House of Commons
Wednesday 9 October 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Committee of Selection
That Mr John Randall be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Greg Hands be a member of the Committee until the end of the current Session.—(Gavin Barwell.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the Government’s economic policies on Wales. 
Our economic strategy is designed to equip Wales and the United Kingdom with the tools they need to succeed in the global race, and to secure a stronger economy and a fairer society.
With the deficit down by a third and employment at record levels, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for the Labour party to admit that our economic policy is working, not only in Redditch, but in Wales?
Indeed, it is working in Wales and in Redditch. There are clear signs that the economy is turning the corner. I am sure that all Members were pleased with yesterday’s forecast by the International Monetary Fund, which revised UK growth for next year up from 1.5% to 1.9%.
I put it to the Secretary of State that all economies recover from all recessions at some point, but that our recovery has come three years after those of Germany and the United States because his Government’s savage cuts turned Labour’s growth and recovery from the banking crisis in 2010 into three years of austerity. The current recovery is made in the south-east for the south-east. In Wales, there is no housing bubble, long-term unemployment is dire, as is under-employment, and personal debt is high. We need investment in Wales. His Government should be supporting the Labour Welsh Government, not hindering them with budget cuts the whole time.
It is rather rich for the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of the Government who presided over the economic crash in 2008, to criticise this Government for the steps that we are taking to turn the economy around. Wales, as much as every other part of the country, is benefiting from the measures that we have taken. There are 67,000 more people in work than at the time of the last election. He should welcome that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our excellent national economic policies are being held back by the Welsh Assembly’s inward investment policies, which have led to a fall in inward investment in Wales? Wales has gone from being one of the top creators of inward investment to one of the lowest as a result of those policies.
There were modest improvements recently, but it is the case that the Welsh Assembly Government should give serious consideration to reinstating a body like the Welsh Development Agency, which was so successful.
Wales urgently needs job creation levers to boost our economy, as the Council for Economic Renewal said today. Last week, in an interview with Adrian Masters of ITV Cymru Wales, the Prime Minister refused to commit to a response from the UK Government to part 1 of the Silk commission before next year’s Scottish referendum. Why are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister holding back the Welsh economy?
As I have just said, the Welsh economy is growing. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we recently held a consultation on the devolution of stamp duty land tax. We are considering the responses and will make a formal response in due course.
13. Housing construction is an important element of economic renewal and regeneration, and the Help to Buy scheme in England will make a significant impact in encouraging home ownership and new build. The situation in Wales is more confused. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Welsh Government to follow the English model as closely as possible? Otherwise, we will run the risk that lenders will not be available to lend in Wales. 
I was pleased that the Welsh Government recently announced a form of Help to Buy, and I hope, as my hon. Friend says, that they will align their policies with those of the United Kingdom Government to ensure that the recovery is spread across England and Wales.
The Government’s economic policies are leaving people in Wales struggling to make ends meet. With average energy bills up £300 since 2010, does the Secretary of State support Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices?
I am not entirely sure what those plans are, and I would be interested to hear about them from the hon. Lady. In fact, they unravelled less than 24 hours after the announcement. Under the previous Government we had 10 years of incoherence in energy policy, and as a consequence this Government have to take the necessary steps to keep the lights on.
2. What assessment he has made of the value of exports to the economy in Wales. 
The Government recognise the importance of exports to the economy. I was pleased to welcome the chief executive of UK Trade & Investment, Nick Baird, to Cardiff last month to underline the support that UKTI can offer to businesses in Wales.
That is further proof that the Government are taking action to increase exports, but what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that Britain and Wales continue to benefit from opportunities in Europe by trading through and to Europe?
My hon. Friend is right. Wales is largely a country of small and medium-sized enterprises, and if more SMEs were to export at the European rate, that would wipe out the trade deficit altogether. I strongly encourage Welsh companies to engage closely with UKTI, as it has global reach and is able to maximise opportunities throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
What impact does the Secretary of State think that uncertainty over the UK’s role in the European Union—uncertainty created by his Government—will have on exports from Wales?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman engages closely with his constituents and will know there is general dissatisfaction with the current settlement in Europe. We think our position in Europe should be renegotiated, and it is right to take sufficient time over that negotiation. At the end of that period, by 2017, we will put the issue of whether Britain should be a member of the European Union to the people of this country in an in/out referendum.
All constituent parts of the UK ran trade surpluses in 2012—all except England. That puts paid to the caricature of Welsh business as failing in some way, and the surplus from Wales was £5 billion in 2012. What can be done to encourage micro-businesses such as those in my constituency to understand the value of exports and the opportunities they offer in the face of austerity from this Government, and indifference and incompetence from the Government in Cardiff?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Welsh businesses have been successful, but we want them to be even more successful. I therefore encourage Welsh businesses of whatever size to engage closely with UKTI, which as I said has global reach and is in the best position to maximise opportunities throughout the world.
3. What assessment he has made of wage levels in Wales since 2010. 
11. What steps the Government are taking to tackle low pay in Wales. 
Since this Government took office, wages and salaries growth have revived, and nominal growth in 2012 of 2.8% was the strongest since 2007.
I am sorry to disappoint the Minister, but average wages in Flintshire have fallen since the general election, and more than 300,000 people in Wales are currently earning less than the living wage. I support aspiring to a living wage. Does he?
What I support is creating the right conditions for the private sector to create new jobs in Wales. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area in north Wales we anticipate that 40,000 new jobs will be created in the next five years. He should get out and back the support for balanced recovery that will bring benefits to his constituency and across north Wales.
Real wages have gone down in 38 of the 39 months since this Government came to power. Zero-hours contracts, payday loans and flouting of minimum wage law, on top of rising energy, food, and transport bills, have left my constituents feeling vulnerable. Has the Minister any plans to deal with falling living standards?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is another Labour Member who does not welcome the fact that unemployment has fallen in his constituency since the general election. We recognise that wage levels are not where we want them to be, but most of the deterioration in wage levels happened in the last three years of the previous Labour Government. We are helping people in Wales on low incomes by taking 130,000 people out of income tax altogether, and by freezing fuel duty. Because we have taken the responsible decision to cut the deficit, we are able to keep interest rates low, which means that low earners in his constituency, and mine, can hang on to their homes.
12. Does the Minister agree that the Labour party should be celebrating the fact that unemployment in a constituency such as mine is lower now than it was in 2010, and that we have 69,000 new private sector jobs in Wales, compared with 2010? The Labour party should celebrate success, not play down the economy of Wales. 
I totally agree with my hon. Friend—Labour Members should celebrate the progress we are making in Wales. There is a lot more work to be done, but unemployment is lower. Rather than criticising the private sector in Wales, which they do time and time again, they should be championing business growth in Wales.
Has my hon. Friend, as part of his assessment, carried out a full review of Welsh employment and unemployment since 2010? Perhaps he could share that with the House.
We see a lot of positive things happening in the Welsh economy—businesses are growing. I am particularly excited when I go to north Wales and see some of the dynamic things happening in the private sector there, but we believe that this is a recovery for the whole of Wales.
15. Wages are down by 10% in my constituency, unemployment is stubbornly high and energy prices are soaring, yet the Government do not have a plan to freeze energy prices. VAT has taken money out of the economy in constituencies such as mine. What plans do the Government have to restore pride and confidence in businesses in Ynys Môn? 
I am surprised to hear that question from the hon. Gentleman. His constituency is set to benefit from a huge level of private sector investment. We talk about the exciting things happening in north Wales and his constituency is one of the places that will benefit the most. He should back that.
High Speed 2
5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential costs and benefits of High Speed 2 to Wales. 
The Wales Office is committed to ensuring Wales derives the maximum possible benefit from HS2. In addition to improved journey times and extra rail capacity that passengers across the nation will experience, my Department will be working closely with Lord Deighton’s HS2 growth task force to identify further benefits to Wales.
With respect, that is not a good answer considering the Minister knew of this question three or four weeks ago. Is there a robust cost-benefit analysis of this whole fantastical project?
The cost-benefit analysis indicates that there will be a positive impact of £15 billion, in which Wales will be a full participant.
With some spending projections for this vanity project topping £80 billion, will the Secretary of State commit to fighting for a Barnett consequential equivalent for Wales, which could be between £3 billion and £4 billion and make a huge difference to the Welsh rail network? Will he join his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), in pleading this case, as reported today in the Western Mail?
I think the right hon. Gentleman knows what my answer will be: HS2 is a UK-wide project from which every part of the United Kingdom will benefit. He is a north Wales MP. He knows that north Wales will benefit from improved journey times to London via the hub at Crewe, he knows that mid-Wales will benefit from travel times via Birmingham, and he knows that south Wales will benefit from connections at Old Oak Common. Of course it will be of national benefit.
Last week, the Welsh Government announced the reopening of the second line between Wrexham and Chester. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such investment in rail infrastructure, including HS2, has a massive role to play in encouraging economic growth in north-east Wales and west Cheshire?
Yes. I was pleased that the Welsh Government reversed their decision not to redouble the line between Chester and Wrexham. It plays an important part in the business case for north Wales electrification, which I am sure all Members would welcome.
14. The £44 million of Labour investment in the Wrexham-Chester line is not a reversal of the decision; it is part of continued investment to improve the network in north-east Wales. I know the right hon. Gentleman is interested in this issue. Will he meet me to explore specifically how HS2 will link to the new development in the rail network in north-east Wales to benefit the area? 
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am always delighted to meet him to discuss rail matters. In fact, I invited him to a meeting only a few months ago to discuss the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am entirely happy to keep meeting him.
Is there not a real danger that the economies of north Wales and northern England could be left behind if we rely solely on the existing north-south rail lines, which, by all predictions, will be full to capacity by the mid-2020s?
My hon. Friend is entirely right: it is a question not just of speed, but of capacity. In his area, journey times from Leeds to London will be reduced by about 60 minutes, which I am sure we would all welcome.
6. What recent assessment he has made of the effects in Wales of changes to housing benefit. 
9. What recent assessment he has made of the effects in Wales of changes to housing benefit. 
The Government remain committed to reforming housing benefit to create a fairer and more affordable system.
Will the Minister advise me where he thinks Flintshire county council and other local authorities are supposed to find these mythical one and two-bedroom properties? While he is at it, why does he think it is a good idea to force disabled people out of homes that have been adapted by councils at high cost?
We are not forcing disabled people out of their homes. On the hon. Gentleman’s question about Flintshire, we are making available to his local authority more than £240,000 this year in discretionary housing benefit. I ask him to ask his local authority why it has more than 275 empty properties in the social rented sector. That is part of the answer to the local housing problems in Flintshire.
Is the Minister aware that in Swansea two thirds of the thousands of people affected by the bedroom tax are now in arrears and that those arrears have doubled since April? Will he and the Secretary of State have an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to make the case for Wales, which is the worst affected area in the whole of Britain, with fewer smaller units and the poor being thrust into dire poverty and the arms of loan sharks?
I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about housing issues in Swansea, but he should be aware that there are about 300 empty properties in the social rented sector in Swansea. That should be part of the answer to the problems he is talking about. I am concerned to hear about the large increase in the number of people he says are suffering from rent arrears. We are making available substantial resource to Swansea borough council, and we should be asking how it is using those discretionary housing payments to assist people through the difficult transition.
One of the best ways to help those affected by changes in housing benefit is through the provision of new single-person housing, but that has not been helped by the reduction in social housing built by the Welsh Government or by the extra Welsh-specific building regulations, which have impacted on the private sector and driven it out of Wales altogether.
We have seen the comments by Redrow Homes and Persimmon Homes. These are important Welsh builders who need to be building new homes in Wales, but who are not building as many as they should be. The Welsh Government are responsible for the supply of new housing in Wales, and I think that serious questions need to be put to Welsh Ministers in Cardiff about that.
It is truly extraordinary that the Minister continues to defend the bedroom tax. Will he confirm for the record whether, according to the Government’s own figures, Wales is hit harder than anywhere else in the UK? As he mentioned the disabled, will he tell us how many disabled households in Wales are hit by the bedroom tax?
We have had this question before. Wales is not hit harder—to use the hon. Gentleman’s terminology—than other parts of the United Kingdom. What is remarkable is that he still clings to the mythical economics of plan B. More than anybody else in the Opposition, he argues for more spending, more borrowing and more debt, all of which is a road to poverty for people in Wales.
The Government’s own impact assessment states that 46% of households in social housing in Wales have been hit by the bedroom tax, which is a higher proportion than anywhere else in Britain. Those are the Government’s own numbers. The bedroom tax will also hit 25,000 disabled families. The Minister should confer with his colleague the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who said only yesterday that the bedroom tax was not working in Wales. It is not working for those 25,000 people—25,000 reasons why we need a Labour Government to scrap the bedroom tax and deliver justice for those people in Wales.
I did not see the specific remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), but we are making available to Wales more than £7 million in extra money for discretionary housing payments. On top of that, we are making money available for rural borough councils in Wales to assist with the transition. We recognise that it is a challenge and a difficult period for people going through our changes to housing benefit, but we are supporting local authorities in Wales to help Welsh people through that transition.
Cardiff to Manchester Rail Line
7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport about capital investment in the Cardiff to Manchester railway line. 
I regularly meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to discuss rail infrastructure priorities for Wales, and I am meeting him again soon. I will raise the important link that my hon. Friend mentions as part of that discussion.
The new enterprise zone at Rotherwas in Herefordshire offers a superb opportunity to reopen the rail link to Hereford and establish a parkway station, which would assist local people and the many Welsh people who work in my county. Will the Secretary of State support those plans?
The Herefordshire enterprise zone is extremely important, and my hon. Friend will know that the important thing with rail infrastructure improvement is to build up a coherent business case. I will certainly raise this matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport when I meet him, and my hon. Friend’s question will form an important part of that business case.
May I take this opportunity to support the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and to ask the Secretary of State to ensure that he reiterates the importance of the electrification of the railway line to south Wales from London and of the valley lines? Will he take the opportunity to do that now?
Yes, indeed. The announcement that we made last year is still very much on track, and we are hoping that the link to Swansea will be completed by 2018. [Interruption.]
Order. There are far too many persistent and very noisy conversations taking place in the Chamber. I know that colleagues will want to listen to Susan Elan Jones.
8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on charities in Wales of the provisions of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. 
The Government have published impact assessments to accompany the three parts of the Bill. The assessment for part 2, which covers non-party campaigning, evaluates the potential effects of the proposals on third parties in the United Kingdom.
With respect, is not that answer a complete load of nonsense? The Wales Council for Voluntary Action has said that the Government’s proposals are entirely unworkable and undemocratic. Is there any serious charitable or faith group that agrees with the Government on this mess of a Bill?
The hon. Lady is making a point that has already been made, and that argument has now been discounted. She will know that the Government have tabled amendments to the Bill and have now reverted to the wording of the existing legislation, which defines controlled expenditure as expenditure that can
“reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate”.
That is precisely the same wording as applied in 2005 and 2010, so her fears are entirely unfounded.
10. What assessment he has made of the effects of the under-occupancy penalty in Wales. 
The removal of the spare room subsidy, which already applies in the private rented sector, has brought fairness back into the system. This Government are prepared to tackle this long-standing inequality and are taking the tough decisions to deliver a recovery that works for all.
I have contacted many housing associations in Wales in recent weeks, and the information so far points to the fact that—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I want to hear her question from start to finish, and to hear the answer. The House deserves to hear her question from start to finish.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I have contacted many housing associations in Wales in recent weeks, and the information collected so far points to the fact that about 45% of those who were previously able to meet their rent payments are now in arrears. Given that the discretionary housing payments are clearly not enough, what message does the Minister have for those who are falling into arrears?
I have not seen the information that the hon. Lady has brought to the House today, but I will gladly sit down and go through it with her. I would be concerned if, as she says, there has been such an increase in the number of people suffering rent arrears. That is not what we are planning for, and we are making available to Welsh local authorities the resources to ease families through this difficult transition.
An extraordinary thing has happened. The appetite for interrogation of hon. and right hon. Members seems to have dried up. We have completed all the questions and we have had the answers. The principals are here, and we are ready to go.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 October. 
Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to the families and friends of those people who lost their lives in the appalling terrorist attack in Nairobi, and in particular the six British nationals who lost their lives. This was a despicable attack, and it demonstrates how we must continue to do all we can to defeat international terrorism.
I am sure the House will also want to join me in paying tribute to PC Andrew Duncan, who died on 21 September while on duty—a reminder of the sacrifices that police officers make on our behalf every day of every year.
On a happier note, I am sure the House will wish to congratulate Professor Peter Higgs, who is sharing this year’s Nobel prize for physics. This is a richly deserved recognition of his lifetime of research and a tribute to the UK’s world-leading universities, where this research was carried out.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I associate myself and my constituents entirely with the tribute that the Prime Minister made to the victims of terrorism in Nairobi and to PC Andrew Duncan and, of course, offer our congratulations to Professor Higgs?
Can the Prime Minister confirm that less than a third of families in Britain will benefit from his marriage tax break?
What I can confirm is that all married couples paying basic rate tax will benefit from this move. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman why I think this is important: it is not about the money; it is about the message. I think marriage is a great institution and I think we should support it, including through the income tax system.
With the disappearance of the minimum practice income guarantee, many doctors’ surgeries serving remote rural areas such as the one in Slaidburn in my constituency face death not by a thousand cuts, but perhaps by one cut. They serve many elderly residents and a number of children who do not have access to great public transport to go into neighbouring Clitheroe. Will the Prime Minister investigate this issue and ensure that my constituents will not be isolated and will continue to receive the excellent service that they do now from their doctors’ surgery?
I will look carefully at the case the hon. Gentleman makes. I, too, represent a large rural constituency where there are still small practices. It is the case, however, that many more doctors’ surgeries are offering many more services with practice nurses and other assistance given to patients. We want to see that growing, not least to make sure that people can go to GP surgeries rather than accident and emergency units if it is a GP that they need, but I will look at the specific point that he makes.
I join the Prime Minister in sending my condolences to the friends and families of the British nationals murdered in Nairobi and of all those killed in that cowardly act. It was a heinous act of terrorism and reminds us of the importance of combating terrorism at home and around the world.
I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to PC Andrew Duncan, whose death is a terrible tragedy and a reminder of the bravery shown by our brave policemen and women day in, day out, on our behalf. I send my condolences to his family and friends.
On a completely different note, I join the Prime Minister in celebrating the tremendous achievement of Peter Higgs in winning the Nobel prize for physics. He is a great British scientist. And while we are about it, Mr Speaker, I wish the Prime Minister happy birthday.
On Monday, the Prime Minister said:
“There’s a certain amount you can do freezing prices”
of energy, while the Chancellor said in his conference speech that it was something out of “Das Kapital”. Can the Prime Minister tell us: is freezing energy prices a good idea or a communist plot?
I will leave the communist plots to him.
First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; of course, there is nothing I would rather do on my birthday than this. What this Government are doing is legislating to put people on to the lowest energy tariffs; I think that that is a real step forward. I have to say on this issue, however, that just promising a freeze is a classic case of him saying one thing and doing another. Month after month, he stood at this Dispatch Box as Energy Secretary, producing policy after policy, regulation after regulation and target after target, all of which put energy prices up.
What is clear from that answer is that the Prime Minister has no answer on Labour’s energy price freeze, and what is clear is that it will not happen under him, but would happen under a Labour Government.
The Prime Minister mentioned his policy on tariffs. He said that it would put everyone on the cheapest energy tariff. Can he explain why at least 90% of the country will gain no benefit from his policy?
First of all, let us deal with Labour’s new energy policy. Let us spend a little bit of time on it. First of all, let us examine the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is committed to a new decarbonisation target that would add £125 to the bills of everyone in the country. Perhaps he would like to mention that when he next gets to his feet.
The right hon. Gentleman also did not mention the fact that, just 12 hours after making his pledge, he said that he might not be able to fulfil it because of international wholesale gas prices. Is it not the case that what he is promising is a price increase before a promise, a broken promise, and then a price increase after a promise? One price increase, one broken promise and another price increase: that sounds like every Labour Government since the war.
What is clear is that the Prime Minister is floundering around, and has no answer to Labour’s energy price freeze. He did not even defend his own policy, which will not benefit 90% of the country. He has no idea. He says that he wants to bring energy prices down; can he confirm that energy prices have gone up by £300 since he became Prime Minister?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman first of all that energy prices doubled under Labour. Electricity prices went up by 50%. And let me make this point to him: there is one thing that Governments cannot control, and that is the international wholesale price of gas.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman would like to live in some sort of Marxist universe in which it is possible to control all these things, but he needs a basic lesson in economics. Perhaps he should remember what Labour’s own industry Minister said. This is what was said by a Labour Minister who sat with him in the last Government:
“in an effort to appeal to tribal socialism and a minority in the country, he has put at risk millions of jobs. He has put a sign up over the country, don’t invest here”.
That is the new left-wing Labour party.
I suggest that the Prime Minister should go away after Prime Minister’s Question Time and try to work out his position on the energy price freeze. Initially, he said that the policy was “nuts”. Then, on Monday, he said that it “struck a chord”, and that freezing energy prices could make a difference. He has no idea what he thinks about this policy.
Why are energy prices so high? Once again, the Prime Minister did not answer the question. Let me remind him of the words of a previous Leader of the Opposition, who said that when the gas prices go up, they will rush to pass the costs on to us, and yet when the gas prices are coming down, we wait a very long time before we see anything coming through on our bills. It was the Prime Minister who said that. Why has he changed his mind?
What we need is a more competitive energy market so that consumers benefit. What the right hon. Gentleman seems to be suffering from is complete amnesia over the fact that he used to be the Energy Secretary. Let me remind him of one of the first actions that this Government took. We inherited from him an energy policy that would have added £179 to every single bill because of his renewable heat initiative, and we cancelled it.
While we are dealing with quotations, let us have a guess at who said this:
“to deal with the problem of climate change, energy bills are likely to rise.”
Who said that? Does anyone know? It was the last Energy Secretary, who stood here and pushed up prices again and again and again. Everyone wants low prices. We will get them by dealing with the causes of the high prices, rather than by means of a gimmick that collapsed after 12 hours.
The Prime Minister says that he wants low prices, but prices are going up on his watch. That is the reality.
Can the Prime Minister confirm that while his energy policy, his so-called cheapest tariff policy, benefits almost no one—a fact that he did not deny—a 20-month freeze in bills would save money for 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses across the country?
The problem is that 12 hours later the right hon. Gentleman said that he might not be able to keep his promise. This is not a policy; it is a gimmick, and the reason it is a gimmick is that he is in favour of a decarbonisation target that would add £125 to everyone’s bills. It is obvious why he wants to talk about the cost of living: it is because he does not have an economic policy any more. He told us over and over again that if we cut spending we damage public services. Now even the BBC disagrees with that. And he told us over and over again that if we cut spending the economy will not grow. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says keep going. Let me tell the House the best birthday present I could have: the shadow Chancellor staying in the shadow Cabinet.
The Prime Minister said something very interesting: he said he does not want to talk about an economic policy; he wants to talk about the cost of living. Doesn’t that say it all? He does not realise that an economic policy is about the cost of living and what hundreds of thousands—millions—of families are facing in this country. Whatever we may say about him, he is true to form. We have a cost of living crisis in this country, and energy bills are rising, and he supports the energy companies, not the consumer. We have a Prime Minister who always stands up for the wrong people.
We know what the right hon. Gentleman’s cost of living policy is: more spending, more borrowing and more debt, which would lead to higher taxes and higher mortgage rates. That is the double whammy that would hit every family in this country. Not only have I got the birthday present of the shadow Chancellor staying in post—and, incidentally, also the birthday present of the shadow Health Secretary staying in post—but I also have this special birthday treat. The shadow Chancellor yesterday revealed the Opposition’s election campaign: he said it all depended on the two of them together as—I am not making this quote up—they would win because of their “experience”, their “track record” and their “credibility”. That is like the captain of the Titanic running on his safety record.
Millions of people have chosen to collect their pensions and benefits at the post office using a Post Office card account. That contract is due to expire in 18 months’ time. It is vital for these people and the future of rural post offices that either the Post Office card account or a similar Post Office product continues after 2015. I hope the Government will ensure that it does.
The Post Office card account has been a great bonus for many people. I think it has really helped not only our post offices, but particularly elderly people who have access to those sorts of accounts, and I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says.
Q2. Why is market intervention by the state in mortgages okay, but market intervention in the energy market is not? 
We are intervening in the mortgage market because banks are failing to provide mortgages so young people can get on to the housing ladder. We are also intervening by putting everyone on the lowest energy tariff, but what the Leader of the Opposition cannot control, although he would like to, is international gas prices. He needs a basic lesson in economics, and it sounds like the hon. Gentleman does, too.
Industrial chemicals, herbicides and plant food are used in a variety of diet pills that are banned for human use but are widely advertised on the internet for such use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that action needs urgently to be taken to prevent the importation of these substances in capsule form, which can only be planned for human consumption?
There have been some extremely serious cases of young people in particular suffering from such medications that can be ordered on the internet. I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says about whether further legislative or regulatory action can be taken in order to protect people from substances that may be safe in other circumstances, but should not be marketed in this way.
Q3. Why is the Prime Minister taking away £7 billion a year in support to children up to 2015? 
We are putting in more support for children. We are providing the child care offer now not just for four-year-olds and three-year-olds, but for two-year-olds. We have introduced for the first time a pupil premium, so children from the poorest homes are going to get more money following them into schools. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Frankly, he should be sitting there in shame at the OECD report that came out yesterday that showed that after a lifetime in education under Labour our young people are bottom of the league in terms of results. That is what he should be focused on.
Several hon. Members
Order. It is time the House heard from John Randall.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the recent report by Imperial college about the detrimental effects on health of aircraft noise? Will he make sure that when the Government look at and decide on the Davies commission’s report on aviation in the south-east, health and environmental considerations are paramount?
My right hon. Friend has not had the chance to speak from the Back Benches in the way that he just has, and I look forward to hearing many other contributions from him—he brings a huge amount to this House. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of environmental noise, and I can tell him that it will be included in the report by Howard Davies and he will be making a speech about the issue soon.
Q4. Does the Prime Minister think it is acceptable that since he came to office the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance for more than two years has increased by 390%? 
What has happened since I became Prime Minister is that the number of workless households has gone down to its lowest level and the number of households claiming benefit has gone down. While we are at it, if the hon. Lady looks at what is actually happening in the north-west, she will see that since the election 18,000 more people are in employment; 45,000 more people are employed in the private sector; unemployment has fallen in the north-west by 7,000 since the election; and, as I said, the number of workless households has gone down by 26,000. She should be talking up her region instead of talking it down.
Has the Prime Minister seen today’s BBC ICM report showing that despite reductions in spending, a majority of people think that services provided by local government, such as bin collections, parks, libraries and recycling, have got better? Does he agree that that shows we can get more for less?
When I woke up this morning and heard that the BBC was reporting that you can cut public spending and make public services better, I thought I had died and gone to heaven for a moment. This is worth looking at and it is one of the many pillars of Labour’s policy that has collapsed today. The Opposition thought that public spending cuts would lead to a lack of economic growth, but the International Monetary Fund has shown them that that is wrong. They thought that public spending cuts would lead to worse services, but the BBC—let us praise the BBC for once—has told them that that is wrong. That is what has happened today.
Q5. Labour’s child care guarantee will be great for working parents, so says Boris Johnson. Does the Prime Minister agree? 
We are helping working parents with child care, and that is what the tax relief on child care that this Government will be introducing will be all about.
Q6. In January, my constituents Ross and Clare Simons were tragically killed when they were hit by a driver who had more than 10 previous convictions for dangerous driving and was disqualified from driving at the time. He received a sentence of just over 10 years for his crime. More than 8,000 people in Kingswood have signed a petition, “Justice for Ross and Clare”, calling for the law to be changed so that drivers convicted of dangerous driving while disqualified should receive tougher sentences. Will the Prime Minister receive the petition at Downing street? Does he agree that the law in this area should be looked at? 
I will certainly look at the petition that my hon. Friend talks about, and I would like to join him by offering my condolences to the friends and families of Ross and Clare.
This is the most appalling crime: someone with 10 previous convictions, as my hon. Friend says, and who was disqualified at the time driving dangerously and killing two people, snuffing out their lives. The sentence was 10 years. As I understand it, the maximum sentence available for a crime like this is 14 years. The Government have introduced a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, so we are looking at this whole area. I can also tell him that the Justice Secretary has asked the Sentencing Council to review the sentencing guidelines for serious driving offences, and we should look at this specific case in the light of that.
Q7. A family in my constituency earning £18,000 a year are paying a massive £3,276 in energy bills, so why is the Prime Minister siding with energy bosses charging inflated prices, rather than with hard-pressed families? 
I want to see people’s energy bills come down. That is why we are legislating to put people on the lowest tariff; that is why we will go through to see what regulations and rules, put in place by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Energy Secretary, we can change to keep bills down; and that is why we need a competitive market. But simply making promises that you admit the next day you cannot meet is not proper politics.
Does the Prime Minister agree with the director general of the CBI that whether a business is small, medium or large it must grow as a business and invest and that high taxes do not allow that?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. What we heard at Labour’s conference is that Labour will put up taxes on some of Britain’s biggest and most successful businesses. Labour’s message to business is, “Don’t invest here, don’t bring the jobs here, don’t expand here—go somewhere else. We want to fight some petty socialist campaign against successful big business.” That is absolutely wrong for our economy.
Substantive Reply to Letter
Q8. When he plans to give a substantive reply to the letter from the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, sent on 3 July 2013. 
Local growth is a priority across Government. The regional growth fund is helping to create some 66,000 jobs with specific investment in the north-east of £330 million. We do not want to go back to the previous Administration’s system, but obviously the Local Growth Committee in the Cabinet brings together the Secretaries of State from all the key Departments.
Is the Prime Minister aware that the Department of Health is now consulting on changing the funding formula for health care in the north-east and Cumbria? That will have the effect of taking some £230 million out of the health care budget for the region. Who in his Government stands up for the north of England?
The whole Government stand up for the north-east of England. If the right hon. Gentleman wants some news about the north-east of England, you have Hitachi building the new train plant, Nissan expanding in Sunderland and the new Tyne tunnel. There is plenty of good news in the north-east.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about NHS funding. This year’s funding for the north-east clinical commissioning group is going up by £170 million, a 2.3% increase. That is what is happening under this Government. Of course, under Labour’s plans health spending would be cut. The shadow Health Secretary, the man who they have decided—inexplicably—to keep in the shadow Cabinet has said that increasing health spending is “irresponsible.” That is the Labour view. We do not agree with that and that is why we are spending more money, including in the north-east.
I congratulate the Government on ending the unfairness in free school meals for 16 to 18-year-olds. Will the Prime Minister look to end the similar unfairness whereby sixth-form colleges have to pay VAT whereas schools or academies with sixth forms do not?
I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. It is good that we will now have the same system for free school meals for sixth-form colleges and for secondary schools and I also think that it is very welcome that children in infant school will not have to pay for school meals. I will look carefully at his point about VAT.
Q9. The Prime Minister will know from his script that I am an extremely proud member of the trade union movement, which seeks to stand up for millions of workers in the public and private sectors and whose living standards have been drastically reduced under his watch. What personal sacrifices have he and his family had to make during these austere times, given that we are all in this together? 
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman stands up as a proud trade unionist and, just as I welcome the reshuffle, I am sure that Len McCluskey is delighted with it. Len McCluskey and the Leader of the Opposition probably would not call it a reshuffle—they would call it a purge, because Len McCluskey asked for the Blairites to be purged and they have all gone. The fact is that it has been tough and difficult in our country because of the appalling deficit and debt that the hon. Gentleman’s party left from when it was in government.
In my constituency, a school called Skerton is under threat of being closed down by the county council. I spoke to the Education Secretary about that and it has been generic over four years. Will the Prime Minister assure me that his office will look into the fair play on this subject, given that the county council education portfolio holder has said that in his opinion the school should close, even though the first part of the consultation has only just been completed? That was a few months ago.
I shall certainly look at the case my hon. Friend makes, but under our education reforms there are greater opportunities for schools to gain their independence and for new schools to establish themselves. I hope that he will consider all the structural changes we have made to education, because they might help in the specific case of this school.
Q10. Under this Government the cost of child care is rocketing, while wages have stagnated. Families are facing nursery costs that have risen six times faster than wages last year. When is the Prime Minister going to take action and adopt Labour’s plan to extend free nursery provision to 25 hours? 
We have extended the hours that people get for four-year-olds, extended the hours for people who have three-year-olds, and for the first time introduced child care assistance for people who have two-year-olds. That has changed under this Government. We are also introducing for the first time proper tax relief on child care, so that people who work hard and do the right thing can get help with their child care. I hope that when there is a vote on it, the Opposition will support us.
Q11. One month ago I installed call-blocking technology in a partially deaf constituent’s home. This has shown that in the past month 65% of the calls that Mrs Moffat has received have been nuisance calls. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to do all they can to remove this menace, including looking at whether telephone providers should be profiteering by charging to provide information vital to trace these calls? 
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure he has advised his constituent about the Telephone Preference Service—TPS—through which one can stop some of the calls that come through, but it is a real bane in some people’s lives so I am sure we can look further at what else can be done.
On reflection, does the Prime Minister agree that allowing more time for further diplomatic discussions to take place over Syria was preferable to rushing in and bombing the country?
I think the fact that America was so clear that it would take action is what brought about a change of heart on the part of the Syrian Government. That is the real lesson that we should learn.
Q12. One of the biggest factors for many young people’s budgets is the cost of their mortgage. Will the Prime Minister tell us what would be the effect on mortgage rates if the Government were to increase borrowing by £27.9 billion, as the Opposition have called for, since promising iron discipline? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the most important aspects of people’s bills is the mortgage payments that they have to make. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is shouting that it is not true, but he is committed to increasing borrowing. If you borrow more, you risk interest rates and mortgage rates going up. Families across the country understand that and they understand that you only get to grips with the cost of living and living standards if you have a proper economic plan for getting the deficit down, for getting growth, for creating jobs and for cutting people’s taxes—four things this Government are doing; four things the Opposition would never do.
My constituent Khuram Shaikh was brutally murdered and his girlfriend gang-raped while on holiday in Sri Lanka nearly two years ago. Justice continues to be denied and the key suspect is a close ally of the Sri Lankan President. Is the Prime Minister comfortable meeting this President at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit next month, and what will he say to him?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I think it is right for the British Prime Minister to go to the Commonwealth conference because we are big believers in the Commonwealth and in making that organisation work well and, indeed, work for us. But I think it is right that in going to the Commonwealth conference, we should not hold back from being very clear about those aspects of the human rights record in Sri Lanka that we are not happy with. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of that case, I will make sure that, along with other cases and along with other arguments, those points are properly made. Of course, those are points that we cannot make if we do not go.
Q13. Will the Prime Minister welcome the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which came into force last week? It has the support of the Church, extra taxes will boost the Treasury revenues, and it will make the trains run on time. Can he say that about any other piece of legislation? 
First, may I say what pleasure it gives me to refer to the hon. Gentleman as my right hon. Friend—an honour he fully deserves? I welcome the effect of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, which has helped to bring revenue into the Treasury. It is also helping to deal with this scourge, which is a crime that we have seen grow in recent years, particularly because of the growth in the price of metals. The lead off the Witney church roof was stolen recently, and I know that the Act will help to make sure that that does not happen again.
Q14. Eighty-three per cent. of the beneficiaries of the Government’s proposed marriage tax break will be men; just 17% will be women. Why does the Prime Minister have such a blind spot when it comes to women? 
I think that it is worth supporting marriage through the income tax system. Let me make this challenge to the Labour party: in government it gave a married tax break through the inheritance tax system; it gave a married tax break to the rich. I want to give a married tax break to everybody.
Does the Prime Minister believe that when the European Union forces my constituents to buy 20 cigarettes at a time, rather than their current 10, it will reduce the number they smoke?
It does not, on the face of it, sound a very sensible approach. I was not aware of the specific issue, so let me have a look at it and get back to my hon. Friend.
Q15. Why has the Prime Minister told members of his party behind closed doors that forcing through same-sex marriage legislation was a terrible mistake? 
I have not. I am very proud of the fact that we passed same-sex marriage in this Parliament and very proud of the role I played in bringing it forward. As I have just been saying, I think that marriage is a wonderful thing, and that goes for a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. It is a great reform that makes our country fairer. I hope that is clear.
With even Boris now admitting that his Thames estuary airport plan has no support, does the Prime Minister welcome Sir Howard Davies’s statement that some plans will not even pass first base environmentally?
I do not want in any way to interfere with what Howard Davies is doing. I think that he is the right person to carry out this report. I think that it is very important that we try to build cross-party consensus on the basis that it is a good report and a thorough process so that all parties will be able to endorse it when the report’s conclusions come out.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I just go back to the Prime Minister’s answer to the Leader of the Opposition on the marriage tax break? When asked whether it was true that a third of married couples would benefit, the Prime Minister said that all married couples who are basic rate taxpayers would benefit. Would he like to correct the record, because that is just not true?
The right hon. Gentleman has made his point. I allowed it as a point of order. If the Prime Minister wants to respond, he is perfectly welcome to do so. [Interruption.] Order. Question Time is—
The point is that the married couples allowance is available to every basic rate taxpayer. I think that is something to celebrate in our country. I stand up for marriage, even if the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk it down. I thank him, once again, for his tenacity, because even though he has been proved wrong on every major economic question, he is still in his place. He is the great election winner for us.
I trust that the appetite has been satisfied. Question Time is definitively over. In a moment we will move on to the next business, but I am happy to take other points of order.
The hon. Lady is in a state of high excitement in anticipation of her point of order, which I am keen to hear, but I would like some order in the House first. Members leaving the Chamber should do so quickly and quietly, demonstrating the same courtesy towards other Members that they would want to be extended to them in comparable circumstances. We will take the hon. Lady’s point of order first, because I am saving the hon. Gentleman up.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I spent this morning trying to keep up with the obfuscations and excuses emanating from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the application to extend the badger cull in Somerset, and I understand that an application will soon be made to extend the cull in Gloucestershire. I know that we will have DEFRA questions tomorrow, but do you agree that we really need the Environment Secretary to come to the House and make a full statement so that we can have the opportunity to question him, because there are so many unanswered questions about why the Department has agreed to go down that path?
A variety of mechanisms are open to the hon. Lady and other Members to ensure that such rigorous and detailed scrutiny takes place. In the meantime, however, the hon. Lady can satisfy herself with the thought that tomorrow will indeed be the occasion for DEFRA questions; I confidently predict that she will be in her place. Thereafter, all sorts of things can happen. To judge by the experience of the House, they probably will.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is becoming increasingly clear at Prime Minister’s questions that the Prime Minister refuses to answer the simplest questions. Instead, he answers questions that have not been asked. May I ask you to use your influence to remind the Prime Minister that he is there to answer the questions asked, not those he thinks should be asked?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that attempted point of order. He has put his concerns on the record. I say in all seriousness that I listen intently to everything that is said in this Chamber because that is my duty. From time to time, I will intervene if I think that we are off piste or that exchanges are taking too long. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other Members will feel confident that I am attending closely. I am aware that the session is entitled “Questions to the Prime Minister”. We all accept and everybody understands that the clue is in the title. We will leave it there for today.
Coroners and Justice (Amendment)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 so as to apply additionally to the possession of pornographic written material about children; to make consequential amendments to the Act; and for connected purposes.
Section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is entitled “Possession of prohibited images of children”. The prohibited images in question are obviously pornographic. They may be in various forms—photographs, pseudo-photographs, cartoons, computer generated images and so on. They may be moving or still. The link between the possession and viewing of such images and actual action taken against children is generally accepted.
The ludicrous situation is that an individual will be liable for prosecution for possession of photographs, pseudo-photographs, computer generated images or cartoons of graphic child sex abuse, but cannot be prosecuted for written words describing child sex abuse in pornographic and often lurid detail. All such things, including the written word in this form, are designed for sexual stimulation resulting from the sexual abuse of children. An individual could write from his or her imagination a graphic description of child sexual abuse, which could be more emotive and more graphic than any picture of any form, but they could not be prosecuted.
For many, the written word is more powerful; I shall give a simple example, which the police have given me. A gentleman from Kent wrote describing his wish to kidnap an early-teenage girl, strip her naked, sexually abuse her and then in an appalling way, which I will not detail, murder her. Horrifically, having written and stimulated his imagination, he did exactly that. Fortunately, he has been caught and is in prison—hopefully, for a very long time. However, the teenager is dead. In theory, the police could have found those writings, but if they had they could have done nothing about them because they would not have been illegal. I understand that the distribution of such stuff is illegal, but its possession is not.
Some years ago, I went through one of the early parliamentary police programmes with the London Metropolitan police; I highly recommend the course. I spent one of the days with the Metropolitan police paedophile unit. I was shocked; I could not believe that people could do such appalling things to children, including babies. I found the police estimate of the number of active paedophiles in the UK way beyond any level I could have imagined and I was stunned at the estimate that approximately 20% of them were female.
Following the course, I had a meeting with the full Metropolitan police team and it was apparent that some major and some minor legal changes were required. I became a member of the then Home Office taskforce which led to the introduction of parts of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 relating to child sex abuse. The Act introduced the offence of child grooming. At that time we led the world in such legislation. Additionally, either on my own or with others, and with the co-operation of the Government of the day, I have helped to introduce about a dozen changes in this area. As a Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) was particularly sympathetic and helpful. That explains why he is my only backer, although I would expect considerable support throughout the House.
This small Bill would close a loophole—an anomaly. Last year the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre published a research document on paedophile cases. The report mentions, but almost as a sideline, that some offenders possess graphic notes or writings on child abuse for their own benefit. I have been shown some examples of these by then Detective Chief Inspector David Marshall, who was head of the Metropolitan police paedophile unit. He is an expert in this area and has drawn this loophole to my attention. Following that, I have had the support of the current head of the Metropolitan police paedophile unit and of CEOP. They have seen volumes of this material, but they have seen it coincidentally, while looking through material for illegal child abuse photographs or images. As possession of such written material is not illegal, the officers generally disregarded it because they were looking only for images.
In referring to child abuse I am not referring to writings such as “Lolita”, and the Bill would make that quite clear. The written material that I am targeting is absolutely vile. It can be as shocking as images described as level 5 based on the classification used by the courts. Section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act, in referring to prohibited images, describes it as
“pornographic…grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise…obscene”
“of such a nature that it must be reasonably assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.”
This could apply to the written-word material that I am targeting. The distribution of such material is prohibited but its possession is not. It has been expressed to me that such a change would contravene EU legislation. I understand, however, that a number of our EU partner countries have such legislation now. If it works for them, it could and should work for us.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sir Paul Beresford and Paul Goggins present the Bill.
Sir Paul Beresford accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 October and to be printed (Bill 107).
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has tabled a motion for debate on a matter of privilege which I have agreed should take precedence today.
I beg to move,
That the Police Information Notice from Sussex Police addressed to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, dated 4 September 2013, be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise a matter relating to a breach of parliamentary privilege by Sussex police and briefly to provide the context to this motion to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, my Adjournment debate on 13 March when you kindly sat in the Chair to hear the extraordinary story of the six-month investigation into me by Sussex police on account of a single e-mail I had sent to a constituent in which I had endorsed the right of my local council, Adur council, to refer to a particularly troublesome resident as “unkempt”. Subsequently the constituent complained that as he claimed to be of Romany Gypsy origin, unbeknown to me or anybody else, this was in some way racist. When the case was rightly thrown out six months later, I questioned the bizarre behaviour of Sussex police in wasting so much time and taxpayers’ resources on an obviously vexatious complaint from a serial complainer. I also raised the implications this had for the right of other hon. Members to correspond with their constituents without fear of the police knocking on their constituency doors.
The account I gave during the debate raised, unsurprisingly, disbelief and indignation in equal proportions. However, what has transpired since will, I am sure, top that and, again, has implications for the way in which all hon. Members go about their business. I believe it represents a clear breach of parliamentary privilege by Sussex police, and in the full knowledge of the Chief Constable Martin Richards.
In the debate, I stated that such was the vile abuse that had been aimed at me and my staff by the constituent and his attempts to have me prosecuted that it was no longer tenable for me to act as his MP. I said, therefore, that I would no longer be responding to his correspondence or abusive phone calls, which had left my staff in tears. I proposed to write to him to that effect but, given the spurious grounds on which he had previously referred my correspondence to the police, I first sought the assurance of the chief constable that such a straightforward and innocuous letter would not again lead to their involvement. In a singularly obstructive meeting, in which he repeatedly stated that he had complete confidence that the police had handled the case perfectly correctly, Chief Constable Martin Richards refused to comment on my proposed letter.
Subsequently I sought guidance from the Clerk, who in contrast has been singularly helpful. He advised me that I should send a complete copy of the Hansard record of 13 March, including the report of the debate, to the constituent, with a compliment slip and without any need for a covering letter, and that that would be protected by parliamentary privilege. That is exactly what I did. Subsequently I have had no communications with my ex-constituent, have made no public statement and have not responded to or initiated any social media to do with him.
In contrast, the constituent has stepped up an onslaught of vile abuse since 13 March, primarily against me as well as the leader and the chairman of Adur district council, his ward councillor and assorted others who cross his path. Yesterday he abused the organisers of Worthing mental health awareness week, which I launched, and to date he has posted on his blog and sent tweets to or about me and my councillor colleagues on well over 200 occasions.
Many come under the heading of political abuse, which, however offensive it may be, we all know is part of our job. However, what is not part of our job is that they have included doctored photographs of my children, taken from their social media sites. What a man in his 40s is doing trawling the social media sites of teenage girls, I do not know. They were eventually taken down, but he then attempted to blackmail me, saying he would put them up again unless I complied with his demands. He has posted doctored pictures of the council leader’s young children regaled with Nazi insignia. He has posted vile, contorted accounts of my parents’ divorce, forged tweets, posted references to my neighbours and photographs of my home, and most recently a direct tweet urging me to commit suicide, along with assorted lies, made up stories and pure fantasy. He has also recently sought to disrupt our regular street surgeries and pour his abuse on anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, and to menace guests at the chairman’s charity dance. I guess we all sometimes have to deal with very nasty people, but this one wins all the awards.
Despite my complaints—which have led to the man’s arrest on just one occasion—the police have failed to secure any charges and he carries on harassing, bullying, stalking, trolling and abusing me, my family and colleagues. However, on 4 September, out of the blue I had a formal police information notice served on me by Sussex police for harassment. Other hon. Members will probably have come across these notices when used on constituents in anti-social behaviour cases. The notice stated that the police had received an allegation of harassment against me by the aforementioned constituent, making me aware that if the kind of behaviour described were to continue I would be liable to arrest and prosecution. The specific single incident of behaviour that gave rise to this PIN was the act of sending a copy of Hansard to my ex-constituent. Apparently this had caused him alarm and distress. That came as a surprise to me and various others, particularly given that on his blog on 14 March that ex-constituent had described how he had watched my Adjournment debate on television with “great amusement.” Therefore, apparently, Hansard is a cause of alarm and distress, and Sussex police believe that our deliberations are a potent weapon of abuse.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, if I may.
For good measure, the leader of Adur council, the chairman of the council and my constituent’s ward councillor were also issued with PINs for supposed harassment, as was my constituent. Clearly, that has only fuelled his vile crusade.
Apparently, a gold group led by Assistant Chief Constable Robin Merrett met on 3 July to approve those PINs at the highest level. Two months later, they were served on me and my councillor colleagues without my knowing that a complaint of harassment had even been made against me, or that I was under any investigation, in clear breach of the police guidance, which states that I should be given the opportunity to be interviewed to account for my actions and show that they were reasonable and lawful. No such interview took place. There is no appeal against the PIN, which remains on file for at least one year.
The increasingly hapless Detective Chief Inspector Wardley-Wilkins, who has led the investigations, having failed to secure vital evidence, having misled me about the earlier investigation and the current one and having failed to explain why he has breached police guidance, has offered me instructions on how I should correspond with constituents without risking a PIN. That is the police telling us how to do our job.
The chief constable, who has been copied in on all the events, has been content to waste taxpayers’ resources on this nonsense while the senior management of his force is brought into disrepute. He has clearly lost the plot when it comes to distinguishing between the victim and the perpetrator. I know that my local police officers, whom I rate highly, are as embarrassed and gobsmacked as I am at this action by their bosses.
Such a sequence of events would offend against natural justice were it suffered by any of our constituents, and we would rightly raise the matter in the House. However, in this case, the events are an intolerable affront to the rights of the House and hon. Members to go about their business of representing their constituents without fear or favour. If it goes unchecked, any constituent with a grudge against his or her Member of Parliament could claim harassment. Any hon. Member exposing any dodgy organisation in Parliament could find themselves being questioned by the police, or, with reference to DCI Wardley-Wilkins, being given advice on how to do their jobs. Indeed, Abu Hamza could well have a case against the Home Secretary for being rightly beastly about him in Parliament and she could find herself on the receiving end of a police information notice.
Therefore, for all hon. Members, I propose that we pass the motion and refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.
Question put and agreed to.
Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
[2nd Allocated Day]
[Relevant documents: The Seventh Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on the Government’s Lobbying Bill, HC 601, and the First Report from the Committee on Standards, on the Government’s Lobbying Bill, HC 638.]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee
New Clause 2
Commencement of Part 2
‘Part 2 of this Act shall not come into force until the Electoral Commission and the Minister have laid a report before both Houses of Parliament containing—
(a) an assessment of the separate and specific impacts of Part 2 of this Act on third-party engagement in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to the House of Commons in respect of constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and
(b) an assessment of the impact of Part 2 of the Act on referendums held or to be held in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.’.—(Wayne David.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
New clause 3—Cost and impact of Part 2—
‘Within one month of Royal Assent, the Electoral Commission must lay before Parliament—
(a) full cost projections of the impact of Part 2 on their running costs;
(b) their assessment of the administrative impact on third parties.’.
Amendment 65, in clause 41, page 47, line 40, at end insert—
‘(A1) None of Part 2 shall come into force until the report of any inquiry undertaken by a Committee of either House of Parliament during the passage of the Act into the impact of the Act has been published.’.
Amendment 66, page 48,line 2, leave out subsection (1)(b).
Amendment 4, page 48, line 3, leave out sub-paragraph (i).
Amendment 5, page 48, line 6, leave out sub-paragraph (iii).
Amendment 6, page 48, line 7, leave out sub-paragraph (iv).
Amendment 67, page 48, line 17, leave out subsection (3)(b).
Amendment 10, in clause 42, page 48, line 37, leave out subsections (3) to (6).
Amendment 11, page 49, line 18, leave out subsections (7) and (8).
Amendment 12, page 49, line 29, leave out subsection (9).
It gives me no great pleasure to move new clause 2, because, essentially, the Opposition are concerned about the lack of prior thought to, or prior serious consultation on, the Bill’s impact on the devolved institutions. When I mentioned the devolved institutions in Committee, there was a blank look on the Minister’s face. Some people believe that the legislation applies only to preparations for UK general elections, but it has an impact on devolved elections, too. New clause 2 seeks to focus on devolved institutions and the referendum, so that proper consideration is given to the Bill’s impact and so that there is proper planning for the legislation’s implementation phase.
I mentioned the lack of prior consultation. My understanding from the Office of the First Minister of the Welsh Government is that there was no prior consultation at all—the Assembly Government were asked for their comments on the day that the Bill was published in the House. I expect that there was the same lack of consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. That is very worrying. One of the Opposition’s concerns from the beginning is the hurried way in which the legislation was put together.
I can underline my hon. Friend’s point. All Welsh Assembly Members received a letter from the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which would have been involved in any consultation with the Welsh Government. What he says is absolutely right and confirmed by wider civil society in Wales.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, for that accurate comment, which strongly reinforces my point. He suggests that, if there had been prior consultation, the Welsh Government would have wanted properly to consult civil society in Wales. In a sense, that underlines a wider point. The Electoral Commission’s comments on Second Reading, which were circulated to all hon. Members, state:
“It has been suggested to us that”
the effects of the legislation would
“be particularly significant in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where civil society has often had a prominent role in the development and discussion of new policy and legislation in recent years.”
We are therefore not talking about mechanical consultation; there was a desire for meaningful prior consultation with civil society in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend refers to Wales, but the Government generally lack realisation of how important civil society engagement is in Northern Ireland. In fact, civil society engagement is a cornerstone of the peace process. That is one reason why great progress has been made in Northern Ireland. It is extremely worrying that the Bill undermines that process. It does so not deliberately, but unintentionally. However, that is indicative of a lack of any real understanding or desire to ensure that there is a holistic, consensual approach to such legislation.
I stress the word “consensual” because Labour Members hold very firmly the view—we adhered to this in government—that we need not only cross-party consultation and discussion, but agreement, so that we can proceed consensually, in the interests not of any political party, but of democracy as a whole. That concept of democracy is not confined to the House; it also involves consultation with the devolved institutions and civil society throughout the UK. That is my first point—the lack of engagement.
My second point relates to the technical impact of the legislation. The following changes will apply to all the devolved institutions: clause 26 and schedule 3 on the wider scope of regulated spending; clause 27 on the reduced registration thresholds; and clause 31 on the new notification requirements for relevant participators when registering with the Electoral Commission. Those three crucial aspects of the Bill will apply to the devolved institutions.
However, some provisions in the Bill will not apply to the devolved institutions. The reduced spending limits in clause 27 will apply only to UK parliamentary general elections. The spending limits for the devolved institutions will remain the same, as listed in schedule 10 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Several provisions will apply only when a devolved election overlaps with a general election—a so-called combined period. Those provisions include the application of the new constituency spending limits in clause 28, the new controls on spending that supports a single party in clause 29, the new pre-poll donation reporting requirements in clause 32 and the new requirement for “true and fair” statements of accounts in clause 33.
In essence, what I am saying is that the relationship between the Bill and the devolved institutions is not straightforward. Some provisions will apply to them, but others will not. There will inevitably be some confusion, but it is vital to ensure that there is not excessive confusion about what does and does not apply to the devolved institutions, and about how the legislation will work in practice. We therefore call for a report to be laid before both Houses with a proper assessment of the impact that part 2 will have on third-party engagement with the devolved institutions.
There is a complex relationship between the devolved and non-devolved institutions in this country. We all know that an important referendum is taking place in Scotland next year. We also know with near certainty, because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, when the next general election will be. The two periods concerned are bound to overlap and there will inevitably be a great deal of confusion about which measures apply, what moneys may be spent, what moneys apply to one campaign but not to another and what moneys apply to both campaigns.
These matters are not easy. There is a need for careful consideration, discussion and agreement. New clause 2 calls for these matters to be considered properly. It would have been nice if the Government had recognised from the start that these are complex issues and that a consensual approach is necessary if the provisions are to be successful. However, to use a horrible phrase, we are where we are. I ask the Government to give serious consideration to the points that I have made and to the new clause.
I referred to this issue in general in Committee. The response from the Government was frankly inadequate. That is why we have tabled the new clause with such detail. We took advice from the Electoral Commission about when it would be appropriate for an assessment of the impact on the devolved institutions to be made. The new clause therefore states:
“Part 2 of this Act shall not come into force until the Electoral Commission and the Minister have laid a full and comprehensive report before both Houses of Parliament”.
Only when such a report is satisfactorily concluded will we have any reassurance, modest though it may be, that these complex issues have been considered properly and that the inevitable disruption will be minimised.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government propose to postpone the Northern Ireland Assembly elections from 2015 to 2016. If the House supported the new clause, would part 2 of the Act not come into force until after the Assembly elections in 2016 or have I misunderstood him?
The fact that the elections in Northern Ireland are being postponed will provide a greater opportunity for these matters to be considered carefully. The hon. Lady’s question is essentially one for the Government. How they respond to this situation is up to them. What is clear is that this work has to be done in preparation for all the elections to the devolved institutions. We want to be satisfied that the Government have considered carefully all the Bill’s implications before it is approved.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I did not want to throw cold water over the new clause. I want to reinforce his opening remarks about Northern Ireland. Since the Good Friday agreement 15 years ago, civil society in Northern Ireland has been able to participate willingly and openly in responding to Government proposals. A lot of that activity has been done by groups from different denominations and all communities in Northern Ireland working together. Those groups are extremely worried about the impact of part 2 on that activity because of the reductions and limitations on expenditure and because of the span of activities that will be caught by the Bill. I did not want to deter the hon. Gentleman from pursuing the new clause, but wanted clarification on the date until he wanted part 2 to be postponed.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question about the delayed election in Northern Ireland and for her extremely important comments from first-hand experience about the important role that civil society plays in Northern Ireland. That role is sometimes not fully appreciated by politicians in Great Britain.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) mentioned, the participation of civil society in Wales has been increasing. The same is true of Scotland. However, the participation of civil society in those countries is not nearly as important as in Northern Ireland. It is not to put it too strongly to say that the engagement of civil society is one of the anchors of the peace agreement. It is a key reason why so much progress has been made in Northern Ireland over the past few years. I reiterate that that has been accepted by the Electoral Commission and by many politicians of all political affiliations in the north of Ireland. This is not a party political issue, but a question of how democracy can best flourish and function.
I am involved in civil society in Wales in a modest way. My background is in the youth service, and I am the president of the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services, which, through the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action, has made representations on the Bill. Its concern is first that the stipulations are onerous—I will come to that in a moment—but also that there has been no prior consultation with the devolved institutions or civil society. That sends out a negative message about the lack of thought and, as some might say, the less than benign intentions behind the Bill. All those points have been well made, and I thank those who have reinforced them.
I will now move on to consider new clause 3 if I may—[Interruption.] I was just making sure that you were hanging on my every word, Mr Speaker, and I am pleased to say that you are. New clause 3 is short but important:
“Within one month of Royal Assent, the Electoral Commission must lay before Parliament—
(a) full cost projections of the impact of Part 2 on their running costs;
(b) their assessment of the administrative impact on third parties.”.
The new clause is straightforward but underlines that, frankly, not enough work has gone into the Bill, much of which gives the impression that it was written on the back of an envelope in a rush, and there has been no proper consultation, drafting or consideration.
As many have noted, the Electoral Commission is extremely critical of the proposed legislation for a number of good reasons. One of its concerns is the lack of consideration given to the technical implementation of the Bill, and how much it will cost to be implemented properly in practice. The Electoral Commission is not a party political body; it is truly and genuinely impartial, and considers the technical implementation of a piece of legislation with regard to regulation and elections. Its responsibility is to ensure that elections are conducted properly and fairly, according to the law.
There have been various estimates of how much the proposed legislation will cost the Electoral Commission to implement. A conservative figure is £390,000, although others have said it will cost a heck of a lot more. It has even been suggested that the legislation would be so complex, and the burden on third sector organisations so great, that it is unlikely it could be implemented properly in practice, and certainly not to the extremely short time scale envisaged. This is not about all elections being delayed, as in Northern Ireland, but about the first impact and the general election in May 2015. To get this complex Bill up and running, not just here in the centre of the process but to have a proper understanding of all the things that voluntary and campaigning organisations must do to comply, will be extremely difficult. In essence, the new clause asks the Government to pause and realise that it is all well and good to enact the Bill and say that this or that will happen, but they must also have cognisance of what it will mean on the ground, both for the Electoral Commission and for third parties.
The hon. Gentleman’s last point is precisely not dealt with by the new clause. The new clause asks for an assessment to be made within one month of Royal Assent, and then lets the matter stand on its own. It does not require the Government to take any action as a result of that assessment. Does that not make the new clause rather nugatory?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but this is a modest new clause and we are not attempting to solve all problems not of our making. We hope that in all common sense, if it is clearly shown that the implementation of the Bill is far more complicated than the Government appear to recognise, they will hold back and perhaps delay its implementation, or provide massive increased resources so that it is effectively implemented by the Electoral Commission. Above all, the new clause flags up the issue in a big, simple and straightforward way.
Does the hon. Gentleman imply that perhaps the Bill will not be ready by May 2015 and should, if necessary, be pushed beyond that date?
If necessary, yes. In all fairness I cannot believe that the Government would seek to soldier on with a piece of legislation when all objective evidence shows that the time scale is so tight, and the difficulties to be faced so enormous, that it cannot be introduced effectively in time for the run-up to the next election. I stress the run-up because we must not talk only about the general election but the period before it. If the new clause is accepted by the Government—I genuinely hope it will be—it would be part of the legislative base. As a consequence, if the objective information is provided, the Government will do what is necessary to prevent a ridiculous and farcical situation from developing. Such a situation would harm not the Conservative or Labour parties but democracy itself, and it would further undermine people’s support, involvement and engagement in our democratic process.
The hon. Gentleman argues in favour of new clause 3, and he has—rightly—mentioned the excellent work done by the Electoral Commission. Whatever problem he has defined, however, the solution proposed in the new clause is one the Electoral Commission does not support. Is it the case that whatever argument he is making, the solution he proposes is not the right one?
I am not here to answer for the Electoral Commission. Its emphasis has been on identifying the problem, and it is up to us as politicians to identify the solution.
I hope my hon. Friend does not dispense with that point too quickly. If we are in the business of accepting the views of the Electoral Commission—in light of comments made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), I feel we could accept one or two of its views—perhaps we should accept its views on virtually every other paragraph in the Bill, which, almost to a clause, have been disparaged in the most polite civil service language by the Electoral Commission. If the hon. Gentleman is in the position to make such an offer, I think my hon. Friend should negotiate and get a good deal.
That is a telling intervention from the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and to return to a point I made earlier, it is sad and unfortunate that the Electoral Commission, like everyone else, was not consulted about the Bill. That makes for bad legislation and poor electoral administration, which is worrying.
Does the hon. Gentleman have the benefit of knowing how many people in the Electoral Commission are engaged in looking after controlled expenditure relating to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and how many would have to be recruited to deal with the extended range of activities by the extended group of people and campaigners who will be caught by the Bill if it is passed unamended?
The honest answer is that I do not know. I asked the Electoral Commission if it would like to elaborate on its submission, and perhaps the Chair of the Select Committee can help in that respect.
Just by chance, the Electoral Commission came to the House yesterday and offered its services, knowledge and advice to all Members. I am delighted to say that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was present. I believe that the EC said it had 12 people—I will stand corrected if I am wrong. Although they have not been consulted, they will be required to police the provisions in the clauses that relate to freedom of speech. They may be required to act between contending parties. Let us imagine that there is a bit of a bust-up between the League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance in the constituency of the Leader of the House—if he were to get wind of such a thing he would of course report it to the Electoral Commission. Presumably, the EC would have to get some big lads—I do not know if they have any—to take down the bunting, intervene in the debate and stop the bad things, as defined in the Bill, being done. If that happens, 12 people will not be enough to police even one constituency, so a recruitment campaign might be necessary.
I thank my hon. Friend for his informed comments. I am sure Members will appreciate that in the past few days my mind has been elsewhere, but he makes a valid point.
I refer Members to the Electoral Commission’s written evidence:
“The regulatory burden created by the Bill is likely to be significant. The Impact Assessment states that the estimated cost of compliance with the Bill changes for registered campaigners will be in the range from zero to £800. This assumes among other things that campaigners will need two hours to become familiar with the new definition of regulated activity since it is ‘a relatively clear and simple requirement’—
the Government are tabling an amendment on this, which might change things slightly—
“and that a day of additional information recording will suffice to deal with the new requirement. On the basis of our experience of the effort that campaigners need to make to comply with the current rules, and of our discussions with organisations that may be affected by the new rules, we do not think these estimates are credible.”
That is strong language. The Electoral Commission recognises that it will have a huge new burden, and that there will be a huge new burden on voluntary organisations, charities and campaigning organisations. To say that the estimates are not credible is a strong use of language: it does not say that they are underestimates or not correctly thought through, but that they are not credible. It worries me that the governmental body, the impartial organisation charged with the implementation of the Bill, says that the Government’s estimates of the costs and burdens on voluntary organisations are not credible. In the interests of democracy, the Government need to swallow their pride and recognise that more work needs to be done. That is what new clause 3 seeks to do.
The Electoral Commission’s written evidence goes on to state:
“The Impact Assessment also estimates that the changes to registration thresholds will lead to between zero and 30 additional campaigners needing to register in 2015 compared to 2010. It is difficult to estimate the likely level of additional registration…but again this appears likely to be a severe under-estimate on the basis of our recent discussions with campaigners.”
Not only is there a lack of credibility, there is now a severe underestimate.
The uncertainty and the burdens the Bill will place on campaigners could be mitigated by recasting the definitions of what is covered, and the Government are making some—only some—attempts to do that. That is not a straightforward process, however, and the complexity of the situation is, if anything, being made worse and the legal uncertainty greater. It will require careful testing for those potentially affected by the definitions.
The shame of the Bill is this: many of us suspect that the level of burden and complexity will be such a disincentive for campaigning organisations that they simply will not bother. If campaigning organisations absent themselves from the democratic process, democracy will be the loser. In the run-up to all elections—in devolved elections, as well as general elections—civil society increasingly plays a positive role in asking candidates where they stand, putting political parties on the spot, asking the difficult questions that us politicians sometimes do not want to answer and raising issues that the general public might not have thought of.
My hon. Friend is making an important and non-partisan point. The campaigning by the Royal British Legion was welcomed by all political parties, because so many Members—probably all of them—endorsed the military covenant.
My hon. Friend makes a truly excellent point. Sadly, the criticism levelled at those of us who have strong reservations about the Bill is that we somehow want to promote extremists or those in our political camp. The truth is a long way from that—it could not be further away.
The example of the Royal British Legion is a very good one. I think, largely due to its excellent work in support of the covenant, that there is consensus in the House on how we need to give the greatest possible support to former members of the armed forces who have given so much to defend this country. That consensus was in large part achieved due to the work of the Royal British Legion in the run-up to the general election. All of us received representations, and long may it be able to do that kind of work. The Royal British Legion is one of the organisations that has made representations to MPs to express concerns about the Bill, even though the Government have made some concessions. I welcome those concessions, but even the Royal British Legion thinks that there is a heck of a long way to go.
It is my understanding that if the House accepts the Government amendments, which reflect those I tabled in Committee, the Royal British Legion’s concern will have been met. If that is the case, is there not a danger that we are looking at the wrong point in the Bill? What we do not want, and what part 2 is designed to deal with, is something like the National Rifle Association in America or the Tea party movement. That is the danger we need to guard against far more than a potential unintended consequence that the Government are trying to mitigate.
There has not been broad agreement—in fact, there has been very little agreement—that the Government’s amendments are anywhere near enough. I said in Committee that I welcomed the fact that the Leader of the House had had discussions with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and given certain verbal commitments. Since then, however, the NCVO has said, “Hang on, we’ll see what is actually proposed,” and now it has considered the proposals in detail and, more importantly, taken legal advice, there is a consensus among most voluntary organisations that the proposals are not sufficient and arguably create further complications, which underlines the point that we have made consistently: this is the wrong way to approach this kind of Bill. We should not be in this position, but unfortunately we cannot turn the clock back, which is why it is important to focus on new clause 3 and at least recognise the need for the Government to take stock of the implications, many of which they have not given proper consideration to.
Had there been a general election in November or December 1913, would the South Wales Miners Federation, on this day 100 years ago, have been prevented from campaigning for a health and safety at work Act following the explosion in Senghenydd, when 439 miners were killed?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and refers to the Senghenydd disaster, in my constituency, of October 1913. I will not speak at length about it, but the point is that historically all civil society organisations have been able to campaign on issues of concern to them and their members, and today’s health and safety legislation came about through the active campaigning by men and women in places of work. As a direct consequence of what happened in Senghenydd in 1901, when 81 men lost their lives, legislation was introduced, but unfortunately it was not implemented by the coalers and so there was another horrific explosion in the same colliery a few years later, when 439 men and boys lost their lives. Of course, things have improved enormously since those days, but the point is that many great social advances come about not because politicians decide in an ivory tower that something is good for people, but because in a democracy people have the ability and wherewithal to campaign for measures that will improve their and their communities’ lives. Our fundamental concern about part 2 is that the encumbrances created are so great that a raft of civil society organisations might think that things are far too complicated and onerous for them to bother to engage in the democratic process.
It is arguable that the Labour party itself would not have been created had these measures been in place. It is the only party created outside Parliament, rather than as the product of splits among those already in Parliament. It was created by people who we might say today were part of the big society. The Labour Representation Committee—a joint committee of the kind covered by the Bill—created a new political party in order to do certain things in Parliament, and I would speculate that while legislation in the 1900s made the birth, funding and advancement of the Labour party incredibly difficult, even with the help of our good friends in the Liberal party—perhaps we could reinvent that pact in the near future—this Bill would have made its creation impossible. We should take that into account, in view of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis).
I am sure that my hon. Friend makes a good point—and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, who is a professional historian, is smiling and probably agrees. It is not just about the Labour party, however; other parties have been formed recently as well, and who knows what the future holds? The point is that society has changed. The Labour party might have been the precursor to a new kind of politics in this country, but increasingly we are seeing politics from the bottom up, rather than the top down, which is to be encouraged in society.
I do not want to stray from the point, Mr Speaker, and talk about the nature of democracy. [Interruption.] You are nodding that I should, Mr Speaker. In this day and age, it is of fundamental importance that democracy should not be seen as something involving just the highest echelons of society or handed down on a plate for consumers to accept or reject. Politics is about the creation of a healthy democratic society, which is why the involvement of the third sector is fundamental to the health of modern Britain. We hope—we have seen it in Northern Ireland—that this can be a permanent, developing and organic future for British democracy.
I am about to resume my seat, but I will first refer to human rights. It is my understanding that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon is the Chair, is considering the human rights implications of the Bill, and its report will be concluded in time to be properly considered when the Bill goes to the other place. When talking about democratic engagement, we are talking about human rights in the broader sense of the term. A number of people have drawn my attention to the severe reservations of people who rightly believe in the importance of human rights and who think that the Bill might infringe the human rights of many people in the third sector, which is another reason we are making our case so strongly. For goodness’ sake, let us pause and properly assess all the Bill’s ramifications and implications, and let us do it before it is implemented.
Many of us in this place are privileged to spend time in developing countries, and when we do so, we often meet civil society and third sector organisations, and recognise, particularly in parts of Asia, Latin and South America and Africa, the importance they play and sometimes how undemocratic Governments seek to assert control over civil society. We have quite rightly spent endless hours in this House debating press freedom. In that context, it is important that we should take the time to give due consideration to the brakes that the Government are strongly perceived to be putting on the third sector and civil society in our own country, and to the handicap that Ministers will receive in the months ahead if we proceed in this way.
Indeed. We are coming to the end of the rather truncated process of deliberation on the Bill in this House, but my right hon. Friend makes a powerful point in underlining our concerns about this part of the legislation. We are concerned about democracy. We like to say that this is the mother of Parliaments and to regard Britain as a beacon of democracy in the world, and it concerns me enormously that so many people—ourselves included—believe that the Bill will take us backwards rather than forwards by undermining the principles and relationships that are fundamental to our concept of modern society.
I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question about this point of principle. His party, when in government, passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That Act accepts that the regulation of third parties is desirable and necessary. Is he now saying that his party got it wrong, or does he accept the principle and are we now arguing only about the detail?
That is a good question, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has asked it. He is right to say that we introduced that legislation in 2000. We are not saying for a moment that it is perfect, however, or that it does not need to be modified in the light of subsequent practice. In fact, the Electoral Commission has been conducting a review and has produced more than 50 recommendations for improving the legislation. We strongly believe that it needs to be improved; we are on record as saying that we need to find a way of taking the big money out of politics. We are not defending the status quo. We want change, but we want it to be introduced properly, systematically and on the basis of dialogue and consensus, not on the basis of this Bill, whose rushed, back-of-an-envelope proposals have been pursued—some would say—on a partisan basis. We have to be careful and say yes to change, but for goodness’ sake let us work together. What is wrong with working together to ensure that we achieve a proper consensus? That would work not to our own political advantage but to the political advantage of society and democracy as a whole.
We know that those who are fundamentally concerned about part 2 of the Bill do not have any running anxieties about the existing legislation. They are concerned about the imposition of reduced caps, the wider scope of the controlled expenditure and the absolute minefield of difficulties—the veritable twilight zone—that is being created in and around the devolved regions, in relation not only to the conduct of elections there but potentially to the conduct of Assembly business in Northern Ireland. For example, people could well say that the Assembly should not be in the business of legislating on same-sex marriage in the same year as a run-up to a Westminster election, as that could be deemed to be a re-run of the debate here, which could influence the election. None of this has been properly considered by the Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He has referred succinctly to a large number of issues, which serves to crystallise the multitude of concerns that people have about the Bill.
We have had a useful exchange of views, but we should not be in this position now if we want to consider these issues properly. We are in this position, however, and in new clauses 2 and 3, we are saying that we should for goodness’ sake allow the Electoral Commission and others fully and properly to assess the Bill’s implications before it reaches the statute book. Let us do that now, before it is too late. It is much better to take such action in a measured, systematic way than to rush into something and repent at leisure. I ask the Government please to give sympathetic consideration to new clauses 2 and 3.
I should like to address my remarks to amendments 4, 5, 6, 10, 11 and 12, which have been included in this group with the new clauses. I am grateful that they have been so included, because they were tabled in Committee but were not reached because we ran out of time. It is therefore an agreeable surprise that I have this opportunity to speak to them today.
My concern has always been that the House should introduce legislation that is clear and precise. That is particularly true of legislation relating to electoral law, which is becoming increasingly complex in this country. It could almost be argued that it now presents a barrier to entry to new people who want to start a political party, to engage in the political process or to contribute to an established party.
Before I address the amendments, I should like to put on record my appreciation of the work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), is here today. I have had the privilege of serving on the Committee since it was first set up at the beginning of this Parliament. It is frustrating at the best of times to serve on a Select Committee, but it is doubly frustrating when a Committee produces reports to which the Government say they will respond but never do so, and merely bring forward their own legislation, ex cathedra, as they have done with this Bill.
The Committee met in early September to try to deal with these issues, as well as at the end of July, soon after the Bill had been published. We raised a lot of questions with the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), some of which have resulted in the welcome tabling of Government amendments in Committee and now, on Report. It would have been far better, however, if this had been done the other way round. We should have had proper pre-legislative scrutiny, consultations and exchanges of views with bodies such as the Electoral Commission, which were established specifically to advise Parliament and the Government on issues of electoral law.
My concern about new clauses 2 and 3 is that, although they recognise the reality of the situation, they would not provide an effective remedy. It is no good saying that there should be a report on the implications of the legislation within a month of its receiving Royal Assent. Nothing would happen as a result of that, because it would be too late to change the law. Regulatory impact assessments should be produced while legislation is being considered by this House, so that we can respond to them by tabling appropriate amendments.
My amendments—modest as they are, as always—were designed to bring clarity to the question of commencement. At the moment, clause 41 provides for the Bill’s provisions to come into effect on the day in which the Act is passed, but with a whole lot of exceptions, some of which are set out. I am seeking to remove those exceptions through my amendments 4, 5 and 6, which would leave out sub-paragraphs (i), (iii) and (iv). Thus clauses 30, 34 and 35 would come into effect on the day the Act is passed rather than on some subsequent day when a Minister might decide to bring forward a commencement order.
Obviously, if a Bill that becomes an Act of Parliament makes certain provisions, which are not implemented immediately but might be implemented at some stage in the future, that in itself creates doubt. Clause 30, for example, to which my amendment 4 refers, deals with
“Extension of power to vary specified sums”
under section 155 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, enabling the Secretary of State, “by order”, to
“vary any percentage for the time being specified”
in that Act’s provisions. That amounts to an order-making power. Why does the order-making power itself need to be made subject to another order-making power? If clause 30 came into effect and into law on the day the Bill received Royal Assent, its provisions would still be subject to the Secretary of State’s having the power to make a variation. If we want to give the Secretary of State that power, why do we need to cover it by saying, “Well, we won’t give him the power to make an order until he has brought forward an order giving himself the power to make the order”? By including sub-paragraph (i) in clause 41, we are making the provisions less direct and more confusing. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation of why he thinks clause 41 is so vital.
Similar arguments relate to my amendments 5 and 6, which would ensure that clauses 30, 34 and 35 came into effect directly on the date of Royal Assent. Looking at those clauses, one again wonders why the Government are nervous about allowing these provisions to take legal effect from the day of Royal Assent. Clause 34 deals with
“Third party expenditure in respect of candidates”,
changing the limit from £500 to £700. If that is a good idea—I am not disputing that it might be—why not include it and implement it from the day of Royal Assent? Why leave everybody guessing about whether the provisions might be brought forward at some subsequent stage through an order-making power? Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation.
Similarly, clause 35, dealing with
“Functions of Electoral Commission with respect to compliance”,
changes the general function and substitutes the expression “duties”. It deals with legislation relating to the Electoral Commission. If that is a good thing—obviously, the Government think it is—why is it not such a good thing that it cannot be brought into effect on the day of Royal Assent?
The way in which the Government do legislation nowadays seems to me to be about leaving as many opportunities as possible for further order-making, when the statute book and our democracy would be enhanced if we were able to have greater clarity so that the provisions enacted were actually implemented from the commencement of the Act, alongside all the other provisions. Again, I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about that.
My second group of amendments—10, 11 and 12 —relate to clause 42. Amendment 10 would leave out subsections (3) to (6); amendment 11 would leave out subsections (7) and (8); and amendment 12 would leave out subsection (9). Clause 42 is quite important, because it deals with “Transitional provision”. It is quite complex. The explanatory notes state that because of the interaction of the European Parliament elections in the latter part of May next year and the fixed-term Parliament provisions that assure us of a general election in May 2015, we need special provisions to cover that scenario. As explained therein:
“Clause 42 makes provision to deal with this situation by creating”
what is described as
“a bespoke regulated period…that will apply only in relation to the next UK general parliamentary election.”
I am instinctively suspicious of “bespoke” regulated periods or of anything brought into statute in order to deal with a particular scenario; I am much more in favour of general principles that can be applied whatever the circumstances. We are getting into dangerous territory whereby the Government are taking transitional powers, interfering with existing law, and doing so on the grounds that the situation is complicated by the European parliamentary elections next May, while at the same time not dealing with the situation of the Scottish referendum in September next year. I do not understand why there are no transitional provisions for that Scottish referendum; perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us. If we are to have strict limits on spending by registered political parties during a period that includes what amounts to a national referendum in Scotland on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, surely we need some special provision to deal with related expenditure.
I do not understand what these provisions are all about, but the Bill would be better if these specific provisions were excluded from it. In a sense, my amendments could properly be described as probing amendments. As I say, I cannot really understand all the detail of clause 42, but I think the Bill would be better without the provisions which my amendments would remove. I would certainly be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about why we have a bespoke regulated period for one particular scenario, while such a bespoke period will not be necessary in the future. Why has no provision been made for the interaction of the general election and the proposed Scottish referendum?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and would like to put on record my thanks to other colleagues who sit on the Select Committee, some of whom are in the Chamber today. We faced incredibly difficult conditions, providing a report for this House at very short notice, which meant being called back during the recess. I compliment the hon. Gentleman and the rest of my Select Committee for doing that and for giving the House half a chance to debate this issue seriously.
The hon. Gentleman seems surprised that stuff that we are meant to have in front of us—on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—is not in front of us, while we are halfway through the Bill’s proceedings. However, he answered his own question in his opening remarks when he referred to the Government’s failure to provide the proper amount of time, consideration and consultation that we should expect in the House. Let me quote, very briefly, what has been said by the Electoral Commission:
“We await confirmation of the Government’s view of the impact of the Bill on the referendum on independence for Scotland.”
I am perfectly sure that had that impact been known, even today, a great many more Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have been present. This is an outrageous attempt to push a measure through with great speed, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue to emphasise that in his speech.
I was wondering whether at some point the hon. Gentleman might wish to make a speech on the matter, but then I realised that he had in fact just done so. We are grateful to him, and I remind those who are attending to our proceedings beyond the Chamber that his celebrity status should now be universally known. He is, of course, the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, and it is, I know, in that capacity that he seeks to advise the House. Even so, he will want to ensure that the subsequent interventions that he will make from time to time are moderately briefer.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his succinct intervention, and also for his generous comments. The points that he has made are exactly the points that caused me to vote against the programme motion yesterday. I think the least that can be done if a Bill has not been given sufficient pre-legislative scrutiny is to ensure that there is sufficient time for it to be scrutinised properly in the House. I may be wrong, but I doubt very much whether we shall have time even to debate all the groups of amendments and new clauses that have been tabled for debate today. As I said earlier, we were not able to reach some of the amendments that were tabled in Committee, although fortunately some of them were tabled again on Report, and are being debated now.
I do not think that I need to make a meal of this, and I am sure that the House will wish to hear further from the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, but I will say that I do not think that new clause 2 really cuts the mustard. All that it says is:
“Part 2 of this Act shall not come into force until the Electoral Commission and the Minister have laid a report before both Houses of Parliament”.
That in itself introduces a concept of indecision. People looking at the legislation will want to know when part 2 will come into force. If things are found to be wrong with part 2 as a result of
“an assessment of the separate and specific impacts of Part 2…on third-party engagement”,
and so on, that will need to be put right before Royal Assent, rather than being left to a post-legislative assessment on a time scale that is imprecise and unspecified. I understand why the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) is frustrated by this whole process, but I beg to differ with him on whether his proposed solution is the right one.
Similarly, as I said earlier in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I do not think that the requirement in new clause 3 for
“Within one month of Royal Assent…full cost projections of the impact of Part 2 on their running costs”
from the Electoral Commission, along with an
“assessment of the administrative impact”
is any good. It would, at best, be closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, and it would not be a helpful substitute for dealing effectively with the substance of the Bill before we give it final approval and it receives Royal Assent. The time to do that is now, and we are doing it. Obviously we hope that those in the other place will do even more of it, and that when the Bill returns to the Commons, it will be much better than it was before.
I end as I began, by regretting that this process has caused us to deal too much with the form and the process rather than with the substance, which is what we should be dealing with in this House.
I will give way once more.
Before the hon. Gentleman—who is a distinguished member of the Select Committee—ends his speech, may I return, very briefly, to the question of the controlling of expenditure of non-party campaigners? Will he underline the fact that the Electoral Commission does not know what impact the Bill will have on the referendums in Scotland? Are we not in danger of jumping straight into a hornets’ nest if we do not consider that before the Bill is passed, rather than saying “Let us see what happens”?
If I were a member of the Government faced with such advice from a body on which the Government rely to give them advice, I would say “We will withdraw the Bill, or at least delay further consideration of it until we have received a proper response.” That, I think, would have been the mature way in which to deal with the matter, if I may put in it in a somewhat patronising way.
There are many examples of Bills that have been held up between their Committee and Report stages. Normally they have been held up for a good reason, namely that the Government have been having a rethink, discussing with third parties and other interests what is the best solution. Here we have a glaring example of something else. Effectively, the statutory adviser on these issues has said to the Government “We do not know what the implications are. Please help us. We can help you, but we need a bit of time if we are to do so.”
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always an optimist. I hope that, before the end of this evening’s proceedings, we shall have heard the Government say that they wish not to press the matter to the end, but to give the House a chance to engage in further debates, and that they will table further amendments.
As the hon. Gentleman implies, there is nothing to stop the Government from saying, at any stage, “We have listened to the concerns of Members on both sides of the House, and we have listened to what people outside the Chamber are saying. We will withdraw the legislation, and will engage in full consultation.” Labour Members can give a cast-iron commitment that if that were to happen, we should be only too happy to engage with the Government, the Electoral Commission and others in an attempt to achieve a consensus on how our electoral law can be modified and made appropriate for the modern age. That is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and I only hope that the Government will feel able to respond to it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it represents a good way forward?
Obviously I do. I am often suspicious of the word “consensus”, but I think that when we are dealing with changes in electoral law, consensus is very important.
In my capacity as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I go off and monitor a fair number of elections, and the most difficult cases with which to deal are those in which a Government have used their majority to introduce changes in the electoral law, and, in some cases, have used a politically motivated electoral commission to support their actions. That brings democracy into disrepute, especially in some of the emerging democracies in eastern Europe. I think that this is an instance in which we should be aiming for consensus, and if consensus could be achieved by the Government’s withdrawing the Bill, or not continuing with it at the current pace, I should be all in favour of it.
The hon. Gentleman’s approach is precisely the approach adopted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We said as much in our meeting this morning, and I was delegated to convey that sentiment to the House this afternoon.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is invidious to make comparisons, and I know that his is a Joint Committee of both Houses, but I think it a pity that the Committee has not been able to present a report to the House by this stage. If our Committee could do it, I am sure that his Committee would, or should, have been able to do it as well. It is very sad that his Committee’s no doubt excellent report will be available to their lordships, but is not available to Members of this House. This is not a criticism of the hon. Gentleman, but I hope in future he will cancel all leave when necessary and bring his troops back.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the word consensus, but is it not sad that there is broadly common agreement which could be arrived at if the will were there?
I am not going to get into the semantics of the difference between consensus and common agreement, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.
I am pleased the Government have done quite a lot of listening. They have brought forward a number of amendments and put forward various propositions. Some people are claiming what the Government are saying will not work in practice in the way they say it would, but that is a reason for having further discussions, instead of forcing inadequate law through this House.
I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) around the muddle and clutter in the Bill in relation to variable commencement dates and the transitional provisions. The Government may well say that the clauses are framed in a way that allows for slippage if that is needed, but slippage at the hands of a Minister in relation to commencement will give rise to suspicions of slipperiness and the possibility of partisan motivations. The variable commencement provisions that apply to different parts of part 2 are evidence of just how scrappy the thinking has been, and provide an argument for there being a longer pause for thought.
I wish to speak particularly in support of new clauses 2 and 3. Some Members have said that neither of the clauses on their own goes far enough. That may be so, but they do recognise gross deficiencies in the Bill. They may not meet them in full, but at least if this Chamber agrees to these amendments it will be creating a basis on which there will be further amendments and further consideration to meet those gross deficiencies. It is a derelict argument to say that, because they do not completely meet the deficiencies, we should not adopt them. There are even more inadequacies in the Bill that we would leave unamended, so saying that they do not go far enough and would need to be supplemented by other changes should not be used as a justification for voting against them.
New clause 2 refers to the very confusing impact this legislation would have in the context of the devolved areas. I have a particular interest in Northern Ireland, of course. I have no wish to bungee jump in and out of the debate about the Scottish referendum, but I take on board the point that has been made on a number of occasions by the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and we need to hear it answered as it seems to be a pretty basic and fundamental one.
I want again to inform the House that many Members have referred to the vast numbers of third sector groups—charities, Churches, policy advocacy groups—that have expressed concern throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and they have also done so in Northern Ireland. In many ways their concerns are even more vexed because, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has said, civil society in Northern Ireland has been playing a significant, telling and growing role in helping to move politics on and improving the content and climate of political debate in Northern Ireland.
The key British-Irish axis, the power-sharing institutions and the new beginning to policing are three important wheels of the peace process, but the fourth wheel on which the peace process runs is that played by civil society in reinforcing the sense of progressive political debate and helping to inform an otherwise sectarian binary political debate, which passes for political exchange but does not really address some of the underlying public policy issues that affect people’s economic, social, environmental or cultural interests. Anything that puts at risk the growing role of civil society in improving politics in Northern Ireland has to be a cause for worry.
The problems do not relate just to the chill factor, which we have heard discussed by other Members today and in previous debates, that will potentially be created through controlling and measuring people’s contributions to public policy debate in a Westminster election year. They could extend to the very conduct of the Assembly itself and of politics at other levels. I will explain that because Ministers will say, “No, this is clearly in the main about Westminster elections.” The fact is, it is not always about Westminster elections. Some aspects of clauses 26, 27 and 28, for example, apply to Northern Ireland Assembly elections while others do not, but that creates uncertainty and confusion, and it means that at any time any campaign group—a charity, a service delivery group, a body promoting policies, or a conglomerate of different interests and groups hopefully on a truly cross-community basis—might be stuck with having to check their legal position, what resources they might bring to any campaign, and what may or may not be counted against them. We do not want that sort of chill factor to change the nature of political exchange in Northern Ireland.
We must also recognise that, even in a separately designated Westminster election year, politics still continues at other levels—local government or the Assembly. During the relevant period leading up to a Westminster election there could be very live issues that need to be debated in the context of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They could be live issues on which many groups would want to campaign—put forward their views, support a private Member’s Bill, object to Bills being put forward by Departments or rallying behind amendments proposed or championed by one of the Assembly Committees. However, some of those issues on which the Assembly might be deliberating might also be issues on which the parties and candidates lining up for the Westminster elections have different and distinct views. Will we then have a situation whereby the Electoral Commission is asked to judge whether a campaign around a proposed piece of legislation is really a non-party campaign with the aim of procuring support for parties or candidates in the Westminster election pretending to be a campaign around legislation in the Assembly? Do we really put it past parties or individuals in the Assembly to come up with proposals for Assembly legislation, which may be specious or speculative on one level, or worthy and worthwhile on another? Such proposals should be able to be the subject of a campaign, for or against, and people should be able to make legitimate points. However, we will be told that it is okay to do that in Northern Ireland, even though it has a direct impact on people standing in a Westminster election, because it is happening under the Assembly, but that would not be the case in another context.
In an earlier intervention, I gave the example that the Northern Ireland Assembly may or may not be asked to legislate on same-sex marriage. The Assembly has expressed a view and voted, with a majority of the Members voting in favour of same-sex marriage. However, that was on the basis that it did not have cross-community support and that therefore the vote would not stand. It was a statement of opinion or wish; it was not a legislative proposal. Should a legislative proposal come before the Assembly in the same year as a Westminster election, will people argue that that is really a way of groups advertising where they stand on how Northern Ireland Members—possible candidates in that Westminster election—voted on same-sex marriage when that Bill was being considered by the House of Commons?
If the Government are serious that the point of this Bill is to make sure that non-party campaigning cannot be done in a way that is prejudicial to people or parties in Westminster elections, they really have not come up with an answer to that. The proposals need to give further consideration to how any valid issues and concerns are addressed without giving rise to other serious problems.
All Members of this House rightly expressed support for the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) when she found herself, her home and her offices subjected to untoward threat and violence, with gross intimidation targeted at her and her party. Let us recall that the background to that was the issuing of leaflets by a political party pointing out the role of the Alliance party, my party and Sinn Fein in a vote in Belfast city council. The Democratic Unionist party’s agenda—I am sorry that nobody from the DUP is in the Chamber—clearly had nothing to do with the whether the flag was flying over Belfast city hall; it very much related to the DUP trying to undermine the position of the hon. Member for Belfast East, with a view to maximising its opportunity to take back that seat in the future.
If we can see that politics in a local council chamber in Northern Ireland can be used with an eye to future Westminster elections, we certainly cannot rule out the possibility that people might use politics or proposals within the Assembly in the same way. That unfortunate propensity for some political parties in Northern Ireland to fall back into negative stereotyping politics and rallying to the old binary polarities in Northern Ireland is all the more reason to make sure that civil society is confident and comfortable in the space it has been taking increasingly.
When we were negotiating the Good Friday agreement and we had difficulties with even getting talks started, the role of civil society at so many levels, in canvassing support for the possibility of progress, change and agreement, was important, just as it has been in building on the agreement. Indeed, we would have made far more progress on many areas if civil society had been in greater command of the agenda and fewer things were vetoable by individual parties, whether on the Bill of Rights or other things.
Let us examine some areas where we have not made progress in Northern Ireland but where we could build fully on the spirit of the agreement. One thing we notice is that a number of the commissions that have been in place to deal with the vexed problems that the political process could not discharge, such as the Parades Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, also find themselves, from time to time, accused of having a particular slant or bias. Despite the difficulties they face and the nuances of the issues they are managing, they are able to cope with those accusations and tensions, and to manage them on the basis of their mandate and of their proven balance in their other work. However, there is a serious danger that we could inadvertently add the Electoral Commission to the list of commissions that get embroiled in the particular contentions of Northern Ireland politics.
If the Electoral Commission has a role whereby it has to arbitrate and adjudicate on whether campaigns were injurious to a particular candidate in a given constituency or to a party across the region, or on whether they had the effect of enhancing one, it will find itself resented, and not just for those issues where it does intervene and make a judgment; it will find itself accused on issues where it does not intervene and make a judgment. It will be put in an absolutely impossible position in Northern Ireland. It will be sucked into a quicksand of “whatabouttery” and will have to observe a completely contrived symmetry, whereby if it deals with an issue relating to one campaign, it will have to be seen to be dealing with another contrived issue relating to some other campaign. If it does not do so, it will find itself accused of being on one side or other of the old arguments that we are trying to move beyond in Northern Ireland. I ask the House to support new clause 2, not because it solves that problem completely, but because it begins to recognise that that problem and those implications will arise. It will then force us into doing a bigger job of work, engaging with the Assembly and others.
I noted in an earlier exchange that one hon. Member referred to the Royal British Legion and the work on the military covenant, which he said all parties support. All parties in Great Britain do indeed support it and all parties in Northern Ireland have supported the RBL’s work. As I understand it, all parties in Northern Ireland, whether or not their individual members wear the poppy, subscribe to the campaign and the collection. Indeed, mayors of all parties, including Sinn Fein, have always launched the poppy campaign, so there has been that broad support. Is there universal support on the military covenant? No, there is not. Even the recent inquiry by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs showed that there was not agreement on what the military covenant would or would not, and should or should not, mean in Northern Ireland. That is the case for obvious reasons. When that earlier exchange was taking place, I sensed that the Deputy Leader of the House was planning to say that the fact that there was consensus and that all parties agree on the military covenant proved that the RBL’s campaign would not be caught by this legislation. However, it could be caught in Northern Ireland, because not all parties would subscribe to it in the same way, for their particular reasons.
During campaigns in Northern Ireland where people are asking parties to say what they are going to do in Parliament, some parties campaign not to take their seats and some campaign to take their seats. That, in itself, creates a differential in Northern Ireland that does not exist anywhere else and could give rise to people saying, “We are supporting you because you are going to vote a particular way. We would not want to commend candidates who are not going to vote that way or take a stand on that sort of issue.” So we face added, particular difficulties in the context of Northern Ireland and the Government have simply not thought about them. I do not believe that even the parties in Northern Ireland have fully thought about them enough or that the Assembly has done so, perhaps because people are distracted by other issues.
If we do get deliverance out of things such as the Haass process and dealing with some of the other vexed issues, it would be an awful tragedy, having climbed that ladder, to then be pushed down a snake because of Westminster legislation that has not been properly thought through.
It is good to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I am still hoping to get to Derry/Londonderry, the great city of culture for 2013, before the end of the year, but I am conscious that time is running out—[Interruption.] My speech will not take us to that date.
I want to make a couple of comments on these new clauses and amendments on timetabling and scope. I thank the Leader of the House for the letter that he sent and the amendments that the Government have tabled, which we shall reach later, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for his conversations, briefings and help in dealing with the Bill.
I assume that those on the Front Bench accept the spirit of amendment 65, although I do not assume that they will accept the amendment itself. It states that the Bill will not be enacted until all Committees of both Houses that are reporting on it have reported. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights—our Chair is also in the Chamber now—and it is common knowledge that we are considering the Bill. It is no secret that we hope to complete our work this month—we are doing it as quickly as we can—and to publish our report. The amendment is effectively asking the Government to take into account the deliberations of the cross-party Committee of both Houses and any other Committees before there is further detailed consideration of the Bill. I hope that there will be general acceptance of that.
I am not competent to speak about the details of new clause 2, but the Electoral Commission, to which we are grateful for its up-to-date briefing, has an open mind on it—at least, that is how it expresses it. The commission’s summary states that
“we expect that as far as possible Parliament will wish the Government to set out a thorough assessment of the likely impact of the provisions in Part 2 before the Bill is passed.”
I assume that the Government will do that and that the new clause seeks to deal with elections and campaigns other than the general election in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They are clearly relevant and we must consider them. My reading is clear: the Electoral Commission has not come down specifically in favour of or against the new clause in its briefing, although it has a clear view on other parts of the work before us today.
The right hon. Gentleman has accurately referred to the Electoral Commission’s commentary on new clause 2. The commission expresses the hope that the Government will set out a thorough assessment of the likely impact of the provisions, but as things stand, I am not aware of a firm commitment that the Government intend to do that.
That is why my assumption is that, although the Government might not respond directly by accepting the new clause, colleagues on the Front Bench will be able to answer the point made by the Electoral Commission, as there is obviously regular engagement between the Government and the commission. I hope those on the Front Bench will be positive about that point.
It is clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said earlier, that new clause 3 is not supported by the Electoral Commission. For want of other guidance, the Electoral Commission is always the best place to go to for a steer on the appropriate response, so I will not support the new clause.
My concern is that the Government should give time for Committees to report and for their deliberations to be considered and that, when the Electoral Commission expressly supports the Government’s proposals or proposed changes, the Government should be responsive.
Let me make a general point about the timetable. Obviously, the Bill took a huge amount of time in gestation and was then born very quickly—it shot out of the cot, or cradle, or wherever it had been kept—
That is often the way.
Yes, it is. The Bill was held in dock for a long time, but then somebody suddenly pressed the button and out it came. I do not think that anyone can complain that there has not been enough time in Committee or on Report; the complaint is that, as people know, we have not had the pre-legislative scrutiny that all Bills ideally should have. I know that the Leader of the House would accept that in principle.
We are in the second day on Report and we must have Third Reading, so we cannot now do all the revision and careful scrutiny that we would like to. That is probably true across the House. I am in favour of many of the Bill’s principles, so I do not have issues with some of the changes, but I hope that the Government will ensure that there is the time for that careful consideration and to listen to the voices before the Bill goes from this place to the House of Lords.
A commission has been set up, prompted by the voluntary sector, to be chaired by the Lord Bishop of Oxford, who is a Member of the House of Lords. It is considering these issues and will have a valuable contribution to make, provided it can report soon. I hope, too, that the Government will take seriously what it says.
Will the right hon. Gentleman outline to the House how he thinks we can have further scrutiny of the Bill between the completion of business today and its progress to the House of Lords?
I made it clear that because this is the second and last day on Report and because we must have Third Reading, at this round of our deliberations we cannot do that in this building. Other work is taking place, however, not least in the Joint Committee on which I serve with colleagues from both Houses. We want to report in time for our work to be taken into account up the corridor in the House of Lords. Any amendments made in the Lords must still come back to this place, so I ask the Government to give time for the Committees that are working and have not reported to report and for those reports to be considered by the Government in good time to be seen by colleagues in the Lords and for the independent commission to report and to be seen, provided it gets on with the job quickly.
Before I tackle new clauses 2 and 3 and the amendments, I welcome the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) to his place. I am not sure whether this is his last appearance in his current position—
Okay. I also welcome the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is making his first appearance in this capacity, as well as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who is staying put, I believe. This is also perhaps the first opportunity for me to welcome the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). He might be familiar with a quote from Christopher Hitchens:
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
He might have found during the debate that a lot is being asserted by Opposition Members without evidence. Clearly, the Government dismiss that with evidence rather than without it.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly made an enticing offer that we should pause the Bill, but I am afraid that I shall have to decline. I can only imagine the hue and cry from Labour were we to do nothing with the Bill only for someone to spend just under £1 million in one constituency or another during the run-up to the next general election to try to unseat a candidate they did not want to support. Would the hon. Gentleman then accuse us of failing to take action?
We have also heard some examples of Opposition Members’ belief that the Bill would have stopped updated health and safety provisions in relation to mining disasters. We heard from the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that the Labour party would not have existed had the Bill been in place. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will become familiar with such arguments, which are completely outwith anything the Government propose in the Bill.
New clause 2 would require the Government and the Electoral Commission to undertake a post-legislative assessment of the impact of part 2 on third parties campaigning in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly and on third parties campaigning in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland constituencies for the UK parliamentary elections. That assessment would also have to consider the impact of part 2 on referendums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Part 2 would not come into force until a report of the assessment was laid before Parliament.
Only some of the part 2 provisions apply to third parties campaigning in elections to the devolved Administrations. At the time of the Bill’s introduction, the Government published an impact assessment to accompany it. The analysis has been thorough. To require the Government to undertake another analysis at a later date serves no purpose. In addition, the Electoral Commission already has a statutory function of reporting on the conduct of elections under current legislation. As part of that function, the Government would expect the commission to examine the impact of changes to rules on third-party campaigning at future elections. It would not be for the Government to duplicate the role of the independent regulator.
The main thrust of the remarks of the hon. Member for Caerphilly was about the potential risk of impact on the Scottish referendum. I want to make it clear that the Bill does not have an impact on referendums. Although the regulated period for the 2015 UK parliamentary election will overlap with the regulated period for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, spending in the Scottish referendum is a matter for the Scottish Parliament. Such expenditure could not, in our view, reasonably be regarded as intended to promote electoral success and would therefore not be controlled under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or regulated by the Bill. We believe that expenditure incurred during the regulated period for the referendum would be treated as referendum expenditure and not controlled expenditure for the election, unless there was a clear or direct link to a campaign in the election. We do not think that the commencement of part 2 should be delayed as the hon. Gentleman said.
Up until yesterday, the Electoral Commission, which is charged by Government and the House in these matters, was still stating:
“We await confirmation of the Government’s view of the impact of the Bill on the referendum on independence for Scotland.”
So even yesterday, the Electoral Commission was unclear. The Minister is stating unequivocally that there will be no impact whatsoever on the contending parties—those that support voting yes, voting no or whatever—and there will be no impact whatsoever on the independence campaign by any of the players or third parties. This was not made clear to the Electoral Commission even yesterday, when the question arose.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which gives me an opportunity to restate the fact that the Bill has no impact on the Scottish referendum. The Electoral Commission wanted that clarified, and I have today very publicly done so. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had clarified that point in discussions with the Electoral Commission yesterday.
Surely, the comment from the Deputy Leader of the House depends on clearly differentiating expenditure for election campaigning and referendum campaigning. We might find that sums of money are used for identical purposes at the same time. Common sense dictates that that is bound to lead to complications.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House in 1999 when PPERA was being debated and when it became an Act in 2000. That Act seeks to address that sort of issue. Our position is clear. I do not think that I need to restate it a third time, but I will: the Scottish referendum is not affected in any way by what we are debating here.
I shall move on to new clause 3, which would require the Electoral Commission to identify the Bill’s impact on both its own resources and on third parties. It would require the commission to lay a full cost projection before Parliament within one month of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. As I have just explained, the Government have already published an impact assessment to accompany the Bill. That assessment considers the impact on both the Electoral Commission and third parties. The assessment estimates that the lowered registration thresholds will bring 30 more third parties into the regime administered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—that is, third parties that campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate.
The assessment also estimates that only 10% of third-party organisations will see their expenditure affected by the reduced spending limits proposed in the Bill. At the 2010 UK general election, only two organisations even passed the lower limits proposed in the Bill. There will be a relatively small administrative cost to each registered third party as a result of the new reporting provisions that the Bill introduces. The impact assessment considers that the enforcement cost to the Electoral Commission will rise by a maximum of £390,000 annually. Let me say again that this analysis is comprehensive, and I see no need to repeat it after the Bill has received Royal Assent.
The Electoral Commission states in its parliamentary briefing:
“We do not support this amendment since there are more appropriate vehicles for consideration of these issues.”
The Electoral Commission is already required, under PPERA, to submit an estimate of its income and expenditure to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission each financial year. That estimate must indicate what the commission considers its requirements for resources for the next five-year period might be. There is therefore already provision in legislation for the commission to provide the information that the amendment seeks.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very generous. Before we move on from new clauses 2 and 3, may I ask whether he is categorically rejecting the Electoral Commission’s request for a thorough assessment of the likely impact of these provisions? Let us be clear that he is rejecting that Electoral Commission advice.
I am afraid I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by restating what I have said. We have already carried out an impact assessment and the Electoral Commission will no doubt want to conduct one on the impact of third parties.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) referred to amendment 65. I can assure him that the Government will listen to the Committee’s views, although we are working to a timetable that requires the Bill to be in place to address the next general election, and the regulated period for that starts 12 months before. We will of course listen to the Committee’s views and to the views expressed by others, including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Electoral Commission or anyone else who has views on the subject. We are not closed to other views.
Is the Deputy Leader of the House therefore saying that he and the Government will listen to the views of the Committee and the independent commission before the Bill goes to the House of Lords?
No. The hon. Lady paraphrases me incorrectly. That is not what I said. I said that we would listen to the views, but at the same time we are working to a timetable. The sooner those views are available the better, and the sooner there will be an opportunity for them to be considered.
Amendment 65 would amend clause 41 in order to prevent part 2 from coming into force until a Committee of either House has undertaken an inquiry and published a report on the impact of the Bill. As drafted, however, the amendment does not in fact require an inquiry to take place—it merely assumes that one might. The amendment’s effectiveness is therefore limited, as in the absence of any inquiry part 2 will come into force regardless. I once more reiterate my earlier comments: the Government have already published an impact assessment to accompany the Bill. That assessment considers the impact on both the Electoral Commission and third parties, and is thorough.
Amendments 66, 4, 5 and 6, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) spoke, would amend clause 41 so that the entire provisions of part 2 came into force on Royal Assent, subject of course to the transitional provision in clause 42. It is more appropriate—this is the response to the query he raised—for certain provisions, namely clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35, to be commenced at a date appointed by the Secretary of State, rather than on Royal Assent. That is normal practice. The purpose is to allow preparations to take place and the people involved to be brought up to speed on those aspects of the law, rather than forcing adoption on the day of Royal Assent.
The right hon. Gentleman says that it is important that people should be able to get up to speed, but many of the Bill’s provisions will take effect on the day of Royal Assent. How is it that people will be able to get up to speed on those provisions in time but not on this provision?
Clearly the Government have made an assessment of the areas where it is possible to prepare in time for Royal Assent and those where it is not, which I think is reflected in the clauses to which I have just referred.
Clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35 do not have a direct effect on the regulated period of the other provisions in part 2, which are affected by the transitional provision. It is more appropriate for clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35 to be subject to commencement by order in the usual way. Amendment 67 takes the opposite approach and appears to intend that, subject to amendment 66, which we have just discussed, all of part 2 but clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35 would not come into force on Royal Assent. However, its effect would in fact be the contrary. In the absence of any considered commencement and transitional provision, all of part 2 would come into force on Royal Assent. I suspect that that is not the intention, but it would be the effect.
In relation to amendments 10, 11 and 12, tabled and spoken to by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, it appears that he is seeking to delay the Act’s measures, rather than to have them swiftly implemented. He has already tabled amendments 4, 5 and 6 to clause 41 so that all of part 2 would come into force at the same time and then become subject to the transitional provisions of clause 42. I know that he was seeking to bring clarity, but the effect of amendments 10, 11 and 12, together with amendments 4, 5 and 6, is that the measures in part 2 would not come into effect before the 2015 general election. Amendments 10, 11 and 12 would remove the transitional provision of clause 42 altogether, with the result that the part 2 provisions would come into effect only at the commencement of the next regulated period after Royal Assent, which is unlikely to be the regulated period for the 2015 general election. The Government are committed to enhancing the transparency of spending by third parties, and that includes enacting the measures within part 2 in time for the regulated period of the 2015 general election. I therefore do not consider it appropriate to delay their implementation until after the 2015 general election.
Going back to the point about people needing to be given time to get up to speed, if clause 30 was brought in immediately on Royal Assent, it would state:
“The Secretary of State may by order vary any percentage for the time being specified”.
What is the point of not bringing that into effect on Royal Assent, because the only impact of doing so would be to give the Secretary of State the power to bring it in? Does the Secretary of State need to be brought up to speed?
That is a challenging question, so I might need to get back to my hon. Friend shortly on it. I think that the whole issue of percentages is one that might require a response from others and measures to address it. I have heard his query and will ensure that he gets a specific response.
I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and the hon. Member for Caerphilly not to press their amendments.
I will make a small contribution in order to make a request on behalf of those of us who have considerable respect for the opinions expressed about Northern Ireland and concern about the impact of the Bill there. I think that the Deputy Leader of the House inadvertently passed over that without responding to the pertinent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). This takes the whole question of people intervening when there are questions of free speech to a rather more delicate and, indeed, darker level. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House has some response to the points made by my hon. Friend.
I will respond to those points, subject to your approval, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I think that would be helpful.
I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will agree that I tend to take many interventions and make a point of trying to respond to them. To respond to his point on the impact in Northern Ireland, clearly the new definition of controlled expenditure will have an impact on the devolved Administrations. The lowered registration thresholds will also have an impact in Northern Ireland. With regard to Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the amount that a third-party organisation can spend campaigning against a named candidate is being increased from £500 to £700 through this legislation.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House clarify something? If there is a non-party campaign on a legislative proposal in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh National Assembly in the same calendar year as a Westminster election, will that count as being within the regulated period, and will that campaign about devolved legislative proposals count as part of controlled expenditure?
The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific and detailed question. The difficulty in answering it is the extent to which any local community campaign organised at any level would have an impact on Westminster elections. Rather than giving him an off-the-cuff response, I will ensure that he gets a detailed reply. On that point, I will conclude my remarks.
It is not the Opposition’s intention to press new clauses 2 and 3, on the basis of the commitment the Deputy Leader of the House has given to have further discussions, particularly in the House of Lords, which we hope will lead to substantive change. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Meaning of “controlled expenditure”
I beg to move amendment 32, page 12, leave out lines 31 to 33 and insert ‘“where—
(a) the expenses fall within Part 1 of Schedule 8A, and
‘(b) the expenditure can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election for—
(i) one or more particular registered parties,
(ii) one or more registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties, or
(iii) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates.”’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendment 33
Amendment 101, page 12, leave out line 37 to line 9 on page 13 and insert—
‘“For election purposes” means activity which can reasonably be regarded as intended for the primary purpose of—
(a) promoting or procuring electoral success at any relevant election for—
(i) one or more particular registered parties;
(ii) one or more registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties; or
(iii) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates.’.
Government amendments 34 to 45.
Clause 26 sets out the test that third parties need to meet in order to incur controlled expenditure. There has been extensive comment from a number of bodies, such as charities and voluntary organisations, that the Bill will capture their ordinary campaigning activities. That was not the case. However, the Government gave an undertaking in Committee to revert to a test based on the wording of the existing legislation, which provides that controlled expenditure is only that
“which can reasonably be regarded as intended”
to promote or procure the electoral success of parties or candidates. The Government’s amendments meet that commitment.
I would like to thank the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Electoral Commission and others for the constructive discussion we have had in relation to the amendments. I accept that there is not total agreement on our amendments, but I know that the NCVO, for instance, is at least partially happy about the proposals we have come forward with.
The Deputy Leader of the House will have seen the letter today from Sir Stuart Etherington of NCVO, which states:
“Simply returning to the previous form of words does not solve the problem… In our view, the assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house that charities campaigning on policy issues will not be affected have not been met”.
I am aware of that, but I am equally aware that Karl Wilding, the NCVO’s director of public policy, said yesterday that it is partially happy about what the Government have done and that we have made some progress. [Interruption.] Yes, I accept that it is partially happy, but it is worth remembering that one of the NCVO’s other concerns, as highlighted in its letter, is the PPERA legislation, which goes back to 2000, under the previous Government. It may be pertinent to remind the Labour party what the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), said:
“In terms of the day-to-day non-campaigning part of their activity, third parties will not be caught by the provision but, if they seek to influence an election, which is the expenditure in question, our proposed arrangements are reasonable.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 41.]
That is very much our view. We are in the same place.
I know that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) is new to his position, but I am sure that he will have been told in his briefing that, in response to a request from one of my right hon. Friends, the Government undertook to ensure that we reverted to the definition applied in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is precisely what we have done.
If the statutory arrangements put in place by the previous Government in the 2000 Act were satisfactory, why does the Minister wish to change them now? Can he list even one example of behaviour by third parties that has led him to believe that new legislation is needed?
The hon. Gentleman may not have understood. The fact is that we had no intention of changing the test of what constituted promoting or procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. By reverting to the PPERA legislation, we have put charities and other organisations back to where they were in the run-up to the 2005 and 2010 general elections in relation to what constituted procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. I accept that in other ways we have changed things in response to the Electoral Commission’s request about the definition of controlled expenditure.
In his letter, Sir Stuart Etherington says:
“A health charity could publish a leaflet highlighting the dangers of smoking. If smoking legislation became a party political issue in an election this activity could be deemed to have the effect of supporting a party’s campaign”.
Has he simply misunderstood the legislation?
If an anti-smoking organisation ran a campaign subsequently adopted by a party, that would not count as controlled expenditure unless that organisation subsequently said, “Oh, by the way, party X is supporting our campaign, so vote for party X.” The mere fact of running a campaign supported by a party would not incur controlled expenditure. That is clear.
There is another point. Back in 2010, the Royal British Legion ran a campaign called “Time to do your bit”. There seems to be an illusion that that would not be possible under the new legislation. Can the Minister assure me that such a campaign would be possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. That campaign was clearly run on the basis of PPERA, which is what we are reverting to. If the Royal British Legion said, “We are endorsing a candidate who has supported our position and encourage people to vote for them,” it would be caught. [Interruption.] Of course it would be caught, because it would be procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. If it intended doing such a thing in the 2015 general election, it could choose to register as a non-party organisation and spend £390,000 across the country running that campaign. However, I question whether the Royal British Legion would want to be in such a position.
I will give way once more, then I need to make progress.
Will the Minister respond to the specific point raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the Royal British Legion campaign? In that case, what might apply in England, Wales and Scotland would for obvious reasons not apply in Northern Ireland.
What applies in Northern Ireland could equally apply in Scotland, England or Wales. It would all depend on whether the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland was in some way or other promoting or procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. If it was doing that, it could be caught. If, for instance, it was promoting or procuring the electoral support of a number of candidates because a number had endorsed its message, that would also be deducted from its spend as a third-party organisation if it was promoting the electoral success of a party or candidate. As I said, I doubt whether the Royal British Legion would want to be in the position of promoting a party or candidate. That is not what it does.
Is not the point that all the organisations that we describe in these case studies do not seek the support of one political party, but set out to win a consensus across the political divide for their cause? Therefore they should have nothing to fear.
That is absolutely the point. I would make a stronger point. In all the conversations that I have had with charities, they have gone to great extremes to underline the fact that as charities they do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate because the Charity Commission would stop their charitable status if they were seen to be campaigning politically. They do not do that, so the argument that the threshold or total national cap is being dropped or will in some way inhibit charities is not true.
Charities do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate so the threshold would not apply and they would not need to keep details of controlled expenditure. [Interruption.] I find it hard to believe that the question is still being asked. Charities are not affected by the Bill because they do not campaign for electoral success.
The Government amendments meet the commitment we made in Committee, and I thank the organisations that we have worked with on the issue. We believe our amendments provide clarification and reassurance to charities, voluntary organisations, community groups and other campaigners that their normal engagement with public policy will not be subject to regulation as long as it cannot reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate.
By reverting to the existing terminology, amendment 32 achieves the aim of making the test for controlled expenditure one that has been in existence since 2000. I have seen continued comment from some organisations that the rules will prevent charities and other campaigners from making their views known. Those objections are based not on what is being done in the Bill but on the rules already set out in PPERA. Those rules have been in place for a number of elections, including the 2005 and 2010 general elections. I am sure that everyone on both sides would agree that, during those elections, charities and other campaigners were not prevented from engaging and influencing public policy.
Why change it then?
I will come to that. Others in the House will know from experience that campaigners make their views abundantly clear at election time, as they should.
In answer to the sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I should say that we are changing the controlled expenditure provisions because the Electoral Commission asked us to bring in line the controlled expenditure that applies to third- party organisations to that which applies to political parties. Do the Opposition believe that the current ability for an individual or group of organisations to spend a large amount in one parliamentary constituency is acceptable, or do they think that it should be controlled, as we do?
The Minister made a good point in stating that the Royal British Legion would not want to be associated with any particular party or candidate. That charity is a good example of one that tries to generate consensus across the electorate.
May I ask the Minister about a different kind of campaign? The RSPCA has a well known objection to the badger cull. It is possible that, in the run-up to the 2015 election, it will run information campaigns opposing the cull. They would not be national campaigns, because they would focus on areas where the cull was happening. Such campaigns would not be for or against any particular party, but we all know what conclusion voters would draw. Would such a campaign be included in this legislation?
The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to judge whether that campaign would fall foul of the rules without sufficient detail about what it might constitute. It is not my position to do that; it is for the Electoral Commission. If the RSPCA ran a campaign in a number of constituencies saying, “We are against the badger cull”, and subsequently a candidate announced that they were also against it, provided that the RSPCA did not say, “Candidate A is backing our campaign—vote for candidate A”, it would be able to proceed with campaigning. [Interruption.] Someone is saying that I am not able to give a detailed answer. In fact, I am sure that in the run-up to the 2005 and 2010 elections the Electoral Commission had discussions with a number of different organisations to clarify where the boundaries lie on these issues, and it is right for it to do so.
The Electoral Commission has made clear its view that it should enforce the rules already laid down by Parliament, not determine the rules. The Deputy Leader of the House said that it is up to the commission to decide what is permissible and what is not; surely that is not right.
The Electoral Commission has produced guidance that the different organisations have to work within, and it will investigate any issues that are believed to have arisen. It clearly has an important role. The Government are not in a position to set out in legislation each and every possible type of campaign that the commission might have to account for. That is why it produces guidance and why—we will support it in this—it will sit down with campaigning organisations to ensure that that guidance is available for them so that they can work effectively.
I recognise that some progress has been made on the precise wording of the clause, but there remains a huge amount of uncertainty among the charities and, indeed, the Electoral Commission as to how this will work. Does the Minister recognise that that makes it very difficult for people not only to understand it but to support it?
I do. It would be foolish of me to say that some charities are not concerned about this issue. Clearly they are, and the NCVO and others have expressed their concerns. Our role is to restate as many times as is required that, as my hon. Friend will know, charities overwhelmingly do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate and therefore are not caught by our proposals. We can restate that in as much contact with charities as possible. Of course, as I think she would agree, other organisations that are clearly campaigning for the electoral success of a party or candidate should be caught by this legislation, as they are caught by the current legislation. Nothing that we are proposing changes that, apart from the things that I mentioned earlier as regards, for instance, the level of controlled expenditure that we allow.
The theme of the Deputy Leader of the House’s remarks is that there is considerable misunderstanding out there among voluntary organisations. Would it not be reasonable and decent to provide more time for his proposals to be better understood?
What is reasonable and appropriate is for us, as a Government, to set out very clearly our intention, which is not to stop charities campaigning on policy issues, and to restate that intention as often as is required so that charities can see what it is. That is what we will carry on doing, and I am confident that we will get the message across.
Government amendment 33 removes the additional test that expenditure might otherwise enhance the standing of a party or candidate. I hope that charities and campaigning organisations will see this as a positive step in providing them with greater clarity. Although we do not consider it to be a significant change, we recognise that this additional limb of the existing PPERA test was perhaps less clear and might have suggested a more remote connection from promoting electoral success, and we want to be clear that that is not our aim. This should provide further clarity and reassurance to campaigners as to the test they have to meet in order to incur controlled expenditure.
The Government believe that these amendments, together with the existing prohibition under charity law of party political activity by charities, should give charities the reassurance they have sought. Only activities that can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success of a party or candidates will be subject to the provisions in the Bill.
The Government amendments to schedule 3 provide further reassurance and clarity. As we discussed in Committee, schedule 3 takes forward a recommendation from the independent Electoral Commission to align the activities by which third parties incur controlled expenditure with the situation for political parties. I am assuming that Labour Members do not object in principle to our doing what the Electoral Commission has asked us to do in that respect. The amendments replace the separate listings for advertising, unsolicited material and manifestos or policy documents with a reversion to the existing description of election “materials”. This is language already used in PPERA and with which third parties and the Electoral Commission are already familiar. The Electoral Commission already has guidance on this area, and we recognise the benefit of that familiarity. In other words, in relation to that particular area of activity charities will have the certainty that they acquired from the elections fought in 2005 and 2010.
We are making it clear that only public rallies and events are regulated, in line with the existing “publicity” test for election material set out in existing commission guidance. The effect of this is that events to which the public are not admitted, such as meetings or events for an organisation’s members or committed supporters, will not be regulated. There is also an explicit exception for annual conferences—the TUC was very keen on that—as is the case for political parties. That should reinforce the message that we are not seeking to regulate the ordinary activities of charities, non-governmental organisations or other campaigners. Similarly, we are making it clear that canvassing or market research must involve the public at large, not just a third party’s members or supporters. We are also removing the limitation that only canvassing which “ascertains polling intentions” is captured by the Bill. That removes any potential ambiguity.
In relation to dealings with the media, the amendments mean that only press conferences and other organised media events will be regulated. Third-party campaigners who respond to ad hoc media questions on specific policy issues will not be covered by the Bill. If a third party organises a major media conference to which it invites the press, TV and radio, and during the course of that conference says, “Vote for party X”, then that will be caught, and quite right too.
Let me emphasise that in all these cases only activities that can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate will be subject to regulation. I suspect that all Members will be thoroughly sick of that phrase by the end of today, but I will not stop repeating it.
My right hon. Friend has set out all the things that should be of reassurance, which is very helpful to those in the House and, I hope, outside it. Will he repeat the assurance that he and the Leader of the House are willing, if necessary, to have a further conversation with Stuart Etherington or the commission to make sure, face to face, that what has been said is understood? A great deal of heat and noise has been generated, and at the beginning there might have been some justification for that. The Government are trying to deal with it, but it might be better dealt with by also having some further conversation to make sure that there is dialogue as opposed to just two separate statements in different places.
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the doors of the Leader of the House’s office and mine are permanently open to that sort of approach. In fact, the dialogue with the NCVO has been very active and constant, and I am keen to pursue that. The NCVO is, as I stated earlier, at least partially happy and has in the past said that the amendments significantly meet its concerns. There is common ground and we want to ensure that it is developed further.
Although the Deputy Leader of the House has said that this issue is clearly to do with candidates or parties, there is a slight problem with the wording of lines 1 to 4 on page 13, which note that “for election purposes” means
“for the purpose of or in connection with…candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies”.
Although this is a valuable Bill which has been widely misrepresented by 38 Degrees and others, I think that wording presents a potential risk to charities such as the one for which I used to work and campaign, in that it might restrict what they perceive to be their political activity.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My issue with his concern is that that terminology is used in PPERA, which has been around for 13 years. One would therefore have expected such concerns to have emerged in the past 13 years, and seeing as they have not, I am reasonably confident that they will not emerge by 2015 either.
I welcome the fact that the Government are in listening mode on these issues. Given that Government Members often accuse Labour Members of listening too much to trade unions, I was particularly interested to hear that the Deputy Leader of the House and the Department have been listening to the TUC with regard to the annual conference, so perhaps they are not exempt from lobbying by the unions. The issue of the annual conference is obviously one for the main political parties and some of the minor political parties plus the TUC. Is there a list of defined organisations for these annual conferences?
I am not aware of a list of defined organisations. If hon. Members look at the list of third-party organisations that registered in 2010 and 2005 they might be able to draw some conclusions about which annual conferences I have in mind.
As I have said, the Government believe that the amendments provide the clarity and reassurance that charities, voluntary organisations and the Electoral Commission have sought. We are aware that campaigners will want to understand how to comply with the provisions of the regulatory regime as amended by the Bill. Just as it has for previous elections, the independent regulator, the Electoral Commission, will develop and produce guidance to inform campaigners what expenditure it is likely to consider to be regulated or not regulated. The Government stand ready to support this work.
Amendment 101, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), seeks, along broadly similar lines to Government amendment 32, to revise the definition of “for election purposes” to be activity which can reasonably be regarded as promoting or procuring the success of a party or candidate. However, the amendment would also introduce a new primary purpose test, which the Government cannot support. Such a test would be likely to create greater regulatory uncertainty and an obvious avenue for avoidance activity that could fatally undermine these rules, which are supported in principle by the hon. Gentleman’s party.
The concerns of campaigners and the Electoral Commission on the introduction of the draft Bill was that the revised language was untested and caused uncertainty. Our purpose in reverting to the original PPERA test is to address those concerns by reintroducing a test with which the commission and campaigners are familiar, and on which the commission has existing guidance and experience. Introducing a new and untested primary purpose test would completely undermine those benefits. Rather than having the clear test of whether the expenditure can be reasonably regarded as intended to promote electoral success there would be two tests: can it be so regarded and is it also the primary purpose? The opportunity for uncertainty and legal challenge would only be increased by the following questions. What is the primary purpose of your campaign? Is it to promote the issue or to promote those who support your issue? That is an additional test which does nothing to provide the clarity that campaigners say they want.
Perhaps more damaging is the opportunity for avoidance. The primary purpose of an environmental organisation’s advertising campaign might be claimed to be to recruit new members and encourage donations, but it might also urge support for its preferred party. It may be said that the primary purpose is to protect animal welfare, but that may be done only by encouraging support for particular candidates. Those are activities that are and ought to be regulated. The primary purpose test would drive a coach and horses through the legislation. Groups carrying out these activities have previously undertaken campaigning as recognised third parties, which is perfectly appropriate: they can campaign without restrictions. Under the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, however, all could be potentially excluded from registration. The Government have responded to concerns from the Electoral Commission and other groups that the test for controlled expenditure needs to be clear. The amendment would introduce unwanted uncertainty for campaigners.
The amendment would also create a loophole in the law that third parties could use as an avenue for avoidance and that would undermine the regulatory regime. That is not just my or the Government’s view. The Electoral Commission has expressed concerns that the amendment would introduce a new subjective element test which could lead to significant regulatory difficulty. It has also stated that it does not support an exemption for charities from these rules. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment.
May I first put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), have led on the Bill until now? I also welcome to his post the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), whom I will be shadowing in my new role.
I have heard very little today to change the view I held before the debate started that part 2 of the Bill is little more than a gag on charities and campaigners which, as hon. Members of all parties have said, both today and during the Bill’s earlier stages, will have a chilling effect on our national political debate. Earlier my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly reminded the House that the Bill underwent no pre-legislative scrutiny, and doesn’t it show? Given that it was published just before the summer recess, it is to the particular credit of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), that it was able to give the Bill a degree of scrutiny and table a number of constructive amendments in September and today. What we are left with from the Government is a half-baked set of proposals that pose a real danger of causing more harm than good. It is clear from the widespread concerns raised by charities and campaigning organisations that the lack of consultation and full scrutiny will limit their activities in practice—not in furthering political objectives, but simply in meeting their own charitable objectives.
I listened very carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House’s speeches on this and the previous group of amendments. Nothing that he said has changed the sense I had in preparing for today’s debate that part 2 is a solution in search of a problem.
As the Minister has rightly reminded us, the previous Labour Government introduced a cap on third-party spending, because we do not want to go down the American route of unaccountable organisations spending vast sums of money. We introduced the cap and have no objection to a tough cap on third-party spending. However, the big money in British politics is not third-party spending but spending by the political parties. At the last election, political parties spent 10 times more than third parties. If the Government were serious—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House heckles me from a sedentary position—I cannot quite hear what he is saying—but if he and the Conservative party in particular are serious, why do they not confront their reliance on a tiny number of wealthy donors from the City of London? There is nothing on that in the Bill, which is supposedly about getting the big money out of politics.
In the 2010 general election, political parties nationally spent £31 million; third-party campaigners spent £3 million. The biggest third-party expenditure was 4% of the £17 million spent by the Conservative party, which spent the same as all the other parties and all the third parties added together. Let us be clear: if the Government were serious about taking big money out of politics, they would consider ideas such as a reduction in the overall expenditure cap for political parties during election years and the introduction of a £5,000 cap on donations to political parties.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way when I have made this point. This Government—[Interruption.] Do I get a permanent commentary on my speeches from the Leader of the House? I will get used to it. The Government have wasted an opportunity to tackle the real problem of big money in politics, and thereby ripped up a cross-party approach to party political funding.
The hon. Gentleman will know that no agreement has been reached on party funding, but the Liberal Democrats would clearly welcome one. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that the overall controlled expenditure cap is generous, but does the Labour party believe that it should be reduced or that it is set at the right level?
I will come to that, but I am not aware of a problem. When an hon. Friend intervened, we did not get an answer from the Minister on whether there is an example in practice of the limit being too high. However, the Opposition do not have a closed mind on a proper cross-party, evidence-based debate on the matter. We do not believe the Government have done that.
One thing that puzzles me is that, during previous debates on electoral legislation in the House, Labour Backbenchers pleaded time and again with the then Labour Government to do something about expenditure in marginal constituencies—Ashcroft money. Some of them are no longer Members of the House. Why did the Labour Government not do anything?
The hon. Gentleman moves the debate to party political spending, which is not addressed in the Bill. I would happily work with him and his colleagues to address party political funding—I would be delighted to do so. Perhaps we can pursue that beyond today’s debate.
In Committee, the Minister, who has led for the Government today, promised
“to ensure that, on Report, the fundamental concern of charities over the confusion that they say the Government have introduced into the definition of election materials and election purposes will be addressed.”—[Official Report, 10 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 862.]
In reality, the Government amendments simply fail to fulfil his promise.
I refer the House to the legal opinion of Ros Baston, who has been working with a number of third sector organisations. Her legal opinion, which is one of a number of which the Minister will be aware, demonstrates why we need far more scrutiny and consideration of part 2. It states:
“Issues-based campaigning will continue to be covered by regulation. It appears that the government considers that removing the previous reference to ‘enhancing the standing’ of parties or candidates has a significant effect on the scope of what is covered…In my view, it does not…The natural meaning of ‘promote’ is to enhance the standing of, or make people think better of, something or someone…The natural construction, therefore, is that issues-based campaigning will be covered where it can be reasonably regarded as intended to encourage voters to look more favourably at candidates or parties who do or don’t support particular policies, as well as support for a specific party or candidates. This is primarily an objective test, and, in simple terms, looks at the likely effect of the activity.”
The Minister spoke of intent, but Ros Baston asks us to look at the likely effect of the activity. If an activity is likely to make people think better of parties or candidates who support something, it might be covered by the Bill, even if there are reasons for it such as awareness-raising—the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has made that point.
Ros Baston also states:
“Campaigns could fall within regulation if they…promote policies which, for whatever reason, are associated with one or more political parties or candidates”
and not others
“such as housing, welfare, a referendum on EU membership, wind farms or HS2”
“use MPs or candidates as active advocates of their cause”.
“I do not consider it sustainable to argue that the campaign is not hoping that people or parties sympathetic to its cause are elected. Therefore, when it undertakes public awareness activity in the run-up to elections, it may well at some level intend to improve the chances of election for those who support their cause as well as to encourage others to join the campaign. There is, after all, no requirement in the Bill or the proposed amendments for the activity to be directly or obviously partisan, or for candidates to be named.”
The opinion goes on:
“The effect of the Bill remains that more charities and low spending campaigners will be subject to the enhanced and much more onerous restrictions. This is because the range of activities covered will increase”—
that is why it is not simply the same as the current legislation—
“and the thresholds for registration will decrease to just £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.
We will discuss those thresholds under the next group. Furthermore, it states that the additional
“limit on spending in individual constituencies could mean that a single joint campaign on a specific issue in one area could result in further spending—local or national—being unlawful.”
Ros Baston’s final point is that the
“amendments make two changes which are of concern to campaigning organisations.”
Those relate to “market research and advertising” and to
“the definition of a ‘section of the public’, and the removal of the exclusion for material sent to ‘relevant supporters’”.
“It remains unclear as to whether the costs for research which is used in publications are included, and the government has not excluded staff costs (which are excluded for political parties). It also remains very probable that many political blogs will be covered notwithstanding the amendments. This could lead to a bizarre situation where political parties would not have to account for spending on certain types of market research, but that non-party campaigners would have to do so.”
I do not want my entire speech to be made up of the opinion of Ros Baston, but I will give one final quotation because it is an interesting and forceful opinion:
“The drafting is so vague that campaigns will have to consider whether market research will be caught, regardless of whether the results are used to produce material available to the public or to target particular members of the public. Further, there is no requirement for the research to actually be used in practice at all.”
I listened to the whole of the hon. Gentleman’s point about the legal advice because I wanted to hear exactly where it was going. Leaving aside the issues that do not relate to this group of amendments, does he agree that the amendments will take the definition back to that in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, which is largely what I sought to do in Committee? The opinion of Ros Baston, which is full of conditionals such as coulds, mights and subjunctives, is a commentary on the wording of the 2000 Act. Should we not take into account what happened in 2005 and 2010, because that would show what is actually happening?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who attempted to improve this appalling Bill in Committee. However, as is made clear in the extensive quotation that I gave from Ros Baston’s opinion, she does not accept his point that the amendments simply restore the status quo because of the other changes that we will discuss later. We are merely scratching the surface of the changes that the Government are proposing.
Is not the point that if senior counsel extensively examines legislation and suggests that big gaps and vacuums exist within it, there will be litigation? For the third sector, that means that money that people have raised will go to lawyers and not towards the causes. That is serious. The purpose of the legislation must therefore be agreed across the House. If senior barristers are arguing against the proposals, it suggests that much litigation will follow.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that one risk is that the Bill will result in litigation and a shift in the use of moneys that charities would otherwise use to fulfil their charitable objectives. However, I think that the situation might be worse. As I have said, nothing that I have heard today has changed my view, which has been expressed by other Labour Front Benchers, that many organisations will be gagged because they will simply stop their campaigning work owing to their fears about the legislation. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House can shake their heads, but that is what organisations fear. That is deeply unhealthy for our democracy.
In conclusion, will the Government amendments mean that issue-based campaigning will be excluded from the regulations? From Ros Baston and other lawyers it is an unequivocal “no”. Secondly, and crucial to today’s discussion, will the amendments make any significant changes to the categories of activities to be covered by regulation? Ros Baston finds that the changes will not improve the clarity of proposed regulation, and indeed are likely to result in new uncertainties. In other words, instead of making progress, the Government amendments risk making a bad situation even worse.
We have already heard about the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which the Deputy Leader of the House said was partially happy. I invite colleagues to read the letter, dated today, from Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO. He states:
“The Leader of the House suggests that at both the 2005 and 2010 election this wording has not prevented charities and voluntary organisations from campaigning and influencing policy…The Leader misses an important point. At previous elections the definition of controlled expenditure only applied to ‘election material’ (a much narrower category of activity) and expenditure thresholds were set at reasonable and workable levels. The Bill in its current form has significantly expanded the list of activities, and considerably lowered the threshold. The overall effect will therefore be that more charities and voluntary organisations will be subject to the enhanced and much more onerous rules.”
I am afraid that the phrase I have repeated many times will get repeated again. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that charities and voluntary organisations do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidates, and therefore will not be caught by controlled expenditure?
If that is the case, why are we having this conversation and debate? If there is no issue, why have the Government brought this Bill before the House, unless there is something about which they are concerned?
As others have said, there is a real risk of a chilling effect on our national debate given the timing and rush of this Bill. The Minister has acknowledged that the Government are in a rush to get the legislation in place for the 2015 general election, and inevitably people will think that they are trying to insulate their own record, MPs and candidates from legitimate democratic criticism. A number of high-profile campaigns could have been stymied by the legislation, such as that run by the National Union of Students in 2010 on tuition fees, the equal marriage campaign by Stonewall, or, as many Members have said, the Royal British Legion military covenant campaign.
At a time when trust in politics is at an all-time low, why are the Government bringing forward a measure that could restrict the one part of our politics that is doing a good job of engaging people? As well as having a chilling effect on debate, the Bill could also allow this Government, and future Governments, to escape scrutiny on their record and policies. To pluck an example of interest to the Liberal Democrats, might it stop the National Union of Students from holding them to account for how they voted on tuition fees, stop organisations such as the excellent Family and Childcare Trust from highlighting how the Government have driven up the cost of child care for working families, or stop the Royal College of Nursing from warning the public about the impact of Government health policies?
The Royal British Legion was mentioned earlier in the debate, and its circular makes an incredibly powerful case about the weakness of the Government amendment. The Royal British Legion remains
“unconvinced that legitimate awareness-raising activities won’t be captured by the revised definition”.
The Electoral Commission’s own briefing confirms those concerns:
“activity does not have to be ‘party political’ for its costs to be regulated.”
Is it really the Government’s intention for the excellent work of organisations such as the Royal British Legion to be curtailed because of this hastily thrown together Bill? Surely it is not. Had they undertaken proper pre-legislative scrutiny—a case made powerfully by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—they would have discovered the problems that this clause and this part of the Bill will create.
As has been said, the NCVO has been vocal on the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny. It points out that if the Government were serious about the national compact between government and the voluntary sector, it would have taken far greater care.
“The Compact states that where it is appropriate, and enables meaningful engagement,”—
“conduct 12-week formal written consultations, with clear explanations and rationale for shorter time-frames or a more informal approach. The timing of the Bill is problematic, given that we are only 18 months out from an election. If enacted, the provisions of the Bill will come in from next May, leaving only a matter of weeks for organisations to adapt to the new restrictions.”
The NCVO states that it does not believe that this has been followed. Its legal advice, which is separate from the legal advice I have already quoted, is alarming. It finds that the amendments tabled by Ministers will not alleviate restrictions on organisations such as the Royal British Legion, contrary to what we have been told by the Deputy Leader of the House. According to the NCVO, many of its member organisations will have to consult the Electoral Commission before undertaking campaigning activity during an election period to ensure that they are not falling foul of new regulations. Surely that is not healthy for a thriving democracy. Having third sector organisations jump through hoops to meet their charitable aims cannot be what the Government intended.
Ministers propose that the Electoral Commission should police the conduct of charities during election periods. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, the Chair of the Select Committee, I attended the Electoral Commission’s briefing yesterday. I think it said that it had six staff to do the policing, but I shall take my hon. Friend’s figure of 12. If it has 12 members of staff and there are 650 constituencies, then each one is expected to monitor activity in more than 50 parliamentary constituencies. That can be neither feasible nor, in a healthy democracy, a desirable use of the Electoral Commission’s limited resources.
Each member of the EC having to monitor 50 constituencies is a breathtaking statistic. I hope my hon. Friend will also mention that that is not just for a four-week period, but for a year. In one year out of every five, those 12 people will have to do a job that cannot be done.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My recollection is that it was not 12 people, but six, so they would actually have to monitor more than 100 constituencies each for a year.
A joint statement from the NCVO and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations states that the Government’s commitment to address the legitimate concerns of many charities remains welcome, but that the proposed amendments do not go far enough:
“Legal advice provided to NCVO indicates that the proposed amendments put forward by the government will mean that much campaigning activity by charities and other voluntary groups will still be covered by this excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime.”
Sir Stephen Bubb—[Interruption.] There seems to be some dissent toward Sir Stephen on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of ACEVO, said:
“The government is clearly keen to show it is listening to civil society, but these amendments don’t prevent the Bill curbing freedom of speech around elections. The Bill greatly increases bureaucracy for civil society groups in the year before an election, by halving the spending thresholds above which organisations have to register with the Electoral Commission. It also drastically restricts civil society’s spending on public campaigns in election years. The public wants legislation that makes politics and corporate lobbying more transparent. Instead this Bill makes almost no change to lobbying rules while punishing civil society for a loss of trust in politics that is not its fault. Publishing these amendments today leaves 2 working days for civil society to consider them before they are debated in the Commons. This rushed timeframe is an object lesson in poor law-making, and will only necessitate further damage-limiting amendments after the next debates.”
I referred earlier to the important work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. Our view, which I have expressed, is that the Government amendments tabled today fail completely to meet Ministers’ promises in Committee. For that reason, we will support my hon. Friend’s amendment 101. We believe that the Government need to reconsider this whole issue and that the definition in their amendment needs to be tested widely and consulted on. Our view is that amendment 101 provides a better basis for reform than the dog’s breakfast put forward by the Government.
The Prime Minister used to talk about the big society and about how we could strengthen the role of the voluntary and charitable sector. In part 2, we have a direct assault on that sector and a sinister gag on legitimate democratic activity. It is a solution in search of a problem. Even at this late stage, I urge the Government to go back to the drawing board and work on a cross-party basis with the Select Committees and the voluntary sector. We believe that amendment 101 provides a basis on which to do that, and I urge Members on both sides of the House to support it.
It is a great pleasure to be given the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I welcome Government amendment 32, with its reference to expenditure that could
“reasonably be regarded as intended to…procure electoral success”,
because it demonstrates that the Government listened in Committee. On Second Reading and in Committee, we discussed the concern of charitable organisations that they would be captured by a wide-ranging definition, leading to their suffering the sort of litigation that we heard about earlier. I would be interested to hear what such litigation could be. As I understand the Bill, it would not change what charities have been able to do for the past three elections. My view is simply that we are moving back towards the definition in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, since when there have been three general elections.
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I and my colleagues on the Labour Front Bench have also raised. If nothing has changed, why must we have these provisions in the Bill? Has he been told by Ministers why these provisions are in front of us, if everything is going so swimmingly?
The hon. Gentleman might be surprised to know that my communication with Front Benchers is not as great as it should be. I voted against the badger cull, to which he referred earlier, so I would imagine that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will not be running a campaign in my constituency.
I always vote on the Bill and the amendments placed in front of me, not on what happened 13 or 14 years ago, and I am happy with Government amendment 32. It demonstrates that Ministers listened in Committee and on Second Reading when we talked about charities’ concerns and their wish to understand better how the Bill would affect them.
I have listened carefully to the examples given, and I understand that there is nervousness, but I hate the word “gagging”, with which people have tried to scare the third sector almo