With this it will be convenient to take the following:
Lords amendments 17 and 104 to 107.
Lords amendment 108, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 19.
Lords amendment 20, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 21 to 25.
Lords amendment 26, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 27, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 28 to 54.
Lords amendment 55, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 56 to 58.
Lords amendment 59, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 60 to 74, 109 to 116 and 18.
Lords amendment 75, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 76 to 98.
Lords amendment 99, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendment 100.
Lords amendments 26, 27 and 108, with which the Government disagree, relate to constituency limits and staff costs. I ask the House not to support amendments tabled by hon. Members to Lords amendments 20, 55, 59, 75 and 99.
After the Bill was last seen by the House, during consideration in the House of Lords, the Government undertook a further six-week consultation with interested parties—on part 2 of the Bill—that built upon the Government’s already considerable engagement with many campaigning groups. During the consultation, which took place between Second Reading and the Committee stage of part 2 of the Bill in the Lords, the Government held detailed, important and exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—talks with some 50 organisations. Those discussions informed the Government amendments, with which the Lords agreed. As the House will have discerned from my opening remarks, many amendments—100 in total, encompassing 20 substantive issues—to part 2 have returned from their lordships, and we propose to accept all but three of them. The amendments, agreed in consequence of our discussions in the Lords, represent a considerable body of work undertaken in that House, and we are grateful to their lordships for that work.
The changes are designed to address the practical concerns raised by third parties, while preserving the important principles of transparency that underpin part 2. The amendments reduce the burden on smaller third parties who campaign at elections, ease the transition to the new regime and clarify the regulatory rules. That last point is important, because it became clear during the consultation that concerns often stemmed from a lack of awareness of the existing rules in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
As the House will recall, the PPERA established a framework for the regulation of non-party campaigning at elections, and many of the representations derived from an objection not to the Bill, but to how the PPERA rules, in the view of those making the representations, would have worked. This debate has enabled us to introduce amendments that meet many of the concerns raised, to clarify how charities and campaigners can legitimately campaign on policies and issues without falling subject to the election law regulatory regime and, where they may fall to be regulated, to reduce the burdens of compliance and ensure that small-scale campaigns are exempt from that regime.
The House will recall that before the Bill was sent to the Lords, we made significant changes to it here. In particular, we returned to the definition of “controlled expenditure” in the PPERA—in other words, expenditure
“reasonably regarded as intended to…promote or procure the electoral success” of a party or candidate—but narrowed it slightly so as not to include the additional limb about enhancing the standing of parties or candidates. We had, therefore, already made some clarifications to the Bill before we sent it to their lordships.
Of those changes, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, one of the largest and most prominent umbrella bodies representing charities and the voluntary sector, said:
“The government’s commitment to abandon the change to the test of what constitutes non-party campaigning is a significant step in the right direction.”
The Leader of the House knows, because we have told him often enough, that on these issues we actively encourage the participation of the third sector in Scotland. In light of that, why have the Scottish Government not received one reply from this Government regarding the Bill, particularly concerning its effect on our referendum and on Scottish charities?
The Bill, of course, will have no effect on the referendum in September. I do not recall receiving a letter from Ministers in the Scottish Government, although I do recall receiving letters from the First Minister of Wales, which I replied to. If Ministers have received any such letters, I shall gladly take advice on what the reply has been.
On the amendments to part 2 that their lordships have returned to us today, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has said:
“Much of the risk to charities from this legislation has now been averted. We are grateful that the government has listened to the concerns charities have raised in recent months. Charities, by law, may not campaign in a party political manner…The bill now provides a much more sensible balance than it did to begin with between creating accountability and transparency in elections while still allowing for charities and others to speak up on issues of concern.”
One need not fully embrace what NCVO said about the character of the Bill in the first place to recognise that we have arrived at what I hope continues to meet the principles of transparency in election campaigning while continuing to enable charities and voluntary organisations fully to exercise free speech on policies and issues.
That is absolutely right. I am sure my right hon. Friend will recall—it has been interesting to have these conversations—that if charities comply with the guidance, called CC9, issued by the Charity Commission, we can be pretty confident, except in very limited circumstances, that they would not fall to be regulated under election law. It could happen if, for example, a charity pursued its purpose in a run-up to an election, received various pledges from various candidates or parties in relation to its objectives and then chose to issue details to the public. That could be held to be seeking to influence electoral outcomes. Frankly, however, our discussions have increasingly demonstrated a mature approach on the part of the charities, many of which have recognised that the Bill was not really about exempting charities and that only in very limited circumstances would charities fall to be regulated. Many charities completely understood and agreed that it was right for those who wished to influence election outcomes to do so openly and transparently. That is what the Bill is all about.
The Leader of the House implies that, in accepting all but three of the amendments to part 2, the Government are being generous, yet many of the amendments are, of course, Government amendments. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that, as well as the charitable sector demonstrating its maturity, the Government might have learned some lessons from this particular process? What are those lessons, and does he not accept that he could have done things better?
I am sorry, but I think that, in this respect, my hon. Friend has not understood how these issues have often worked. I shall not go through all the amendments in detail, but many of those that he says are coming back to us as Government amendments were tabled as Government amendments on Report in recognition of the character of the preceding debate and consultation in Committee. Members of the House of Lords often raised issues in Committee. My noble Friends Lord Wallace of Tankerness, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Gardiner did magnificent work in determining where it was appropriate for the Government to make amendments in recognition of the concerns expressed. [Interruption.] I do not think that Opposition Members should sneer at the idea of the Government tabling amendments in the other place in order to bring them back here to meet the concerns, which is nothing other than a proper process of scrutiny.
There are a lot of amendments in the group, so let me set out the Government view of the main ones, starting with those with which we disagree. It is important for Members to understand where the burden of the debate lies.
Lords amendment 108 seeks to exclude staff costs associated with any member of staff of a third party from the calculation of controlled expenditure for transport, press conferences, organised media events, public rallies and public events. When Parliament passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it believed that the inclusion of staff costs was an important element of ensuring a transparent regulatory regime. As Labour Members will recall from their time in government, that Act included staff costs in the calculation of controlled expenditure for non-party campaigners. The decision was taken on the basis that where a third party undertakes other activities besides political campaigning and enters into political campaigning, its spending for those purposes should be fully transparent.
My understanding is that our election agents would count as part of our costs when we stand for election, as would hiring a phone bank, so why should there not be full transparency in connection with the staffing costs in this case?
There is a distinction between the handling of staff costs for political parties and their handling for non-party campaigning. That was the point I was making: in so far as political parties have permanent staffing costs, they are not necessarily included, but it was determined in the 2000 Act that we should aim to identify the additional costs.
They are included in individual constituency calculations, but not in the total spending limits for political parties, as applied under PPERA on a national basis. Otherwise, if a political party had more staff, it would automatically have less money available to spend at the time of the election. It is essentially about parity of arms. Where third parties are concerned, except in relation to the election period, almost by definition they do not have permanent expenditure on party political campaigning, so what they spend at election time needs to be calculated.
I shall avoid drawing the parallel that Charlie Elphicke drew between political parties on the one hand and charities and voluntary organisations on the other, which rather gave the game away. Let me refer more helpfully to the fact that my Select Committee supports the view that staffing costs should be included. However, we also support the second Chamber in its view that, for practical reasons, that should not apply this time round. The Electoral Commission and their lordships argued on practical grounds that because of the extra bureaucracy and the shortness of time, staffing costs should be exempt on this occasion, whereas they should normally be included.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point at this stage. He was a member of the Government who included staff costs for non-party campaigning in the 2000 Act, and I think it would have been consistent for him to have stayed with that position.
On the concerns of third parties about the difficulties associated with calculating staff time, that is an existing element of the regulatory regime. Its operation in the last two general elections, alongside Electoral Commission guidance, shows that such costs can be accounted for without it being overly burdensome. In its current guidance, the Electoral Commission takes a proportionate approach to the calculation of controlled expenditure, including staff costs, by stating that third parties should make an honest assessment of the costs, which need to be reported.
It should also be noted—Lords amendment 19 is relevant—that with the proposed increases in the registration threshold, smaller organisations, whether they be charities or other campaigning organisations, will not be subject to any regulation. The need to calculate staff costs will not apply in that case, and it is the same for any larger organisation that spends only relatively small sums. Volunteer costs will, of course, continue to be excluded from the calculation of controlled expenditure.
As such, the Government believe that the inclusion of staff costs is an important element of the regime. We have none the less agreed to a review of the operation of the Bill during the 2015 general election. The inclusion of staffing costs will be an aspect of that review. Lords amendment 108 would, however, create a significant gap in the operation of an effective regulatory regime at the next general election, so I ask the House to reject it.
The next Lords amendments with which the Government disagree are Lords amendments 26 and 27—adding up to the total of three. These amendments provide that only limited activities should be considered as part of controlled expenditure for constituency limit purposes. The amendments would require that only the costs of election materials—whether they are addressed to households or otherwise distributed—and unsolicited telephone calls to households should count towards those constituency limits. They therefore fail to take into account the principle that lay behind the introduction of constituency limits, namely the principle of transparency. It is essential for members of the public to know when third parties are campaigning in the constituencies in which they live, and to know how much money they are spending in doing so if it rises above any significant level.
As Members know very well, campaigning does not revolve around leafleting and cold calls. There are events such as press conferences and rallies; there is transport to bus supporters to an area, and there are the payments made to campaigners. All those are significant aspects of campaigning, and excluding the costs of such activities would undermine the effectiveness of the constituency limits. The constituency limits applying to third parties were introduced to prevent candidates and political parties—they are, of course, the main actors in any election, and rightly so—from being outspent and overwhelmed by the activities of third parties, so that parties do not put their own candidates forward in an election. The Bill does not prevent third parties from campaigning, but it does require them to be open and up front about their spending, and not to overwhelm and outspend the candidates and parties.
I wonder whether the Leader of the House has listened to all the non-governmental organisations which have tried to explain to him that, by and large, they do not organise on a constituency basis, and that trying to allocate the costs in that way is incredibly complex and time-consuming. Is he ignoring those organisations because he does not understand how they work, or because he does understand how they work and wants to shut them down?
I have listened very carefully to what has been said to me. I think that campaigning organisations often object to constituency limits because they erroneously assume that when they are undertaking a national activity there will be disaggregation to individual constituency limits, because of, as it were, the coincidence of where that activity takes place. It will form part of a constituency activity in circumstances in which there is a significant effect in that constituency; otherwise, it will form part of a national activity. [Interruption.] The guidance will make clear that a constituency limit will apply when there is a significant effect in a specific geographical area or individual constituency, but that when the activity concerned forms part of a national activity, national limits will apply.
We need constituency limits. I do not know whether the hon. Lady is proposing that we should not have them, but when we sent the Bill to the House of Lords, a clear decision made by Members of the House of Commons expressed their belief that it was right to have them. Without them, the national limit could all be spent in individual constituencies: it could be targeted on a small number of constituencies in a way that would completely distort elections that are meant to be between political parties. That is the basis on which the Bill is structured.
No. I need to make progress now.
Amendment (a) to Lords amendment 20, tabled by Mr Allen, would return the spending limits to a higher level than that for which the Bill provides—effectively, to the current level in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It proposes a spending limit of £793,000 for England, £108,000 for Scotland and £60,000 for Wales. The limit for Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Bill, would continue to be £30,800.
During our debate on the last group of amendments, the hon. Gentleman spent half an hour lecturing us about the procedures of the House. He is the Chair of a Select Committee which, on Report, proposed amendment 102, which would have deleted clause 27 and left the spending limits as they were in PPERA. He argued for that, and the House rejected it by a majority of 51. Now he has presented a report to the House—from a Select Committee of the House—which completely ignores the House’s decision. The House has a view on this matter, but the Committee has ignored that view. The hon. Gentleman is simply re-presenting the same argument to the House, ignoring—on behalf of his Select Committee—the fact that the House has already rejected it. If the Select Committee does nothing else, it should take account of the view of the House before submitting a report to the House.
I wanted to intervene so that the right hon. Gentleman could calm down for a moment and stop wagging his finger at Members.
Had my Select Committee—the majority of which consists of coalition Members—had more than two working hours in which to produce a report, we would have done an even better job; and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if we had had the time that he has had in which to produce a Bill, we would have done a damn sight better job than he has managed to do.
I shall not wag my finger at the hon. Gentleman, but he has made a ridiculous point. If the members of his Select Committee wanted to produce an additional report, they should have directed themselves to the Lords amendments. [Interruption.] They have not done that. What they have done is reintroduce, by way of an amendment to a Lords amendment, a subject—[Interruption.] Amendments were agreed in the House of Lords. The hon. Gentleman has tabled an amendment whose purpose is not to address the Lords amendment, but to reinsert a provision that was previously rejected, and was not even pressed in the House of Lords.
Both this House and the House of Lords agreed that a reduction in spending limits was sensible. The £450,000 overall spending limit that the Bill now proposes is at a level that few political parties exceed, accounting for the same range of activities. For instance, at the last general election only four political parties—ourselves, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the UK Independence Party—spent more than that.
We have equality of arms under the legislation, although I think I remember that, technically speaking, the Labour party spent more. But we will return to that.
There are about 100 other political parties, campaigning on a national basis, which managed to do so without exceeding that overall spending limit. Surely, if third parties wish to campaign on the basis of involving themselves directly in the influencing of elections, they should be able to do so without spending more than the great majority of the small political parties in the country have chosen to spend.
As a member of the Select Committee, I think it a bit rich for us to be lectured on proposing amendments to Lords amendments by someone who is proposing that we reject a number of significant Lords amendments. If the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied that the Bill, as it broadly stands—with the Government’s suggested response to the Lords amendments—is so perfect, why did the Government table Lords amendment 99. which gives Henry VIII powers to Ministers enabling them to change the very law that he says is so perfect?
I shall deal with Lords amendment 99 later. What I will say now is that the amendment that we are discussing would leave the spending limit in Northern Ireland as it is under existing legislation, not least because my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House went to Northern Ireland to meet organisations there and discuss these matters.
The third party spending limit allows for a great deal of activity. That is partly because much electioneering activity can be now conducted by means of new technology at a much lower cost than used to be the case, but in any event a third party could print 40 million leaflets, it could take out a dozen front-page advertisements in a national newspaper, or it could make 780,000 telephone calls from a professional phone bank. That, I think, demonstrates that the limits proposed by Lords amendment 20 are proportionate.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. We have set out to strike a balance, and, in Lords amendment 20, we have changed the limits applying to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the basis of all those arguments, I ask the House to resist amendment (a) if it is pursued by the hon. Member for Nottingham North.
Turning to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 55, the Government have worked closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure reporting requirements are not overly burdensome. The Government removed the need for nil reporting and have also reduced the regulated period. The regulated period for third parties will commence in September this year, not May, and this will allow additional time for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance and for campaigners to be fully aware of the regulatory regime. Owing to the reduced regulated period, this will impact on the quarterly reporting cycles for the 2015 general election, with the final “quarterly cycle” being compacted from September—three months is a short period running up to the general election.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North has tabled an amendment intending to deal with this situation. However, the Government believe that as this is late in the cycle and only reports of donations over £7,500 are required, third parties will have systems in place to cope with this reduced period. As there is no requirement for nil reports, a period—short or otherwise—will require nothing at all unless a large donation is accepted during that period. It should be noted that third parties will have to provide weekly reports after the Dissolution of Parliament, so the compacted final quarterly cycle will not result in an overly burdensome reporting requirement, particularly in the light of the Lords amendments, which we will come on to, relating to reporting requirements.
On the hon. Gentlemen’s amendment (a) to Lords amendment 59, third parties will only have to submit a donations return to the Electoral Commission where they have received a reportable donation of £7,500 or more. Where they have not received a donation of this value, no report needs to be submitted. This underpins the aim of part 2, which is to increase transparency without placing overly burdensome reporting requirements upon a third party. As is the current practice, under section 96 of PPERA a third party will have to provide a full report of reportable donations three months after polling day. This return is submitted to the Electoral Commission. The Government believe that the section 96 return provides an important safeguard where a full record of reportable donations is provided and visible. This will allow both the Electoral Commission and the general public to ascertain the amount and source of all reportable donations received by a third party during the regulated period. The Government do not believe that this requirement is overly burdensome, as the information will have already been prepared by the third party. It also allows the opportunity for the third party to declare any reportable donations which it has failed to declare previously. This underpins the regulatory regime. We therefore do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, which requires the same donation to be reported only once as that would risk a lack of transparency through this section 96 return coming after the election.
Most of the correspondence I have received from concerned members of the public is in support of charities, some very small, whose normal activities are not related to the electoral success of a political party or individual. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to set their minds at rest that this Bill will not be detrimental to them in any way?
Yes, I can, for two reasons. First, only expenditure which would reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the success of a party or candidate might fall to be regulated as election expenditure, and it is demonstrable at previous elections under this regulatory regime that large amounts of policy-related campaigning has been undertaken by charities and that has not required to be regulated. The second reassurance, as we will come on to see with other amendments, is that we are proposing to lift the registration threshold up from the current level of £10,000 to £20,000. That will allow small-scale campaigning by organisations not to be part of the regulatory regime.
Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s amendment (a) to Lords amendment 75, a statement of accounts only has to be provided if the third party has incurred controlled expenditure over the registration threshold. In addition, an individual is excluded from the provisions. Those third parties who prepare accounts under another enactment need not prepare additional accounts if the commission is satisfied they include equivalent information. When a third party registers with the Electoral Commission it must state, using a simple tick box, whether it is an individual or one of the bodies that can register as a third party. From this information, the Electoral Commission can ascertain whether the body provides accounts under another enactment. As a result it would add unnecessary additional bureaucracy to ask the third party to submit a subsequent declaration that it is exempt from the provisions, as the amendment requires. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman will not persist with that.
Turning to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 99 in the name of my hon. Friend Mr Chope and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), the order-making power, to which the hon. Member for Foyle just referred, would allow for the Government only to make consequential amendments. It would not allow the Government to amend the fundamental principles and provisions included in part 2 of the Bill. Any changes to primary legislation would be subject to affirmative resolution in any case. The power is also time limited, so that it could only be used until the date of the next general election. I should emphasise that I hope this power will not be needed, but I consider it prudent to insert it into the Bill, to ensure it is possible to make changes should unforeseen or unintended effects be identified after the Bill receives Royal Assent which could be put right by consequential provision.
The Government have introduced—the Lords is introducing—a number of amendments of significant benefit to campaigners, and we would not want to risk them being ineffective for any technical reason. We agree that it is important to consult the commission and I can assure the House that we will consult it before making an order under this power. The commission in its briefing agrees with this approach. Should the commission make a recommendation to us to use this power, we will consider such a recommendation extremely carefully. Because of the limited scope of the power and this assurance, the Government do not believe it is necessary to accept this amendment.
“well precedented and here it is very narrowly drawn. The House need not worry that the Government are in some way exceeding their powers or doing something they should not on this occasion.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 21 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 615.]
Consequently, we cannot support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Let me turn to the Lords amendments with which we agree. Lords amendments 106 to 107 set out in schedule 8A a consolidated and extensive list of the types of expenses which are excluded from counting as controlled expenditure. Further to the current exclusions provided for in PPERA, the Lords in these amendments extend them to include: expenses related to translating materials from English to Welsh or from Welsh to English; costs associated with providing protection of persons or property in relation to a public rally or event; and reasonable expenses incurred that are reasonably attributable to an individual’s disability. The exclusion of translation costs reflects the position of the Welsh language, which is governed by the Welsh Language Act 1993. Under that Act, the English and Welsh languages have equal status in Wales. This differs from other languages spoken in the UK, where the UK Parliament has not legislated to give them the same status as Welsh.
Lords amendment 19 increases the registration thresholds in the Bill, as I was discussing in response to my hon. Friend Dame Angela Watkinson. Those were set in the Bill at £5,000 for England and £2,000 for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The amendment however raises these amounts substantially, from £5,000 to £20,000 for England and from £2,000 to £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This change is in response to the many representations this Government have received from campaigners who spend only small amounts of money and were concerned that the Bill’s transparency provisions, though essential, would in fact impose unduly onerous compliance requirements. It is important to recognise, as many organisations did, that election expenditure should in principle be disclosed and regulated, but there were concerns that smaller organisations would be caught by the provisions. By raising the thresholds to levels that also take into account the extended range of activities proposed by the Bill, small campaigners can be assured that they will not suddenly be subject to administrative controls that they are not resourced or equipped to comply with.
Yes. The registration threshold is the threshold of expenditure at which one is required to register, and all the limits for the registration threshold and the total spending limits are in relation to the definition of controlled expenditure which includes staffing costs for third parties.
Lords amendment 20 increases the spending limits—not the registration thresholds—for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by £20,000 each. This is an increase from the levels set in the Bill when it went to the Lords. The new limits will be £55,400 for Scotland, £44,000 for Wales and £30,800 for Northern Ireland. Campaigners have argued that the spending limits for those parts of the United Kingdom were disproportionately low—so low in fact, that they might force campaigners to step aside and not participate in elections. It has never been our intention to prevent third parties from campaigning altogether. They are a key aspect of the democratic process and, to ensure they remain so, the spending limits have been raised to more suitable amounts.
Lords amendment 18 relates to coalitions. It is important to recognise that the Bill did not change the regulatory regime for coalitions, but the debate on the Bill has enabled us to identify a change that will help campaigners that do incur small amounts of expenditure. The Government received many representations on the existing PPERA regime on coalitions. The concern was that the Bill’s provisions would put onerous reporting burdens on them. This fear was particularly pronounced in relation to those who often campaign as part of a coalition.
This new procedure introduces a new framework. A third party may participate in as many coalitions as it wishes. When it takes part in this procedure, it will not have to report for its expenditure, provided it does not incur total spend above the registration threshold—the numbers to which I just referred. The third party would take on the status of a “minor campaigner”. Another third party who agrees to act as a “lead campaigner” in the coalition’s common plan would instead report the expenditure it and the minor campaigner had both incurred. As with the registration thresholds, this provision is also intended to reassure small spending campaigners that new burdens will not be imposed upon them. Indeed, it will reduce the burden compared with the regime in the 2000 Act.
Lords amendment 28 removes the post-dissolution constituency limit of £5,850. Campaigners may now spend the entire constituency limit of £9,750 at any time during the regulated period, or just in the last few weeks before the election if they so wish. That makes it less restrictive and easier to comply with.
Lords amendments 91, 94 and 96 shorten the length of the regulated period for third parties. The regulated period is the time before an election within which only limited expenditure can be incurred, and certain campaigning rules must be observed. Reports must be submitted to the regulator. The regulator, the Electoral Commission and campaigners have argued that they need more time than the Bill would otherwise allow to understand fully the new rules and their responsibilities under them. The Government agree about the need to ensure suitable guidance is in place for campaigners. If the Electoral Commission needs further time to produce this guidance, and ensure it is relevant, clear and useful, the regulated period can be shortened to facilitate that. That is why the regulated period for third parties, for the purposes of the 2015 parliamentary general election only, will be reduced to seven and a half months—starting immediately after the Scottish referendum—instead of the usual twelve months.
Let me stress that the regulated period for political parties is not being similarly reduced.
The Lords have also introduced amendments to allow royal chartered bodies, charitable incorporated organisations, Scottish charitable incorporated organisations and Scottish partnerships to register as a recognised third party. This reflects the fact that the list of bodies that can register as a third party has not been updated since 2000.
The Lords have made further amendments that seek to reduce unnecessary burdens on recognised third parties. As a result, recognised third parties will have to provide a donations report to the Electoral Commission only when they receive a reportable donation of £7,500 or more. There will no longer be a requirement to provide nil reports. In addition, a recognised third party will no longer have to provide a spending return or statement of accounts if it only incurs controlled expenditure below the necessary registration threshold. When a recognised third party has to provide a statement of accounts, this can be sent to the Electoral Commission in a longer time frame—within nine months of the end of the regulated period, if they do not have to be audited, or 12 months, if they do have to be audited.
On non-party campaigning, in order to ensure that the provisions of this Bill are subject to review, Lords amendment 88 stipulates that the Government must, within twelve months of Royal Assent, appoint a person to review the operation of the PPERA provisions, as amended by this Bill, at the next general election. The findings of that review must be laid before Parliament within 18 months of the next general election—that is, by November 2016. The review will provide a unique real-time opportunity to assess how the new regulatory regime is operating, in good time for the 2020 general election.
Lords amendment 87 is not about non-party campaigning. It introduces a new measure to ensure that candidates’ personal expenses will be excluded from counting towards their election expenses limits at local elections in England and Wales. This change will harmonise those arrangements with the existing situation for parliamentary elections, police and crime commissioner elections and Greater London authority elections, at which personal expenses are already excluded from candidates’ expenses limits.
This change has been brought about principally so that disabled candidates are not unfairly penalised for incurring disability-related costs, which can often be quite high. The need for the change became apparent following the creation of the access to elected office for disabled people fund. The fund was established by this Government to provide grants to disabled people who are, or who go on to become, candidates at elections. The fund provides grants to help candidates to overcome any barriers to elected office that might arise as a result of their disability. However, electoral law considered those grants to be personal expenses and therefore deductable from candidates’ election expenses limits at local elections—the one poll where personal expenses counted towards a candidate’s expenses limit.
Lords Amendment 87 therefore brings the treatment of personal expenses at local elections into line with the arrangements for other polls where they are already exempt. It would be particularly unfair to penalise disabled candidates standing at local elections for accepting fund grants or even incurring their own disability-related costs. The amendment does not as yet extend to local elections in Northern Ireland or Scotland, as those polls are devolved. However, we will work with the respective Governments to ensure that there is consistency.
Much work has been done in this House, in the Lords and with external stakeholders to ensure that the Bill meets the principle of enhanced transparency for third parties who want to influence the outcome of elections, while preserving the essential freedom to speak out on issues. I should like to thank those who have contributed to the debates, and I reiterate my thanks to my noble Friends in the House of Lords. As has been said many times before, the purpose of the Bill is to bring greater awareness and clarity to campaigning activity. I believe that, through these amendments, that is what we can achieve.
A total of 1 hour and 50 minutes has been allocated for this important debate on part 2 of the Bill, and the Leader of the House has just spoken for almost three quarters of an hour. That leaves the rest of us just over an hour to address an issue on which Members on both sides of the House have received dozens of items of correspondence in the past few days.
Let us remind ourselves that the Bill started out as a piece of legislation on lobbying. It was meant to be the Government’s response to what the Prime Minister called
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
However, the Bill has been a disaster from the very beginning. It was meant to address the next big scandal; instead, it has turned into an attack on civil society, on campaigners and on trade unions. It was meant to fix our broken politics; instead, it risks stifling free and open democratic debate. It was supposedly about stopping big money coming into our politics; instead, it creates the risk that civil society will face unnecessary and burdensome regulations.
It was noted in our earlier discussions on part 1 that the process by which the Bill has been conducted through Parliament is entirely in line with the draconian nature of the Bill itself. There has been a distinct lack of scrutiny at every stage. It has been a shambles. Deliberations on the Bill in the other place finished yesterday—
Order. I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is very interesting, but I must remind him that this is not a Third Reading debate. His remarks should refer specifically to the amendments before us, and I presume that he was about to speak to them before I interrupted him.
I am grateful to you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will deal with the amendments in a moment, but it is important that we consider the context, because the speed with which the Bill has been considered, particularly in the past few days, has affected the ability of Members in this House to propose amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments. As my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy said in the debate on the previous group, Baroness Williams of Crosby said yesterday that the timings, whereby the Lords finished yesterday and the Commons resumed consideration today, are “ludicrous”.
In moving on to deal with the amendments, I wish to praise one of the proponents of the amendments in the Lords, the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries. He has worked diligently to propose sensible amendments on behalf of his Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement in an attempt to improve a deeply flawed Bill. Weeks of engagement, careful drafting of amendments, debate and consultation led to a position where, as has been said, the Government were defeated on three amendments, one in part 1 and two in part 2. As Andrew George said, there are lessons to be learned by this Government from this process. Some of these issues might not have arisen had the Government published this legislation and enabled pre-legislative scrutiny to take place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Allen, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and all the other members of the Committee. As my hon. Friend reminded us, the Government parties have a majority on the Committee yet it offered a damning indictment of the way in which the Bill has been handled. The Committee stated:
“The haste with which Lords amendments are returning to the Commons is yet another example of the way in which this Bill has been rushed through Parliament. The timetable that the Government has imposed for this Bill indicates a contempt for Parliament and a lack of belief in the value of parliamentary scrutiny.”
I remind the House that last September we asked the Government to think again.
Order. Context we have got, time we have not. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should now move on from the context—we are not on Third Reading—to the specifics. Other hon. Members are waiting to speak.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and let me move on to address some of the specific Lords amendments. First, may I welcome changes that have been made which respond to concerns that have been raised by civil society, but I urge the Government today, notwithstanding what the Leader of the House has just said, to go further and accept the Lords amendments on staffing costs and on constituency limits? Raising registration thresholds is a sensible move that will stop many small and local campaigners becoming entangled in complicated and burdensome regulations. Allowing large campaigners to provide a single expenditure report on behalf of a coalition of smaller campaigners will incentivise and help collaborative working by organisations of different sizes. Simplifying the reporting regime is also a sensible reform.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the burden on third-party organisations. Does he agree with the point made by Lord Harries that it would be almost impossible for the Electoral Commission to police third-party expenditure?
I absolutely agree. Of course the Electoral Commission made the same point, and I will deal with that when I reach the relevant amendment. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that important point on the record.
The Government are proposing to legislate for a review of part 2 following the general election. A review is a sensible thing to carry out, and we support it. However, is there not an irony in rushing legislation through Parliament without appropriate levels of consultation and only at the end, after the event, to add a Government amendment for a serious and thorough review? Surely that is the wrong way round. For many of those who have been campaigning on this Bill and on the Lords amendments, this amendment is a cruel twist. Having been denied a serious process of consultation with the aim, which is blatantly obvious, of stifling campaigning before the next election, the Government now say that there will be a substantial review, but that it will be undertaken after the general election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s proposal amounts to a tacit acceptance that there are fundamental defects in what has been proposed? Would it not be far more sensible if they were honest and straight and recognise that and delayed the whole process?
Absolutely, but I will not be tempted too far down that path, because I must address the Lords amendments that are before us today. My hon. Friend, who led for us on this part of the Bill along with my hon. Friend Angela Smith, makes a powerful point.
My hon. Friend makes her point extremely powerfully. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, a measure that was supposed to address a serious crisis around lobbying—we have addressed that in part 1 earlier this afternoon—has instead turned into something that is at real risk of chilling debate among citizens in the period between now and the next general election. The Bill is being rushed through so that it can take effect and be in place for the general election campaign in 2015. Then there is an offer of a serious review, but only after that election. That is churlish, and it is cheap politics from the Government parties. Let me refer to Steve Bubb, the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. He said:
“The government is clearly keen to show it is listening to civil society, but these amendments don't prevent the Bill curbing freedom of speech around elections.”
The Select Committee agreed with that, and said:
“We do not believe that the Government has clearly communicated the need for Part 2 of the Bill, or has provided a satisfactory account of the basis on which the new levels for registration and expenditure by third parties have been set.”
There are many other examples that I could quote. I chose to quote Sir Stephen, but I could have quoted many other figures. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as aware as I am that there is pretty much unanimity among civil society, left to right, on this question. I will come back to that very point in a moment.
In an attempt to improve what we see as a flawed Bill, we support Lords amendment 45. It is an amendment of incredible importance to campaigning groups and charities. It is clear and simple, and calls for the removal of background staffing costs from activities such as press conferences, media events, transport costs and public rallies. We absolutely support the aim of transparency and accountability. The amendment is not designed to take these activities out of the parameters of the regulation. It is about removing the background staff costs from the activities set out in new schedule 8A.
I will take the Leader of the House at his word. Let me say “the relevant amendment”. I believe this relevant amendment is modest. It is primarily about not the costs themselves but the additional bureaucracy that this would involve. For many smaller charities, it would be incredibly difficult to distinguish the amount of time that the staff member spends on these activities from the time they spend on other activities. My hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne mentioned Lord Harries of Pentregarth. What he said in the other place is worth considering. It is easy to assess the amount of money that one will spend on hiring the hall for a public rally, because there is an invoice. However, there is no invoice for a member of staff or for the 10% of the time spent over four weeks carrying out the work.
Small charities will get nowhere near their limits, even if they put in all their staff costs. I suspect that charities will not have any problems with the limits whatsoever.
I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman is correct. I have already said that we welcome some of the changes to the registration and threshold levels, but there is still concern among charities about the impact this change could have and the Lords amendment simply clarifies and improves that element of the Bill.
There is no desire in this House to create a regulatory system that is impossible to abide by. We do not want to stifle charities or the other voluntary and citizens’ organisations that are often the bedrock of our communities with further unnecessary red tape and changes to their accountancy structure. Many such organisations rely on volunteers, but they have to try to cost the time of their volunteers.
I believe that the Lords amendment is a compromise. The Opposition share the preference that the Electoral Commission has expressed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, the Chair of the Select
Committee, reminded us earlier, the Electoral Commission said that for the 2015 election it would prefer all staff costs to be removed. The amendment does not go as far as that recommendation, as it would merely count for background staff costs in relation to certain activities that are being brought into regulation.
It is clear that some costs should be accounted for, such as those with an indirect relation to the canvassing of voters. It seems to me that it would not be very difficult to identify those costs, but organising a meeting, travelling to a venue or setting up a press conference might take merely a few minutes and it would be absurd to expect small and medium-sized organisations to have to account for that time, too. We see the amendment as a tidying up exercise that could save valuable time and money for charities and voluntary organisations while maintaining the purpose of transparency and accountability for those activities that relate directly to elections.
When the amendment was considered in the other place, only three peers who were not from the Government Benches voted against it. The Government were defeated and on that basis I urge them to listen. Lord Tyler, the Liberal Democrat peer and a former long-standing Member of this House, made a powerful case, saying:
“Bluntly, I do not think that anyone cares if a policy officer, whose job for the rest of the year is something completely different, spends a little time booking a room for an election rally, or incurs costs travelling to it…if the regulations go through without us thinking about the implications, they could unnecessarily tie up campaigners in accounting for their time—and, worse still, could deter some from campaigning at all.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 280.]
Surely the problem is not about the amount of money. The danger is that the Government are completely ignoring the fact that small charities believe that the Government are setting out to tie them up in knots and prevent them from expressing opinions that they might find difficult. That is why this is regarded as an attack on freedom. Is that not the problem?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why throughout our discussion of the Bill we have used the phrase “chilling effect”. There are the direct effects of the legislation, but in a sense the greater concern is the one of which he has reminded us—its broader effect on the ability of civil society and citizens to participate in debates in the run-up to elections.
Let me refer to other contributions in the other place. Lord Cormack—Patrick Cormack, a Conservative Member of this House for 40 years—urged the Government to take this step. He was supported by his Conservative colleague Lord Northbrook. They supported the amendment and argued that it would make life a lot easier for campaigners and would therefore give citizens a voice. I urge the Government to reconsider and, if they will not, I urge the House to stand with the other place on this amendment.
Let me move on to constituency limits. We are supposed to be addressing the issue of big money in politics. Bearing down on third party spending while leaving political party spending unreformed seems to me to be unfair and does not represent the radical reform we are looking for. Just now, the Leader of the House spoke about party spending at the 2010 general election. The biggest third-party spender spent 4% of the amount spent by the Conservative party at the last election—4%.
If the Government were serious about taking the big money out of politics, they need to confront their reliance on a tiny number of wealthy donors.
So this is what it is all about. Unison, on behalf of its members, spent 4%. The Conservative party spent 25 times as much as the biggest third-party spender, which suggests that this is a solution in search of a problem.
My hon. Friend makes the point better than I did, and I thank him for doing so.
Given that both the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee supported the restoration of the third-party limit to the levels in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we believe that that is the right approach. The Lords have advocated a clear, simplifying amendment, which would ensure that there are new reporting requirements for third parties in relation to telephone calls, literature to households and physical distribution in a defined area. The Government’s wider scope of activity, which would have to be reported, has been described by the Electoral Commission as unworkable and unenforceable. It said that
“it will be challenging to obtain robust evidence to determine and sanction breaches in specific geographical areas, for example, regarding the effects of a leafleting campaign or mobile advertising in different constituencies…it is likely to be difficult to demonstrate that a breach meets the necessarily high test for using a stop notice to intervene to halt campaigning activity.”
Surely there is nothing worse than our passing a new law that is unenforceable and unworkable.
The Electoral Commission states that the Lords amendments would reduce its worries about enforceability, although it still has concerns about this part of the Bill. The Government’s plans risk increasing the administrative burden on charities and campaigning groups. Often, as Caroline Lucas said, those groups are not organised regionally or locally, let alone by constituency, and they would have to modify their accounting structures and the way in which they monitored their expenditure.
Let us consider the kind of cross-party campaigns that we are talking about: people campaigning on the badger cull; on HS2; on a hospital closure that might affect a region or sub-region; local food banks; and road extensions. There are many such examples, and I do not believe that the Leader of the House, in his response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, gave sufficient reassurance that the Government have addressed that issue. The Opposition support the Lords amendment, and we hope that the Government will have a change of heart.
“to make a bad Bill better”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 281.]
He urged the Government to improve the Bill by supporting the Lords amendment. The chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action said that the Government have
“turned an awful Bill into what might at best be described as a deeply flawed Bill.”
They have another opportunity to try to mitigate the disaster of the original Bill. Even at this late stage, I urge the Government to accept the amendments that the Lords have proposed after careful and pragmatic consideration. For a party that used to talk a lot about the big society, it seems to me that without the Lords amendments, this is a cruel attempt at making society that bit smaller. The Lords amendments are sensible and modest on staffing costs and constituency limits, and they would help charities and other voluntary and campaigning organisations. If we keep the Lords amendments, they would improve the Bill considerably. I urge the House to accept them.
It is a real privilege to contribute to this debate. I have contributed to all the debates on the Bill so far. I am quite optimistic about the Bill’s purposes, but today I want to confine my remarks to Lords amendments 108, 26 and 27. The Government reject amendments 26 and 27 because they are keen to take the big money out of politics and to ensure that local charities and organisations can be involved in campaigning. One of the things that has crept into every stage of debate on the Bill is that it is a gagging Bill. It is frightening good people in communities throughout the country.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to take the big money out of politics, is he in favour of putting curbs on the expenditure of political parties, particularly the Conservative party?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very political point and I want to confine my remarks to the amendments.
Earlier, we heard an exchange between the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House regarding Unison and small local charities. The reality is that we need to stop the trend of large third party organisations—in the United States, they are called super PACs, or political action committees—attacking a small number of 90 to 100 constituencies that determine who wins the general election and will form the next Government. That is something that all hon. Members should be in favour of.
The hon. Gentleman disappoints and upsets me by suggesting that that is ludicrous remark. The reality is that most people in this country want big money to be taken out of politics. Part 1 of the Bill is all about lobbying.
Some of the rhetoric that has come out of this House is frightening good people up and down the country and stopping them engaging in the process. One thing that hon. Members have intentionally not taken on board is that it is illegal for a charity to get involved in a political process and try to affect the outcome of an election. The whole purpose of the Bill is to do with third parties, but people seem to be advancing behind a screen of small charities. If we look at registration—[Interruption.]
Mr Allen has done a fantastic job as Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and I have read his reports with great interest. In fact, the first 15 of the conclusions and recommendations of the latest report, which was a very good job done overnight, agree with the Government, and accept that the Government have listened at every stage of the Bill. The Government have tried hard to listen to and work with local charities and community groups across the country to achieve some kind of success. [Interruption.] I have great respect for Lisa Nandy who says that that is not what is happening in her area. I am proud to have 400 charities and community groups in my area. Not one has contacted me about the Bill. Not a single one is upset about it because none would have the financial resources to spend these amounts of money. If those charities contact me, most do so because they need money to keep going and to maintain the services that they are interested in. This is very much about taking the big money out of politics and stopping the formation of large super PACs, which can create huge problems.
Can the hon. Gentleman recall any massive public outcry against the excesses of organisations like the British Legion, Oxfam and Save the Children in order to get the Bill through? Can he recall the outcry, from the Prime Minister and everyone else, against the greedy activities of corporate lobbyists? The Bill is designed to distract attention from the Government’s failure to deal with corporate lobbyists by attaching blame to the minnows, the small charities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am very proud of the Government’s commitment to match all public contributions to Oxfam between now and mother’s day—hon. Members should contribute as much as they can. I am also proud that the Government are doing a lot of work with charities of all scopes and sizes. I cannot recall any such outcry, but the Government are trying to cut big money out of politics. From my point of view, this will stop the formation of large super PACs, which would contribute large amounts of money and resources to a small number of seats that will determine who wins the general election.
The hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech that the Bill was designed to address the issue of big money in politics, but that is not what it will do. All it will do is attack small charities and third party organisations. The real money, which lies in lobbying Ministers and special advisers, has been ruled out. The Bill will not achieve the stated aim because it does not target those who need to be targeted.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I shall have to wrap up my remarks in a moment so that other Members can contribute.
The reality is that the Bill proves that the Government listened. They are the most transparent Government ever. The Bill has been consistently improved by Members on both sides of both Houses, and that is something the Government should be given credit for. I am proud to be a part of this Government, who work closely with charities across the country. Every Member of this House works hard with charities in their local communities, and those charities will not be affected by the Bill. I shall therefore be pleased to support the Government today in the Lobby.
On Lords amendment 108, which relates to excluding staff costs for charities and third party organisations, small charities in our constituencies will not be in a position to campaign in 80 or 90 other constituencies; they are just trying to survive in their small towns, cities and villages and to deliver for local people. Members should not use the frightening rhetoric that we have heard in relation to the Bill. That rhetoric stops charities and community groups engaging with us and getting involved in the political process. I urge all the community groups and charities in my constituency not to be frightened but to continue to engage with us and do what they always do, which is to campaign on policies and try to get them implemented.
It is a great privilege to speak in the debate on this group of amendments—the first time I have done so when you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. Should I run dry, I will refer to my deputy Chair from her days on the Select Committee, who I am sure will be able to help me out!
Before speaking to the amendments, I would like to thank one or two people. I thank colleagues in the second Chamber, who I think have done an excellent job. I would certainly like to put on the record my thanks to members of the Select Committee, our Clerk and staff for the brilliant job they have done yet again in very short order. I would also like to thank the Leader of the House. He gets a bit tetchy when Select Committees and Parliament do their job of holding the Government to account, but I think that he is a decent man. Although he sometimes tries not to, I think that he has inadvertently listened to one or two of the arguments made in the House and made some helpful changes in the second Chamber. I would like to put on the record my gratitude to him for that. If he can do it on a number of occasions, he can probably do so on two or three more, giving the Bill the wonderful finale that it so thoroughly deserves.
We have heard about the changes proposed in the other House with which the Government wish to disagree. Given the time available, I will not go over them again, but they relate to staff costs and material costs not being included in the definition of the amount to be spent, which will of course diminish. I urge the House and the Government to support these sensible proposals as they are supported by the Select Committee.
In principle, we would not wish staff costs to be excluded, but on this occasion, as we are running into an almost immediate election, with 469 days until election day, it makes sense to be practical by not including them.
The Leader of the House referred to the three amendments on reporting requirements that I tabled on behalf of my Committee. The essence of this is that we are dealing with charities. As representatives of the second Chamber eloquently explained, many of those institutions do not have the infrastructure to handle heavy bureaucracy. The Government have accepted that argument, to some extent, and I ask them to look again at our amendments. It is surely not in anyone’s interests, least of all those of the Government, who say so much about deregulation, to place such huge amounts of red tape and bureaucratic burdens on to charitable institutions that are trying to participate in the democratic life of this country. Difficulties are placed in their way by excessive reporting, and surely that is not what the Government are trying to achieve.
The crux of the matter is that we are coming up to one minute to midnight and no one has identified the problem that part 2 is intended to address. What was the burning issue that led people to demand it? Unlike part 1 on lobbying, where clearly abuses were taking place, although none of them is being addressed, part 2 is not needed to deal with any abuses, public scandals or big political issues. Even now, at one minute to midnight, the question of what the problem is has not been satisfactorily answered.
Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that the Government have done a clever bit of magician’s deception in successfully stirring up a great deal of public anger about the charities part of the Bill in order to distract attention from the fact that the much needed first part of the Bill is woefully inadequate?
My hon. Friend is a very eminent and distinguished member of the Select Committee, but he is a very cynical person if he believes that that is why the Government have done this. [Interruption.] No, we are talking about charities and I think we should be charitable in saying that it is not conspiracy but incompetence.
Very much so, unfortunately. That is why the amendments improve a Bill that needed and still needs a great deal of improvement. I was quoted as saying that it was a dog’s breakfast, and one hon. Member said that that was an insult to canine nutritionists. The Deputy Leader of the House said that the Bill has been transformed. Well, the dog’s breakfast might have been transformed from Winalot to Pedigree Chum, but it is probably not much better than that.
The issue is incredibly serious. There will now be an opportunity once every five years for charities, voluntary sector organisations and everyone else to participate in a general election, which is the lifeblood of our democracy, with its give and take and its challenge from all sorts of organisations from the League Against Cruel Sports to the Countryside Alliance. People are entitled to participate and we should facilitate their participation, but we are not doing so.
For example, people have said that there will be severe unintended consequences, that they do not believe there is legal certainty and that they fear the Bill. Who are the crazy people saying that? They signed a letter. They are Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK, Neil Thorns of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain and Paul Parker of the Quakers—absolutely fringe elements who are a danger to society! They genuinely feel that their activities during a period of political interaction and give and take could land them in trouble.
I speak as the chair of a charity, and should perhaps declare an interest as such. From my experience of sitting through every day spent on the Bill in this House, I do not have the confidence to give my charity a definitive answer about whether we could be caught by some of the provisions. The question is not whether my charity or any other wishes that to happen, but whether it is possible. That possibility is the reason there is a chilling effect, not that charities will clearly be caught.
What do we rely on? We rely on the good faith of the Leader of the House. I am sure he means it when he says, “Don’t worry—all that activity won’t be caught.” If that is the case, why do we need the Bill when we already have very strong provisions to catch people, particularly in the charitable field, who seek to offend? I again ask why. What problem are we trying to address? There is a chilling effect, and reassurances in Hansard and keeping our fingers crossed will not be enough.
We have a fixed-term Parliament, and if we choose to take the opportunity, that will give us a year’s interactive, open debate during which we might do cross-party or all-party stuff to clear all the dross out of the way, with a ding-dong during the last 28 days as normal. We might start to work together to find answers, and to campaign together with civic society and all those institutions, like our charities and voluntary sector organisations. What a wonderful debate and what a great opportunity it would be for our democracy to have such a year; we know that the election is 469 days away. It could be a great liberating opportunity, but what will happen if Parliament and the Government are held in contempt by the electorate? We will throw away that opportunity and be unable to take the chance to involve people. In one or two years’ time, we will look back at this as a terrible wasted opportunity.
I briefly repeat a comment I made on the previous group of amendments: the Bill left this place in an unsatisfactory state, but went to the Lords and had a considerable amount of work done to it. A huge number of the amendments made were either proposed by the Government after listening or accepted by them following a debate. I repeat that my noble Friend Lord Tyler was central to much of that process, and the Front Benchers Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, among others, did a splendid job in that regard.
When I spoke to Lord Tyler, he told me that he shared two of my major concerns, which he expressed very well, about the degree of bureaucracy and the degree of complexity, and everything he did was to try to remove bureaucracy or complexity. He made the very good point that the Bill builds on the PPERA, but that the process of engagement with charities and the third sector threw up the fact that many of them did not understand that earlier legislation and were not perhaps compliant with it. Therefore, if nothing else, this process has helped them to understand what is necessary.
I will touch quickly on the Lords amendments that have succeeded. The fundamental change was raising the registration rates to £20,000 for England and £10,000 for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We began with the position that the rates would be halved and they have now been doubled. That is a significant change. It has lifted the vast majority of smaller organisations and charities out of the legislation completely. That is a considerable concession by the Government and it has achieved a great deal. I make the small point, in parentheses, that I do not know why the rate for Scotland should be half that for England, but I shall move on quickly.
Charities also had a critical concern about coalitions. That has been dealt with by removing all the burdens from low-spending participants in a campaigning coalition and allowing the larger campaigners to provide a single report on their behalf. That has lifted a large potential burden. That change, along with other changes such as removing the requirement for nil returns and the review, has changed dramatically the way in which the Bill can be viewed. It is now much closer to achieving the principles that I want to see, which are greater transparency and accountability in third parties. It is also less heavy-handed with those who are not a target, such as small, local organisations and charities—virtually all charities are exempt.
This process has allowed good, informed criticism to be taken on board. It has also allowed us to flush out some very ill-informed criticism. I received an e-mail from a constituent yesterday urging me to support Lord Tyler, which of course is always a pleasure, because he wanted to continue to campaign against wind farms in our area and because he wanted to be able to campaign against the building of houses on the battlefield of Culloden if anybody ever suggested it. I was able to point out to him with complete certainty that those two things would never be covered by the Bill. There are many people out there who think that it does cover such matters. It is important to have the opportunity to dispel those ideas.
I will turn to the two principal amendments that I wanted to discuss. Lords amendment 108 removes a huge raft of things that were included in the proposal before their lordships. I took the trouble of finding schedule 3 in its unamended form. The Lords amendment relates to sub-paragraphs (3), (4) and (5) of paragraph 1, which include not only transport costs, but some pretty heavy bits of expenditure, such as public rallies. Their lordships were right to think that they had cut too far and too hard.
I urge my colleagues to support the Government in rejecting Lords amendment 108 for a simple procedural reason. If we accept it, that will be the end of the matter. However, if we do not accept it and send it back to their lordships, they can, through ping-pong, propose something that takes account of the justifiable concerns about transport and so forth but does not go as far as this amendment, which has clearly gone too far.
Lords amendment 108 does not take out the major costs of rallies and big events. It takes out only any costs in respect of remuneration or expenses that are payable to staff in relation to rallies. It does not relate to the overall costs of rallies, such as equipment and hiring space. Those would not be taken out by the amendment.
I am well aware of that. However, the staff costs, particularly in relation to sub-paragraphs (3) and (5), will be considerable, so they should be included. I would like to give their lordships the chance to think again about that.
On Lords amendments 26 and 27, I should explain that subsection (1) of proposed new section 2A in Lords amendment 26 is an amendment made on Report by my noble Friend Lord Tyler. It is a clear amendment that does exactly what it says on the tin, and I have almost complete sympathy with it. Lord Harries added subsections (2) and (3), which render the amendment unworkable. If I may paraphrase what Lord Tyler said, the lawyers have got hold of it and they have gone far too far. In particular, it is almost impossible to work out how one would begin to consider policing subsection (3), which is so defective that it has rendered what was a sound amendment almost completely ineffective.
To those of us who like legislating, it might be quite fun to look at different definitions, but I seriously contend—I hope Mr Allen, who often helps me out on such matters, will agree—that subsections (2) and (3), particularly subsection (3), put a coach and horses through the very good amendment my noble Friend put through on Report in the other place. I suggest, therefore, that we reject it, because their lordships should be allowed to have another look at it. The intention was to simplify the Bill, making it easier and taking out bureaucracy. The amendment would, however, introduce massive complexity and a great deal of bureaucracy, and runs utterly counter to the other amendments that have been accepted. For that reason, I accept the Government’s view that it cannot be accepted and that their lordships should try again.
My final point is that there is an inconsistency. The limit is now £9,750, and the registration is £10,000. The fact is that any organisation in our constituencies could spend £9,000 and we would not know about it until after the election. It is a shame that we have not had a chance to address such an unintended consequence.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I just point out to the House that we have some 17 minutes left of this debate and that if each Member takes only just more than six minutes then everyone will have a chance to speak? If Members speak for longer than that, not everyone will have a chance to speak. It is up to Members to behave as they see fit.
I congratulate the shadow Minister on raising important issues. I do not say for one second that the Minister is ignoring them, but the fact is that charities are not convinced by the arguments put forward. Stephen McPartland said that the charities in his area have not contacted him with concerns. I can tell him that the charities in my constituency, and across the whole of Northern Ireland, have stated clearly that they do have concerns, and I want to present them now.
I support Lords amendment 45, which was tabled by Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He outlined some of the issues relating to seeking to narrow the requirement for third- party campaigners to account for staff costs, which has come up again and again. Charities in my area are deeply concerned by the original proposals, and we must address this. It is beneficial for staff costs to continue to be included in controlled expenditure in relation to election material, marketing and canvassing, and when they directly relate to communicating with the electorate. The simplification of the requirements will make them much more understandable and workable for charities. I agree with commentators who say that that will make it easier to comply with the proposed legislation. One need only ask any farmer about being bound in red tape by European legislation that stifles everything to understand why it would be prohibitive for charities to undertake the original provisions.
Might that not also deter small charities from campaigning in the first place, as well as placing those that do under a regulatory burden?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady, and that issue will run through all my comments.
I am thankful that the Lords has seen fit to make these amendments for our consideration. Were the amendments to fail, many charities could be prevented from doing charitable work, which would be a tragedy. The amendment on constituency limits will rightly reduce the regulatory burden on charities and voluntary organisations campaigning in individual constituencies. In particular, it will more clearly define the activities covered by the constituency controls so that they cover spending on election material sent to voters and households and unsolicited phone contact with them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment, and clearly those are issues that all charities have concerns about.
The amendment would also reduce the amount of red tape for charities simply seeking to help people who are unable to bear their own burdens. I have been contacted by charities—in Northern Ireland and across the UK—highlighting how some constituency boundaries split towns between two constituencies. For example, Ballynahinch is not only in my beautiful constituency, but in the constituency of South Down—the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) is not here—which makes clear why the amendment is necessary. I hope, therefore, that the House, like me, will support it.
I also support the amendment that would allow charities that work together in coalition to campaign together. Our recent debate on rare diseases, such as Duchenne and Prader-Willi, in Westminster Hall brought together and gave a voice to many different charity and health bodies. It was clear that such charities were so small that it made more sense for them to campaign and fundraise together under the umbrella of rare diseases while still working for their individual illnesses. The current situation is working and should be allowed to continue working, and the amendment goes some way to allowing them to work together to the benefit of all member groups. It would also eliminate the unfair anomaly in existing law that means that a partner in a charity coalition campaign on one issue would be limited in its spending on other, totally unrelated issues by virtue of the continued spending by other charity coalition partners.
Mencap has said:
“However, we are still concerned about the potential of the Bill to curtail legitimate campaigning by voluntary and community organisations. On a practical level we are concerned that staffing costs are still to be included in regulated expenditure and the rules around separate organisations working on joint campaigns are still unclear. We are most concerned about the subjective way in which the Bill aims to determine the intentions of a campaigning activity. Charities are already bound by charity law which prohibits party political campaigning. However, this Bill applies to campaigning by organisations which might influence elections—whether they intended to or not.”
We need clarity on how that issue of intention to influence will be dealt with, but we have not had it from the Minister. I agree with the comments of the shadow Minister and of the charities and organisations concerned, and I support the Lords amendments.
At the outset, I should say that I speak this afternoon as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Many of these amendments relate to amendments suggested in the Committee’s report, and I wish to acknowledge that the Government have moved considerably in its direction, particularly in relation to raising the threshold for non-party organisations to register with the Electoral Commission; to raising the spending limits for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; to reducing the regulatory period for the 2015 general election; and to introducing a review of non-party campaigning rules after the 2015 general election. Once again, we wish to place on the record our thanks to the Government for making those changes.
Let me move on to deal with some of the specific amendments. Given the concerns about the potential “chilling effect” of the Bill, it will be important for any post-election review of the non-party campaigning rules to include a careful examination of the impact of part 2 on campaigners’ rights to freedom of expression and association. Does the Minister envisage that such a review will specifically examine the practical effects of the Bill’s provisions on campaigners’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association?
It is worth noting some of the comments made in the second Chamber about the Government’s proposed post-election review of non-party campaigning rules after the 2015 general election. In withdrawing his amendment to exclude charities from the rules, Lord Phillips of Sudbury said that the review of the workings of this legislation in the wake of the 2015 election would be vital. In the discussion on the Government’s amendment to establish the post-election review, Lord Harries also stressed that this review would be essential.
In welcoming the Government amendment, let me nevertheless express once again unease at the fact that so much reliance is being placed on post-legislative scrutiny, particularly when there is an election in the intervening period, and repeat the concerns raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights about the lack of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny prior to the Bill’s publication.
Before concluding, let me draw attention, as other Members from across the Chamber have done, to the views and contribution of constituents. One of my constituents, Sylvia John of Briton Ferry, is one of many who wrote to urge me to support the Lords amendments, which I shall do later. Her words were echoed by Children in Wales, one of the most respected charitable organisations in Wales, whose chief executive, Catriona Williams said that the Bill remains “deeply problematic”.
My hon. Friend makes specific reference to Wales, and it is important to bear in mind that this Bill will impact not just on general elections, but on elections in the devolved areas of the United Kingdom, too.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
Finally, I thank my hon. Friend Mr Allen and his Select Committee for the tremendous work carried out right up to today, and particularly last night, to deliver the final report. We have had the benefit of being able to read it today. I also commend the work of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, under the wise chairmanship of Lord Harries of Pentregarth.
As a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I shall speak in support of the amendments we tabled, which would further enhance some of the Lords amendments. I welcome the amendments made in the House of Lords and I want to acknowledge that the Government have listened to some concerns. In particular, the Deputy Leader of the House made a visit to Belfast and heard from a number of groups, large and small, about the range of concerns they had. He signalled some of the adjustments that needed to be made and followed through on some of them, but limitations remain on others. People were pleased to have that direct hearing, but they are not necessarily satisfied that the Bill’s current shape and scope allays all their concerns. They are particularly concerned about the Government’s attempt to overturn Lords amendments 26, 27 and 108. That is what is providing the residual apprehension or concern about how things will go.
Some amendments were tabled, on the Select Committee’s behalf, by our Chairman, Mr Allen. Some propose to take some of the Lords amendments further and to de-clutter by reducing the red tape and providing a more sensible application and interpretation of the Bill. That is what the amendments are about; they are not about creating any gaping loopholes for big money to surge in and influence election campaigns, or indeed other things.
Stephen McPartland said that he had had no word from any of the small charities and other small groups in his constituency. I have had word from a great many, not just in my constituency but well beyond. Moreover, I have heard from no one about big money being thwarted. This is a major worry for groups who want to be involved in positive campaigns—not to influence election outcomes, but, perhaps, to influence people’s input by encouraging them to participate in elections and think and ask about the issues that they entail. Usually, in the year before an election campaign they are encouraging parties to make manifesto commitments.
In all his research on the Bill, has the hon. Gentleman come across any justification for the restriction to 2% of the maximum spend? Is there a rationale for it, or did the Government pluck it out of thin air?
I think that it may have been the latter. I have heard no significant or understandable rationale on which I have been able to rely.
While I accept that, in theoretical and intellectual terms, we want to ensure that we are proof against the PAC model in the future, I think that if we really want to prevent big money from influencing election campaigns, we ought to be legislating against what people such as Lord Ashcroft are able to do with their money, and its impact—its targeted impact—on particular constituencies. But of course that is not happening.
As for the legitimate third-party campaigning that we are discussing in the context of Northern Ireland, it is not influencing the outcome of elections, but is serving as a positive additive to politics, and helping to move our politics on. Money is not used to launch rallies aimed at mobilising voting in a particular direction, and encouraging people to vote for this or that party. People are generally encouraged to create hustings in order to improve the quality of debate, and to widen the range of issues that are discussed beyond the usual binary divide in Northern Ireland.
We should not be legislating in the pretence that some big problem or subversive interest is at work, and we should not be legislating in ways that disable the healthy and legitimate engagement in politics that I thought we all wanted to encourage.
Lords amendment 16 agreed to.
Lords amendments 17 and 104 to 107 agreed to.