Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:40 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 12:40 pm, 8th September 2016

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness for having given us the chance to debate this important topic. As some Members of your Lordships’ House will know, I have prepared a number of reviews of the sector. The work that I have done and the people I have met lead me to associate myself entirely with the noble Baroness’s remarks about the contribution that the charitable and voluntary sector has made to our society, especially as regards social cohesion.

However, there is an important cautionary word, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, who is not in her place, and it is that charitable status is not of itself a guarantee of good behaviour. I fear that there have been too many cases where governance, procedures and approach have fallen short. No matter that the vast and overwhelming majority of charities are doing the splendid job to which the noble Baroness referred; the sector needs to remember that its reputation with the public is as good as the weakest link in the chain. I am confident that the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, will investigate that, to find ways of making sure that the good stories are not driven out entirely by the bad.

I turn to my review of Part 2 of the transparency of lobbying Act. I am encouraged by the fact that a number of speakers so far have seemed to agree with my conclusion that we should aim for the maximum transparency on the issue of how and by whom the general public are influenced at the time of a general election. That must surely be the only way to maintain public trust and confidence in our electoral system. Elections must not be capable of being bought by third parties of whatever colour or persuasion operating behind a green baize door. At the same time, we need to make sure that the system does not constrain vigorous public debate, and that is the difficult balance that we have to strike.

Within the 100 pages of the review—I take this opportunity to thank everybody in the country who contributed by attending meetings and sending in evidence to the debate; I also thank the Cabinet Office team led by Cathryn Hannah and David Rowland, who helped prepare the report—there are perhaps two really critical matters. The first is: what needs to be regulated? I defined that as electoral campaigning— that is,

“activity focused on influencing the choice of the voting public at an election”.

I do not think that that regulation should cover advocacy of an issue that an organisation may carry out on a day-to-day basis—what I describe in the review as “business as usual”. Nor should it cover political campaigning which third parties carry out in talking directly to government, Members of your Lordships’ House or Members of the other place. Frankly, if we and Members of the other place cannot “aim off” to take account of the blandishments of such people, we are less good than I think we should be.

If that broad approach is accepted—of course, these are not absolutely discrete silos; one washes into another—one can safely recommend a shortening of the regulated period. In my view, the general public in the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck become aware of an impending general election only about four months ahead of the date of the election. Therefore, I feel that we can safely reduce the regulated period and thus the associated paperwork to the four-month period, as was mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries.

The second issue is: what constitutes a member of an organisation and therefore someone who can be approached without falling to be included in the cost of any lobbying activity? Historically, membership has been pretty easily defined—you fill in a form or you send in a cheque, a postal order or some money. But nowadays, with social media, these certainties have been blown away. A tick in a box or an email sent to hundreds of thousands of people at very low cost can make you a member. It will be only a matter of time before the concept of a negative pledge is used—that is, if you do not tick the box, you will be considered a member.

In my view, this potentially offers a serious loophole to the whole practice and risks undermining the lobbying activity in a very important way. So I have proposed the concept of a constitutional member who can influence the organisation of which they are a member, and I have laid out a number of tests that should be followed to ensure that that is being met.

However, as other noble Lords have said, third-party campaigning does not itself lead to neat definitions and packages. The continuing rapid rate of change in social media means that there will be a continuing impact on the way that third-party campaigning practices take place. For example, I had an analysis carried out of the use of Twitter in the Bradford West constituency at the last general election. It was a particularly vicious and fiercely fought campaign. Of the 35,000 Twitter users who referred to candidates in Bradford West, only 330—fewer than 1%—marked Bradford as their home address, compared to 12,000, or about one-third, who marked London and 506 who marked Pakistan. So I believe that, increasingly, campaigning will no longer respect national boundaries, and this will represent a challenge to us all.

In March this year, I presented my review to the then Minister, John Penrose MP. The broad conclusions and approach were, I think, welcomed by the sector and by the Government—if I judge ministerial responses at Question Time right. But so far there has been no official response, and I am asked frequently by those who helped me with the review what happens next. We appear to be in a good place. The sector appears reasonably happy and the Government seem reasonably happy. I hope that they will not allow the good will that they have rightly earned to be dissipated by undue delay.

I hope that my noble friend will enlighten the House on progress during her closing remarks. If she is not able to do so, I fear that I may have to intervene to press her a little harder.