Clause 24 - Recognised third parties: changes to existing limits etc

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 26th October 2021.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 9:45 am, 26th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 76, in clause 24, page 33, line 23, at end insert—

“(5C) Registered charities and Community Interest Companies may act as a recognised third party subject to the lower-tier expenditure limits without the requirement to give the Electoral Commission notification under section 88 of PPERA.”

This amendment would exempt registered charities and Community Interest Companies from the notification and registration requirements of Clause 24, which introduces a new lower tier registration for third party campaigners who spend more than £10,000 on controlled expenditure anywhere in the UK.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 77, in clause 24, page 33, line 23, at end insert—

“(5C) Registered charities and Community Interest Companies (CICs) which intend to incur election expenditure within the lower-tier expenditure limits may provide the Electoral Commission with their charity or CIC registration number, and the Commission—

(a) shall treat that information as sufficient for the charity’s or CIC’s notification and registration for electoral purposes under section 88 of PPERA, and

(b) may collect any information the Commission requires about the charity or CIC from the Charities Commission or Companies House respectively.”

This amendment seeks allow charities or Community Interest Companies who wish to campaign at elections within the lower tier of expenditure and which are already subject to transparency requirements to avoid the additional compliance burden arising from Clause 24.

Amendment 90, in clause 24, page 34, line 22, at end insert—

“except where the third party is a charity which is registered with the Charity Commission of England and Wales under section 30(1) of the Charities Act 2011 or is exempt from registration under section 30(2)(a), (b) or (c) of the Charities Act 2011 or is registered as a community interest company under section 36B of the Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Act 2004;”.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am pleased to speak to amendments 76 and 77, which would significantly improve the Bill. Amendment 76 would exempt registered charities and community interest companies, or CICs, from the notification and registration requirements of clause 24, which introduces a new, lower-tier registration for third party campaigners who spend more than £10,000 on controlled expenditure anywhere in the UK. Our amendment 77 seeks to allow charities or CICs that wish to campaign at elections within the lower tier of expenditure, and that are already subject to transparency requirements, to avoid the additional compliance burden arising from clause 24.

The Electoral Commission says on part 4:

“Some of the changes in Part 4 of the Bill would increase transparency for voters about who is spending money campaigning at elections and how they are funded.”

So far, so good. It goes on:

“But they would not increase transparency about how much is being spent and on what. The added complexity of these changes could deter some from campaigning at elections, or restrict the type of campaigning they can spend funds on. Voters could therefore receive less information about candidates and parties, and hear from a narrower range of sources.”

The Electoral Commission continues:

“Third party campaigners are individuals and organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections but do not stand as political parties or candidates. These are a vital part of a healthy democracy and play a significant role in providing voters with information. It is important that a broad range of campaigners can take part in public debate ahead of UK elections and referendums so voters hear a diversity of voices.”

The commission states:

“These changes would add new requirements to laws which many campaigners have said are already complex and hard to understand.”

Again, these changes are unnecessary and will have a chilling effect on democracy, and especially on registered charities and CICs. That is why they are the focus of our amendments. The Bill risks tying organisations up in red tape and stifling democratic engagement by civil society organisations, which are concerned about breaking the rules.

I was working in a charity when the gagging, or lobbying, Act—the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 —was introduced. I very often found myself sitting around with my colleagues asking, “Can we now do this? Can we now say that? Can we now work with them? What can we do?”. Our charity did not have enough money to seek a large amount of legal advice. The law was also quite unclear, so to avoid falling foul of it, we would step back and not do many things that would have been perfectly within the law, which had been changed, just in case they were not.

The provisions we are discussing extend those powers. Indeed, I see this as a trilogy, comprising the lobbying Act, the Trade Union Act 2016 and this Bill, which altogether stifle democracy and free speech, and stop really valuable campaigners campaigning about issues that we politicians need to hear about.

I spoke to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which is concerned about this issue. It said that it was unconvinced by the argument in favour of the lower threshold in general terms. Has the Minister met the NCVO to discuss its concerns? The Government have framed the issue in terms of increased transparency, but it was not clear to the NCVO, which represents charities across the country, that there would have been a significant impact. It cannot see that there will be more transparency.

The NCVO asked the Minister’s predecessor to look at whether charities could be exempted from the lower threshold. Its argument is that when campaigning is done by a registered charity, people can in any case look it up on the register and see who its trustees are, how it is funded and so on. The transparency point therefore does not apply in the same way, because charities are already transparent and highly regulated. This new tier will inevitably result in smaller organisations being unable to engage in democracy. Charities and community groups that might not have the policy and legal expertise of larger organisations and that, as I have said, will fear running afoul of the rules may decide—in fact, will decide—that it is not worth the trouble to spend a relatively small sum, or they might be put off by appearing on a public register.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The hon. Lady is obviously making a powerful speech, but the primary purpose of charities, which we give tax relief to, should surely be supporting good causes, not campaigning in elections.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

In many respects, supporting good causes is done by campaigning. For many charities, the causes of the symptoms they are seeking to address will be back in Government policy. The policies that we decide all the time obviously have an immediate impact on people on the ground. Charities work with those people and need to change the policies to change the issue they are addressing.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Does the hon. Lady agree that charities by their nature have expertise and understanding—for example, of homelessness, third-world debt, climate change, or whatever—that we in this House have to learn from? The idea that they should be restricted simply to raising funds to alleviate an issue, rather than trying to engage and inform the debate, is simply preposterous.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I absolutely agree. For example, during this Bill Committee, we have relied on expert advice from the Royal National Institute of Blind People about the impact of these changes on people who are blind or partially sighted across this country. As the representative organisation of those people, who will be affected by the Bill in how they vote, the RNIB should be giving us expert advice. In the future, having to work out how much money it has spent jointly and severally with other organisations, which tier it falls into and whether it will get on to the list will all have an effect on whether or not we receive that expertise, which helps us to be much better decision makers.

When we consider that the Conservative party spent £16 million in the last general election, we see that lowering the spending threshold for groups to register during an election from £20,000 to £10,000 is clearly aimed at deterring smaller organisations, community groups and single-issue groups, which the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned, such as groups concerned with refugees, disability rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ issues. Community groups campaigning on a single issue in our constituencies may fear running afoul of changing election rules, which will have that chilling effect.

I ask the Minister whether there will be a review of the impact of the lobbying Act as we go forward with the Elections Bill, because I think that they go together. To know what impact the lobbying Act has had on campaigning will be very instructive. Perhaps there has been such a review already, and I did not know about it. If not, will there be a review of the impact of that Act and this legislation on campaigning, particularly single-issue campaigning?

If existing party activity is redefined as joint campaigning, smaller unions that spend only very small amounts on regulated activity and do not come close to meeting the threshold for registering with the Electoral Commission could find themselves having to register and submit a complex and comprehensive return, despite having not spent any of their own funds on a campaign. Should not they be spending their money on frontline service provision and advocacy, rather than filling in complex and comprehensive returns that do not add to transparency but only decrease our democracy? This will be a huge bureaucratic burden on small organisations; it is both completely unnecessary and overly burdensome.

Labour’s amendment 76 seeks to reduce the chilling effect and remove the burdens of additional regulation by exempting registered charities and community interest companies from the notification and registration requirements. In the community organisation that I worked for just before I became an MP, there was a fantastic organisation called SEN Talk—special educational needs talk.

For years, I supported it in becoming a CIC. It is a long process. The organisation had to go through a lot of measures and have a lot of transparency. It was doing a lot of frontline work with parents and children with special educational needs, but also it was advocating to the council for the changes that it needed in order to operate on behalf of parents, and to the Government, and working on Select Committee reports, for example. If that organisation were asked to then submit returns but did not know exactly when the election period was and feared falling afoul of this, it would have to cut down on its frontline services or not take part in the advocacy that really does help it to stand up for children with special educational needs. It would put that organisation in a real bind, and it is just one example.

This proposal has also, as I have mentioned, been called for by Bond—the overseas aid network—and several other third-sector organisations. Setting up a registered charity takes considerable time and effort, and these entities must already, by law, identify their trustees—or, in the case of CICs, their directors—and publish their accounts. There are already robust transparency initiatives regulating charity governance, so it is highly unlikely that those seeking to exert undue influence in elections would pursue this approach as a means of evading regulation. I would like to know how many conversations the Minister has had with CICs, in particular, about the effect of the Bill.

Registered charities cannot exist for solely political purposes, and charities that do engage in political activity in pursuit of their charitable objects are already closely monitored by the Charity Commission. These organisations would still have to register with the Electoral Commission as a non-party campaigner if they met the existing spending thresholds.

Amendment 77 would recognise the need for all campaigners at elections to submit to electoral regulation by the elections regulator, and to be transparent about their purpose if they are seeking to campaign to influence voters at election time—but without duplicating the compliance burden for those organisations that already routinely are required to be transparent.

I urge all hon. Members to support these very reasonable amendments, which would allow small organisations and single-issue campaigns to continue to campaign.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 10:00 am, 26th October 2021

Like the Labour Front-Bench team, SNP Members have warned repeatedly about the chilling effect that the Bill as a whole will have on political participation. We have gone through the clauses that suppress turnout; we have gone through the clauses that weaken oversight of elections; and now we are on to clauses that will deter organisations with legitimate interests from contributing to debate and policy development, though that is what happens during general elections.

The intervention made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was very telling. His point was that charities should be seen and not heard—the patrician attitude was that charities do beneficent works, helping poor unfortunate souls, maybe contributing to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, or maybe not, and while doing all the hard work must live with the consequences of the policies made by Governments of whatever colour. That includes SNP Governments in Scotland; there will be organisations that are highly critical of some aspects of SNP Government policy—but so they should be, as the point of a vibrant third sector is to contribute to policy debate.

Most charitable organisations that I have come into contact with in my professional career, both in that sector and as a politician, ultimately do not want to exist. They are there to solve problems, and they do so by providing immediate relief and support to people who require it, but they also want to tackle the underlying policies that have caused those problems. The best time to do that is at election time, when decisions are made and when power really is in the hands of the people and the voters. Of course those organisations want to seek pledges from individual politicians. They are not necessarily seeking to influence political parties as a whole. They are certainly not telling their supporters which party to vote for. First, they are not allowed to, but even if they were, they are not going to tell their supporters and donors which party to vote for, because by definition these are cross-party organisations that draw support from a wide range of people across society, and doing so would be counterproductive.

It is crucial for our democracy, however, to allow these organisations to encourage supporters and donors, educate the people who support their cause, and engage with decision makers. If that means extracting pledges from candidates on a constituency-by-constituency basis, then good for them. If that means that candidates from whatever party get elected and are then held to account for signing a pledge or supporting a policy in the election, so much the better. When we have mass lobby days here in Westminster—there are a few lined up this week, now that covid restrictions are easing—Members of Parliament from all the political parties come along to demonstrate their support for a charitable cause. Yes, sometimes there is weight in one direction or the other, but inevitably the best way to drive political change is to achieve cross-party consensus. That is what these organisations are often trying to do, but the clause will have the chilling effect of which the hon. Member for Putney spoke.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

When we heard the intervention from the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, was the hon. Gentleman reminded, as I was, of Desmond Tutu’s words:

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river…We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in”?

Is that not the philosophy of the charities that the hon. Gentleman has worked with? Certainly the charities that I have worked with in my constituency want to stop people falling into the river upstream, rather than just keep fishing them out at the bottom.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Absolutely. Where are those decisions ultimately made? Here, in rooms like this one. We are engaging with charitable organisations on this Bill. We are being advised and lobbied on matters in the Bill by organisations that are making representations to us, have frontline experience, and are delivering in a whole range of sectors. We have heard from domestic organisations and from Bond, the international development network.

I am sure all Committee members have diligently read the written evidence submitted by Bond, EB14. I strongly encourage them to do so, because it explains the challenges and difficulties faced by these organisations, which are having to comply with election registration regulations and reporting requirements, and finding it incredibly difficult. There is evidence in that document—we heard it from the hon. Member for Putney as well—that many organisations are already choosing simply to step back, so their voices are not being heard. That goes back to the narrative of what exactly the Bill is trying to achieve, in terms of suppressing debate and political participation in this country.

Although clause 24 is not quite as draconian as clause 23, it is still pretty oppressive. Amendment 96, tabled by the SNP, could achieve much the same as the Labour party amendments in exempting registered charities from these incredibly stringent new reporting requirements. The threshold of £10,000 could easily be reached once everything that had to be calculated was taken into account, such as staff time, resources, and collaboration with other organisations.

It would be easy to hit that threshold, potentially unexpectedly. The charity would then face another burden if it was sanctioned. There have been examples, referred to in the written evidence, of charities that inadvertently crossed the threshold and did not report that appropriately, and then faced fines. That is fair enough, if that is the regime, but it is another cost. That is money that people have given to those charities. It might be taxpayers’ money, received through gift aid, that has to be spent on fines, compliance and regulation, deterring the charity from political participation and delivery of frontline services, when it already exists in a rightly strong and tightly regulated environment.

The Government should accept the amendments. If they genuinely believe in levelling up, surely they want to hear from organisations that have frontline experience of the difficulties and challenges being faced by ordinary people day to day, and that are identifying solutions that will help to raise standards in society and level up. In fact, we are seeing a levelling down, suppression of debate, sticking with the status quo, and a message not to challenge anything coming from the Government who happen to be in power now.

We have learned in this Committee and in others that the chances of an amendment succeeding are middling to none. Nevertheless, I look forward to the Minister’s response to my points.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right, though I admire his endless optimism that the chances are middling to none. He is far more optimistic than me that the Government will ever move an inch. That does not mean that the arguments cannot be made. Indeed, there is every reason for the arguments to be made.

At general elections, every single one of us has been made to think, question and commit one way or another to an idea coming from a third party or campaigning organisation. That is exactly how it should be in a democracy. When we put ourselves forward for election, people have a right to know where we stand on the big issues of the day—whether that is homelessness, third-world debt or support for those suffering domestic violence—and where better to do that, for a charity or third party organisation, than a general election? People are not asking us just as individuals; they are asking all those who put themselves forward for election in this country where they stand, because our public have an absolute right to know that.

The real question is about the motivation of the Government in introducing the measure in the first place. Campaigning is a core function of many organisations. It allows them to highlight areas of concern and contribute to the wider public discourse, from a position of authority and experience, from which every one of us benefits. We have all heard from numerous third party organisations of their concerns, but these measures will make an already complicated area even more confusing and burdensome for those issue-based campaigning organisations. They face new rules that may see them inadvertently fall foul of legislation and, as a result, step a long way back from their activity. They will shrink back from that public debate, which can only harm our democracy. That will dampen public debate, and the voice of those marginalised groups they represent will be further diminished.

Organisations will quite rightly engage in campaigning 12 months prior to a general election, but the vast majority of that campaigning will not be focused on that general election. Those organisations campaign every day of the year, every year of a decade. That is what they are there to do; they are there to inform and to advocate.

What is really troubling here is the purpose test and whether it can be passed. It is confusing. The legislation says that the purpose test can be passed if it

“can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates, including political parties or categories of candidates who support or do not support particular policies”.

That is all well and good, but the confusion arises because that is not the intention of the charity of a third sector organisation. The interpretation comes from someone else, and it is their perception of what counts as political campaigning. Even if the charity is clear that that is not its intention, it could be decreed by someone else that it is. The result is that the charities will shrink from those areas of concern—homelessness, domestic abuse—for fear of falling foul of the legislation. Many of us on this side of the Committee think that that was probably the Government’s intention from the start.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Amendments 76 and 90 would exempt from the transparency requirements provided by the lower tier of expenditure registered charities, charities exempt from registering with the Charities Commission, and community interest companies spending more than £10,000 across the UK but less than the existing notification thresholds. Amendment 77 would allow those groups to forgo the usual notification process for the lower tier and instead provide only their charity or company number.

The Government are clear that any group spending significant amounts in UK elections should be subject to scrutiny. That is essential to ensure transparency for voters and to maintain the level playing field for all participants in elections. It is therefore right that all types of third party campaigner should be subject to the same sets of rules where they are trying to influence the electorate. The amendments would undermine those principles, and the Government cannot accept them.

Additionally, third party campaigner regulations do, and should, focus on the purpose of campaigning activities conducted by all organisations, not just specific types of organisation. Charities and CICs can always choose to spend less than £10,000 in the period before an election if they do not want to register with the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Given the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, how will charities know when it is 12 months before a general election?

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will come to that point in a moment. Charities can choose to spend less than £10,000 in the period before an election. The clause is drafted so as to increase transparency by requiring third party campaigners to register at a lower level of spend than is currently the case, while also ensuring that the regulatory requirements on such third party campaigners is proportionate to their campaign spend.

Digital technology has significantly reduced the cost of campaigning, and it is important that the lower tier of expenditure reflects that reality. Those third parties subject to the lower-tier expenditure limits will be subject only to minimal registration requirements and will not be subject to reporting or donations controls. That increased transparency is intended to reassure the electorate and to continue to uphold transparency as a key principle of UK elections. No group should be exempt from that. In fact, having third party spending limits is essential to prevent the influence of American style “super political action committee” pressure groups in UK elections.

The notification requirement for third party campaigners involves the provision of important information, which the Electoral Commission uses to ensure that campaigners are eligible and to provide information about those campaigners to the public. While amendment 77 would still require third party campaigners to notify the Electoral Commission, it would allow them to provide only their registration numbers with the Charity Commission or Companies House, instead of providing the usual information, which would undermine the intended transparency.

Let me address some of the questions raised by Opposition Members before I continue on clause 24. I am not clear about what the hon. Member for Putney was referring to when she talked about the impact on the lobbying Act; if I am not answering her question here, I am happy to write to her with more information. The report on the 2014 lobbying Act from Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts said that as one of the fundamental purposes of electoral law

“is to maintain public trust and confidence in the integrity of the electoral system, it must be right that any regulation should apply to all such participants, regardless of their size or status.”

That shows that, even as the lobbying Act was being created and reported on, those considerations were taken into account.

The hon. Lady also asked about meetings with community interest companies. I believe that my predecessor, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, met with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and other civil society groups.

I simply do not accept the argument made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North. He asked how charities would know when an election was forthcoming, but he also said that charities specifically are doing that around election time. He is making two almost mutually exclusive points. The fundamental point made by SNP Members was about charity participation in elections, rather than political finance transparency, which is what the Bill is about.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am not giving way again on that point. Third party campaigning groups will not have any special intelligence. People will need to take that into account when they are campaigning politically. People seeking to influence the electorate should all be subject to the same laws.

The debate is not about whether charities are nice groups or nice individuals, which is 50% of the argument made by SNP Members. To be perfectly honest, it sounds like Opposition Members want charities to make their political arguments for them, because they think they are more acceptable.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am no longer giving way on that point.

That is not how we want to regulate our politics or our electorate. Charities should make points on their own—not in the way that SNP Members are saying, as if there are other political reasons that would be helpful to them, rather than the Government. They accuse us of playing politics, but it sounds to me as though they are the ones doing that.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

In 2017, the Prime Minister called a snap general election. What would the Minister say to charities who find themselves in a similar situation after the Bill is passed?

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Yes, but the fact is they are not very common. Every single one of us in this room is in the same situation. I was elected in 2017. I did not know that a snap election was going to be called. I am afraid that what Opposition Members are asking for is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which is not within the scope of what we are discussing. Debates on the clause are not the place to discuss certainty around election time, if that is what Opposition Members want. The clause is about regulating political finance transparency.

The fundamental point made by Opposition Members is that clause 24 creates an undue administrative burden for charities and community interest companies, but it does not do that. They can easily supply the relevant information.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Can the Minister answer a very simple question? Will there be a UK general election by 26 October 2022? That is 12 months from today.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The hon. Lady knows that I cannot answer any questions about when elections are forthcoming. That does not change the premise of our argument. I do not know; she does not know; charities do not know; no third party campaigners know. The law is equal for everybody. I am afraid we simply do not accept the argument that there should be special rules and exemptions for particular groups.

Charities can supply the relevant information, and the amendment would increase the administrative burden for the Electoral Commission—a point it has made several times—and not allow it to obtain all the necessary information covered in the notification requirements. Under the amendment, charities and community interest companies would not have to provide the name of a responsible person. That information cannot be obtained through Companies House or the Charity Commission because it is specific to electoral law.

It is important to identify a person who will be responsible for ensuring compliance with electoral law. Naming a responsible person also acts to protect third parties from being liable for expenditure that has not been authorised by that person. Allowing charities and community interest companies to be exempt from that requirement would risk their duty of compliance and protection falling away, which would not be right. In the light of the reasons I have given, and the minimal burden on charities that the measures will generate, we oppose the amendment.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I have a question for the Minister, which I think is a perfectly reasonable and fair question to ask on behalf of charities. How do they know right now that they are not 12 months out from a general election? How do they know where their spending is in relation to the next general election, and that they have not already exceeded the threshold? The question is whether she thinks it is fair for charities inadvertently to fall foul of the legislation, with their having absolutely no way of knowing where they stand because the Government have changed the rules around about them. Will she address the basic issue of fairness to our charities?

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 23 Elections Bill — Clause 24 - Recognised third parties: changes to existing limits etc

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Third party campaigners must currently register with the Electoral Commission before they spend £20,000 in England and £10,000 in any of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland for controlled spending during a regulated period before an election. Groups that spend below those thresholds could be spending substantial amounts of money on campaigns, but they are not regulated. Clause 24 addresses that issue, and introduces registration for third party campaigners at a lower level of spend than is currently the case.

Third parties spending in excess of £10,000 on controlled expenditure during a regulated period across or in any constituent part of the UK, but below the existing per-country thresholds for registration, will be required to register with the Electoral Commission. That will not replace the existing registration thresholds, which will stay in place. Therefore, if a third party campaigner spends more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, they will still be required to notify the commission as they currently do. That will be for all groups, as we said in the debate on the amendments. No exceptions will be made for any special category of campaigner; they will all be subject to the same rules.

In addition, all the measures apply only to qualifying expenditure that can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election. I want to be clear that they do not apply to wider non-electoral campaigning that groups may undertake.

As I mentioned, third parties registered in the lower tier will be subject to minimal regulation upon registration—for example, ensuring that they are UK based or otherwise eligible to register with the Electoral Commission. Again, such entities will not be subject to some of the other political finance controls in legislation around reporting on donations and controlled expenditure, nor will they be subject to the internal reporting and recording requirements.

We must recognise that digital campaigning has significantly altered the campaigning landscape by making it easier to spend less on campaigns and to spend more widely across the whole UK. Introducing registration at a lower level of spend reflects that reality and will help to increase transparency for the public with regulation proportional to the level of spend.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The Minister said in her previous speech that the measure was partly intended to avoid a situation arising comparable to the US super-PACs that spend millions of dollars with very little regulation. It is impossible under current UK electoral law for a situation anything like that to arise in this country. The notion that small local charities that want to lobby their local candidates to stop the closure of a swimming pool, a school or a library are somehow comparable to the dark money seen in other parts of the world, which has been reported as potentially having an increasing impact in this part of the world, is completely extreme.

It is not impossible that there will be a general election in February 2022, because as the Minister has admitted, the Prime Minister will have that option when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is finally repealed. As soon as that happens, the next election campaign will effectively start, which is delightful for all of us because of the rare snap elections that we have experienced twice in the last three years.

Under the terms of the clause, if an election came that early it might be the case that some organisations would have already reached the threshold without knowing it, not least because they are in the process of holding us to account for pledges that we made in 2019 that they have not had much opportunity to lobby on. Organisations that are organising a big lobby day—there are several coming up—that involve a lot of logistics such as the hire of the hall and the transportation of people, and that are related to pledges that Members may have made at a general election and therefore could reach the threshold, may find that they are already in breach without knowing it.

It is an awkward clause that relates to the overall package of reform that the Government are bringing in through the Bills that we have mentioned throughout the progress of this Bill, including the repeal of the 2011 Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and the other aspects of electoral and political law that are being amended. The Minister is falling back on the idea that it affects everyone, but that does not really answer that point. In a sense, it does affect all of us and we may already be in the run-up to a general election campaign but we just do not know because of the power grab that is being exercised by the Conservative Government, of which this clause is another example.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 24 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.