Amendment 41

Elections Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 11:54 am on 17 March 2022.

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Lord Collins of Highbury:

Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

41: Clause 25, page 35, leave out line 6

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am acutely aware of the call from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, so I will try to avoid speaking for too long, but at times there are points of principle that one has to address. Of course, the good thing about Committee is that the House is at its best in terms of probing what exactly is meant by and what is the intent of particular clauses. I have sought to get a clear view about the impact of Clause 25 and where it could lead.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has said many times in the House that the majority of non-party campaigning organisations, whether they are unions, charities or think tanks, do not exist primarily to campaign in elections. Expressing a public view at election time is not their primary purpose. The vast majority of their expenditure and activity is on other work, and they generally have quite limited staff—or volunteers, for that matter—to give support for election regulation compliance. The rules require these non-party campaigners to make a judgment about where they have incurred regulated expenditure.

As we have heard in previous debates—of course, lot of these clauses are interrelated—the guidance of the independent Electoral Commission is invaluable in helping non-party organisations navigate incredibly difficult and complicated rules that are defined loosely in legislation. There is a requirement to lean on the Electoral Commission. The fact that a Secretary of State could, under the Bill, direct the commission to amend its guidance—in effect, changing the rules—is deeply worrying.

As we have heard previously in Committee, election expenditure is regulated for the 12 months leading up to a general election. As the Minister rightly pointed out, this has been in place for quite a while. If the definition of what constitutes regulated campaigning were to change during that period, organisations would clearly find themselves having breached the rules retrospectively. That, of course, is the chilling effect that we have referred to that we need properly to address.

It goes without saying that this level of ministerial and therefore political oversight of the Electoral Commission undermines the independence of the regulator and opens the door to political interference in the regulation of campaign activity by party and non-party campaigners alike. This is deeply worrying; it conflicts with our democratic traditions and is an extension of the trend of governmental interference in previously independent regulators.

The legal definition of “joint campaigning” is loose and organisations rely on the Electoral Commission’s guidance to tread the line between working in a formal coalition and the usual sharing of information and communication that happens organically between organisations that have common goals, even if they do not have a common structure.

Were the Secretary of State to direct the commission to change this guidance, it could dramatically change the political campaigning landscape. I will come on to a particular concern that the Labour Party has on how it can impact on our structures, particularly in that since our establishment, the Labour Party’s constitution is a federal body, with independent organisations coming together to establish it. That structure remains in place despite the introduction in 1917 of individual membership. We are a hybrid organisation—federal but having the rights of individual membership.

The effect of Clauses 23 and 24 together would be to allow the Secretary of State, by statutory instrument, to add, remove or define permitted participants in electoral campaigns, and to prevent the categories of organisation spending more than £700 on an election campaign in the 12-month period. The Minister has said to my colleagues that the clauses are there to add, and there may be changing circumstances. We have tabled these amendments because those categories of organisations in PPERA include trade unions, and the idea that we are now contemplating putting into legislation the power for a Secretary of State to remove that category, which could include trade unions, is extremely worrying. The Minister might be able to give an assurance that he and his Government have no intention of doing that and that this is not what the Bill is about or what this clause seeks to do, and I may trust him, but I am not sure that a future Government might not exploit the powers that he seeks in this Bill to damage traditional democratic campaigning, including trade unions.

The TUC has met the Bill team, and so has TULO, the organisation of trade unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party. They have expressed their concerns. I hope that the Minister can acknowledge those concerns, even if this was not his intent with this clause, and come up with ways that they can be properly addressed, so that we are not opening the door to a further possibility of attacks on democratic organisations such as trade unions, which are incredibly tightly regulated at the moment. Their political funds are regulated, their structures are regulated through the certification officer, and they must file annual returns which include all their political fund expenditure. I hope that the Minister can address our concerns and those of the trade union movement. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:00, 17 March 2022

My Lords, if this amendment is agreed, I cannot call Amendment 44, because of pre-emption.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I will speak on whether Clause 25 should stand part, which is grouped with these amendments in an attempt to improve Clause 25. I will begin with some remarks about Part 4 as we have so far examined it.

I came away from Tuesday’s Committee much more worried about the coherence of this Bill than I had been until then. We learned that Clause 18 is there primarily to reverse the court’s judgment in the Thanet election case, although the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, in her reply, attempted to persuade us that it does not really change the law; in which case, the clause is not necessary. We learned that Clause 22 was entirely about the threat to our electoral system posed by a body called Advance Together, which, on examination, fought five seats in the 2019 election and gained in total just over 400 votes. We did not learn the purpose of Clause 24. Indeed, after the Minister’s explanation, I and others were more puzzled about the purpose of this clause than we had been before we started, and worried as to whether there is some underhand objective that we have not yet uncovered.

When reading through Section 88 of PPERA last night, which defines “recognised third parties”, I could find no reference to unincorporated associations as recognised third parties. Can the Minister or his staff kindly inform me before Report whether the inclusion of unincorporated associations in Clause 24 is intended to bring these bodies within this category for the first time or whether they were already covered in existing legislation? I also found in the briefing a reference to permitting only overseas-based unincorporated associations consisting entirely of UK citizens, which is not the wording in the Government’s text.

The Minister gave us to believe that the small group of former Liberal Democrats who formed Advance Together, and then merged it into Renew, represented a major threat to the UK, but that foreign money and foreign interference, most evidently from Russia, do not present any serious threat. The Minister suggested that the paragraphs in the ISC’s Russia report and elsewhere that flag up the seriousness of that threat are little more than “innuendo”. It is astonishing that he can suggest that Russian interference should not be a serious concern to us as we consider this Bill—at this point above all.

Now we have Clause 25, which gives full power to the Secretary of State to add or remove descriptions of third parties from the approved list. I am grateful to the Minister for offering us a government amendment to delete the power to

“make such amendments of this Part as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”,

but this is only because the Government consider that PPERA already provides sufficient authority. As I wade through sections of PPERA to understand the provisions of this Bill, with the occasional reference to the earlier Representation of the People Act, I am repeatedly reminded of the CSPL’s declaration in its report on election finance that there is an “unarguable” case in favour of consolidating and simplifying electoral law.

The Minister must recognise, as he struggles to explain and justify this Bill clause by clause, that it totally fails to consolidate or simplify. The Electoral Commission’s briefing for Second Reading stated, accurately, that the changes in Part 4, including these clauses,

“would add new requirements to laws which many campaigners have said are already complex and hard to understand. The added complexity of these changes could deter some from campaigning at elections ... Voters could therefore ... hear from a narrower range of sources.”

It therefore falls to the Minister to justify the inclusion of Clause 25 and the powers that it gives to the Secretary State, and to explain, as we keep asking, what problem it is intended to resolve. If he cannot persuade us that it is necessary, we shall ask for it to be removed.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I support the intention to oppose Clause 25 standing part of the Bill, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. In so doing, I also support Amendments 41 and 42, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.

Clause 25 introduces significant delegation of powers in relation to Clause 24, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has indicated. We understood from the Minister last week that the purpose of Clause 24 is to protect the country from electioneering by overseas organisations. I am quite happy to support the Government in that purpose. However, the Minister was unable to assure the Committee last week that non-charitable civil society organisations in this country would remain outside the scope of Clause 24 and therefore also, importantly, of Clause 25. I hope that the Minister can clarify this significant point in his summing up.

I do not want to repeat my concerns about Clauses 24 and 25, which I expressed last Thursday, so will focus solely on the delegated powers in Clause 25, and in so doing declare my interest as a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.

It is concerning that, in Clause 25, the Government have provided wide-ranging powers for Ministers to amend Section 88 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to which Clause 24 applies. In a sense, it feels a little unnatural to be talking about Clause 25 when these two clauses are so very closely aligned and intertwined. The Government need a very good reason to introduce Henry VIII powers under which a Minister can amend an Act of Parliament.

I want to focus on Clause 25(1)(b) in that respect. I am sure that the Minister is aware that the DPRRC has particular concerns about this paragraph, which relates to the list of third-party organisations that can exceed the spending limits contained in Section 94 of PPERA. He may also be aware that, in its memorandum to the DPRRC, the department admits that preventing other categories of third party being able to campaign has the potential to impinge on freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR and the right to enjoy a free election under Article 3 of the first protocol of the convention. The department has argued that it is important that, if a legitimate category of third party emerges, it can be added quickly to the legitimate categories to ensure that these restrictions on campaigning remain proportionate and no more extensive than is necessary to meet the aim of preventing campaigning by those with no genuine stake in the UK. As I said, I understand that objective, but this clause seems to go much wider and, with the delegated powers in Clause 25, we have no idea where it may go. The DPRRC is clear that the Minister needs to explain the need for Ministers to have Henry VIII powers to remove third parties. If Ministers are unable to provide a satisfactory explanation, these powers are inappropriate. That is the view of the DPRRC, not my view—I am simply a member.

I have brought this issue to the Floor of the Committee because if the Minister can explain the need for these Henry VIII powers in Clause 25 it may help noble Lords when deciding whether to bring back this issue on Report. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that organisations based in the UK and which are not controlled from overseas will be clearly excluded by the Bill from Clauses 24 and Clause 25, thus taking fully into account the concerns of the DPRRC.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I too am a member of the Delegated Powers Committee and I support everything she said about the delegated powers provisions we are considering. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I support the amendments proposed by my noble friends Lord Collins and Lady Hayman.

There are 6.56 million trade union members in this country, which is one in 10 of the population, from babes in arms to our oldest citizens. Trade unions were defined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in The History of Trade Unionism, in 1894, as

“a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the condition of their working lives.”

They achieve this in two ways: first, by seeking to regulate relations between workers and employers, a purpose which is captured by Section 1 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, and, secondly, by campaigning for changes in the law. They have a glorious history in that respect, from the “Ten Hours Act”, factory and mines legislation, and, after they had formed the Labour Party, the Trade Disputes Act 1906 and many other pieces of legislation through the 20th century.

That campaigning function is a legitimate activity, protected by Articles 10 and 11 of the European convention. Article 11 protects freedom of association and specifically the right to be a member of a trade union for the protection of one’s interests, and Article 10 protects freedom of expression. Only restrictions which are

“necessary in a democratic society” are permitted on those two guaranteed rights.

The restrictions proposed in the Bill have never been required, although political expenditure by trade unions has been intensely regulated by statute since the Trade Union Act 1913. It cannot be said that the measures we are considering today are necessary in a democratic society. It is of course true that states have a margin of appreciation, but not to the extent of potentially extinguishing trade unions’ rights to campaign where that campaign coincides with campaigns run by one or more political parties in an election.

As my noble friend Lord Collins pointed out, Clauses 24 and 25 would allow the Secretary of State to add, remove or define permitted participants in election campaigns by statutory instrument and effectively restrict categories of organisations spending more than £700 on election campaigning in the 12 months leading to a general election—which could be a snap election that is not in the minds of unions spending money on campaigning.

Unless the amendments under discussion are accepted, there is a possibility that the trade union right to campaign may be extinguished. How does the Minister justify the statement at the front of the Bill:

Lord True has made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998: In my view the provisions of the Elections Bill are compatible with the Convention rights”?

It does not appear to me that that is the case.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench 12:15, 17 March 2022

My Lords, when I first came into this House I got involved with the Trade Union Bill, like a number of other noble Lords. I did so because I was seriously concerned that it was unbalanced and partisan legislation that worked against the interests of one political party in this country. I fear that Part 4 of this Bill has much the same effect. We should be aware that, despite the complexities of this issue, the impact could in effect well be the same. The Committee should be very concerned about that.

Clause 25 adds to the imbalance, with the addition of executive power. It is a pity that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, is not in his place, because he would be very strong and vocal on this issue. Before we could possibly agree this additional power for the Secretary of State, we need to understand the reason for it and why it could not be dealt with in some other way. We should not lightly give additional powers, and I would like to hear from the Minister precisely why this is necessary and why it could not be dealt with in a different fashion; otherwise, we should not agree to it.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wish to follow the themes that the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and other noble Lords have alluded to. I came to this Bill slightly worried but with open ears to hear where it was going. As we have got more into Committee, the more worried I have become about a level playing field for elections. Regardless of the colour of a political party, a level playing field is what is required. With Part 4 and Clause 25 along with other clauses, it is becoming more worrying.

If you were to say to an ordinary person outside this House that the Bill would put the Electoral Commission more in the pocket of the party of government, regardless of its colour; to limit organisations, which at the moment can campaign 12 months out from a general election and spend £20,000 before they have to register, to £700; and that the stroke of the Secretary of State’s pen—that is what we are talking about—decides what type of organisation or individual is deemed to be allowed to campaign, I think most of the British public would say that was not a fair and equal way to carry out an election.

I come back to the central question that a number of noble Lords have asked: what is the problem that this clause is trying to deal with? How big is that problem? As someone who has been involved in elections since the age of 15, I am not clear what the problem is that requires my third question: what is it that requires the speed and the secrecy of the Secretary of State’s pen to deal with it? Those are the three questions that I ask the Minister. I hope that he will give detailed and, as he normally does, reasoned answers to what the clause is trying to solve, how big the problem is and, if he can explain the first two, why the only option is a Henry VIII power for the Secretary of State to decide what type of organisation or individual is deemed legal to campaign in such a way.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour

My Lords, I too express my deep concerns about the ways in which the Bill contravenes the Human Rights Act and indeed our constitutional commitments. I have canvassed the views of human rights lawyers and constitutional lawyers, and I am afraid I find it very difficult to see where the Government’s advice has come from that this complies with our commitments and obligations under our own legislation and constitutional commitments. When people say, “Let us think twice”, it is a reminder to this House about our role in causing hesitation when something of such significance in our democracy is going to interfere with the fundamentals. I call upon us to hesitate before going down this road, and to question what its purposes really are.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, I would like to say a word of caution as well. When I look at a piece of legislation, I invariably say, “How would this work if the political parties were changed—if, instead of us implementing it, the party opposite were doing so?” If it passes that test because it is a fair piece of legislation, then I think that is within the Government’s right.

My concern here is that we are unbalancing the structure and that a Secretary of State—from a party, my party, that clearly is not well known for its love of the trade union movement—could exercise these powers, which may need exercising but not in this way by these people. We have to be very careful with the Electoral Commission because it is in all our interests for it to be seen as fair, independent and trustworthy. I am not going to make lots of speeches on this Bill because they would all be essentially the same, but I am afraid I am concerned about the way the Bill is tipping things.

I clearly have no interest in funding Labour Party campaigns, but I have an interest in there being a level playing field and people being able to campaign. My personal view, which I will mention in debate on another clause, is that party financing has got completely out of control and needs fundamental reform. You cannot run a democracy on selling games of tennis. When we say, “We have a great democracy and we’re really proud of it”, we are asked, “Oh yes? How do you fund it?”, and we have to reply, “Well, the Prime Minister plays tennis with Russians, and we get quite a bit of money in from that.”

When I came into politics, which was a long time ago—about 60 years, to be exact—the great joke was that you could not have a party function without a raffle and you could not run an election without at least a couple of jumble sales. When I was eventually disposed of by the Labour Party, which in retrospect was actually not a bad thing, I joined the Conservatives

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

I have followed the noble Lord’s career for all those 60 years in great detail; I remember when we worked together in the Co-operative Party. I think his recollection is just a little wrong. My recollection is that he left us; we did not kick him out.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

I have a letter signed by none other than the great Mr Blair terminating my membership of the Labour Party for a disciplinary offence, which was running for an office that was not actually reserved for any political party but was supposedly open to all. Mr Blair decided that I was to be forbidden from running for that office. I had won the election fairly easily because it gave people an excuse; they were voting not for Balfe but against the Iraq war, which was a bit odd because the job I was standing for was administrator of the European Parliament pension fund.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

Was the noble Lord not running for a well-paid lucrative post within the European Parliament?

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

I suggest to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that he stops making a fool of himself. This was not a paid post; it was an elected post within the European Parliament, known colloquially as “shop steward”—I see the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, nodding—that attracted no pay but you got some staff, a big office and the ability to actually get things done for the members. By definition, it was a non-political post. It had no politics attached to it, which made what happened even more odd. I will bring the noble Lord the letter; I will get it out of the LSE archives.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

Could the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, just help us with something? Having gone down this road, we need to complete the journey. I think I understand why he was removed from the Labour Party, and why he presumably accepted the post, but I would like to know what it was he found particularly attractive about the Conservatives. It is one thing to leave the Labour Party, but to join the Tories, I mean—

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

From my position in the trade union movement, I knew there were quite a lot of right-wing people in AUEW/TASS. We were not all bleeding-heart liberals; we were actually toughies. I had no difficulty in joining the Conservative Party because I felt that it reflected many of my values.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I am enjoying this exchange, although obviously we need to focus on the clause. In recent times the noble Lord has addressed this House about the discipline that has been imposed on him by the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, so that seems to be a common thread through his career.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

I think we should stop our entertainment and get back to the purpose of the Bill.

My concern about the Bill is that it leads to an uneven playing field—it is as simple as that. If we are to have reform, it should be by some form of consensus, although I know that has been incredibly difficult to achieve. I take a rather puritan view as to how much should be spent on elections. We need to get back to a situation where a democracy consists of people asking for votes, not of people going out and attempting to buy them. To my mind, the party funding system has got completely out of kilter.

I see the Bill as unbalanced because it gives an unhealthy level of power to one party. That is my fundamental objection to it, and I ask the Government—although I doubt they will do much about it—to look at strengthening the Electoral Commission and maybe giving it the powers it needs to regulate elections, but not hand them to a political source which, even if it is the most straightforward and honourable politician in the world, will always be suspected of bias. I am afraid that is the way that politics works. If one party has power over another in this respect, it will not be seen as a level playing field, so in my mind this is not good legislation.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour 12:30, 17 March 2022

My Lords, I rise briefly to contribute to Committee on the Elections Bill, rather than take part in the “Lord Balfe Down Memory Lane Amendment (No. 2) Bill”, which I, like other Members, have enjoyed. We are discussing in this clause the powers of the Secretary of State, yet this is the same Minister who will pilot the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which, as we know, will restore the position where, in effect, a general election might be called at short notice.

Will the Minister explain in responding how the clauses we are discussing—the powers of the Secretary of State to add or remove from a list—would be exercised in the event of a very sudden general election? Would it be possible for the Minister suddenly to say, after an election has been announced, that such and such will or will not be allowed to take part in it, with the expenditure limits that follow? I would be very interested to know the answer to that and how they fit together. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

Will the noble Viscount take that a bit further? It is not just after the general election has been called; the Prime Minister will now have the sole power of calling the general election and knowing the date. It could be that, a few months before the general election, in a couple of marginal seats in which organisations are particularly difficult, the Government could, at the stroke of the Secretary of State’s pen, proscribe those people from campaigning. Does the Minister—I apologise, the noble Viscount—accept that that could take place?

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

First, I thank the noble Lord for promoting me to a position that I am unlikely ever to hold. I do not disagree with him. As I said, it is the relationship between what is being proposed in the Elections Bill and the fact that we are moving to a situation where, if a Prime Minister so decides, we can have an election at short notice. These areas, including those raised by the noble Lord, deserve a bit of exploration. I would be ever so grateful if the Minister could add that to the list of things he intends to cover in his reply.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, the noble Viscount should not be so modest and reticent about the possibility of achieving ministerial office. If we have the quick election that we might have when the situation arises that the Prime Minister can call an election, the Labour Government might welcome his presence on the ministerial Benches in the House of Lords. I would certainly do so.

I do not want to go down memory lane again with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, but I genuinely pay tribute to him. I know that we had a little to and fro earlier in which I seemed to imply that I did not appreciate him; I do appreciate that, on many occasions, he has criticised his own Conservative Government—just as he used to criticise our Government—and we should give him credit for that. It is to his credit that he sees the flaws in this Bill and others and has said so.

We debated earlier the need to have Tuesday morning sittings. This Bill, including this clause, is one of the reasons why we will have these sittings. The Government have tabled this huge omnibus Bill; it includes this provision that has been rightly criticised by my noble friend, but it also includes so many other things. It is an omnibus Bill of grievances and vendettas of the Conservative Government against the Labour Party and the trade union movement. It is an attempt to ensure that there are Conservative Governments for ever. That is what they are up to. They believe it is their right to rule and they are trying to find ways to make it more and more difficult for other parties and more and more difficult for electors to cast their votes and particularly for poorer people to participate in the electoral procedure. This clause is part of that.

I hope that the Minister, in his discussions in his department and government, will express the views of so many people, including some on his own side, as we know, that it is not helpful to keep pressing this Bill. Going back to the debate we had earlier, it would make life a lot easier and make it less likely for us to be sitting into the early hours of the morning and coming in on Tuesday mornings if this Bill were abandoned. This clause is one of the many reasons why it should be. I hope that, at some point in our debates in Committee and on Report—if we ever get there—he will feel able to come to that view.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I make it clear at the outset—I will take any intervention noble Lords want to make—that the Government’s view is there is an issue being raised in Clause 25, which I will address.

Before doing so, I thought I had answered the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on spending by unincorporated associations on our previous day in Committee, but I am very happy to arrange for her to have a full explanation from either me or officials. The purpose of lines 25 to 28 on page 33 of the Bill is to carve out from Clause 24 precisely the kinds of bodies that she describes: charities and all those listed there which are allowed to campaign.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

If I may complete my remarks, they will not be subject to the new provisions in Clause 24, which, as I explained last time, will restrict foreign campaigning, with which I think the Committee agrees. I am very happy to meet the noble Baroness outside and explain this further.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. As a point of clarification, I understood that charities will not be included. That is not the issue. I am concerned about non-charitable bodies from abroad, which are not controlled. If he could make that clear, that would be very helpful.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

All those bodies in the current list in Section 88(2) of PPERA are carved out, whatever their description. We will come on to the concerns raised about what is in Clause 25, but I repeat that assurance. In saying that, I understand some of the suspicions and concerns raised by noble Lords.

I do not wish to be adversarial in any way, but the other thing I would say in starting is this. As I have said several times in these discussions, I agree that, one day, ideally, a consolidation Bill would be highly desirable. I fully accept that. There are issues here that are relatively urgent, whether we are agree or not: for example, around foreign money, digital campaigning and so on and so forth. The Government are seeking to make progress on those, but it is not a zero-sum game. In presenting this legislation—by the way, as a Minister who has himself had to try to get his mind round all the various references and cross-references in the Bill—I am not in any way saying that a consolidation Bill, one day, is not a desirable end. Anybody involved in the political world would agree.

Clause 25 is really what this debate is about. The potential problems and suspicions—raised, for example, by the noble Viscount—arise from the perceived view of Clause 25 that has been expressed in this debate. Perhaps I could deal with the first part, which is about potentially adding new categories. We are conscious that, as the world evolves, new legitimate categories of third parties that are not currently on the list might emerge. Because they are not protected by the carve-out in Section 88(2), they might be significantly restricted in their ability to campaign by this provision if they could not be added to the list quickly. That is why Clause 25 makes provision for the amendment of the list of eligible categories of third-party campaigns in PPERA, to add a new category of campaigner that might emerge. That would allow any Government, not just this Government, to amend the list to enable new groups or styles of campaigners to take part. Parliament would have a lock on that, via the affirmative resolution procedure.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I simply wish to congratulate the Minister on following so very clearly the precautionary principle in legislating here for something that has not yet happened and might happen, because it would be useful to have this in place if it did happen. That is what I understand him to be saying.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am saying that there is a practical possibility that this might arise. I take it that, however expressed, that was assent from those Benches, and I am grateful for that.

These provisions will ensure that we can be responsive to the emergence of new categories of third parties, or changes to the legal description of existing categories of third parties—there is some legal language in Section 88(2) —so that they are not unduly restricted from campaigning and participating in our democracy in the future. That is added with a parliamentary lock.

I am grateful for the engagement on the points we come to next; I have heard the concerns of the Liberal Democrat and other Benches, most notably, as we heard again in the debate today, from the party opposite. I thank all who have spoken to me on this subject, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, for the points he made on Clause 25 regarding the power to remove—the specific subject of his amendment—or vary the list.

I hope that part of making progress on a Bill is making progress, but it is the person at the Dispatch Box who has the responsibility to listen—my job as a Minister. I hope we can go forward with that in mind.

The Government have listened to the concerns raised. I pay great respect to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s recent report on the subject of Ministers having the power to remove entries from the list of eligible categories of third-party campaigners in Section 88(2). That is why I asked my officials to meet, as the noble Lord said, with the TUC and TULO on 7 March to discuss their concerns.

Although powers to update lists in legislation are not unusual—and indeed can be important where, either due to changes in legal definitions or oversight, Governments may need to respond quickly—we acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed. The Government have heard the concerns around whether the power in Clause 25 could be abused by a future Government. I reassure the noble Lord and others who have spoken that before the next stage of the Bill I intend to consider at the very least what further safeguards could be added to the clause, along the lines of, for example, Amendments 42 and 45 from the noble Lord, relating to the role of the Electoral Commission. I have heard the force of opinion in the Committee on these provisions.

I undertake to engage on what I think is an important and significant issue, about which reasonable concerns have been expressed by noble Lords in the course of the debate. I undertake to have further, constructive discussions on that line to come to a solution, because the Government accept that what is in the Bill at the moment arouses concerns that we need to address.

I hope that, in that light, the noble Lord will feel able to not press his amendments. I assure the Committee that I very much conceive it as my duty at the Dispatch Box to listen to the concerns expressed by your Lordships.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour 12:45, 17 March 2022

My Lords, the Minister is now going to consider safeguards under Clause 25. I invite him to bear in mind that, in order to avert the danger under Clause 25(1)(9)(b) of

“removing a description of third party from that list”,

if the possibility remains of trade unions being excluded or put in that category, it will have to be justified, by reference to the convention, as necessary in a democratic society. That is a high hurdle.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I have given a very clear undertaking that I will consider this concern. As it stands, the provision potentially affects not only trade unions. The immediate and direct concern, as has been expressed by noble Lords, is in relation to trade unions, but obviously the power as it stands is, exactly as the Delegated Powers Committee pointed out, far-reaching. I will of course take all issues into account in considering this. I can only repeat my good intent, and, I hope, in my humble state, power to make progress to address the concerns that have been raised by your Lordships on this clause.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s comments and the discussions that will follow. However, I must press him on just one point, so that I can at least have the benefit of his advice. Is it the intention that the powers we are discussing could be exercised by any Secretary of State after a sudden general election has been called?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, having listened to the debate, the noble Viscount’s contribution was obviously one that I heard. The Bill as drafted—like any other Member, I can only parse a Bill that is put before your Lordships House—has no restriction on what time or in what condition it might be adopted. That is why, I thought, I heard widespread concern from the Committee. When I started, I said I thought that the answer to the noble Viscount may not lie in addressing any particular possible set of circumstances but in trying to address the wider concern that your Lordships have about these provisions. That is the undertaking I am giving between now and Report. I have said that, at the very least, we will look with interest at the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s response to this debate. I think we are making progress. The fact that the Minister recognises that there are genuine concerns shows the benefit of proper scrutiny of these clauses. I hope that, in his consideration of what might come from the Government on this clause before Report, he will consult both the TUC and TULO to ensure that they understand the rationale behind it. I am sure he will. I welcome the Minister’s comments and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 41 withdrawn.

Amendment 42 not moved.