I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As a coalition Government, we inherited a legacy of a lack of trust and confidence in our political system. [Interruption.] I am surprised that Labour Members would laugh at that thought, as they were responsible for 13 years of it. To tackle this, we have sought to be the most transparent Government in history. We are the first Government to publish details of meetings that Ministers and permanent secretaries have with external organisations, of our gifts and hospitality and of departmental business plans, as well as a wide range of raw data.
The Bill takes practical steps to take those principles forward. It implements our coalition commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, providing transparency in who lobbies whom, and for whom.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is unaware of two things: first, that a consultation took place on the issues relating to a statutory register of lobbyists in January 2012 and, secondly, that the Labour party did not respond to that consultation, so seriously did it take it.
The introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists will fulfil a commitment made in “The Coalition: our programme for government”. There are two key principles reflected in the Bill. The first is that transparency is central to accountability and that the public should be able to see how third parties seek to influence the political system. The second is that third parties should act in an open and accountable way. The Bill will give the public more confidence about the way third parties interact with the political system, including about how much money they spend on political campaigning, especially if they seek to influence elections directly.
As a proud former lobbyist, both in-house and in consultancy—indeed, I learned my trade in the same firm in which Mr Speaker himself had worked—I fully appreciate the value that the industry brings to inform and educate Members of Parliament, often on very technical issues. Having worked for many charities and voluntary organisations, too, I recognise their concerns about this Bill, so will my right hon. Friend explain how or why the Bill will not, as many fear it will, gag them, but will allow them to continue their excellent work of informing MPs as a healthy part of the democratic process?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It must have been a fine training ground indeed that she shares with you, Mr Speaker. I will, of course, come on to explain in detail how aspects of the non-party campaigning provisions will work, but let me give this assurance. We are very clear that we are in no sense seeking substantively to change the boundary between campaigning on policies and issues, which charities and other third parties do to a substantial extent, and being required to register spending for electoral purposes—[Interruption.] We are not proposing to change the boundary, so charities, think-tanks, non-governmental organisations and campaign organisations should not be alarmed that this Bill will impact in any sense on their ability to campaign on policy issues.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House, and I am quite delighted to have the opportunity to burst his bubble of confidence, because his Bill has created almost a fire-storm in my constituency. My constituents are appalled at what they regard as a gagging Bill. They wish to see a list of lobbyists that is transparent to ensure that Government cannot be bought—even though that is a debatable issue. They know that the Bill as it stands would prevent democratic voices from being heard.
I look forward to the hon. Lady having an opportunity after today’s debate to go back to her constituents to tell them that the things they are alarmed about will not happen. I am very clear and the Bill is very clear. [Interruption.] I will come on to deal with this in more detail later, but let me explain to hon. Members that election law already has a clear provision that determines that if third parties wish to engage in expenditure, the intention or effect of which is to procure electoral success, they are required, beyond a certain point, to register with the Electoral Commission in respect of that expenditure—and there are limits on it: that expenditure is controlled.
At the last election, I think that only a couple of charities registered for this purpose and the levels of expenditure were relatively modest. Other third parties—a larger number of them—that were not charities engaged in such third-party expenditure, but charities by and large did not. That does not mean that they cannot campaign during an election period, because they campaign on policies and issues and they interact with political parties on those issues, and they will continue to be completely free to do so. All the Bill does—it is the right thing to do—is, first, to make sure that the limit is more appropriate for the future so that it does not allow those third parties to engage in distorting activity during elections; and, secondly, to extend the definition of controlled expenditure so that it includes advertising, rallies and such like, as well as electoral material, and to disaggregate the total into parliamentary constituencies so that third parties cannot disproportionately concentrate their spending in individual constituencies. I think that all of that is perfectly rational.
Is not my right hon. Friend missing the elephant in the room, which is the fact that only two organisations spent over the £377,000 cap? The first, by quite a long way, was Unison. The reason why there is agitation on the Opposition Benches is that they do not like having political expenditure limits on political parties on account of their own parent organisations, the trade unions?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is accurate because at the last election, relatively few organisations—only two, I think—spent a sum of money that was above the proposed limit. It is conceivable that a whole range of organisations might try to spend large amounts of money to influence directly votes for candidates and political parties rather than campaigning on policies and issues. It is important—election law already provides for this—that elections are fought essentially between political parties, and the expenditure undertaken to support candidates of political parties should be authorised by them. That is why many people donate to political parties to support the campaign at a constituency level.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Many people would want him to reassure third parties and charities, but he seems to me to be complacent about the issue. The Electoral Commission briefing for today’s debate states that,
“the Bill creates significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues in the year before the…general election, and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations”.
Surely, the right hon. Gentleman’s complacent attitude is completely at odds with what the Electoral Commission—his own regulator—has written to all of us.
I had conversations yesterday with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which helpfully supplied us with a copy of its legal advice, which of course illustrates that, technically, the uncertainties that are being talked about could in large part be construed to relate to existing legislation rather than the Bill that we are bringing forward. In truth, it is the responsibility of the Charity Commission, where charities are concerned, and the Electoral Commission for all third parties, to work together to ensure the soundness of the definitions in the Bill. Frankly, they are substantively the same definitions for electoral purposes—[Interruption.] The definitions on controlled expenditure and on the appropriate limits are changed, but the definition that relates to spending being for electoral purposes if it is intended or has the effect of procuring or promoting support for candidates of political parties is not changed. The Electoral Commission knows that part of its job is to make sure that that boundary is policed, and the guidance on that is very clear.
I want to make some progress before giving way again.
As I say, we need to give confidence to the public about the way in which third parties interact with the political system, including about how much money they spend on political campaigning, especially if they seek to influence elections directly. The Bill will also give the confidence that trade unions know who their members are. These are sensible and reasonable steps: we are not setting out to create a burdensome bureaucracy or to deter legitimate campaigning or representation.
Let me deal with part 1 first.
I will give way in a few moments.
Part 1 relates to the creation of a statutory register of consultant lobbyists. Let me be clear, first, that lobbying is a necessary—indeed an inevitable and often welcome—part of policy making and the parliamentary process. We should not seek to prevent lobbying, but to make it transparent who is lobbying whom and for what.
On that very point, let me assure the Leader of the House that many Opposition Members, particularly myself, believe that lobbying is at the very heart of our democracy. We should have it, but it should be regulated and should be transparent. What worries us is, first, that many charities believe that the Bill will have deleterious effect, but secondly, we are worried about all the people that are left out—the big law firms, for example. Many of those firms are 50% lobbyists and 50% lawyers, yet they will not be tackled by the Bill. Big accountancy firms that are full of lobbyists are the same, as are the in-house lobbyists of these major companies. Why are they being left out of this register?
I think we agree about the intention, although I would add that Parliament is at the heart of our democracy and lobbying is an essential aspect of the way in which Parliament does its job. It is clear that Members on both sides of the House have been lobbied extensively in relation to the Bill, and rightly so.
We are not leaving out a large number of people who engage in consultant lobbying. If people have a substantial business involving such lobbying, they should register, and that will be made clear.
I think every Member would agree with the Leader of the House that we want lobbying to be transparent. As he knows, however, many people all over the country are fighting a project known as HS2, and they firmly believe that the Bill contains provisions that will inhibit their effectiveness in ensuring that their voice is heard by the Government and by Ministers. Will the Leader of the House undertake to give specific consideration to the effect on anti-HS2 campaigns that is apparent from provisions that are already in the Bill, and to ensure, when examining the Bill further, that the voice of those people will never be inhibited by legislation?
Let me give my right hon. Friend this assurance. I believe that absolutely nothing in this legislation would prevent those who campaign on issues relating to the High Speed 2 rail route from making their case as forcefully as they wish. However, if at the time of an election they went further and spent money on trying to procure or prevent the election of particular candidates, and if that expenditure exceeded a certain limit, they would quite properly be required, by existing legislation as well as by this Bill, to register and be accountable for it.
I shall carry on for a bit, but I will give way again after that. I intend to be generous and open about this.
We agree that lobbying is necessary, but, as was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), transparency is key. We want to know who is lobbying, and for whom. However, there is a gap in the current transparency regime. When Ministers meet consultant lobbyists, it is not always clear on whose behalf they are lobbying. We want to rectify that, and the specific aim of the register is to put the information in the public domain.
I am grateful to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its work in examining part 1 of the Bill last year, and for its subsequent scrutiny of the draft version of the entire Bill.
Let me apologise to the hon. Gentleman before I give way to him. I think the Committee was irritated by the long delay that took place before the Government responded to the report that it published in June last year. I reiterate our apology for that, although, as the Committee knows, our response had to wait for our policy conclusions, and that took some time. Let me add, however, that in most instances the Committee, and many who have proffered alternative plans, are seeking to do something different from what the Bill sets out to do. They are seeking to regulate lobbying activity, while we are seeking to create a transparency regime so that we can see who is lobbying, but are not attempting to control the industry.
I thank the Leader of the House for apologising on the Floor of the House for the way in which the Government have treated the all-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I accept his apology, and hope he will be able to help us create a Bill that is viable for all parties.
The Leader of the House mentioned that my Committee had examined part 1 of the Bill. We did not examine part 1; we examined only the consultation document relating to what has become part 1, the reason being that parts 2 and 3 did not appear until one day before the recess.
I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but Members—especially those who have had the privilege of being in Government—will be aware that Bills often contain more than one specific measure. What is important, and what this Bill accurately reflects, is the Government’s recognition not only of the necessity—as we saw it—for a statutory register of lobbyists that would enable us to see how third parties seek to influence the political system through consultant lobbying, but of the existence of further issues relating to third-party influence in the political system, and the need for assurances in regard to trade unions and the way in which third parties campaign during elections.
I will give way in a moment, but let me first pursue the point about those who are trying to regulate all lobbying activity. Having thought very carefully about whether there was a considered or credible basis for taking that much wider action, we concluded that there was not, and that is therefore not our objective in the Bill. I readily accept that some people would like the Bill to be very different. Indeed, the reasoned amendment indicates that the Opposition have suddenly decided that they want to include all professional lobbyists and everything that they do in a register, although they presented no such proposal to the Government last year.
I know that the hon. Gentleman presented a private Member’s Bill. The point is, however, that we are not aiming for the creation of the bureaucratic monster that would result from action of that kind. We are aiming for transparency rather than the control of lobbying, the result of which would be the registration of thousands of lobbyists and a requirement for a draconian system of reporting and enforcement.
The Leader of the House must be well aware that the Bill will catch grass-roots campaigners in the crossfire. Charitable and Christian groups feel that it will disadvantage them, and have pointed out that big parties can spend millions of pounds when they are picking on a little guy in politics. How would the Leader of the House respond to that?
Let me repeat, and add to, what I have already said about charities. Charities know, and have told us, that the Charity Commission guidance is clear about the fact that they should not undertake party political activity. To that extent, there are very limited circumstances in which charities might consider it essential, from their point of view, to register their spending as spending for an electoral purpose. I am at a loss to understand how they think the Bill could have an adverse impact on their ability to campaign on policies and issues for their charitable purposes.
The statutory register of lobbyists will require anyone who is lobbying Ministers or permanent secretaries on behalf of a third party and in return for payment to declare his or her contact details and clients on the register.
Schedule 1 makes an exception for Members of Parliament who lobby on behalf of people living in their constituencies, but does not refer to Members of the European Parliament, Members of devolved Administrations, city councillors and the like. Do the Government intend to require councillors who write to Ministers on behalf of their electorates to register themselves as consultant lobbyists?
I share a concern that has been expressed by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who is not in the Chamber at present. Paragraph 1 of schedule 1 effectively repeats a fundamentally important tenet of the House which is enshrined in the 1688 Bill of Rights, namely that anything said in this House shall not be questioned in any court of the land. Paragraph 2, however, qualifies that by stating:
“A Member of Parliament who makes communications…on behalf of…persons resident in his or her constituency does not, by reason of those communications, carry on the business of consultant lobbying. “
I, for example, have an interest in defence. What will happen if I raise the question of a company that is not in my constituency? Will I then be in the business of lobbying? And what about colleagues who raise questions about wind turbines? What protection is provided by the Bill of Rights?
My hon. Friend is right: schedule 1 refers specifically to the principles of exclusive cognisance and parliamentary privilege, and does not seek to impinge on them in any way. However, we consider that the normal activities of Members of Parliament could never be considered to be lobbying, and we have included exclusions in the Bill which we believe make it clear that MPs are not included. I am perfectly willing to reassure colleagues that I will continue the conversations I have had with the House authorities, and that I will continue to maintain discussions with colleagues. If there is any doubt about whether Members of Parliament might, in any form in respect of their activities in the House, be included or compromised in relation to this, we will put a specific provision into the Bill to make sure that does not happen. We will be very clear about that.
May I remind the Leader of the House that the reason the Government decided a few months ago to bring forward the lobbying Bill was that they had dropped their proposals for plain packaging of cigarettes following the employment of a paid lobbyist of the tobacco industry as the head of the Conservative party election campaign? Given that that is the origin of this Bill, can the Leader of the House explain why no provisions in this Bill would shed any light or give any transparency on the involvement of Lynton Crosby in these matters?
Since I am here presenting the Bill to the House and I was the Secretary of State who initiated the consultation on plain packaging, I am probably in quite a good position to tell the right hon. Gentleman that what he just said was complete tosh.
Sit down. I am not giving way at the moment.
To ensure the independence of the system, the register will be administered and enforced by an independent registrar of consultant lobbyists who will provide guidance on compliance and publish an online register on a quarterly basis. The registrar will have the power to issue information notices to investigate where he or she believes that consultant lobbying is taking place without registration. Where this is found, the registrar will also have the power to impose civil penalties. Criminal sanctions will be available for those guilty of deliberate non-compliance.
The register will be funded by the lobbying industry via a subscription charge, but to reduce the burden on the smallest businesses, organisations that are not VAT-registered will not be required to pay the charge. There will therefore be no impact on the public purse as a result of these measures.
May I return briefly to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and give an example? Richard III is dead; he is clearly nobody’s constituent, yet the hon. Members for York Central (Hugh Bayley), for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) want his bones in their constituency. In campaigning for that, do they need to register under the provisions of the Bill, and if not, what is the purpose of the reference to Members of Parliament’s constituents in schedule 1? Why not simply rely on the protections to Members of Parliament in the Bill of Rights and the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009?
We could not simply rely on the parliamentary privilege provisions because they would not extend to all the activities of Members of Parliament beyond those in this Chamber and our activities directly in relation to the House. That is why in the Bill there is, we believe, both a specific exemption in schedule 1—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) were less insistent, he might listen more.
Right as ever, Mr Speaker.
To respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), we believe there is both the exemption that Members of Parliament are not caught because they are not engaged in the business of lobbying and also the specific exemption in relation to representing constituents, but I will repeat what I have just said: if there is any doubt about this matter, we will come back to the House and put it beyond doubt. So I do not think colleagues should continue the debate about whether Members of Parliament are caught or not, as we will look at that.
(Brighton Pavilion) (Green): The very fact that the Leader of the House is having to say he will come back to the House to address our concerns shows that this Bill is incredibly badly drafted, but the point I want to make is that recent freedom of information requests reveal that Treasury officials met fracking industry representatives 19 times in the last 10 months about their generous tax breaks, yet the public are denied any further details of that lobbying on the grounds that it could prejudice commercial interests. Is the Leader of the House not ashamed that this Bill will drastically curtail the ability of charities to campaign in the public interest on issues such as fuel poverty and energy but do nothing to curb such secretive corporate influencing?
Of course the Bill does not constrain the ability of charities to campaign. Let us look back at 2010. Only two charities registered for expenditure for electoral purposes and they spent very little. The campaigning by third parties at the last election was not in any substantial way undertaken by charities. It was undertaken by other third parties—trade unions, companies, campaign groups and so forth. The idea that charities are in any way constrained is completely wrong.
The Standards Committee met this morning and has agreed a report on the implications of this Bill for Members of Parliament, and we are making strong recommendations that paragraph 2 of schedule 1 should be removed and that there should be a sub-paragraph in paragraph 6 stating that any payments we get from IPSA cannot be interpreted as money for lobbying. I hope the Leader of the House will take this into account and make sure the requisite amendments are made before the Bill leaves this House at the end of next week.
My colleagues will, of course, take what the Standards Committee has said very much into account, and I think that illustrates, contrary to what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, why the Bill has not been badly drafted. This is not the first time this has happened. It happens with every piece of legislation in my experience. Sometimes we have to have belt, braces and a piece of string to make sure everybody is absolutely convinced that we are doing what we intend to do.
I am deeply grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. He says this is all about transparency, but if I have got it right every single member of the public affairs team in-house at BSkyB will be able to visit as many Ministers as they want and every single lawyer employed by BSkyB to advance its case will be able to do so without any need to register. The only person who would have to register would be an independent consultant in a company that solely lobbies. How does that possibly afford greater transparency?
It promotes transparency because if a representative of Sky visits a Minister in order to discuss that business, it is transparent that they are doing so in order to represent the interests of Sky. However, if somebody from “XYZ Corporation”, a consultant lobbying firm, visits a Minister in order to discuss somebody else’s business but it is not transparent through the ministerial diary publication who they are representing, that is not transparent. We propose to remedy that by making it transparent.
Following on from my right hon. Friend’s exchange with the Green party member, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), this morning I received a plea from a constituent to stop bullying charities. I asked which ones she was concerned about and she said, “The Green party.” I said it is already covered. She also mentioned 38 Degrees, to which I replied, “That is not a charity”—even though it has wiped from its Wiki-entry the Labour activism of many of its founders.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The public might well think that many of the organisations that registered for electoral purposes were charities, but in fact they registered because they were seeking to undertake expenditure which would not have been regarded as charitable and would not have been lawful from the point of view of the Charity Commission’s guidance. It is overwhelmingly the case that charitable activity by charities does not constitute expenditure for electoral purposes and therefore is not in any sense constrained by this legislation. There are, however, other organisations that people might think are charities but which are not charities, or charities that set up campaigning arms that expressly do not have charitable status in order for them to undertake that activity. The law is already clear that where they seek directly to influence electoral outcomes, they should register. The Labour party’s reasoned amendment accepts that that is right and there should be such regulation.
I am not giving way now. This is an important debate to which I know that colleagues want to contribute, and I want to commence by giving them the chance to hear precisely what the Bill does.
We have heard repeated calls from the Opposition and others saying that the register should be expanded to include so-called “in-house” lobbyists, but what is not clear is what problem such an expansion would solve. As I said to the hon. Member for Rhondda, when a lobbyist from Shell or the WWF, to give typical examples, comes to meet Ministers it is quite clear whose interest they are representing, and these meetings are already publicly disclosed—the public can see that they happen. That is unlike what happens with any such meetings with shadow Ministers, as the Opposition have not committed to publish their shadow ministerial diaries.
In a debate some 10 weeks ago, I asked the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who is on the Opposition Front Bench, to consider whether Opposition Front Benchers might like to agree now to publish their diaries as part of this process of openness, but I am afraid that they have not agreed to do so. While I am referring to the Opposition, I must say that I am bemused by their suggestions that we should create an unworkable bureaucracy with spiralling administrative costs without a policy rationale. There is some confused thinking there, and they are attempting to jump on a bandwagon without having considered the implications of their policies—policies that were so important to them that the Labour party did not even respond to the public consultation on our proposals last year.
I am therefore proud that the coalition has introduced a Bill to put in place this register, which is a practical step in an area that the Labour party simply put in the “too difficult” box when in government; it failed to do anything in its 13 years in office. Our proposal addresses a specific problem. It is designed to capture professional consultant lobbyists, and that will include multidisciplinary firms that run consultant lobbying operations—a point important to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who is no longer in his place. There are exclusions, however, for those operating in a representative capacity, such as the vast majority of trade associations and charities.
I believe that the great majority of those in our Parliament and our political system behave well. But, human nature being what it is, the minority tempted to do otherwise need to know that they cannot engage in sustained, concealed efforts to peddle influence. Their activity will be brought into the open and they must expect to be held to account for their behaviour. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Let me turn now to the second part of the Bill.
My right hon. Friend said that the previous Government had put this issue in the “too difficult to do” box. A lot of those who, like me, were working in the charitable sector before we came into Parliament understand the distinction between being non-party political as a charity and being able to engage robustly in policy debate. However, if this is in the “too difficult” box—or certainly in the “difficult to do” box—and the Electoral Commission has issued a briefing indicating that it is creating regulatory uncertainty, would the Leader of the House agree that the programme for the Bill’s consideration is far too short? Would he agree that the programme motion needs to be rewritten and that this House needs to be given a great deal more time to consider these difficult things—as he says they are too difficult to do in many senses—and to clarify these issues to reassure the charitable and community sector?
I am not sure that I agree with the premise of what my hon. Friend says, which was that this is that difficult. Clearly, as I said before, my conversations with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations show that there are existing uncertainties for third parties as to what constitutes expenditure for electoral purposes. The legislation does not clear up those difficulties because it substantively repeats the existing test, so it is important for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance to support it. However, we intend to allocate substantial time for the Bill to be considered.
The Leader of the House said that consultant lobbyists will have to register whereas in-house lobbyists will not, and I understand that point. May I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). He asked about large accountancy companies and large firms of solicitors who represent a number of clients and frequently, understandably and rightly come to Members of Parliament and Ministers to put forward their point. Is there not a very fine dividing line between those who will be required to register and those who will not? Is my right hon. Friend happy that the person making the judgment on who should have to register could be very easily compromised?
I am not sure that it is that difficult. Either one is lobbying on behalf of one’s own organisation or as a representative of an organisation. For example, when I was Secretary of State for Health and I was meeting the British Medical Association, it was clear on whose behalf it was lobbying. If I was meeting a consultant lobbying organisation, it would not have been clear in that way. Where there is any doubt, people will be in a position to ask the registrar for the statutory register whether it is appropriate to register.
Let me deal with the second part of the Bill—time will frustrate us otherwise, but I will give way once more before I conclude. Let me explain the second part of the Bill so that the House is clear about what it does and does not do.
It is good that people are motivated to campaign for what they believe in, whether they do it inside or outside a political party. Campaign groups play an important role in the political process. That will continue and it has never been in doubt. The intention of this Bill is to bring greater transparency when third parties campaign in an election. Relevant expenditure on such campaigns will now be more fully recorded and disclosed. To avoid the situation we see in some other countries, where vast amounts of money are spent without any bar or regulation—
I said that I would give way a little later on. As I was saying, the Bill strengthens the existing limits on the campaign spending of third parties. We have spending limits on parties at elections. That ensures a degree of equality of arms, and we should not see it undermined by distorting activity of disproportionate expenditure by third parties. The limits we are setting—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would listen, they might understand better what the Bill does. The limits we are setting will allow organisations that want to campaign still to do so. The expenditure thresholds at which third parties are required to register with the Electoral Commission are being lowered. That will allow members of the public better to identify the great number of organisations that exert influence in political campaigns.
The Government’s clear view is that nothing in the Bill should change the basic way in which third parties campaign and register with the Electoral Commission. Currently, third parties register if they are campaigning to promote the electoral success, or otherwise enhance the standing, of a party or candidates. That will stay the same, so the argument made by the campaign group 38 Degrees that the changes stop campaigning on policy areas is not correct. The requirement to register applies only if the spending is for electoral purposes.
The Leader of the House will know that in Scotland we very much welcome the contribution of civic society to our democratic debate. He said that the Bill has implications for Scottish parliamentary elections and other elections. Does he know what those implications are yet?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) has mentioned HS2. What happens when specific constituency issues such as those relating to a hospital—I am thinking of my Support Stafford Hospital campaign—only arise during an election campaign and it is not their fault that they arise in an election period?
They will be entirely free to campaign on the issues that concern them. The issue is not whether expenditure is being undertaken during an election period but whether the expenditure is being undertaken in an election period and for electoral purposes. Overwhelmingly, campaigning by third parties in an election period is not done for electoral purposes; it is done in order to convey their views about policies and issues. That is perfectly legitimate, it is outwith the definition of “for electoral purposes” and it will not therefore be constrained.
The Bill does change—
I will give way again later.
The Bill does change the activities in respect of which spending may count towards the third parties’ spending limits. Those activities are being more closely aligned with the type of expenditure that is regulated for political parties, a change that the independent regulator, the Electoral Commission, advocated to us in June. I understand that that particular provision has caused concern within the charitable sector. Charity law prohibits charities from engaging in party politics, from party political campaigning, from supporting political candidates and from undertaking political activity unrelated to the charity’s purpose. The Bill does not change that.
Charities will still be able to give support to specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties if it helps to achieve their charitable purposes. The Bill does not seek to regulate charities that simply engage with the policy of a political party. It does not prevent charities from having a view on any aspect of the policy of a party and it does not inhibit charities attempting to influence the policy of a party. Such activity would be captured only if it was carried out in such a way that it could be seen also to promote the election of a political party or candidate or otherwise to enhance their standing at an election. The situation is the same as under the current legislation and remains unchanged by this Bill. That is a key point to allay charities’ concerns.
I recognise that the wording of the clause has caused representative bodies to be concerned, and I am keen to continue the discussions with campaigners in which colleagues and I have already taken part. I can reassure them that we are not proposing a substantive change in the test of whether third party spending is considered to be for electoral purposes.
I have genuine concerns about the change to the definition of “charitable use”, and particularly about the use of the word “activity” for electoral purposes rather than “materials”. To enable us to support the Bill and the reform, will the Leader of the House assure me that that can be looked at again, with the involvement of the charitable organisations?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that I and my colleagues—the Deputy Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is responsible for political and constitutional reform—met the NCVO again yesterday. We will continue to do so. Let me reiterate that I am not looking for a substantive change in the test of what is expenditure for electoral purposes, but we are looking for a change, advocated to us by the Electoral Commission, in what constitutes controlled expenditure so that it is not just about election materials but includes activities such as advertising and election rallies.
The charitable sector is concerned about the issue, first, because the expenditure limits are tighter and will be policed, enforced and regulated in a different way and, secondly, because included in the normal expenditure envelope is stuff that has not been there before, such as staffing. In effect, that reduces charities’ ability to campaign. That is part of the rich diversity of our political life leading into a general election and it is being reduced. If the Leader of the House feels that that is not his intention, I am sure that everyone in the House would welcome clarification by amendment as the Bill makes progress.
As I have explained to the hon. Gentleman in his Committee and as I have said to the House, charities do not overwhelmingly undertake expenditure for electoral purposes, so we are not necessarily principally talking about charities. We are talking about third parties—by and large, they are not charities. The Electoral Commission asked us to include a different and wider definition of controlled expenditure to bring it more appropriately into line with the definition of controlled expenditure for political parties. It is not true that this is the first time that staff costs have been included, because staff costs have been included in activity under controlled expenditure up until now.
The point is that if someone is undertaking expenditure for electoral purposes, they should expect to be regulated and proper account should be taken of it.
I am now 46 minutes into my speech and I am not going to give way again, because I am going to explain the remainder of the Bill’s provisions—[Interruption.] I apologise to colleagues, but I have to complete the description of what the Bill will achieve.
The Bill also introduces a provision whereby third parties will be permitted to spend only up to a certain amount of their controlled expenditure in individual constituencies. That is to prevent a third party from directing a large proportion of its national spending limit at only a small part of the UK, thereby focusing the full force of the considerable spending available to it on a small geographical location. That would, and indeed does, allow disproportionately large amounts of money to distort election campaigns and the political process.
A number of third parties campaign in a way that supports a particular political party or its candidates. That is entirely legitimate, but it must not be allowed to become a vehicle for evading party spending rules. We believe that it is right that the political party should be able to oversee which organisations offer it significant campaign support. The Bill introduces a new measure that will require third parties that spend significant sums campaigning in a way that can reasonably be regarded as supporting a particular political party or its candidates to be specifically authorised by the political party to campaign in that manner. That spending will then be counted towards both the third party and the political party’s spending limits.
The transparency of the regulatory regime is enhanced by the Bill. When third parties campaign to support political parties, expenditure will now be more fully recorded and disclosed. Donations to third parties will now have to be published in advance of an election, rather than after it. Third parties will have to provide a statement of accounts. Those measures can only be good for maintaining public trust in our political system.
The Bill also clarifies the importance of the role to be played by the regulator, the Electoral Commission. The commission will now have a clear duty to monitor spending and donation controls and to ensure their compliance with the law. We want to prevent our political system from becoming one in which unaccountable groups spend millions attempting to influence the outcome of an election. The Bill is an important step towards achieving that, without undermining the ability of third parties to engage more broadly in the political process.
Let me now turn to part 3. Trade unions are influential participants in public life. They have an important role representing members’ interests both with specific employers and in wider public debate. The Government support that role. We also believe it is important that the public is confident that, when a union decides how to exercise its influence, all union members may choose to play a part. That is what the third part of the Bill is about. It will require trade unions visibly to demonstrate that they know who their members are and can contact them. The principle that unions must be able to contact their members is well established in legislation. We are building on an existing duty for unions to maintain an accurate and up-to-date register of members’ names and addresses.
I am confident that the burden on trade unions will be very modest. As far as the certification officer is concerned, we are talking about only three additional members of staff as a consequence of all this. In future, unions will provide a membership audit certificate to the certification officer alongside their annual financial return. Unions with more than 10,000 members—this helps to answer my hon. Friend’s point about the smallest trade unions—will be required to appoint an independent third party, an assurer, to provide the certificate, which will state whether the union’s systems for maintaining the register meet the statutory requirements. That independent assurance will be important to provide confidence in large and complex membership records.
It will be the responsibility of the certification officer to make inquiries and to appoint an inspector to investigate possible discrepancies, if there are circumstances suggesting that a union has not complied with those requirements. That will complement the existing responsibilities for investigating complaints made by individual members. We expect that in most cases the inspector will be a member of the certification officer's staff, but it could be an expert third party.
The Bill sets out how assurers and appointed inspectors will be bound by duties of confidentiality in their handling of member data. Of course, existing safeguards in data protection and human rights legislation will apply in this case as they do elsewhere. Should the certification officer find a union to be non-compliant with these duties, he will make a declaration to that effect specifying where the union has failed to comply and the reasons for the declaration. In addition, he will be able to make a civil enforcement order, requiring the union to take steps to remedy the issue. However, prior to making a formal declaration and order, the certification officer will give the union an opportunity to make representations.
This is not about making it harder for trade unions to operate. We are not requiring unions to collect more data or change the way in which they keep membership registers. Nor are we amending the requirements on industrial action ballots. The requirement to keep a list of member names and addresses is distinct from information that a union must supply to an employer when balloting for industrial action.
I really must complete the speech; I am sorry.
Case law is now clear that minor or technical errors in such information are insufficient for a court to grant an injunction against industrial action. Furthermore, a statutory protection means that unions are only required to supply information to the employer that is in their possession at the time.
We will, though, work with both unions and employers to develop comprehensive guidance about their rights and responsibilities as a result of the new regime. Furthermore, although larger unions will be required to appoint an assurer to provide the membership audit certificate, those either in their first year or with fewer than 10,000 members will be able to self-certify.
I have heard the claim that these measures represent an intrusion into trade unions’ right to autonomy. Rules of operation will vary from one union to another. We are not interfering with that. Unions will continue to choose how they define a member, and we are deliberately not prescribing the processes that a union should adopt in their compilation and maintenance of member data. All we are doing is asking unions to provide an annual assurance that they are doing everything that they can to ensure that they know who their members are and how to contact them. I think members would be concerned if their unions felt unable to comply with that.
These measures will provide an assurance that trade unions—increasingly large and diverse membership organisations—know who their members are and can effectively engage with them. These are reasonable requirements. The Bill does not go further and give trade union members the right to exercise a deliberate choice whether to participate in a trade union’s political fund or its subscription to party membership. I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition to offer him the opportunity provided by the Bill to undertake exactly the deliberate choice that he said members of trade unions should enjoy, but 10 weeks after sending him that letter, I have had no response.
The Bill, as I have shown, will do practical things to extend transparency and accountability in relation to third parties. Lobbyists, third parties and trade unions all play an important role in the political process, by helping to inform policy making and ensuring that views are heard by those who are in the Government, Parliament and beyond. That should continue, but we also want to prevent our political system from ending up as we see in other parts of the world, where unaccountable groups spend millions attempting to influence the political system. We want to be open, transparent and clear about who influences the political system, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House affirms its belief in the need for greater transparency in the lobbying industry and in British politics, and considers that there should be a universal register of all professional lobbyists backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, clear rules on third party campaigning, and real reform to get the big money out of politics; but declines to give a Second Reading to the Transparency of Lobbying, Third Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill because the proposals on lobbying cover only a tiny minority of the industry and will make lobbying less transparent, and the proposals on third party campaigning amount to a gag on charities and campaigners who have a democratic right to participate in important debates in the run up to elections; and strongly believes that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by a full process of pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation with affected parties.
This is one of the worst Bills that I have seen any Government produce in a very long time. The last Bill this bad might even have been the Health and Social Care Act 2012, and the Leader of the House of Commons had his fingerprints all over that one, too. To be fair to him, he has found himself in a very difficult place. He has been landed with this risible and misconceived Bill and told to ram it through the Commons with unseemly haste in time for the next election.
I am told that it is not a Bill with many champions in government, where a history of previous employment in the lobbying industry is common. Nothing wrong with that, we might say, but it has created a notable reluctance on the part of all sorts of Ministers to touch the Bill with a bargepole, and this afternoon we all understand why. They have looked at the ceiling; they have looked at the floor; they have muttered among themselves in the hope that they would not be chosen to pilot the Bill through the House. The Leader of the House has drawn the short straw, along with the ever-willing Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith).
This is Bill is hurried, badly drafted and an agglomeration of the inadequate, the sinister and the partisan. From a Government who solemnly promised that they would fix our broken politics, the Bill will do the complete opposite.
I notice that the Leader of the House kept avoiding certain people who wanted to intervene. More importantly, does my hon. Friend agree that we and many other people thought that the Bill would deal with the lobbying industry? We now find out that the voluntary sector and the trade unions are getting a hammering, but there is nothing about terms and conditions for shareholders and companies donating to political parties. Do she not think that we need some legislation there?
Many of us are firmly against the Bill, and civil society seems united in that view. Does my hon. Friend not accept that one of the most disgraceful things is that the Government are not allowing witnesses from civil society? If the Government are so convinced of their case, why will they not allow witnesses in the Bill’s proceedings?
Surely, the point of the Bill is to say that we have together in Parliament tried to reduce the cost of politics. This is about recognising and putting on the record third parties that want to spend money on promoting parties or candidates. It is right that that should be controlled in exactly the same way as it is for political parties.
I will give way in due course when I have finished answering the point made by the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Third-party campaigners spent 10% of what political parties spent. If we wanted to reform politics and get rid of the big money from politics, we should look at the cost of fighting election campaigns for political parties, too.
The National Housing Federation, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter and Crisis have all said that those who speak out in future on either the housing crisis or the bedroom tax would be “extraordinarily at risk”. They want the ability to put all parties on the spot in the run-up to a general election. Why should they be constrained in doing so? Is this not an attempt by the Government to gag their critics?
The Government will have to do a lot more work to persuade the official Opposition and most of civil society that they have got the balance right.
From a Government who solemnly promised that they would fix our broken politics, this Bill does the complete opposite. It is a sop to powerful vested interests, a sinister gag on democratic debate in the run-up to the general election and a shameful abuse of the legislative process to make cheap partisan points. This is a very bad Bill. It will let Lynton Crosby continue to advise the Prime Minister on tobacco policy. It will let big tobacco continue to target the Government, without requiring those interests to register at all, but it could stop an organisation like Cancer Research UK campaigning against them.
The hon. Lady has used the phrase “excessive haste” twice in her speech so far, and with respect to part 2, I rather agree with her. Historically, constitutional and democratic measures have not been guillotined in the House. Does the Opposition intend to vote against the guillotine tonight?
Yes, the hon. Lady is exactly right. I will come on to talk in detail about the worries about part 2 that are being widely expressed outside the House, and the Government would be wise to listen and consider some major amendments to the suggestions that they have put before us today—or, better, to delay the Bill, so that we can have proper pre-legislative scrutiny. This is not a transparency of lobbying Bill; it should be renamed the “Let Lynton Lobby” Bill. The Bill will make things worse, not better. It is a wasted opportunity for political reform, and the Government must go back to the drawing board.
Before I look in detail at each part of the Bill, I shall comment on the way the Bill has been handled by the Government to date, because it is a perfect lesson in how not to legislate. Drafting it has been a process that goes against every principle that the right hon. Gentleman claims to have championed in his role as Leader of the House. The Bill was published out of the blue just two days before we rose for the summer recess and the August holiday season. If last week’s unexpected recall had not taken place, we would have found ourselves taking the Second Reading of the Bill on our second day back. We have only three sitting days until we begin the Committee stage on the Floor of the House on Monday next week.
After three years of silence and prevarication on lobbying, it is important to ask why the Government are in such a sudden headlong rush. There is only one conclusion: they are trying to ram through their gag on charities and campaigners in clause 2 so that they are silenced in time for the next general election, and they are trying to avoid the scrutiny that will show the public what a disgrace the Bill is.
The hon. Lady will know that the public have great concerns about parliamentary patronage and how party placemen can end up in the House of Lords. Is she therefore disappointed that there are no provisions in the Bill that would cover scandals such as cash for honours?
The Leader of the House would not give way when he was speaking about part 2. There are some key issues for coalitions of charities. The shadow Leader of the House mentioned health issues such as smoking. There are big differences between the parties on some of these issues and there could be a chilling effect on a coalition of, say, health and social care organisations that was campaigning for the particular stance that one particular party might be advocating. Charities are worried today. We have talked to them this morning. The Leader of the House may shake his head, but they are worried. He has got it wrong.
My hon. Friend is right. Lawyers who have looked at the changes that the Government are proposing to make in part 2 agree with the worries of the charitable sector. A mere assertion from those on the Government Benches that the measure does not mean what everybody else thinks it means will not be enough to reassure people on these matters.
Although I have some nugatory sympathy for the concerns that have been raised around the House, does not the hon. Lady appreciate the irony that the Labour party, which introduced the current controls around controlled expenditure, appears to be getting hot under the collar at the prospect of large organisations which, although they may not be political parties, spend a large amount of money in specific constituencies for specific candidates being called into question? It looks as though she is concerned to keep controlled expenditure on the statute book, but uncontrolled expenditure in the constituencies.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case. She might not be aware that I was very involved in 2005, the general election year, in the Make Poverty History campaign, which lobbied and influenced Members and candidates across all parties in the House—very successfully, as many of us would agree. Does she share my fear that in the future such campaigns in an election year would not be able to go ahead or would be severely curtailed?
On part 2, my hon. Friend has got on to the question of spending money prior to an election. Is there not a connection between the National Union of Students campaigning on student fees after 2010, and the Lib Dems? Some people asked me, “Are the Lib Dems supporting this rubbish—this gagging Bill?” and I said yes. That is because of their fear of 2010, which they do not want repeated in the run-up to the next general election. What a political scandal!
As always, my hon. Friend puts his finger on an extremely relevant point.
The Leader of the House made much of his personal commitment to the pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills, and I will be the first to praise him for that. However, his commitment is ringing pretty hollow now. The Government promised that there would be pre-legislative scrutiny on the lobbying proposals in part 1. In May 2012, when he was the Minister responsible, the present Minister for Immigration, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), told this House:
“We are going to . . . publish our proposals and put them up for pre-legislative scrutiny”.—[Official Report, 22 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 972.]
There has been none, and the Government have deliberately chosen to preclude it by taking the Bill so quickly and on the Floor of the House.
Let us remind ourselves of what the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is now the responsible Minister, told the House in April this year—
I will give way in due course to the hon. Gentleman, but I am in full flow making a particular point. If he will let me finish it, I will come back to him.
The current Minister in the Cabinet Office stated earlier this year:
“Cabinet Office Ministers have had no meetings with interested parties on the Government's plans for a proposed statutory register of lobbyists since September 2012.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 1057W.]
The hon. Lady appears to be completely unperturbed by her lack of consultation and engagement on these important matters.
The Leader of the House has regularly praised the work of Select Committees since the Wright reforms were implemented, and claimed the credit for their increasing power and influence. Why, then, has he chosen to ignore the impressive piece of work on lobbying done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which his Government have had in their in-tray for nearly a year? We had an apology from the right hon. Gentleman today, but does he really think that a two-paragraph response from the Government after this Bill was published is the way his Government should treat a serious piece of work by a well-respected Select Committee? He can hardly be surprised that the Committee believes that the Government have shown
“a lack of respect for Parliament and for the many people who contributed to our inquiry.”
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is so concerned about the Bill that it has been forced to hold emergency hearings during the recess. The right hon. Gentleman gave evidence to the Committee this morning. The Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), spoke for many in this House, I know, when he said last week that the proposals on lobbying in the Bill amount to a “dog’s breakfast”. The hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), who I see in his place, immediately objected to the use of the term “dog’s breakfast” because in his words,
“Far more thought has gone into pet nutrition than into this Bill.”
As a Member whose constituency once contained a Spillers dog biscuit factory, I can tell the hon. Gentleman from my personal experience of pet nutrition that he is absolutely right.
Let me get on. I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.
The Standards and Privileges Committee is also worried, as the Chair of that august body told us today, about the implications for privilege and for the remit given to the Standards Commissioner, especially by the contents in schedule 1 and clauses 1 to 3, about which the Committee was not consulted. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised that with the Leader of the House. I look forward to the contributions of members of both of those distinguished Committees to our debate today, as I look forward to seeing any reports on these matters. I know that Members are working hard to produce them before we get to the Committee stage next week. We will all benefit from their expertise and opinions.
I give way to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). He has moved on. I give way to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton).
The hon. Lady is making a powerful criticism of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. Will she share with us equal condemnation of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny of the 2009 Bill for which she claimed responsibility? There was no pre-legislative scrutiny of the Political Parties and Election Act 2009.
We can all swap stories about who did or did not do pre-legislative scrutiny, but let us have a principled view that it is wrong not pre-legislatively to scrutinise a Bill. The way to do that is to put it in our Standing Orders that normally—apart from emergencies, when the Speaker writes a warrant stating that, because we need to get something through fairly quickly, part of the process can be dispensed with—it will be standard practice to have pre-legislative scrutiny. Had we done so on this occasion, we would probably be in danger of arriving at a consensus on the Bill.
Is not the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny that all too often it means we can iron out some of the unintended consequences? A classic one that I think we are likely to come across, in relation to part 1, is that when the Government or Parliament face a big issue many small charities decide to form a joint committee and employ someone specifically to act on their behalf and represent them. They would be caught by this Bill, whereas the bodies that they would probably be fighting against, the big commercial interests, would not. That is the unfairness.
My hon. Friend is of course right. Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill came as a complete surprise to all those in civil society who will be affected, be they charities, campaigners or trade unions. The Government designed the changes in secret and sprung them on everyone in a baleful attempt to bounce them quickly on to the statute book. They have not even bothered to consult those affected. Discussions I have had during meetings with stakeholders on all three parts of the Bill suggest that time after time e-mails, letters and calls requesting conversations with Ministers were left unanswered. The Government did not even tell the Electoral Commission until the end of June that they were going to alter the rules that it is required by law to police, so they have kept their own regulator in the dark. The Electoral Commission has said:
“We share the concerns that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee expressed… about the timing of the Bill and the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny.”
I cannot believe that the Leader of the House is content with this shameful and shambolic process. He has provided an abject lesson in how not to develop and propose legislation. This is a Bill that he should be embarrassed to be associated with.
My hon. Friend is giving an eloquent answer to the question of unintended consequences. Does she not also agree that in an era when we all need to look at how to increase political engagement and engagement in our democracy, particularly at election time, when people might want to challenge politicians, the Bill might do the very opposite by ending up with elections in which it is political parties that are talking to each other?
Could not some of the ambiguity and concern about part 2 of the Bill have been avoided by having proper pre-legislative scrutiny? For example, at what point would people campaigning against poor housing conditions cross the line between simply expressing their charity’s point of view and become involved in political activity? The Leader of the House was not clear today on where that line is.
My hon. Friend has made the fantastic point that a lack of pre-legislative scrutiny leads to unintended consequences. In my constituency, at the last election and since, a group called “HOPE not hate” has been doing fantastic campaigning work to ensure peace among the many races in Luton, including providing information about the backgrounds of the candidates standing for the far right in elections. How can it be right that they are restricted to just 2% of what, say, the British National party could spend in an election period?
On the question of unintended consequences, has my hon. Friend had a chance to consider the complexities that the Bill would create for the Conservative party? The fact is that full-time employees are involved in creating donors’ clubs, and money from them goes from one constituency to another, meaning that every single Conservative association will be embroiled in an incredible amount of bureaucracy, with me monitoring every bit of their expenditure.
They should be afraid, Madam Deputy Speaker—very afraid.
I now want to look at each part of the Bill in turn, beginning with the part on lobbying. The Leader of the House attempted to keep a straight face when he claimed that the proposals will make the lobbying industry more transparent, but I am not sure that even he believes it—almost no one else does. Only this Government could think that the way to clean up lobbying is with a Bill that does not even capture Lynton Crosby. Only this Government could think that the way to clean up lobbying is with a Bill that would allow a lobbyist lobbying an MP about the lobbying Bill to escape the requirement to sign its proposed register.
Three and a half years ago the Prime Minister, when Leader of the Opposition, told us that lobbying was
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
He did not tell us then that he was going to do nothing about it for over three years but survive a series of lobbying scandals and then produce a Bill so flawed that it would actually make things worse.
I have two key points to make about the proposals on lobbying set out in part 1. The first relates to the laughably narrow definition of “consultant lobbyist”. Under the Government’s definition, someone will count as a lobbyist only if they lobby directly Ministers or permanent secretaries and if their business is mainly for the purposes of lobbying. It is estimated that that will cover less than one fifth of those people currently working in the £2 billion lobbying industry, and the Association of Professional Political Consultants estimates that only 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists would be covered. Moreover, it would be extremely easy to rearrange how such lobbying is conducted to evade the need to appear on the new register at all. The Bill is so narrow that it would fail to cover not only the lobbyist currently barnacle-scraping at the heart of No.10, but any of the lobbying scandals that have beset the Prime Minister in this Parliament.
My second point is that there is a real risk that the proposals will make lobbying less transparent than it is now. The Government’s proposed register would cover fewer lobbyists than the existing voluntary register run by the UK Public Affairs Council.
Is not the truth that far too many organisations are wasting their members’ money on hiring professional lobbyists and that their chief executives and principles would be far better advised to communicate directly with Members of Parliament, rather than farming that out to third-party organisations?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the Government had better get right all the issues of privilege, because otherwise MPs might end up having to be registered as lobbyists, which would be completely ridiculous.
The Bill also does not propose any code of conduct for lobbyists, which is a step backwards from the various voluntary registers that already govern parts of the industry. The Bill is so bad that it has achieved the unique feat of uniting both transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry against it. The Association of Professional Political Consultants spoke for them all when it told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that it sees
“a very real risk that the overall effect will be to reduce transparency”.
The Opposition firmly believe that we need greater transparency in lobbying, not less. We will table a number of amendments to the Bill to bring in a universal register of all professional lobbyists, with a code of conduct backed by effective sanctions. We will also table amendments to close the revolving door between ministerial jobs and the private sector, and we will close the loophole that allows Lynton Crosby to be at the heart of No. 10 and yet to evade accountability and avoid publishing his client list.
This morning I met representatives of Anti-Slavery International and we planned a campaign together. They are not my constituents but we aim to involve trade unions in the campaign, representing working people. All three parts of the campaign are threatened by parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Bill, yet Lynton Crosby’s activities are not touched by it. Is that not wrong?
The hon. Lady makes a very compelling case. A moment ago she spoke about transparency. Does she agree that that should include financial transparency so that we can see a genuine, good-faith estimate of how much money has been spent on lobbying activities and thus compare what the large multinational corporations are spending versus non-profit organisations?
The hon. Lady makes another good point. We have to see what the size and value is as well as the fact that there have been meetings.
Part 2 covers third-party campaigning in the run-up to an election. All hon. Members will remember how the Prime Minister used to evangelise about the big society, but in one of the most sinister bits of legislation that I have seen in some time, this Bill twists the rules on third-party campaigning to scare charities and campaigners away from speaking out. It is an assault on the big society that the Prime Minister once claimed to revere. I say this because part 2 broadens significantly what activities will be caught by the phrase “election campaign”. That is set out in detail in new schedule 8A to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Part 2 creates in clause 26 a new and extremely wide definition of “electoral purposes”. It is clear that these changes will have wide-ranging implications for many hundreds of charities and campaigners local and national, large and small. Some of them have told us that they will have to pull back from almost all engagement in debates on public policy in the year before the election. These changes have created massive uncertainty for those who may fall within the regulations in a way that the Electoral Commission has deplored. The changes will mean that third-party campaigning will be restricted even if it was not intended to affect the outcome of an election—for example, engaging in public policy debate. Staff costs and overheads will also have to be included in what has to be declared—something that does not apply in this way to political parties. The Electoral Commission has said that these changes could have a “dampening effect” on public debate. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has said that the changes will
“have the result of muting charities and groups of all sorts and sizes on the issues that matter most to them and the people that they support.”
38 Degrees has said that the changes will
“have a chilling effect on British democracy”.
Conservative Members might not like the causes that 38 Degrees takes up, but surely we live in a free society and it has the right to do so. The hon. Lady has rather betrayed some of the partisan motivation that lies behind this Bill. Since she does not like 38 Degrees, perhaps she will listen to the TaxPayers Alliance, which has said:
“The bill is a serious threat to independent politics that will stifle free and open democratic debate.”
Yesterday even Owen Jones and “Guido Fawkes” were agreeing that this Bill is “undemocratic”, so the Government have managed to cause some unlikely coalitions, of which that is probably the most unlikely. We must be under no illusion: if these rules pass into law unamended they will seriously undermine free and fair democratic debate in the run-up to the next election. Blogs may well be regulated and stifled too. The changes in part 2 have met with universal opposition. Even “ConservativeHome” and “Liberal Democrat Voice” have joined “LabourList” in publishing highly critical pieces condemning their own Government’s clampdown on free speech.
I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree that it is perfectly reasonable to describe 38 Degrees as a lobbying outfit. That is what it calls itself; it comprises lobbyists. I have been lobbied by it on many different occasions. Unless she is saying that to call somebody a lobbyist is somehow an insult, I think that it is perfectly legitimate to call it a lobbying organisation.
The hon. Lady needs to look at her own Government’s Bill to see that it defines 38 Degrees not as a lobbying organisation but as a third-party organisation, and the Bill attempts to gag the ability of third-party organisations to make points on policy and politics during an election campaign.
In my time at Oxfam I had to take numerous pieces of advice on staying within the law in terms of campaigning. Charities take these things very seriously. At Oxfam I had the benefit of a legal department to go to for advice. Many smaller charities do not have that benefit, and it will be very difficult for them to interpret this dog’s breakfast of a Bill. That will result in them curtailing their activities.
I do not have a huge amount of time for 38 Degrees, but I am not going to address my concerns about that organisation. In the run-up to the general election, Mind and Rethink, two charities with which I am closely involved, want to set out a number of challenges for the main political parties. Does the hon. Lady feel that that will be caught by the Bill?
It is beholden on the Government to demonstrate that it will not, given that they have widened the meaning of the term “political purposes” and cut the amount of money that can be spent before it is necessary to register; that part of the Bill deals with coalitions and how they account for the cost of what they are doing; and that they have inserted some extremely uncertain definitions of “electoral purposes”. I do not want to get into a Committee-stage debate, but the Government cannot simply declaim that nothing has changed when they have changed, broadened and widened definitions and cut the amount of money that can be spent lawfully during an election period.
Does my hon. Friend accept that in addition to the restrictions she has described, the effect of the Electoral Commission having to police these very vague arrangements and possibly introduce sanctions after an election means that self-censorship will be the order of the day, particularly for a large number of smaller organisations, given that sanctions may be taken against them possibly a year, two years or three years after the process has taken place?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the chilling and dampening effect on the vibrancy of our democracy of this Government’s approach.
I thought at first that the Government might just have made a mess of the drafting—after all, they often do that and this Bill is certainly a mess—but it seems from the Cabinet Office response and from what the Leader of the House said today that they have deliberately set out to gag critical third-party voices. They have had repeated opportunities to address the concerns put to them by charities and campaigners, but they have dismissed them. This leaves me with the only conclusion that we can draw—that this is a deliberate and cynical attempt by the Government to insulate their policies and their record from scrutiny in the run up to the 2015 general election. Part 2 is totally unacceptable in its current form and it must be changed.
The Leader of the House tried to justify these draconian measures by arguing that they tackle the problem of third-party spending in politics, but he completely misses the point. Third parties spent less than 10% of the money spent by political parties in the last election. We all know that one of the biggest problems in our democracy today is the election expenditure arms race between political parties, not the expenditure of third parties. That is what drives the search for big-money donors. This Bill was a chance to tackle the big money in our politics, and the Government have completely squandered it.
This Government are happy to be financed by donors who pay huge sums to come for dodgy dinners in Downing street. They are a Government so shameless in their search for big-party donations that they were happy to split between the two coalition parties the proceeds of the late Joan Edwards’ half-a-million-pounds of life savings, which she had generously bequeathed to the nation in her will. Their squalid behaviour is left unaffected by this Bill; instead, it seeks to silence legitimate third-party campaigning organisations.
Has my hon. Friend had any indication that the Government have considered the impact on third-party organisations wishing to speak out in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence, which will fall within the 12-month period?
Again, I am afraid there is very little evidence I can give my hon. Friend that the Government have considered in any serious way the impact of anything, since they consulted nobody before they came up with these proposals.
Finally, I want to comment on part 3, which centres on trade union membership records. There appears to be no policy motive for the introduction of this new law other than as a vehicle for cheap, partisan attacks on the trade unions, of which only a minority are actually affiliated to the Labour party.
Did my hon. Friend notice that when the Leader of the House spoke about trade unionism he absolutely refused to give way? Is that an indication of an attack on democracy? Many a democracy has failed after that very type of attack on the trade union movement. I am a member of the GMB. Does my hon. Friend agree that trade unionists are not obscure, abstract people? The people who have inundated me and other Members with correspondence are cleaners, teachers, engineers, bus drivers and firefighters, and they, in a democracy, are entitled to be heard.
I agree wholeheartedly.
Officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been totally unable to explain the problem that this part of the Bill is designed to solve. During a belated consultation meeting with the TUC—it took place after the Bill had been published—BIS officials could cast no light on why part 3 exists at all. Nor were they able to explain the origin of these proposals beyond their oft-repeated mantra that the provisions contained in part 3
“came out of a high level meeting between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister”.
I think that revelation tells us all we need to know about the grubby, partisan nature of the measures.
Did we not hear from the Leader of the House that his motivation for introducing these measures is to help the trade unions keep better records? It strikes me as odd that we know how many members the Labour party, the Liberal Democrat party and the trade unions have, but that, when asked to reveal its membership numbers, the Conservative party answers, “We can’t do that, because our records are too bad.”
I am rather sorry that I gave way to my hon. Friend, because he has just ruined one of my lines from later in my speech. Great minds think alike.
These proposals seem deliberately designed to burden trade unions with additional cost and bureaucracy from a Government who claim they are against red tape. This is despite the fact that unions already have a statutory duty to maintain registers of members. I understand from the TUC that neither the certification officer nor ACAS has made any representations to suggest that that was not already sufficient. The Government have to date failed to provide any evidence or rationale for these changes, so I can only conclude that this is a deliberate attempt to hamper unions with red tape because a minority of them have the temerity to support the Labour party.
I have serious concerns about the implications of these changes for the security of membership data. We all know that the blacklisting of trade union members may well still exist in our country. Blacklisting has ruined many lives and these changes could have some very dangerous implications, especially in the construction industry, where many are afraid to declare their membership of a trade union openly for fear of the repercussions.
I am Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has not had the opportunity to discuss this matter because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny. The fundamental human rights of association and privacy have been raised with us by the TUC. Does my hon. Friend agree that my Committee should have had the opportunity to scrutinise this Bill before it came to the Floor of the House?
Once more, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. That is the third Committee that the Government have managed to ignore or insult with the production of this appallingly, rapidly constructed Bill. I hope they will reconsider the Bill and think about delaying its passage so that parliamentary Committees, including the Joint Committee on Human Rights, can do the job the House asks of them on suggested Government legislation.
I hope that the Government will respond next week to our amendments on issues of confidentiality and give the assurances we seek in these important areas.
The Government have arbitrarily singled out trade unions for this attack but have given no reason why other membership organisations should not be covered by these costly and disruptive requirements. It is beyond irony, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) has pointed out, to be lectured by the Conservative party on how to ensure that membership data are accurate when it will not even confirm how many members it has left. Perhaps it should be forced by law to appoint a highly remunerated assessor who can get to the truth of it for all of us. This is another in a long list of anti-employee proposals from a Government who always seem to want to make it easier to fire rather than hire workers and to weaken rather than strengthen their security at work. We will table a range of amendments to this part of the Bill to address concerns.
I also want to say this to the Government: we are proud of our direct link to millions of working people up and down this country and we believe in the right of working people to organise and stand up to unfair treatment in the workplace. Free trade unions are part of a free and vibrant society, and the partisan use of the law in an attempt to disrupt their efficient administration is yet another sinister aspect of this appalling Bill.
This is a bad Bill that will make things worse, not better. It makes lobbying less transparent and it places a sinister gag on charities and campaigners who want to make legitimate contributions to our democratic debate. It is a Bill that the Government should be ashamed of. It is incompetent. It is rushed. It has been developed in a high-level meeting between the Prime Minister and his deputy, but with no other consultation. It is a sop to vested interests, an illiberal attack on democratic debate and involvement, and a cheap, partisan and cynical misuse of the legislative process for the Government’s own ends. We will vote against it and I urge Government Members to join us.
Order. I remind Members that there is a 10-minute time limit on all Back-Bench contributions, starting from the next speaker. A large number of hon. Members wish to participate and I put them on notice that it may be necessary to reduce the time limit later this evening in order to ensure that everybody is able to participate.
I rise to broadly support the Bill and to urge my colleagues to resist the amendment tabled by the Opposition. I do so with some reservations, which I will come to in the course of my remarks.
I begin by picking up the point that has been made by a number of hon. and right hon. Members about pre-legislative scrutiny. I have always been in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny. I think virtually every Bill is improved by it, although this time last year—or maybe the year before; how time flies—I had the rather sad experience of serving on the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill, and look where that got us. Nevertheless, I have to say that pre-legislative scrutiny and proper scrutiny of legislation is the best way to defuse potential misunderstandings and to come to the true nature of what is being proposed.
The reason why I think the House should support this Bill’s Second Reading is that I truly believe it is a step forward, although it is not entirely the step forward it could be. I believe there are a number of misunderstandings, and that has certainly been true of some of today’s interventions. I think that pre-legislative scrutiny would have provided the opportunity to address them such that they might have been dealt with and we might have had clarity prior to proceedings. Although this is by no means a perfect Bill—what Bill ever is?—it is a reasonable start in the direction of transparency on lobbying. Therefore, I prefer to vote for it and then, I hope, see changes made during its consideration in Committee, rather than vote against it at this stage.
A large amount of time has been provided to consider the Bill on the Floor of the House, but does my hon. Friend agree that pre-legislative scrutiny is important and that a large amount of time in Committee and on Report does not make up for the lack of it?
My hon. Friend is correct. That is exactly the point that I was making. Those are two different processes that arrive at different conclusions. However, we are where we are. I regret that we have not had pre-legislative scrutiny, but we will have three days in Committee and two days on consideration. I hope that we use that time wisely to explore all the issues before us.
The hon. Gentleman’s concern over the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny will have been heard on both sides of the House. Given that lack of scrutiny, will he join us in the Lobby to vote down the programme motion and to provide a more adequate amount of time to debate the Bill on the Floor of the House?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I will not do that because it would not introduce pre-legislative scrutiny. There are three days to debate the Bill in Committee. There are some important big issues, but not a huge number of them, so we will probably have enough time to debate them in the days that are available.
I am terribly sorry, but we are time limited and two interventions is our lot. I am afraid that that is it for the time being, unless I get ahead of myself, which is always possible.
In the Bill, we are trying to introduce more transparency into areas that, by common consent on both sides of the House, require transparency. We are therefore required to act. We are looking to shed light on the hidden influence of big business, big money and big power.
I want to make it absolutely clear, as I did in the Opposition debate some 10 weeks ago, that lobbying is a good and integral part of the political process. When somebody comes to lobby me because they are my constituent or because I sit on a certain Committee, I consider that to be an important part of how I inform myself so that I may take reasonable decisions, ask good questions in Committees or act in the interests of my constituents. I would be very concerned if I felt that anything stood in the way of my doing that on behalf of my constituents or with regard to my work on a Committee. As far as I can see, nothing in the Bill will do that. I understand that some Opposition Members feel differently, but I believe that those issues can be worked out during the passage of the Bill.
We are proposing something relatively small and light touch. I would describe it as a good start. When an independent lobbyist—a company that lobbies for profit and is not associated with a particular company—is lobbying in a relatively secretive way and has the power to influence what is happening in our lives, it is right that those people should be registered and that we should be aware of what they are seeking to do. The Bill will not do that entirely, but it will not do anything that stops that from happening. It is a building block that may be built on.
Part 1 of the Bill provides for a statutory register of lobbyists, which was in our manifesto and the coalition agreement. The Liberal Democrats have pushed hard for that to be implemented. I am therefore delighted that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is involved in introducing the Bill. The register is something that we very much wanted to see. It is deliberately light touch and deals with an existing gap in the transparency arrangements for communication between third-party lobbyists and Ministers.
The coalition is the first Government to publish quarterly data on ministerial meetings. In that way, some sunlight that has never before shone on such ministerial activities has shone on them and we have more idea of what is going on. That could be improved and done a little more timeously, and some of the detail could be expanded on. It is not overly helpful to have a series of entries that say “general discussion” or whatever the term might be. It is very much a work in progress. However, I certainly would not wish to criticise the Government for starting something that we have never had before, even if I think that it could be improved. It is an important step forward.
The inclusion of third-party lobbyists means that we will be able to ascertain on behalf of which firm lobbying is taking place. That will fill a degree of the gap.
I am terribly sorry, but that clock is a tough master.
Much of today’s contention has been about part 2. I believe that it is positive that people are motivated to campaign for what they believe in. It is obvious that such activity is moving away from traditional political parties and into third-party organisations. However, when campaigning is of a political nature, it is right that it should be controlled properly. That is an accepted principle in the current legislation, to which the Bill proposes amendments.
My understanding of the purpose of part 2 is that somebody who seeks to affect the outcome of the election—that is, a particular candidate or party will benefit from their actions—will be controlled. If, on the other hand, they offer policies to all parties in the hope that they will be taken up, they will not be included. Very basically, I understand that to be the core of what we are doing.
I believe that that is what the Bill sets out to do. That is an appropriate and good measure to take. If I am wrong, the way to flush that out is to table amendments in Committee.
I heard, as hon. Members across the House will have heard, the assurance that was given by the Leader of the House on that point. He stated clearly what the objective was and gave the commitment that if, for any reason, that objective was not met by the Bill as currently drafted, he would accept amendments or seek to make amendments to achieve the objective. There is good will on the part of Ministers to deal with something that is an appropriate addition to the legislation.
Under the current regulatory regime, third parties can spend a considerable amount of money. In the 2010 election, 25 third parties spent £3 million. I believe that the reduction that we are making and the fact that it will not be possible to target funds into one constituency are rather important. I was most taken by the intervention by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I am with him, as I always am. He and I make common cause on many matters. There are a number of organisations that will be controlled that both he and I would like to see controlled. A foreign tycoon who funds a third party that sets out to spend a fortune in one constituency will be dealt with in the Bill.
I will not, I am afraid.
Such examples would not have been dealt with before. That is an important step forward. I accept that there might be details that do not accord with the principle that has been set out, but we can flush those out in Committee and in later stages.
Part 3, which seeks to establish transparency in the membership numbers of trade unions, is important. There was a well-made point towards the end of the remarks of the shadow Leader of the House, which I will not follow up. Frankly, it is a pretty good principle and one that we should follow.
In conclusion, this is not a perfect Bill, but it responds in a measured way to a need that is evident and clear. It is a start and will, in all probability, be built on in the future. I seriously urge the House to vote for Second Reading and to decline the amendment so that we can at least have that debate.
I have the great privilege of being Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, elected by Members of the whole House—not put on by the Whips or anybody else—to speak on behalf of Members throughout the House and try to give them a service in that policy field. Despite not having received great co-operation from the Government, we intend to fulfil that service, and on Thursday morning we will equip every Member of the House with a full set of the evidence we have received since putting out a call for evidence when we were told this Bill was coming. In addition to our report, we will also propose on an all-party basis a series of amendments to make the Bill workable.
We are doing that because—amazingly—if we want a lobbying Bill, it is possible to build one across the House. One has to work pretty hard to get Spinwatch on the one hand, and lobbying associations on the other, to come together and say, “We can do this,” but we have interviewed as witnesses people from those organisations and they have told us that by working with a special Committee of the House for several months we can produce a Bill to address the issues about which we are all concerned. That is partly the problem. I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said that the next big scandal may well be lobbying, so let us get in there now, sort it out and be pre-emptive. I am afraid, however, that the Bill does not tackle that problem.
I agree with the coalition parties and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members who pulled together the coalition agreement and said, “We should have something on the statute book about lobbying.” We are trying to fall out when it is easier to agree, and my Committee will produce the basis on which such agreement can happen, whether or not it is taken up.
May I make a suggestion for one of the amendments to be considered by the hon. Gentleman’s Committee? It relates to the “independence” of the registrar. The Leader of the House mentioned that word at least twice. I may need to go to Specsavers, but I have read the Bill and I cannot find a guarantee of the independence of the registrar.
That is certainly one of the issues on which we have taken evidence, including this morning, and we will come forward with proposals that will reassure the hon. Lady. Whether those proposals find favour across the House now the tramlines are set, rather than having a special Committee that could have attempted to reach consensus, is another matter. Fundamentally, however, there is another big-picture problem because this issue is not just about the House and how it does its business, but about the public.
The public wanted a Bill on lobbying not because of some finesse about 1% of lobbyists or a couple of categories —Ministers and permanent secretaries—of people who are lobbied. The public wanted a Bill because they felt that we did not have the credibility, or the political classes the ability, to produce something that would tackle the scandals that appear in our newspapers and on our television. Nothing in this Bill addresses that concern: “You lot in Parliament, once again you’ve ducked it. You have avoided the big issues.” We have heard cases involving all parties—this is not a partisan point—but not one of those issues is addressed by the Bill. People watching our debates at home will say, “There they go again. There is an esoteric little thing about a few details, and the only thing we know is that they are attacking our charities.” I do not say whether that is right or wrong, but that is the impression the public are being given by our inability to create an effective lobbying Bill.
Briefly, if someone wanted to do O-level politics on how to produce or not to produce a Bill, I am sorry, but this Bill would be an F—a fail, big time. Unfortunately, they need to have people on their side—political parties where there could be consensus, the big society, charities, the voluntary sector. Read the evidence from the Electoral Commission when I publish it in 48 hours’ time. It is damning evidence from people who should really all be on the same side to ensure this provision will happen. We should listen to people. Let us have some consultation; let Parliament do its job, smoke out some of the issues and attempt to resolve them. I have a fantastic all-party Committee and we could do that job for Parliament, yet those things have been resolutely held at arm’s length. Perversely, we are trying to make a Bill that divides rather than keeps people together.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the real—the biggest—lobbying scandal is that of big business with in-house lobbying divisions having a disproportionate impact on policy as a result of privileged relationships with Government Departments? That is what needs to be addressed.
Yes indeed, and it is not addressed. Neither is it easy to address. By combining their wit and capability, however, 650 Members of Parliament could design the amendments to make this Bill work, if Members in all parts of the House are prepared, for once, to rise above the dogfight and accept some of them. I wish we were not discussing this Bill now and that it was in a special Committee. However it is not, but there will be possibilities on an all-party basis for Members to try and make it work, and I will mention a couple of them.
I say gently to my very good Friend on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), that it is no good attacking the Government for not having pre-legislative scrutiny, and for the Opposition not then to say that we will have such scrutiny as of right and as in normal process, so that in future, when the Labour party sits on the other side of the House, our Bills will command much wider support and not come back. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who I have known for many years, that it is not about just getting the ball rolling. This is an opportunity to do the job well, and it is perfectly within our ability to do that.
As we know, there are three main sections to the Bill. All I will say about the lobbying Bill—I will speak if I am called as the Committee stage progresses—is that it is very limited, not what we expected and, even more importantly, not what the public expect of us. We will seek to redefine issues such as those concerning who is lobbied. People who lobby the civil service do not go to the permanent secretary but talk to the desk officer or the director general. Those people are outwith the concept of the Bill. Let us also redefine who the lobbyists are. At the moment, estimates vary that between 1% and 5% of lobbyists will be caught by the Bill. Surely nobody out there will accept that as the basis of a lobbying Bill.
I have a pertinent and specific question for all Members of the House about their role and function as lobbyists. I hope we are the best lobbyists that can be found, particularly on behalf of our constituents. However, we should tread in that area carefully because as soon as we start putting the rights of Members of Parliament in statute per se, we allow justiciability to take place and people to say, “You did or you didn’t perform under your legislative duties.” That could have severe consequences, and we must explore that in great detail in Committee.
On part 2 of the Bill, one of the most wonderful parts of my life experience as a Member of Parliament is when we come towards a general election, and all those different bodies start to get hold of us, lobby us, knock on our doors, phone us and send letters—“Come to our meeting. You will not get our vote unless we know exactly what you are doing on this.” Someone on the opposite side then says exactly the same thing: “What do you do? How do you think those issues through? Let’s understand those issues.” That is the lifeblood and rich diversity of our democracy, and we should be doing everything we can to improve and increase it, not to diminish and cast a shadow over it.
I do not believe for a moment that the Leader of the House is trying to chill the voluntary and charitable sectors. However, in this case, I speak as a trustee of a charity. I will not put the money in that charity, which is for doing great things for kids, at risk. I will not authorise anything that even remotely possibly could risk that money—we are not sure what the Government mean or what they are trying to do. I will not do that, which dampens and inadvertently chills.
I must press on—I am sorry that I cannot give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
Who are we trying to constrain? I shall tell the House of just a few organisations that have sent evidence to my Committee. They include fringe organisations such as Citizens Advice, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Royal British Legion and Oxfam. Those organisations have written to the Committee in the past week or so. Others include the Voluntary Sector North West, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity, the British Youth Council, the National Trust, the Women’s Support Network, Christian Aid, the Stroke Association, Girlguiding and—this is the real hardcore—the Woodland Trust. Mencap and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have also written to the Committee. Surely we intend to make those organisations believe they have an increasing rather than a diminishing part in our democracy.
I ask the Government to think again and to do so seriously. The Committee will propose amendments on redefining terms. A number of colleagues have asked what the Government mean by “electoral purposes”. What does that capture? We want to give people reassurance on that.
The Committee has taken evidence from the Electoral Commission. The last thing the Electoral Commission wants is to be given responsibility for the measures and to be made the judge. It wants clarity and to remain impartial. It does not want to be drawn into arguments on freedom of speech. It does not want to be the arbiter of what is or is not quasi-political and of what is perfectly legitimate.
I am sorry—I have only one minute left, so I must press on.
I made a point briefly—I will not make it at length—about expenditure on campaigning. If that expenditure must also include staffing and a number of other things—material costs and so on—that it did not previously include, the pot for actual campaigning for charities and other organisations is diminished. We need to be clear about that but, having briefly studied it, I am not clear. Friends who have lobbied me, the Leader of the House and others are also not clear. If we make them risk-averse, we will diminish our democracy, not improve it.
We need to look again at part 3. I am mystified as to why trade unions would not know where their members are—their lifeblood is ensuring they know where their members are because their members pay the subs and the wages and keep those organisations going. They have to know who their members are for industrial relations ballots, so it is in their interests to keep those records up to date.
I rise to support the Bill on Second Reading. As many colleagues have said, some measures need more scrutiny in Committee of the whole House and some need tightening.
I should like to draw the Leader of the House’s attention to one element of the Bill so that he can think about it as an area to explore in Committee. Inappropriate lobbying is a pertinent issue. I welcome the Government’s bid to clean up that murky pool and to shine a light on some of the movers and shakers behind the scenes. That is where much of the public’s concern lies. Who is gaining access behind the scenes through special relationships?
I congratulate the Government on starting the process by publishing details of departmental meetings quarterly, although they could be made fuller. Hon. Members have referred to the fact that “broad discussions” does not tell us who is lobbying on behalf of whom. Hon. Members need to know how influence is gained, where it is gained, how deals are done and who is pushing a pet project, particularly with reference to our constituencies.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
What does the hon. Lady make of the statistic that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills held 988 meetings with lobbyists in 2012, of which only two would be eligible for inclusion on the register? Does that not make a mockery of the Bill?
The hon. Lady makes a valuable point. The House is where we raise such concerns. I am sure that those things will be taken into account in Committee, and in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report. The debate is not about playing ping-pong with blame; it is about drawing such matters into the public domain. Perhaps that area will be tightened up. I am hopeful that it will be.
I will not give way to the hon. Lady. I have read only about a paragraph of my speech. Many Opposition Members wish to speak, so I am sure she will have an opportunity to intervene.
Hon. Members are the voices of their constituencies. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) made exactly that point when he said that we are the strongest lobbyists. If something is not right in our constituencies, we speak up for our constituents. It is up to us to ferret behind the scenes and find out what is going on. We need to be aware of how lobbyists play and by whose rules, and the extent of their schmoozing.
I want to point out a worrying grey area that is not covered in the Bill but that could be captured as we work on the Bill in the next few days. I have been trying to track the influence of lobbyists on a major project in St Albans. I have made no bones about the fact that I am completely and implacably opposed, as is my council at every level, to a strategic rail freight interchange on 300 acres of green-belt land. I am concerned that lobbying behind the scenes may have led to a shift in the decision-making process, and have made every effort to try to find out how hon. Members, as representatives of our constituents, can find out who or what has gained the ear of influential people. I fully accept that that does not always mean the Minister—it could be someone in the Minister’s office. Members need to have a clearly defined route to find out what has gone on. Our constituents do not have that opportunity.
The project has been led by Helioslough. One of its key lobbyists is Mr Simon Hoare, who operates under various guises—it is therefore pertinent that we have a full register. We have been fighting the proposal since 2006. It has been turned down twice—once by the previous Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and once by the current one. There have been two refusals, but now there is a minded-to-approve decision, which has set off my radar. What has altered? The plans are the same, so has pressure been applied behind the scenes?
The last refusal was quashed by the High Court in 2011, and the process has become murky and opaque—it is very much the sort of thing that I believe the public want hon. Members to clamp down on. In this world, personal connections and relationships can come in very handy. I have dug very deep to try to get to the bottom of how much access the developer of the rail freight proposal has gained via his lobbyists. The proposal has implications for planning and transport, and for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Not only one Department is involved, but many.
Like many colleagues who have concerns about the undue effects of lobbying, I asked a series of parliamentary questions—that is one route, albeit a tortuous one, open to hon. Members—and, ultimately, made freedom of information requests. I discovered in a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), the then Transport Minister, admitted to having had a private luncheon meeting with the lead lobbyist for Helioslough, the developer, just after the refusal—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if Opposition Members listened to what I have to say. I am making the point that the Bill will not capture those private, personal connections over lunch, where things are discussed.
I found out that the matter was discussed over lunch in a private, personal capacity with the Minister. Since then, I have been chasing those private comments to see what they have led to. My right hon. Friend has also admitted that, since that meeting, her Department received an e-mail from Simon Hoare entitled “Radlett SRFI—The economic benefits”. Simon Hoare was tirelessly making his case behind the scenes, despite the fact that the process was closed to me and my constituents.
I submitted freedom of information requests, because the role of all Back-Bench MPs is to speak up and defend our constituents against what I would describe as inappropriate lobbying. I have the contents of the e-mails and an attached document. I also have the Department for Transport letter to Mr Hoare informing him that the e-mails were about to be disclosed. When Mr Hoare received notice that his e-mails and private correspondence were about to be disclosed, he sent an attachment, saying:
“I would prefer for my email not to be sent to the MPs”.
I am sure he would prefer that. Unfortunately for him, the Department disclosed his e-mail, which makes for disturbing reading. Among a lot of other things, it states:
“I am aware the DfT is a strong supporter of the development of rail freight”
“will also doubtless be aware”
“a number of schemes…In the last 10 years my client has incurred costs over £12 million”
on that planning application. The letter goes on:
“I do not believe that DCLG has a clue as to the costs of the planning process…While appreciating that DCLG is a quasi judicial role vis à vis the Public Inquiry, anything your department can do to press the case for a speedy and supportive decision would be a real shot in the arm…As a courtesy, I ought to advise you that we are also in contact with HMT…and…BIS.”
I would not have known that without a freedom of information request. It goes on to say a lot more, but my time is constrained.
This is what we have to clamp down on. I am sure that this is sounding very unhelpful, but at least this Government are tackling it—[Interruption] They have an opportunity to tackle it through the Bill. Sadly, such private meetings will not be covered by the current proposed legislation—that is the point I am making. I am sure that the Minister would like to know that I have asked the Library about this matter. It has confirmed that this is still a grey area, even with the introduction of the Bill: it will be up to Ministers to decide whether they feel that they have been influenced over lunch and a good glass of wine.
I give the Department for Transport some credit for letting me see the information trail. So far, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has not let me see anything, saying that it did receive documents and correspondence but that letting me know all about it would involve a disproportionate cost. Well, one Department can let me know and I do not like what I read—it stinks. Something has changed a decision affecting my constituency. Somebody beat up somebody in some Department somewhere and said, “Make this thing happen, please”. I know we have an economic imperative to get Britain moving, but not by building an inappropriately located rail freight interchange.
I have asked parliamentary questions and I am dissatisfied with the level of response. My freedom of information requests have been rather more fruitful, but at what cost? The paper trail involved in trying to get to the evidence is not without cost to the taxpayer. I have gone to the Information Commissioner for adjudication on the rather opaque way that this matter has been dealt with. As the duly elected representative of my entire constituency, I represent everybody, as we all do in our constituencies, not just Conservatives. If this decision is imposed on them, they have a right to know that any lobbying has been transparent. I am not anti-lobbying—I lobby like crazy on behalf of my constituents—but I want to know who has had cosy lunches and I want to know if quiet conversations behind closed doors have effected changes of mind. I want to know, on behalf of my constituents, whether lobbying is helping to change decision-making processes.
In the end that is surely what we should all be agreed on, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said. We should all want fairness from the Bill. Given that the Library has admitted that this is a grey area and that at the moment the Bill does not capture this—it perhaps captures a few other things—I desperately hope that we can come up with guidance on the Floor of the House. If not, those cosy conversations will increase, and paper trails will be quietly hidden away—nobody can track down a quiet conversation over lunch.
I thank my right hon. Friend the. Member for Chipping Barnet, who admitted that the application was discussed. I gave her the courtesy of letting her know that I would refer to her correspondence. She admitted that additional information was later sent to the three Departments—I have the proof of that. The trail has gone somewhat dead and I am disappointed about that. I am still hopeful that there is time to see sense and overturn the decision, but what has come out of this situation is the unedifying spectacle whereby I can go through many weeks of appeals with my constituents in the public domain where everyone can hear everything and then, unbeknownst to us, when the process is stalled, the developer can have private lunches at which, because there happens to be a university connection, old friendships have been called in. That is not acceptable; that is not democracy. I am sure that the Bill will now appropriately consider this grey area.
Like many other hon. Members, I have had more communications on this issue than on virtually anything else since I became a Member of Parliament. Whether we agree with them or not, we have a duty to listen to the views, comments and strong opinions of our constituents.
The Leader of the House and other Government Members have suggested that the Bill is fantastic in every way. That is absolute gobbledegook. It has also been suggested that this is the worst Bill ever to be placed before Parliament, with its fanciful but misleading title heading up what has to be the worst-written Bill ever presented. That is not unintentional; the clauses in the Bill are intentional. They are a full-frontal attack on members of society—let there be no mistake about that. The people who wrote the Bill are very well educated, guided very well by the Ministers in charge of the Department. Let us not hide behind thinking that they are not and that the Bill is not really what they mean. It is exactly what they mean. Perhaps the Bill should have been withdrawn. Perhaps it could be renamed the Government’s Glorified Gagging Bill, the Can’t Criticise Cameron Bill, or the Big Society (Just Be Very Quiet) Bill, because that is exactly what it is all about.
It was the Prime Minister himself who warned that lobbying was the next great scandal waiting to happen. It was the Prime Minister who said that he would put it right. The Bill misses every single target. It misses the big money in lobbying and hits the people at the bottom who are doing their best. It misses the likes of Lynton Crosby, who is at the heart of a rotten Government, and hits charities such as Barnardo’s, Cancer UK and Diabetes UK. To be frank, that is unacceptable.
Does my hon. Friend not find it ironic that at a time when politics is at an all-time low in public esteem, we have a Government hell-bent on attacking the very groups and organisations that are good at getting the general public involved in political and public debate?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s remarks. I will come on to that point in the later part of my contribution.
The Bill misses the Lynton Crosbys and the Lord Ashcrofts, and will allow them to plough millions and millions of pounds into constituencies while other people are constrained in how they want to do their business. Not only does it fail to deal with corporate lobbyists, but it effectively stitches together the lips of the big society, in the year before a general election, for fear of breaking the rules. In her excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who has just left the Chamber, described the reforms as a dog’s breakfast. The hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) disagreed, saying
“He is wrong, of course. Far more thought has gone into pet nutrition than into this Bill.”
The hon. Member for Clacton has great experience of being a Government attack dog and someone here is barking up the wrong tree. For a Government who created a Minister for the big society to create such a Bill would be laughable if it was not so frightening. It has been described as having a chilling effect on the work of charities, pressure organisations and local community groups. This is an unprecedented attack on our national institutions of democracy and on individual free speech.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being late for this debate; I have been in a Committee meeting. My hon. Friend said that the Bill was unprecedented. Does he agree that the other constitutional changes that the Government parties have tried to get through this House, such as boundary changes, Lords reform and changing the voting system, are the same as this Bill? They are using the constitution to give themselves political advantage at the next election and future elections. That is what this Bill is about.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; he is absolutely right. Everything in this Bill is about giving the coalition political advantage in the year running up to the next election—and, indeed, at every election.
The Bill is an unprecedented attack. Charities, campaigning organisations and local groups are frightened by the Bill, but they should wait until they hear the detail and see how it develops. We will see people leaving local groups. There will be no voice for the local opposition to wind turbines, fracking or anything else. We will not have trustees on trustee boards of charities because they will be frightened in case they break the law, because they do not even understand what this law means, and they are not the only ones. We had a meeting this morning with some barristers who said that they had spoken to the Electoral Commission and they did not have a clue what the legislation meant. What is more, they said that the Electoral Commission was not even consulted on the legislation. They are the people who will be policing the legislation and they have not even been consulted on any of the detail. It is absolutely unbelievable that the Government have approached the issue in that manner.
Charities and campaigners have worked tirelessly. They have opposed the bedroom tax, reductions in doctors and nurses, reductions in the police and the fire service, and reductions in many other public servants. Those groups have opposed increases in tuition fees and issues such as fracking, wind turbines and nuclear power. You name it, Madam Deputy Speaker, local charities and groups have been involved, and good on them. Do we not want people to be involved in politics? Are we happy to come here as 650 MPs just to discuss ourselves and ignore what the rest of the country wants? Is that what we want? I am sure it is not, so we need to listen to what is being said out there by the people.
The people who have been e-mailing me are hardly raving militants looking for a revolution. What they want is fairness. They want to be able to understand what this legislation is about. I was embarrassed for the Leader of the House. He made a botch-up of the NHS Bill and here he is the second time, with a Bill placed before him that he could not even defend.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. He has spoken about his constituents. Is it the case in his constituency, as in mine, that, overwhelmingly, those approaching him and writing to him are not affiliated to the Labour party? In fact, they are trade unions such as the NASUWT—the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers—and a range of charities, many of them small organisations that are very local.
Yes; in fact, of the nearly 300 e-mails I have received, very few are from trade union members, massive charities or the big lobbyists. They are from run-of-the-mill local people who are frightened. They are people whom the Prime Minister described perfectly as “the big society”. They thought they had a role; they are now being kicked in the teeth.
In Wansbeck, the Bill will have disastrous consequences for small charities, like those that my hon. Friend mentioned, and community groups, which have limited resources and limited access to legal advice, and could easily be tripped up by the legislation. The National Trust, a big organisation, often has an input into major infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2. Will those organisations be covered by the legislation? Local community groups opposing the building of wind turbines; charities seeking an increase in the level of GDP that we spend on international aid—will they all be covered by the legislation? People are frightened about what it means, and they have not even begun to understand the consequences of the legislation.
Let me deal with part 3 of the Bill and the nature of the TUC, which has been in existence since 1866. Under this legislation, the TUC could be outlawed—it could be criminalised in the year running up to the election. The Durham miners’ gala, which I am proud to attend every year and which upwards of 100,000 to 150,000 people attend—people from all walks of life and all parts of Britain, getting together with their families—could be outlawed and criminalised because of this legislation. The Tolpuddle march, celebrating the history of the people sent to Australia all those years ago, could be outlawed. People could be criminalised under this legislation. Is it not an absolute outrage that we face this sort of thing in a Bill that is being rushed through Parliament?
I accept that point from my hon. Friend.
In conclusion—very quickly—the legal advice suggests that this is a clear violation of privacy and freedom of association, as enshrined in the European convention on human rights. The proposals clearly breach international law, namely articles 8 and 11 of the ECHR. The Government have got this wrong. The target was the wealthy and the corruption in politics, with MPs and people with finances behind them. What the Government have done is hit the people at the bottom of the tree. I urge the Government to bin the Bill.
Before the debate started, I was quite optimistic about the Bill, because I thought it was a positive step forward. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, said, it would be quite nice to have a consensual way forward. I am pleased that we are debating the Second Reading of the Bill, because it gives us the opportunity next week to try to make some amendments, if people feel the Bill needs amending, and allows the charities dealt with in part 2—I shall come to that in a moment—to get commitments from the Minister at the Dispatch Box on what the provisions in the Bill mean.
Before I go through the bits of the Bill that I want to discuss, I should point out that a lot of those charities’ concerns apply to the law as it stands, as opposed to what is in the Bill. If the Bill did not go through, those charities and third-party organisations would still have a lot of those concerns about the current law, because of what we heard earlier about regulated expenditure. We have an opportunity to have the Bill spoken about on the Floor of the House next week, to get as many of us as possible involved and ask as many questions as possible, and then to get those issues out in the open, so I welcome the Bill in that sense.
I also welcome the fact that the Bill establishes a statutory register of professional consultant lobbyists. I know that it does not do enough for some of us, but it is the first step along the way.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I do not think those reductions will have any impact whatever. I have 400 charities and voluntary groups in my constituency, and if any of them could spend £400,000 they would be over the moon. The reality is that the reductions will not affect them whatever.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the discussion of this Bill and the extent to which it can be discussed in Committee, but is he not aware that the long title specifically talks about regulation of consultant lobbyists, and only regulation of consultant lobbyists? This Bill is not the beginning of a process; it is the end of a process. If he reads the long title, his hope that it can be amended more positively might prove to be sadly misplaced.