course of an election campaign. It is worth noting that only two organisations spent more than the new lowered limits proposed in the Bill—Unison and Vote for a Change. That demonstrates that the spending limit is so high as to be ineffectual in creating the level playing field that spending limits seek to provide.
Clause 28 sets the constituency limits and the Government have been put on the spot and asked why we want to reduce the national spending cap. Third parties must comply with particular spending limits according to whether they are campaigning in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Under the provisions of the Bill, they may spend up to an aggregate £390,000 campaigning in a UK parliamentary election, a figure that we think allows third parties to campaign vigorously nationally but that also provides a greater degree of control over spending to ensure that big money does not seek to play a part in influencing the outcome of elections, particularly in a limited number of constituencies, distorting the electoral process. A third party could, however, choose to direct the entire national spending limit at only a small part of the UK. Again it is not clear whether the Opposition are comfortable with the current situation, where that is possible, or whether they would like to see change. Our view is that we do not want disproportionately large amounts of money to be focused on a limited number of seats. In other circumstances, that is the argument that the Opposition would put to us today if we were not taking the action that we are taking.
Clause 28 therefore introduces an entirely new provision whereby third parties will be permitted to spend only up to a certain proportion of their controlled expenditure in individual constituencies. Subsection (6) limits this per constituency spending to 0.05% of the maximum campaign expenditure limits applied to political parties, which amounts to £9,750. This limit applies for the duration of the regulated period for a UK parliamentary general election.
I wonder why, if there was a particular situation relating to a particular constituency, it would be wrong for a disproportionate amount of energy to be focused on that constituency. Surely in this country we have a general election, but within that we have 650 individual elections, and if there were special, unique features associated with a particular constituency and an argument going on there, it would not be unreasonable to have a different expenditure level in that seat.
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would agree that election campaigns were about political parties fighting together to secure the election of one of the candidates, and that if, for instance, an industrialist who was very pro-fracking decided that he or she wanted to unseat a parliamentary candidate who was anti-fracking and was prepared to spend just under £1 million under the current legislation in unseating that candidate, the hon. Gentleman would not support that. We certainly do not want to allow that to happen.
Further, also under subsection (6)—
Order. I say very gently to the Deputy Leader of the House, to whose contribution I am listening with my usual interest and respect, that I know that he will want Angela Smith to be able to speak from the Opposition Front Bench, as well as Pete Wishart. I therefore confidently anticipate that the right hon. Gentleman is approaching the conclusion of his oration.
Indeed, I will do so.
Under subsection (6), only a proportion of the expenditure—£5,850—may be incurred during the period between the dissolution of Parliament and the date of poll. Third parties campaigning for or against a particular candidate or candidates already need to think carefully about their spending to ensure that they stay on the right side of the separate, existing rules on candidate expenditure in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Third parties clearly campaigning for or against a particular candidate or candidates may spend only up £500 doing so. Besides raising this amount to £800 through clause 34, the Bill does not otherwise affect those provisions.
There are many other amendments that I would have liked to have an opportunity to discuss today, but the Government can support none of the amendments in this group. I hope therefore that Members will seek to withdraw them.
It is unfortunate that the Deputy Leader of the House has not had the opportunity to address my very important amendments 2 and 3, which were part of this group of amendments. I very much support Mr Allen and we will support him in the Lobby tonight.
I do not have an opportunity to talk about Scotland, which is what I wanted to talk a little bit about before I got on to my own amendments, other than to say what a dog’s breakfast the Bill has concocted on issues connected with the referendum. The failure to see this is a travesty on the Government’s part. The fact that we have the same expenditure threshold as Northern Ireland is a total disgrace. Northern Ireland has a population of
1.8 million. We have a population of 5.2 million, which is more than double, yet once again we are lumped in with the same threshold.
I shall speak briefly to my amendments 2 and 3. It has surprised me that there has been very little talk about big money and the House of Lords. One of the defining features of the previous Parliament was the cash for honours crisis. It was a disgrace that a sitting Prime Minister was interviewed by the police because there was a belief that millions of pounds had changed hands for a place in that place down the road. The police eventually did not pursue the matter, not because they could not find particular evidence, but because they believed that it was not in the public interest.
The public were appalled by cash for honours, but the Bill does absolutely nothing to address big money in the House of Lords. Only China’s National People’s Congress is larger than that big bloated Chamber, which has 786 Members, but in their wisdom they decided that it required another 30 Members. When we look at a list of those 30 new Members, we see that—surprise, surprise—£1.26 million had been donated in the last round of honours. The public will be aghast that that has been ignored and that the Bill does not even touch on cash for honours.
I will explain what I propose very quickly, because I know that Angela Smith is still to speak. We have seen £1.26 million donated by the 30 new Members of the upper House. Sir William Haughey is among them, as is Sir Anthony Bamford and Howard Leigh, all Labour or Tory donors. Do not think the Liberals get off lightly, because they have already suggested a few Members who have given them significant amounts of money over the years. This is a cash cow for the UK parties and it has to stop.
We cannot have this as a feature of our democracy. The fact that someone can donate to a political party and then be rewarded with ermine in the unelected House of Lords, which the hon. Member for Nottingham North hopes might fix this mess of a Bill, is absurd. Is that any way to run a democracy in what is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world? There will soon be 1,000 of these people if we do not do something about it. I do not know how much money that would bring in for the UK parties, but I suggest that it would be a lot.
My gentle little amendments are all about trying to address at least some of those concerns. I do not have time to go through them in detail, because I see that Labour Front Benchers are getting twitchy. I will not push this to a vote, but let us look at what goes on with big money and cash for honours. It is a disgrace and the public are appalled, so let us stop it.
I put on the record once again the declarations of non-financial interests that I made in Committee.
As we made clear in Committee, many of the clauses in part 2 of the Bill depend for their validity on clause 26, which we have just discussed. We were assured then that the Government would think again about that clause, but the consequence of their rethink appears to be a loosening of the gag, and a gag is still a gag. Therefore, the Bill could still have a chilling effect on the third sector and is still, in effect, a gagging Bill designed to insulate the governing parties from the challenges that are always part of a healthy democracy. As we have just heard in the debate on clause 26, the Government’s amendments still leave the third sector and the Electoral Commission facing a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity, which, combined with the measures in clause 27, will effectively dampen the third sector’s campaigning activity.
The Opposition have said repeatedly that we support taking the big money out of politics and having sensible controls on the money spent by third parties. We said that on Second Reading and in Committee. Earlier this afternoon my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg reiterated the big figures. In the 2010 general election, political parties nationally spent £31 million, compared with just £3 million spent by third-party campaigners. The biggest third-party spender spent a sum that equates to just 4% of the £17 million spent by the Conservative party.
We also made it clear in Committee that we understand and support the need to review the provisions contained in the 2000 Act. As the Electoral Commission has made clear, a review of the legislation relating to third-party spending in an election period would be useful. We support that, but we would support such a review in the context of a much more ambitious agenda relating to radical reform of spending by political parties in the election period. That is the proper way to deal with issues that are so important and fundamental to the health of our democratic process, as I said earlier.
However, not only does the Bill fail to deal with the first-order issue, reform of spending by political parties, but it has been brought forward in a rush. To make things worse, it has been amended inadequately. Even worse, the Bill did not get the pre-legislative scrutiny that it needed and deserved and it has enjoyed only minimal scrutiny in this House. Not only have the Government failed to tackle the big money in politics; they have also effectively manipulated the legislative process to minimise the proper, robust testing of the Bill needed to pinpoint its weaknesses and expose its badly thought through changes to the 2000 Act.
I say “expose” because our view is that the Bill remains a bad one. Part 2 is built on the shifting sands of the utterly inadequate clause 26. I challenge the Government to admit that the Bill is the wrong way to tackle reform of election spending and join us in going back to the drawing board, starting with meaningful negotiations on the reform of party political funding.
Clause 27 has caused huge consternation in the third sector. If it is passed into law, it will play a major part, along with the other clauses in part 2, in effectively gagging the third sector in election periods. In the year before the election, according to Helen Mountfield QC, the changes will have
“a chilling effect on the expression of views on matters of public interest by third sector organisations”.
She also said that
“The restrictions and restraints are so wide and so burdensome as arguably to amount to a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression.”
None of the Government’s changes alters that fact.
The situation cannot be right for any modern, 21st century democracy. The sceptical among us could be forgiven for thinking that in part 2—in clause 27 in particular—the Government appear to be trying to insulate their record and policies from legitimate, democratic criticism. Raising the thresholds for registration by third parties and dramatically reducing expenditure limits in any given election period undoubtedly poses a real threat to the legitimate role of third parties in ensuring that the voice of civic society is heard during the most critical point in the cycle that governs our democracy. One could argue that it is only in a general election that the people of our country truly hold power in their own hands. Consequently, it is crucial that we have the widest possible input into the debates in a general election period that are so essential to ensuring that informed choices are made by voters.
If the Bill had been law before the 2010 election, a number of high-profile third sector campaigns could have been curtailed by the combined provisions of clauses 26 and 27, as we pointed out in Committee. At the next election, if the legislation goes through, the National Union of Students could find it difficult to hold Members to account for their record on the tripling of student tuition fees.
We have tabled two amendments to clause 27. First, we propose the removal of the reduction in thresholds for registration of third parties. Our amendment 60 proposes a report from the Electoral Commission on the potential impact of the reduction in controlled expenditure by third parties in the context of existing limits for political parties’ spending. Clause 27 would therefore not come into force before such a report had been laid before Parliament.
It is still not too late. The Government could still withdraw the Bill and enter into meaningful negotiations with the other—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House seems to find amusing my mention of the prospect of meaningful negotiations on the reform of party political funding. Do the Government believe in such meaningful negotiations or not? The choice is on the table. We are committed to proper consultation and the scrutiny of proposals as they emerge in relation to party political funding and funding for the third sector, but the two must go together. That is why today we will support amendment 102.
It is absolutely clear from what we have just seen from the Leader of the House that the Government have no intention of engaging in such meaningful negotiations. If they will not do that today, I am confident that the other place will ensure that the Bill gets the parliamentary time it deserves and the scrutiny it desperately needs.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order,
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank Members from both sides of the House for their contribution to the debate. We have been busily engaged in considering the Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report on either side of the summer and conference recesses and during the September sitting. The contributions of Members have exposed the issues and enabled the debate to take place.
As on Second Reading, I thank the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its scrutiny. I met the Committee on the morning of the Second Reading debate and my colleagues met it before that. The Chair of the Committee, Mr Allen, made manifest his irritation with the amount of time that was available for that scrutiny on several occasions. However, I thank him and his colleagues for their participation.
With regard to our debates yesterday and today, I wrote to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on Monday to explain in detail why I believe the Bill to be compatible with the European convention on human rights. I look forward to the Committee’s report. My colleagues and I will take full account of its conclusions, which I hope it will reach soon.
I thank my good friend and colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jo Swinson, who has responsibility for employee relations. Owing to the length of today’s debates, she has not been able to explain part 3 as fully as she would have wished. I am extremely grateful to the former Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, my hon. Friend Miss Smith. I am also grateful to the officials who have supported the ministerial team and to parliamentary counsel for all their work on the Bill.
I do not want this moment to pass without expressing my thanks to the kaleidoscope of talent—I use those words advisedly—that has participated in the debate from the Opposition Front Bench. I know that in order to try to construct an Opposition they found it interesting to see how our team was constructed. The shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David) all contributed to our consideration of the Bill. They were an Opposition in search of an argument and they did their best.
The Government made a commitment that we would be the most open Government ever and that we would promote transparency in public life. We have sought to improve public confidence in our political system. We have been the first Government to publish details of the meetings that Ministers and permanent secretaries have had with external organisations. We have published details of our relationships with media editors and the like. We have published details of hospitality, departmental business plans and procurement processes. There is a wide range of raw data that people can assess for themselves. We have always sought to take transparency further.
The purpose of the Bill is to achieve transparency by fulfilling our coalition commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists so that the public know who lobbyists represent when they meet decision makers, and by making it clearer where and how money is being spent by third parties at elections to influence the outcomes of those elections. We are also seeking transparency by giving the public, and members of trade unions, the confidence that they know who their members are. Together, those measures will increase transparency in the political system.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I say for advisory purposes that I know of half a dozen Members who wish to speak? The Leader of the House is extremely experienced, and we do not need to repeat all the arguments in great detail. A pithy exposition will suffice, and then the majority of colleagues who want to speak will have the chance to do so. We will be led by the Leader of the House. I call Jonathan Edwards.
The character of each of those scandals is of a particular kind. We are setting out to ensure that relationships between lobbyists and key decision makers in Government are more transparent in future, so that those who impact on our political system do so in the glare of public life. For most of the things the hon. Gentleman describes, people were trying to seek influence covertly, and in some cases were completely contrary to the law and the codes of conduct of this House and elsewhere, or of government. We must expose those relationships everywhere, where we can, and when people breach the code, we will deal with it.
The Bill has been widely debated in the House and beyond, and I thank Members for sharing their views, because healthy debate is a cornerstone of our democracy. The measures in the Bill have also been misrepresented, and during the passage of the Bill we have fully exposed where those misrepresentations lie. The hon. Member for Nottingham North explained on many occasions in the course of his 190 minutes of offerings that there had not been sufficient scrutiny of the Bill. I gently say to him, however, that one does not take the moral high ground over lack of scrutiny by taking up more time than is needed to explain the issues. [Interruption.] Actually, I think there are relatively few issues, and we have exposed them clearly and answered them fully. I encourage Members in the other place to read the debates. They will see that, as the Bill completed its passage through this House, those issues have been answered, and by virtue of the amendments tabled the Bill has been improved. As is always the case, all is capable of improvement.
There can be no serious objection to parts 1 and 3 of the Bill, but there are clearly continuing concerns about part 2. The Leader of the House has committed to considering the report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee when it is published, but will he confirm the undertaking that he and his colleagues will work to ensure that the misrepresentations are dealt with, and that the concerns—and some uncertainties—can be discussed with Ministers, the voluntary sector and others, including the Electoral Commission, in the days ahead?
I hope I will be clear, just as I thought my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House was clear during discussions on part 2 of the Bill. We had a number of meetings with a range of organisations, and we listened carefully to points raised in this House and by those organisations. I met the National Council for Voluntary Organisations before Committee stage, and I was clear that we would make changes to the definition of expenditure for electoral purposes, to remove what it regarded as the risks and uncertainty associated with those definitions. It was not our intention to change in substance the test for what constitutes expenditure for electoral purposes, albeit that we intend—rightly, I think—to introduce greater transparency by including the range of controlled activities in a way consistent with recommendations by the Electoral Commission in its regulatory review.
It is important for us to have a registration threshold, so that those who want to spend a significant amount of money to influence electoral outcomes do so openly. They will not be prevented from doing that, but they will have to do it in a transparent way. It is important to get big money out of trying to influence electoral outcomes. It is therefore important to bring down the threshold, and for it to be disaggregated so that it cannot be spent disproportionately in individual constituencies or small geographic areas.
We did not want to change the test, in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, that only expenditure that could reasonably be regarded as intended to procure or promote the electoral success of a party or candidate should be controlled expenditure. That will still be true. In fact, it will be even more narrowly true, because we have taken out the strand relating to enhancing the standing of political parties at relevant elections, as it was capable of being used to create uncertainty.
Members have quoted from the letter by Sir Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of NVCO. I urge them to read it carefully. It says that there is uncertainty associated with the definition in the 2000 Act, and that that continues to be the case. It is the job of the Electoral Commission—taking the test we have here, which is as clear as we could make it—to inform organisations through the guidance it produces. We stand ready to work with the Electoral Commission.
It is an independent organisation and it is for it to decide how it goes about that task, but we could not have made it any clearer.
The Leader of the House is being most generous in taking interventions. May I ask him to address one particular issue that pertains to Northern Ireland? He emphasised the need for transparency and the need to know who influences elections, and I think we all agree that that is important. However, the Government have agreed that the anonymity of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland will continue. That can no longer be justified on security grounds, because Northern Ireland has successfully hosted, without incident, the G8 summit in Fermanagh and the world police and fire games. How does he square those two things?
Each has its own particular characteristics and the Speaker will forgive me if I do not respond to that point, as I think it is outwith the terms of the Bill. We do not intend to change that. We are introducing transparency relating to expenditure by third parties seeking to influence the outcome of elections. The Bill has no impact on the donations that individuals or organisations make to political parties, or on how political parties spend money at elections.
We were not able, on Report, to discuss the final group of amendments on part 3 of the Bill. We continue to value the important role trade unions play in public life. We recognise that their influence extends beyond their own members, which is why it is important for members, employers and the public to have confidence that unions know who their members are. The Bill is in no sense an attack on trade unions. That is not correct. The measures are not designed to make it harder for unions to operate. I will be clear: the Bill will not prevent unions from taking industrial action; it will not require unions to collect more data; and nor will it place membership data in the hands of employers. Instead, it provides the public with reassurance that trade unions are fulfilling the duties to which they are already bound. Part 3 of the Bill strengthens requirements in existing legislation to ensure that unions can demonstrate that they keep an up-to-date and accurate membership register.
Part 1 will create transparency with regard to who is lobbying whom in relation to key decision makers. The Labour party, and last year’s report by the Select Committee on the earlier consultation, seeks a different Bill—one that creates a large-scale bureaucracy listing everybody who engages in any kind of lobbying activity. We have looked at that approach, and, frankly, it is not remotely justified. Transparency is the way forward: transparency in lobbying and in third-party campaigning. When people set out to influence the electoral outcomes, they must do so in a transparent way.
Charities, voluntary organisations and third parties who want to campaign on policies and issues will continue to be free to do so, as long as they do not step over the line and set out to influence electoral outcomes directly. There will be transparency in how trade unions represent their members, because they will know who their members are. These are the ways we will provide reassurance in the political system and enhance confidence through transparency and accountability. I commend the Bill to the House.
“hurried, badly drafted…agglomeration of the inadequate, the sinister and the partisan.”—[Hansard, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 186.]
The Government have chosen to ram this disgrace of a Bill through the Commons as fast as they can, and nothing that has happened during this process has changed my verdict. If anything, my initial judgment has been reinforced. The unfortunate disappearance in the Government reshuffle of the former Minister with responsibility for constitutional and political reform, Miss Smith, halfway through the Bill’s Commons progress was a cruel reward for her willingness to stand up and defend the indefensible. I wish her well, but it is a pity that the Bill did not disappear with her.
The Bill will do absolutely nothing to shine the light of transparency on lobbying, which the Prime Minister himself called the next big scandal waiting to happen. It will let Lynton Crosby, the tobacco lobbyist at the heart of Downing street, continue lobbying undisturbed, and does not even require him to publish his list of clients. It does not regulate big tobacco, but seeks to silence cancer charities that campaign against the malign influence of big tobacco nestling at the heart of this Government. It does absolutely nothing to ensure greater transparency in the Government’s cosy relationship with the big six energy companies, which make record profits while forcing energy prices ever higher for households and businesses, and which reacted so hysterically to Labour’s announcement of an energy price freeze.
The Bill seeks to silence critics of the Government in the run-up to the general election, while letting vested interests operate out of sight. It demonstrates all too clearly that they are a Government who stand up for the wrong people and are willing to abuse the legislative process in their own partisan interests. The one success that the Bill can claim is that it is an object lesson in how not to legislate. In his more candid moments, even the Leader of the House must know that the proceedings to which he has been a party on the Bill have been an affront to Parliament and a stain on any reputation he might have wished to develop as a parliamentary performer.
Let us consider the history of the Bill. The House has been subjected to an abusive and disgraceful process that brings shame on the Government. The Bill was published after three years of inaction on the day before the House rose for the summer recess. Second Reading was scheduled for the day after the House returned for its September sitting, and the Committee stage was then scheduled for the week after, on the Floor of the House, thus ensuring that there could be no pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposals in parts 2 and 3, which the Government drew up in secret. Those proposals had not been consulted on because nobody even knew they existed. Report and Third Reading were then scheduled for the first two days back after the conference recess.
Three Select Committees were caught unawares and had strong objections to the Bill, but the Government’s timetabling, by deliberate design, gave those Committees little time to develop or publicise their views. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had to meet in the recess in order to be in a position to publish its highly critical report on the Bill. The Standards Committee had significant worries about the Bill, some of which the Government have been forced to address. The Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights has written to the Leader of the House complaining that the Bill could have a chilling effect and risks damaging the quality of debate in the run-up to the general election. That is a serious charge in any democracy, but the Government have simply chosen to ignore it. Their decision to ram the Bill through the House has ensured that the Select Committee will not even be able to publish its report until after the Bill has completed all its Commons stages.
The Government did not consult the many thousands of campaigners, trade unionists and charities directly affected by the sinister gagging proposals in part 2 prior to the publication of the Bill. Even more astonishingly, the Electoral Commission, the Government’s own regulator, was not consulted either and continues to regard many of the proposals in the Bill as undesirable and other proposals such as the constituency cap as unworkable, yet it is expected to police these partisan changes in electoral law. No one in the Government has plausibly been able to identify the problems that parts 2 and 3 of the Bill are meant to address or, much less, to solve.
It becomes clearer by the day that this is a disgraceful attempt by the Government to gag their critics in civil society in the run-up to the general election. It is a gagging Bill masquerading in true Orwellian style as a transparency Bill. The well-established tradition that changes to the law governing elections should be agreed on a cross-party basis has been abandoned by this Government in a partisan abuse of the legislative process that is aimed at hobbling their growing body of critics in civil society. This is an abuse that will not be forgotten.
The Government promised to sort out lobbying, but the Bill defines it in such excruciatingly narrow terms that it renders all claims by the Government to achieve transparency completely laughable. Indeed, it could even worsen the current situation by undermining the existing registers. It excludes in-house lobbyists completely and instead applies only to consultant lobbyists. It has been estimated by the industry itself that it will catch only 20% of lobbyists and a minuscule 1% of lobbying episodes. The Bill is so inadequate that it has achieved the previously unheard-of feat of uniting the transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry in opposition to it. It is so narrow that it would not apply to a lobbyist lobbying a Member of this House about the lobbying Bill. During the unacceptably rapid passage of the Bill through the Commons, we have argued that there should be comprehensive coverage of the entire industry, a code of conduct and sanctions for misbehaviour. We continue to believe that such a system must be legislated for in the future, and if this Government refuse to do that, we will do it.
Part 2 of the Bill has caused the most outrage and worry in civil society, and quite right too. Part 2 will place a sinister gag on the Government’s critics as the election approaches. It will create regulatory uncertainty, and it will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on civil society and on local campaigning in the year before a general election. Indeed, it has been deliberately designed to do so.
Instead of dealing with the funding arms-race between political parties during election periods, the Bill slashes the amounts that can be spent by third-party campaigners, leaving the political parties untouched, despite the fact that third parties spent only one tenth of what political parties spent at the last general election. The Bill significantly lowers the spending thresholds for third parties during the general election period, which will ensure that many thousands of small charities, bloggers and campaigners will be caught by the strict regulation required by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Indeed, the Bill will make that regulation far more onerous for all third parties and create a massive new administrative burden for them, further increasing the incentive for them simply to keep quiet.
The Bill introduces a new constituency spending limit, which the Electoral Commission has described as unworkable. After their initial bluster, the Government have at least acknowledged the furore that part 2 has caused by tabling their rather modest amendments to clause 26 and schedule 3, which we have debated today. But as we have seen, those amendments barely scratch the surface of what would be needed to make the Bill workable. A lucent gag is still a gag.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has said:
“The assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house to ensure that charities will still be able to support specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties have not been met.”
The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has said that
“these amendments don’t prevent the Bill curbing freedom of speech around elections.”
Just yesterday, an impressive coalition of Church groups including the Quakers, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Conference, the Assembly of Reform Rabbis, the Evangelical Alliance, Islamic Relief, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development stated:
“Following legal advice and a statement from the Electoral Commission, we remain concerned that…we still do not have the necessary legal certainty that Part II of this Bill could not be applied to a wide range of legitimate campaigns, despite such activities being intended to be party politically neutral.”
“Britain cannot allow a culture of left-wing-dominated single-issue activism to hold back our country”.
Part 3 seeks to punish all trade unions by burying them in pointless and expensive administrative requirements for their membership lists because some of them have had the temerity to be affiliated to the Labour party. It should be seen for the grubby little piece of partisan legislative abuse that it is.
Tonight, then, the Government will succeed in using their majority to ram this illiberal Bill—virtually unamended—through the Commons. It will now be for the House of Lords to give it the scrutiny that Government timetabling has made it impossible for us to deliver in this place—and it is vital that the other place now does so. This is a very bad Bill. It is badly drafted and in places unworkable; it lets vested interests proceed unchecked in the shadows, while it gags charities and civil society. It is a sinister Bill that seeks to silence the Government’s critics in the run-up to a general election. It will have a chilling effect on the quality of our national debate, which is why we will vote against it the Lobby tonight. I urge all Members to join us there.
Order. We have fewer than 20 minutes left and five Members wish to catch my eye. If we can divide the time evenly, we should get everybody into the debate.
I shall speak briefly. For the first time, I shall take no interventions, so that other Members get the opportunity to contribute.
It is always a pleasure to follow Ms Eagle, the shadow Minister, but I am a little more optimistic about the Bill than she is. I am proud that we are the most transparent Government ever, having done a huge amount of work to open up the Government and become more transparent. I think that this Bill has been a victory for Parliament because it was improved in Committee—perhaps not to the extent that some Members wanted, but it has been improved, and I am very pleased about it.
On part 1 and the lobbying register, I know that many Members do not believe that the Bill goes far enough, but the reality is that, for the first time in many years, we have had the opportunity to discuss lobbying on the Floor of the House and to debate whether it has any impact. I said personally in my previous speeches that I do not think lobbying is particularly effective one way or another, but the important point is that this is a step at least in the right direction, as there will be a register of lobbyists—it may or may not be expanded, but I am pleased that we are moving in the right direction.
Part 2 is the most important part and it has excited the public imagination most. I have a real concern about this theme of gagging. I am proud of free speech and very concerned about the argument that has drifted in—that charities will not be able to behave as they did in previous elections. As we have identified at every stage of the Bill, Government amendment 32 has pretty much changed the definition so that it is much closer to that in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, which emphasises the test of reasonability. For me, we are taken back to a position in which charities can campaign in a way that it was proven they could campaign in the 2001, 2005 and 2010 general elections. I am aware of some concern about the limits, but as I suggested in an earlier speech, the House of Commons Library has shown that the number of organisations that would be captured by those limits are very few. The reality is that only two were captured by the previous limits and that all the organisations discussed in successive stages would not have been captured by the proposed limits.
Overall, we have moved the Bill in the right direction, and I am pleased that the Government Front-Bench team have listened to Back Benchers and Members of all parties. That is important, as we have tried to improve the Bill. As we have discussed many times, there is more that unites us on this Bill than divides us—[Interruption.] I think we are close to reaching a position in which the charities can have more confidence about what the Bill will do. I would dearly love to be in a position where all the charities and community groups feel that they can continue to campaign, without feeling that they are gagged. Anything that affects freedom of speech—this Bill does not, although some of the hyperbole around the Bill might well have—is dangerous. We should all send out a clear message that we want every charity and community group to campaign as much as they can.
I think that people will feel that the Bill is a fraud. I genuinely believe that they will be disappointed that the Government have allowed this to happen, given that the Prime Minister was so forthright about wanting to tackle the abuse of lobbying. A situation in which lobbyists go free while the House agrees to gag people who merely want to exercise their democratic rights before elections is bizarre in the extreme.
Indeed. The Bill will have no effect on the abuses that have been listed by my hon. Friends today.
I ask Members to be careful about what they vote for and what they wish for. Part 3 is not merely a naive attempt to improve trade union membership lists. Trade unions already monitor their membership lists, and not a single complaint about discrepancies has been made to the certification officer in 10 years. This is not even just a grubby political stunt on the part of the Government. It is a back-door way of interfering in industrial action.
For years we experienced the problem of minor discrepancies in industrial relations ballots. Thousands would be balloted and thousands would vote in favour of industrial action, but if only three or four names were omitted from the list, employers would rush to court and ballots would be overturned. We tried to amend the existing legislation on five occasions with the aim of correcting the position, and failed. Only last year the courts did correct it, ruling that minor errors or discrepancies in balloting procedures relating to membership lists should no longer be taken into account if they had no effect on the result of the ballot itself. That legal decision was a major breakthrough for trade union rights, but part 3 will enable employers to subvert it through the back door. Employers will now challenge membership lists, because they will still be the basis on which ballots take place.
Government Members—particularly the Liberal Democrats, who may have voted for part 3—possibly think that the measure is innocuous, but it will have consequences for our industrial relations climate. There will be industrial action, and it will be described as wildcat industrial action, because people will not tolerate the interference of employers in the democratic processes of trade unions. It is extraordinary that trade union membership lists are the only lists with which we are dealing. We are not dealing with party membership lists, CBI membership lists, or any other membership lists, and in my view that is evidence that the Bill constitutes a hostile attack on trade unionism in this country.
Let me begin by reiterating what I said on Second Reading. I remain a great fan of pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Bill would undoubtedly have benefited from it. Notwithstanding that—as I also said on Second Reading—I want to see the Bill on the statute book. I wish that it had included more of the lobbying element, and I also wish that some aspects of part 2 had been better understood before we reached them. Nevertheless, I am grateful to my friends on the Government Front Bench for considering the proposals in my amendment and presenting them to the House today, and I am pleased that they have been accepted. I think that the Bill has been significantly improved as a result.
There remain a number of issues that will have to be dealt with in the other place, including the issue of controlled expenditure limits. I was unable to intervene in the debate on that subject, but I can say now that I have no problem with the reduction to £5,000. The limit has been £5,000 in Scotland since 2000, and there has never been any difficulty with it. However, I have a very big question to ask about why there should be any difference between the limits applying to Edinburgh and Birmingham. Why not have the same limit for both? I am happy for the amount to fall, but I should prefer it to be the same throughout the United Kingdom. I am also slightly concerned about the time limits prior to elections. All those matters will have to be dealt with in the other place, and examined by us again when the Bill returns to the Commons.
My biggest disappointment in the Bill concerns the way in which the Opposition have chosen to deal with it. As always, I listened with awe and admiration to what was said by Ms Eagle, but I must tell her that if there was ever an example of maximum hyperbole with the best skill chasing minimum fact, it was her speech. It is a great shame, because I think a dampening effect may come from a complete misunderstanding of both the intentions of the Bill and what it will actually do. That will dissipate with time, but it is a shame that that has been raised at this point.
When my Select Committee belatedly considered this Bill we fairly quickly saw that it was a car crash. I said that it was a dog’s breakfast. Mr Carswell took me to task on his blog, however, saying I was wrong in calling it a dog’s breakfast as that was an insult to canine nutritionalists. I hope that is pithy enough, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I have tried to sit through most of the proceedings on this Bill but unfortunately yesterday I had to stay at home because I had to have an MRI scan. I do not know whether any other Member has had an MRI scan. Part of the patient’s body goes into a magnetic field and it is very noisy; there are moans and groans, bangs and clangs, whistles and whines to the extent that they give the patient a pair of headphones. Fortunately I had enough sense to take along with me the “Essential Bob Dylan” CD, and I lay there for 40 minutes and I was just getting into “Maggie’s Farm”, which is a tune I really enjoy at any time.
When I was listening earlier today to the Deputy Leader and the Leader of the House I wished to God I was back there with the headphones on, because they were making such a noise in order to try and hide what is going on here. They are the people who should be scanned, and they will be scanned very clearly about what has gone on here today and over the past few weeks, because this is not a mistake. Instead, this is part of a pattern of abuse that the two coalition parties have undertaken since this Parliament started.
There has been a range of constitutional changes for one reason and that is to get the two parties through the 2015 general election. That is not how constitutional matters should be handled. Constitutional matters should be about making this Parliament respond properly to the people of this country, not purely seeking electoral gain.
We should look at the record. What about the boundary changes? If that fix had gone through, what would we have seen? They tried to reduce the numbers to give themselves electoral advantage. They tried to put in a mathematical formula which every professional electoral registration officer said would not work, and thankfully it fell down.
They also fell down on Lords reform, which again would have given them an advantage, but they bounced back on that one. As Pete Wishart said earlier, they have stuffed the other place with hundreds of people who should have been subject to this Bill’s provisions on the cash for questions issue. They have stacked the other place with people like that. Money for ermine; that is what was done.
They had the alternative vote referendum. Thankfully, that was thrown out, too. What was it for? It was for one thing and one thing only: to try to give the Liberal Democrats a constant seat in power, which they will never achieve on their own. They need to get some sort of cobbled constitutional fix which will keep them in their positions.
Now we have come to this: they have realised they are not going to be able to beat the people so they are going to try and get rid of stroppy campaigners. They want to shut people up, put them in the dark, and stop them campaigning when the people of Britain are tuned in for probably the only time in the whole Parliament—when the people want to hear what is being said, and what has been done in their name for the previous five years. They are trying to shut up the people who really know: the campaigners, the students, the Royal British Legion, the voluntary organisations, the pro and anti-hunt lobbies, and, in particular, the trade unions. They do not want them to have their say. They do not want them to expose what has been going on in their name for the previous five years.
The truth is the people have not been fooled by this. The Government must not think they have got away with this if the Bill passes tonight, goes along the corridor and comes back here in a few weeks. We know that this is being rushed through because they want it signed, sealed, delivered and stamped by the Queen before
I wish to make a few brief comments. First, I say to the hon. Members for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) that the problem with someone dusting down their Second Reading speech is that they miss changes made to the Bill in the interim. I would, however, like to thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. I appreciate that organisations from all walks of life have expressed views—sometimes strong views—about the Bill, and I am grateful that so many have taken the time to share them.
The Bill is about transparency and giving the public confidence in our political system. I am sure that no Member would disagree that we must ensure that all those who impact on our democracy do so transparently, accountably and fairly—these measures will do that. This debate has covered a wide range of viewpoints. There is not time to address every point that has been raised, but I will quickly recap what this Bill will do, as that should address points raised. It will introduce a statutory register of consultant lobbyists to complement our existing transparency regime; it will fill a specific gap where it is not certain on whose behalf consultant lobbyists are lobbying; it will ensure that third parties campaigning at elections do so in a fully transparent manner; and it will give the public reassurance that trade unions which influence public life beyond their own members know who those members are. The Bill will bring greater transparency to our political system, as we promised to do, and I therefore commend it to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The House proceeded to a Division.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.
The House having divided: