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Third Party Campaign Expenditure

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

Before turning to the question, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) for her excellent work in the past year on political and constitutional reform. I welcome the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who will bring unique zeal to decentralisation in particular, which he has championed within Government. I also welcome the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) to his new position on the Opposition Front Bench.

It is of course good that people are motivated to campaign for what they believe in, whether inside or outside a traditional political party. However, it is also important that the integrity of democratic political campaigning is maintained. Campaigning by third parties at general elections should therefore be made more transparent and accountable.

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister has, like many hon. Members, been contacted by hundreds of people from the voluntary, charity and community sectors who are vehemently opposed to the gagging provisions in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has assiduously cultivated those groups in the past, and frankly, they feel betrayed. Will he explain to them why he has led the Liberal Democrats in support of this assault on grass-roots politics? Better still, will he recognise, even at this late stage, that he has got this badly wrong and join us in opposing the Bill?

My view is that if we did nothing about the increasing trend of big money in British politics, which seeks to influence the outcome of political contests through groups that are not political parties, those very same groups would campaign after the next general election, saying that we should do something about that trend. At the general election, non-party political funds doubled to £3 million. We have seen what happens when that gets out of control. Just look across the Atlantic at the United States: super-PACs—political action committees; the increasing polarisation of politics; and people outside the democratic political process, non-political parties, trying to influence the outcome of elections. We will maintain the rules, as they have existed since 2000, on whether groups are regulated as third party campaign groups. All we are saying is that non-party political parties that want to act like a political party should be asked to fill in the same paperwork as a political party.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is nothing in the Bill that stops campaigns on particular policies? Furthermore, we will not end up with third party groups spending more than political candidates are able to spend on their own election.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Under the current rules, a well-funded third party campaign group seeking to influence the democratic outcome in a constituency or constituencies could spend more money than a political party. That, surely, cannot be right. The Labour party, which is run by a third party campaign group, the trade unions, does not think it is a problem if political parties are influenced by third party campaign groups that might have political designs. Nothing in the Bill would stop Make Poverty History spending millions on its campaign. Nothing would stop the Green Alliance grading us all on our green promises—nothing would change that.

Returning to planet earth, the Deputy Prime Minister regularly bleats on about the value of consultation. Why did that not apply to the lobbying Bill? There was no form of consultation whatever on this wretched Bill.

There was extensive consultation and scrutiny on the lobbying provisions in the Bill. The parts on third party campaigning were discussed extensively by the three parties in the cross-party funding talks. It was agreed by all parties, and backed by Sir Christopher Kelly in his recommendations on party funding reform, that any change to party funding arrangements should also include some limits on third party campaign groups when they want to influence the political outcome in a constituency or constituencies.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is huge public demand for complete transparency in the influence of trade unions, especially during election periods and especially given the allegations concerning the actions of Unite in the affairs of the Labour party earlier this year?

I have this old-fashioned view that in all our constituencies candidates from our democratic political parties should be slugging it out on a level playing field and that we should not have people pulling the strings in the background in an untransparent way. That is all the Bill is trying to do. Anyone who believes in the integrity and transparency of democratic, open contest in our constituencies should support the Bill.