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Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:25 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 12:25 pm, 8th September 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for initiating this debate. As she emphasised, charities and campaigning groups of various kinds play a vital role in our society. The health of our democracy depends not just on political parties but also on organisations which are rooted in the varied experiences of people’s lives being able to bring different viewpoints to bear, not least at election time.

It is absolutely right that all such groups should be regulated and that they should be required to be transparent in what they do. At election time it is again right that they should not be able to spend money disproportionately compared to political parties and candidates. However, Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 was itself disproportionate in the way in which it sought to limit third party campaigning at election time. It was hastily put together without consultation, driven by a fear of American-style political action committees coming to this country—a fear without serious foundation. The evidence of third party groups was, and is now, that it would, and does, seriously inhibit their legitimate activity.

The House was, thank goodness, able to achieve some little improvements in this lamentable piece of legislation, one being that there should be a review of how it worked at the last election. That review, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, has now taken place and the report published. We are very grateful to him for it. It bears out many of the criticisms made in this House during the passage of the Bill and urges some significant changes. Many of these were argued for by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which I have the privilege of chairing.

I will briefly summarise some of these recommendations. First, instead of the phrase,

“can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote electoral success” for any party or candidate—which was thought to be too wide and uncertain—the Hodgson review recommends that this should be changed to one of actual intention to procure success in an election, along the lines of the Representation of the People Act 1983. I believe that this change would be welcomed by charities in particular, because it would be aligned with what their status as charities allows them to do anyway.

Secondly, the review recommends that the electoral period for regulation should be reduced from one year to four months—the same as for European and devolved legislatures. All the evidence submitted shows that third parties focus on elections at the most six months before the date. To require them to delineate expenditure relating to the election from normal expenditure a whole year before is an unnecessary, bureaucratic burden.

A third area of concern is how expenditure for joint campaigning should be allocated. It is good practice for charities to work together when appropriate and possible, but Part 2 of the lobbying Act in effect frustrated this purpose. The Hodgson review recommends important changes in this area.

Those are just a few of a number of important recommendations. My first question to the Minister is: when is the Hodgson review to be brought before the House? When would she see these vital changes, if agreed, being made to Part 2 of the lobbying Act? It is deeply flawed and needs to be amended in order to ensure that third party groups can play their proper role without the undue chilling effect that the Act, as it now stands, has had.

My other main concern is the anti-advocacy policy brought in and announced by the Government in February. The Government’s stated intention was to prevent funds paid to charities by government being used to fund lobbying. As has already been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, this has aroused widespread disquiet. The fact is that charities are regularly called upon by officials within departments to bring real-world experience of users and evidence-based expertise into public policy, and to engage with parliamentarians on these issues; for example, through providing evidence to Select Committees.

Clear guidance already exists about what charities can and cannot campaign and advocate on. However, it is critical that charities are able to speak up on behalf of their beneficiaries and are seen to be independent from government regardless of their financial arrangements. Charities are concerned that this clause could be perceived as limiting what they can and cannot say about important issues for fear that this will have an impact on their funding. Therefore, my second question to the Minister concerns this proposed policy—if it is still in place, as there seems to be a great deal of confusion about whether this proposal will be enacted. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that. Does she not fundamentally agree—as put so powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port—that charities that are in the front line of trying to respond to human need are best placed to bring before government the way in which policies can help or hinder the meeting of that need, and that bringing this experience and expertise to bear on government thinking is therefore vital and should not be inhibited in any way?

I was very surprised by the bitter criticism of the National Trust expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. As a member of the National Trust—one of its, I believe, 4 million members, the biggest mass organisation in the country—I am deeply grateful to it every time I walk a nice piece of coastal path that it has acquired. The noble Lord particularly supports farmers who want to continue to graze sheep on the uplands. However, his policy is strongly opposed by people with such disparate views as those of George Monbiot on the one hand and Sir Simon Jenkins on the other, who argue that most of the problems of flooding in the Lake District are caused by overgrazing of sheep in the uplands, and that if it is rewilded, as it is called, the water will be able to seep into the ground and the problem of flooding will be greatly alleviated. It is absolutely right that an organisation such as the National Trust should make that view known and, in so far as it is able to implement it on its own property, that it should be able to do so. Of course, there is the point of view of farmers and others but it is right that the National Trust should also be able to express its important point of view gained from its own experience.

However, my main point is that campaigning groups and charities play an essential role in making our democracy vibrant and living and their ability to do this should not be inhibited in any way.