“(11) The power to make provision by virtue of paragraph (9)(b) or (c) is exercisable only on, and in accordance with, a recommendation of the Electoral Commission.”
This amendment would require the Government to obtain the recommendation of the Electoral Commission before removing or varying categories of permitted campaigner.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard.
Part 4 and its provisions are a brazen attack on our democracy. They will undermine the ability of civil society organisations, charities and trade unions to engage and campaign in our democracy—that is why they are so controversial. We need to spend additional time considering them, and I hope that all Committee members will take up our amendments, which are reasonable, represent an improvement and come very much from civil society.
The provisions in question will infringe the rights of working people to organise politically or campaign on pay or rights at work, and they risk silencing the very people who got our country through the pandemic. They are an unnecessary and disproportionate reaction. They will not add to the integrity of our elections, but only have a chilling effect on democracy.
In a free and open society, democratically elected Governments are scrutinised by Opposition parties and civil society, often campaigning on single issues. Part of what makes democracy healthy is the freedom for civil society to challenge those in power, which the Government are seeking to curtail with the clause and which we seek to amend with amendments 71 and 72.
The clause will allow a Cabinet Office Minister to define who may legally campaign at elections, giving them the power to amend or remove the types of organisations that are allowed to spend as little as £700 on election campaigning across the whole UK. It also doubles as the list of organisations that are allowed to register with the Electoral Commission and spend more than £10,000 at elections. The Minister may now be able to ban charities that are critical of Government cuts to foreign aid, ban local community groups protesting against planning reforms, ban unions that might work with a political party for workplace rights, and ban anyone convicted of a public order offence. In conjunction with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which makes it much easier to criminalise protesters—even a protest involving one person—this would disproportionately impact on the Government’s most vocal and active opposition, who may have already been criminalised for protesting. That is a terrifying prospect and, as far as I can see, quite unprecedented.
The Bill is not about influence. It is a way for the Government to stifle their critics before elections and cripple them during elections. Giving the Government such power over their opposition during elections is completely at odds with free and fair elections. It is deeply inappropriate and offensive to our democratic tradition. Unions and other campaign organisations have a right to engage in our democracy and already face a highly regulated landscape, which is why the clause is unnecessary.
The hon. Lady says this is the Government stifling their opposition. Actually, civil society, trade unions and charitable organisations are all our opposition, because they put equal pressure on all candidates and parties that stand in an election, as they want to achieve policy change. Obviously, some organisations are more closely affiliated with political parties than others are, but many of them are party-neutral in that sense, because they want to drive a policy change rather than see one party be successful in any given constituency or general election.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is a range of political opinions and opinions about different issues that are not necessarily the main bread and butter of political parties, but which are so vital, especially in an election time, when we are talking about the future of such a wide range of policy decisions that are about to be made on behalf of the electorate. Unless we accept the amendment, we face the risk of some groups, individuals, community organisations and single-issue campaigns being unnecessarily banned from taking part in the electoral process. There will be scandals ahead unless we accept the amendment.
Labour’s amendments 71 and 72 seek to temper the clause. Amendment 71 will delete the unprecedented and dangerous powers to remove categories of permitted campaigners while respecting the Government’s stated intention to future-proof electoral law by allowing the addition of novel categories of campaigner. It is flexible and can still respond to new issues and campaigns as we go forward, but it does not have the draconian and heavy-handed influence of only the Minister choosing who is on the list. Amendment 72 requires the Government to obtain the recommendation of the Electoral Commission before removing or varying categories of permitted campaigner, and I hope all Members will agree that it is a very reasonable amendment.
Both amendments are necessary to prevent a Minister from having the unprecedented ability to interfere in a free and fair election. They also have significant civil society support, including from Bond—British Overseas NGOs for Development—which represents over 400 organisations, ranging from small specialist charities to large, international non-governmental organisations. It has many supporters in all our constituencies, with a worldwide presence, and believes that:
“This is an extremely broad power which could be open to abuse by future governments.”
I would add that it could be open to abuse by the current Government. Bond has urged that it be amended, and so do I.
Clause 23 builds directly on the requirements put in place by clause 22. As I have mentioned, the aim of clause 22 is to remove the scope for foreign entities to spend above a £700 de minimis amount during the regulated period running up to an election by restricting all third party campaigner spending at that time to spending by entities that are eligible to register with the Electoral Commission, as in section 88 of PPERA.
However, we are conscious that legitimate categories of third party that are not on the list of categories of campaigners may emerge in future, and clause 22 would significantly restrict their ability to campaign if they could not be added to the list quickly. For that reason, clause 23 makes provision for the amendment of the list of eligible categories of third party campaigners in PPERA. It will allow the Government to add to, remove items from, or otherwise amend the list of categories of third party campaigners as necessary. Any such changes will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the affirmative procedure. These provisions will ensure that we can be responsive to the emergence of new groups, and that eligible categories of third party are not unduly restricted from campaigning and participating in our democracy in future. I therefore urge the Committee to allow the clause to stand part of the Bill.