[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on the Government’s lobbying Bill: follow up, HC 891.]
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 13, 14, 88 and 100. If the House agrees to the amendments, I shall cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
Meaning of consultant lobbying
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 1, and Government amendments (b) and (c) in lieu.
Lords amendments 2 to 4, 101 to 103, 5 and 6.
Lords amendment 7, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 8 to 15.
I am delighted to initiate the debate.
The Bill has a chequered history as regards Parliament’s involvement in it so far, which, I am sorry to say, has demonstrated in spades the contempt that the Executive have for the legislature. I would like to expand on that just a little before I get into the detail of the amendments.
The contempt started when this Bill first came to the House, and is continuing to the very end of the process without relenting. We started this Bill having had some pre-legislative scrutiny of what we all called the lobbying Bill, only to find that one day before the summer recess a mega-Bill was presented, two thirds of which had not even seen the light of day in public let alone been discussed, analysed or subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by this House. That is our job, but we were prevented from doing it because this Bill was presented far too late in the day, one day before a summer recess. Just to add insult to injury, it was then stuffed into the parliamentary sausage machine one week after we returned from the summer break.
That story has been repeated throughout the passage of the Bill. One might have thought that, even if only for the sake of window-dressing, there would be the odd pause, the odd break, the odd extension, or a gap between consideration by their lordships and this House, but not a bit of it. That demonstrates the way the Government treat this House, particularly when they have an embarrassment such as this Bill in front of them.
Mr Speaker is an authority on these matters and he will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that it was possible to have a shorter period between consideration yesterday in the second Chamber and consideration today in Parliament. Could the House have squeezed that period even more? Could we have met last night to discuss this?
The Government had a pause in the other place, which I welcome. Six weeks is not wonderful and my Select Committee called for six months—we called for the job to be done properly. We were grateful for those six weeks, however, but there was no opportunity for colleagues in this House to consider what their lordships had said and read it carefully, because, as we know, amendments were being made up to the very last moment in the second Chamber. None of us had that opportunity—Front Benchers, colleagues who are interested in this issue and above all Back Benchers, and, may I say, the Select Committee, which seeks to represent Back Benchers and which has the legitimacy of being a Select Committee elected by Members from all parts of this House in a secret ballot, with a Chair elected by the whole House. Despite that legitimacy, none of us was allowed to see any paperwork or the Order Paper after that consideration in the second Chamber yesterday. It is an absolute disgrace, and it cannot be allowed to continue if we are to have any reputation in this House for doing our job on accountability and scrutiny effectively.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the process of this Bill and congratulate him and his Committee on the tremendous job they have done in turning round a report overnight—and under huge pressure, I am quite sure. Does he agree that that pressure has extended not just to those of us in this place, but to those who will be directly affected by this in civil society, and who have also had to work overnight to analyse the Lords amendments and come back to us with their perspectives on them today?
As there is no good will whatever from the Executive and there is no effective process for this House other than to be told what to do and have its agenda written for it on a daily basis by the Executive, then, yes, we rely on the good will of other people. My Select Committee—a number of colleagues who serve on it are present—relies upon its Clerks, who have done an absolutely stunning job. My own Clerk was at the printers last night producing a report for Members of all parts of this House until gone 9 o’clock, and I sent that report to every Member of the House at 11.20 pm.
Is this a trivial, pointless Bill or is it an important Bill? Is it appropriate that the Chair of a Select Committee is sending a report to Members of this House just before midnight for consideration the very next day? I do not think the Government have sent anything to Members, but they are asking their colleagues to walk through the Lobby on these issues. The way the House is being treated is outrageous—again. We can all get puffed up and annoyed by stuff, but this is serious. This is about the way in which the Bill will shape the next general election and how our charities and voluntary organisations will participate in our political life. This is not a trivial matter. It is not as though 95% of people vote—the numbers voting creep down ever lower. People say, “You’re not worth going out and voting for, any of you.” And then we do this.
If this is the way we treat the important topic of lobbying—“the next big scandal”, as the Prime Minister called it—and thousands of individual charities, it speaks ill of this place and I think that we can do better.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments in opening the debate on these important amendments. He has rightly outlined the anger that is felt on this side of the House, by groups in civil society and by our constituents. I have been contacted by more than 100 of my constituents about the Bill and they are looking to this Chamber to make representations on their behalf about how they can participate in our democracy in the future. I see this process as an affront to our democracy. Does my hon. Friend agree?
It is a continuing affront to our democracy, and I hope that Ministers—and future Ministers—will take this to heart and consider how the process of effectively scrutinising legislation can be amended.
I will now advertise another report by my Committee on the quality of legislation. It suggests, for example, mandatory pre-legislative scrutiny of all Bills, apart from emergency ones. That is not from a desire to delay any legislation. I believe that in our form of democracy, the Government should get their business through. The contribution that Parliament makes is to ensure that legislation is more effective. Otherwise, we have to come back until we get it right—in this case, after the next general election. It does not save time to keep coming back to the House, as we did—infamously—on criminal justice Bills under the last Government, tinkering year after year and with Ministers getting the prestige of having a Bill before the House. Instead, Governments should listen to the House and get legislation closer to being right.
I agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that pressure from Back Benchers on both sides of the House will force our Front Benchers to agree a better process of involving Parliament in partnership with the Executive.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom I consider to be my friend, although technically he is not so in this House. I am grateful for all the work he, his Committee and the Clerks have done and the briefings they have sent us. I, too, am concerned about the shortage of time. How long does the hon. Gentleman think we should have had between the other place considering this matter and it coming before us?
Given that the Government want to get the Bill implemented in order to influence the expenditure limits in the next general election, I do not maintain that it should be held over for months and months. Hon. Members may wish to read the report from my Select Committee, which we produced last night, starting at 6.30 pm, and which I delivered by e-mail to every Member just before midnight. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are prepared to say, “These guys are serious, and we should at least have a look at their report”, I suggest that we should have at least two days to read the papers and to table measured amendments.
Thanks to the great assistance of the Clerks, I was able to table several amendments on behalf of my Committee last night, but I imagine that few hon. Members know their way around the Order Paper well enough to do that. The Table Office was open until 10 this morning, which means about two working hours for colleagues to read the report, listen to the Government, read the proceedings in the other place and decide whether to support an all-party view—as expressed in the report—and to table, as some have managed to do, their own amendments. The way we conduct our business helps us to get better law. It means that what we produce will stand the test of time, rather than need reviewing or stitching back together when the gaps appear over the next few years.
I add my thanks to those of hon. Members who have thanked my hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee have done overnight. As a relatively new Member, I find it an extraordinary abuse of process for the Bill to be conducted in this way—I read the report at 12.15 last night, and I tried to do it justice, given the effort that had been made.
Like many other hon. Members, I struggled to balance two or three other responsibilities this morning, including attending Committees, with doing justice to this extraordinary Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot go on in this way?
Indeed. All parties are now, for the first time in a fixed-term Parliament, entering a prolonged discussion of policy and undertaking a manifesto process that will no longer take just 28 days and be decided only by party leaders. We will all have a chance to influence the process. If hon. Members care about Parliament, whatever their party, and want to make it relevant to the electorate, who hold us in contempt, I urge them to propose ways in which the House can make a contribution to our democratic process. We would all be stronger for that and start to win back some of the reputation that we have lost in recent years.
I, too, commend my hon. Friend and his Committee for all the work that they have done to ensure proper scrutiny of the Bill, but he might be being a little too unfair on the Government. It is not my usual practice to defend Ministers, but one of the successes that the Bill has had in its progress through both Houses is that it has unified the transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry, both of which agree that the Bill is chronically bad and will make things worse not better.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about my Committee, which has members from all parts of the House. I thought that he was going to steal one of my best lines—that it is quite an achievement for the Government to get the League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance on the same side and working in unison. He makes a serious point: there are people out there who can help us to make a contribution, and they appeared before us as witnesses, but that process has been completely ignored. At least we were able to do some serious work on the lobbying aspect of the Bill. We were able to conjure a consensus between people who came from different ends of the spectrum, and that could have been the first step in making the lobbying aspect of the Bill effective, but it has been cast aside.
The sad thing is that what has happened throws back in people’s faces—including even the Prime Minister—the contention that lobbying is the next big scandal waiting to happen. As a parliamentarian, I want to help the Prime Minister sort that issue out. It was in the coalition agreement, and both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledged to do this, as we all did. So why are we not using the processes of the House to reach a result that will stick for a long, long time?
I agree that the Government have timetabled this Bill in an entirely shoddy and inappropriate manner; that concern has been expressed across the House. The previous Labour Government got up to similar antics, and it is simply not appropriate for parliamentarians to allow Governments to pursue the lowest common denominator in this way. I hope that we will pursue this issue as parliamentarians to ensure that Bills are tabled in the proper manner that the hon. Gentleman has described.
It is a fact of life that Oppositions become Governments and rapidly leave behind their commitments to help the House to become part of the democratic process. I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the coalition parties’ manifesto processes are clear about the changes that we want to see.
We are now being given only four hours in which to discuss these matters. There was an unprecedented pause in the legislation, albeit only for a few weeks, to allow proper discussion to take place in the second Chamber, yet we are now being given only four hours in which to synthesise that work that happened in the other place. No one would argue that that is appropriate or adequate. We have not even had a chance to discuss the timetable, as the programme motion was not debateable. We have had no chance even to make this point, other than through the generosity of the Chair in allowing me to talk about it now. Technically, the House has not been allowed to debate the inadequacy of having only four hours for debate at the end of this Bill.
I have a petition here from 190,553 people who object to the Bill. Does my hon. Friend think that those people will have any understanding of why the Leader of the House is forcing this business through in less than four hours?
People out there do not have any such understanding, but I will go further and say that even some of the charities and voluntary sector organisations involved do not understand it. Indeed, I will go even closer to home and ask how many Members of Parliament understand how this process has actually worked over the past 24 hours. Do they understand how a Bill can be debated in the second Chamber and then pushed back here and given two working hours for consideration of the work that the other place has carried out at some length? That work, as well as the work of the commission that was set up by people who are annoyed about this process, and all the evidence taking have all gone by the board.
This process is holding the House in contempt, and that needs to be recognised not just by the people in the lobbying industry but by the more than 10,000 organisations under the umbrella of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Those organisations come from all parts of the political spectrum. I imagine that every Member in the Chamber is associated with a trust, charity or voluntary organisation that will feel the impact of the Bill. Those organisations have been treated in a way that we should not regard as acceptable.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the NCVO. The sister organisation in Wales is the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which has recently pointed out that while there could be two elections in England over a two-year span, Wales and Scotland could have three sets of elections in such a period owing to the devolution arrangements. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem could therefore be much worse there?
My hon. Friend is absolutely on the mark, as he normally is on these matters.
This situation is completely unacceptable. It makes the case very eloquently for the establishment of a House business Committee, but I am sorry to say that that proposal has been rejected by those on the Government Front Bench, even though it was in the coalition agreement to which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats signed up. The Labour Opposition also signed up to the proposal, but it will not now be implemented. I cannot imagine any meeting of such a Committee, with parliamentary Back-Bench representation, that would not have identified this particular issue as an unacceptable way in which to treat the House. It would not veto the agenda for the next week, or anything ludicrous of that kind; it would raise such matters with the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House in private and say that there must be a better way of considering this kind of legislation. The Wright Committee proposed the setting up of a House business Committee, and its absence reflects badly on those who promised to bring that forward within the first three years of this Government.
As a fellow cricketer and someone who also believes in proper parliamentary scrutiny, I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. However, we have only two hours left, so will he now tell us his views on the amendments? Otherwise, we will have no time to discuss what the people outside want us to talk about.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a sound point, and I hope that he and the House will forgive me, but it is important that people outside the House should understand why we do not have a full day to discuss this and why we have not had two days to consider the key issues. Those people who wish to campaign on the Bill did not know how to respond or how to contact their Member of Parliament. They did not know what the issues might be.
I came into the Chamber rather hurriedly this morning because, even minutes before I was due to get to my feet to speak, I did not know which matters might be votable today. I did not know which amendments might be discussed. I have been in this place for 26 years, and I know my way round the Order Paper, but even experienced parliamentarians did not know exactly how today’s business would be conducted, or how the amendments might be grouped. Mr Speaker, you have had a discussion about that within the past couple of hours. How is a constituent of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), for example, who cares about their charity and wants to get hold of the right hon. Gentleman, supposed to know what is going on? They might have wanted to ask him to listen to their points and to make a case on behalf of the local charity that they represent.
However, I shall take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s chiding, in order to pre-empt your own, Mr Speaker. I shall move on to the specific matter of the amendments that I tabled on behalf of my all-party Select Committee late yesterday, not long before the debate began today. Our main amendment to this part of the Bill, on lobbying, is amendment (a). It deals with the question of who is being lobbied. Our original report found that it was ludicrous not to include senior civil servants among those who should declare clearly, honestly and transparently that they had been lobbied.
I remember the debates on this matter well; members of all parties contributed to them. I will not go over that ground again, other than to say that a number of us—myself included—said that people never sought to lobby a permanent secretary. We noted that although getting in to see a permanent secretary involved a feat of genius, it would actually not do much good. That was because the permanent secretary would take the matter to the director-general who, in turn, would go to the desk officer. If people want to get something done—on nursery care, for example, or on cycle lanes—they do not go to the permanent secretary. They certainly do not go to them if big money is involved. They of course go to senior civil servants, which my Select Committee defined as being at grade 5 and above, and in our view those senior civil servants should be included in the group that is required to make a declaration in respect of being lobbied. That is self-evident and sensible. Excluding the very people who are lobbied the most in the Government will render the Bill an absolute laughing stock. We all know the truth of this matter.
I completely concur with my hon. Friend’s point. Speaking as a former special adviser and a lobbyist for a charity, I can confirm that senior civil servants are exactly the kind of people that I was speaking to, although even special advisers get very little time with permanent secretaries. My hon. Friend is making his point well, and I hope that the Government are listening to what he is saying.
A number of expert witnesses from the lobbying business came to see the Committee, at our request, and I will read a quote from just one. The Whitehouse Consultancy, a public affairs company, said:
“Our clients…want to develop relationships with other officials and policymakers, such as those at Director-General level or below”.
That view was repeated over and over again; I have a list here, but I will not bore you by reading it into the record, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend makes a succinct point: those people—the doers; the people who are going to write those background papers and feed a yes or no recommendation to a Minister—perhaps even above Ministers, and certainly above permanent secretaries, should be first on the list.
I join other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have thanked my hon. Friend and his Committee for the excellent work they have done. In his examination of the type of senior civil servants who are lobbied, did he note the reports of the lobbying on fracking and shale gas of senior officials from the Department of Energy and Climate Change? Apparently, they discussed, over hospitality and via e-mail, lines to take, so that the same solid response came from government—from senior civil servants—and the shale gas companies. That is a perfect example of what he is talking about.
My hon. Friend has been persistent in raising these matters in the House, and I bow to her expertise on them. I am sure that we all have particular things that have interested us as Members over the years where it has been essential that we have such access. I have no problem in listing those things, and I hope that my constituents might be impressed if I were to do so. On the basis of honesty and transparency, all those things should certainly be clear for everyone to see, to make sure that our government is conducted without even the slightest whiff of impropriety.
Further to the previous intervention, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that we have also had recent reports about the Government’s change on minimum alcohol pricing, which showed that layered lobbying on a corporate basis by that industry had been going on? Surely the amendment he has tabled on behalf of the Committee would at least bring into the Bill’s scope all the civil servants who were part of that layered lobbying. Unfortunately, it would not bring into the Bill’s scope the very people who were doing that lobbying.
If we had more than four hours and we could use the four hours on only this amendment, I imagine I could provoke every Member in the Chamber to recall a similar story or experience to that of my Select Committee colleague and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley). We are all aware of such things and they are legion. If we look back at our debates in Committee and on Report, we see that people from all parts of the House made the exact same points.
I would like to press the amendment to a vote, as is appropriate. I do not anticipate that we will win on this one. I imagine that those who support the Select Committee would win handsomely were there to be a secret ballot. The rational arguments for including senior civil servants are missed only by the Government Front-Bench team; they are not missed by Back Benchers and members of other parties. With great optimism, therefore, I await the Deputy Leader of the House accepting my amendment, in which case there will be no need for a vote. I understand that the Government have moved on including special advisers, and I will listen with great care about whether they will indeed be included and how that may be done. I would welcome that, and I hope it will mean that we do not have a vote on the matter.
A lot of amendments are on the Order Paper, but I hope that we will spend most of the four hours discussing the annoyance and anger that is out there about this flawed and failing Bill, rather than spending all our time walking round in circles in the Lobby being beaten by the same number. I am afraid that this Bill and part 1 of it do not do what they were meant to do—what they said on the tin. They do not deal with what the public felt outraged about; they do not help to bring lobbying under control. They do not do what the House felt was appropriate in terms of bringing lobbying back into the mainstream. They do not do what all three parties committed to at the last general election, which was to regulate lobbying effectively. They do not do what the Prime Minister said in respect of addressing the potential for the “next big scandal” in British politics.
On that basis, unless I hear good news from the Deputy Leader of the House, I would ask colleagues in all parts of the House to register their protest, not least at how we have been treated in our discussions on the Bill, by voting for the amendment that stands in my name as Chair of the Select Committee. I hope we will get the Government, even at this point, to see sense.
I ask colleagues to disagree with Lords amendment 1, and to support amendments (b) and (c) in lieu. I hope the House will also be persuaded to disagree with amendment (a), which was tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I wish to say at the outset that I cannot agree with his comments about the lack of consultation. If he looks at what has happened since this Bill got under way and, for example, at the ministerial quarterly reports, he will see the extent of consultation that has taken place on the Bill. The fact that many of today’s amendments have been the subject of consultation in this place and in the House of Lords, and have reflected to a great extent the concerns expressed by a range of organisations, underlines the fact that substantial consultation has taken place on this subject. Indeed, many of those changes are inspired by his Committee.
I must also say that repeatedly stating that charities will not be able to campaign on policy matters, as we have heard Opposition Members do, does not make it true.
On the process by which we are having to deal with this Bill, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Parliament is being made a laughing stock by the fact that we are trying to concertina such a complex issue into such a short time? Does that not undermine any credibility this Government had? They are supposed to be championing the big society, but they are trying to muzzle it, both in the Bill and in the process they are setting out here today.
First, it is not unusual for things to proceed at this pace. I should also point out that what we are supposed to be focusing on in this debate is a limited number of amendments that have come from the Lords and some amendments in lieu that the Government are proposing—that is today’s subject. I do not want to make too long a speech, because I can see from the requests for interventions that a lot of hon. Members want to speak on this group.
Amendment 1 was moved on Report in the House of Lords by Lord Tyler and was agreed to by a majority of 18 votes. The amendment would extend the scope of the register to those who lobby special advisers, in addition to those who lobby Ministers and permanent secretaries. We debated this issue ourselves when discussing the amendments tabled in Committee by the Opposition, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and other Members. During that debate, the Government made it clear that the register was designed to complement the existing government transparency regime and to address a specific problem.
It may help if I first remind the House of the context for the part 1 provisions—the unique open government context in which they have been developed. Transparency is at the heart of this Government’s agenda. We are opening up government and the public sector, and by doing so we are enhancing transparency, participation and accountability. [Interruption.] The noises from Opposition Members need to be quiescent for just a couple of seconds because I want to outline the things the Government have done since 2010 to open up transparency. We have published unprecedented amounts of information about decision makers and decision making. Since 2010, we have proactively and regularly published the following details: Ministers’ private interests; Ministers and permanent secretaries’ meetings with external organisations or individuals; Ministers and special advisers’ meetings with media proprietors, editors, and senior executives; all gifts of hospitality received by Ministers, permanent secretaries and special advisers; ministerial overseas travel; all official and charity receptions held at No. 10; and those who have received hospitality at Chequers and Chevening.
Will the Minister explain when the Government will release the vital information on exchanges between President Bush and the then Prime Minister of this country as it is delaying the Chilcot inquiry and has delayed it for the past three years?
The hon. Gentleman must be familiar with the Chilcot inquiry website, so he can access that. I am sure that Mr Speaker will not allow me to take this debate on to the subject of Chilcot when it is very much a focused debate on the amendments under consideration.
The list I have just read out is impressive in terms of opening up transparency. In addition, we have published the names, job titles and pay bands of all civil servants earning more than £80,000, and the job titles and pay bands of all other roles. Such initiatives are shining the light of transparency on to the actions of decision makers and are empowering citizens to hold politicians and public bodies to account. Despite being recognised leaders in open government, we are not complacent. We heard from colleagues in both Houses that there is more we can do to extend further transparency in Government and the public sector. We listened carefully to those concerns and, in response to my colleague, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, we made a commitment to improving the accessibility of Government transparency information. Specifically, the Government committed to ensuring better co-ordination of the publication of datasets so that all returns within a quarter can be found on one page.
We will improve the access to and the presentation of that data, including by improving the consistency of presentation and titling. We will also seek to ensure greater consistency in the content of departmental reporting and to include the subject of meetings. Finally we will ensure that the Government.UK transparency pages contain a link to the statutory register of lobbyists so that the data can be easily cross-referenced.
Surely the Minister recognises that the first port of call for many lobbyists is not the Minister or the permanent secretary but the political adviser in that Department or other civil servants. Is that not the gaping hole in this lobbying Bill? It does nothing to tackle the real lobbying that is taking place.
The Government are focusing on Ministers and permanent secretaries because of their key decision-making roles. Ultimately, they make the decisions in Government. We will of course come to the issue of special advisers.
The measures will further improve the transparency of decision makers. It is equally important that the actions of those who seek to influence decision makers are also transparent. We have been clear that lobbying plays a vital role in policy making, ensuring that Ministers hear a full range of views from those who will be affected by Government decisions, particularly in the more participative and open policy-making environment that we are promoting. It is crucial that the fluency of this dialogue is protected.
Did the Minister not hear the point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) about recent reports based on freedom of information requests of senior civil servants in the Department of Energy and Climate Change meeting lobbyists from the shale gas industry to give them lines to take? I am talking about hospitality, meetings and e-mails. That is not balanced; that is not hearing both sides of the argument. If that is the relationship between DECC civil servants and the shale gas companies, does the Minister not understand that there is no balance in that whatever?
I am afraid that I am not aware of the details to which the hon. Lady has referred. Again, I restate the fact that this is about ensuring there is transparency around the people who make the decisions in Government, and that is perfectly appropriate.
By publishing details of Ministers’ and permanent secretaries’ meetings with external organisations and individuals, we have enhanced the transparency of that dialogue, without diminishing its vibrancy. There is one element of the dialogue, however, that remains potentially hidden and that is when organisations or individuals make communications to Ministers and permanent secretaries via consultant lobbyists. That is because it is not always clear which third-party interests are being represented by such lobbyists. The provisions for a statutory register of consultant lobbyists provided for by part 1 of the Bill address that specific problem. They will identify the interests represented by consultant lobbyists by requiring them to disclose details of their clients on a publicly available register.
There has been some criticism of the Government’s proposals for a register, but there has been no consensus on what should replace it. I recognise that some in this place have suggested that the scope of the register should be broader to capture all those who communicate with Government and require them to disclose extensive information regarding their activities and finances. There has, however, been no clear articulation of the problem that such proposals would address.
Having chided Opposition Members for complaining about the lack of time, saying that they should concentrate on the actual amendment, perhaps the Minister himself could come to the amendment rather than reprising his Second Reading speech.
I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that that is precisely what I am doing. The failure to make the case for a higher-regulatory model has meant that neither House felt it appropriate to extend the scope of the Government’s provisions. That is not to say, however, that each place has not made very real contributions to ensuring that we deliver robust and effective provisions for a statutory register of lobbyists. Following the recommendations of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the Standards and Privileges Committee, the provisions were amended to ensure absolute clarity regarding the register’s application to parliamentarians. We also amended the Bill to ensure that the register does not impose disproportionate burdens on the smallest businesses. Further amendments were made in the House of Lords and many of those reflected discussion and debate within this Chamber.
Lord Tyler’s, amendment, which was agreed to by just 18 votes, would extend the scope of the register to those who lobby special advisers. I understand why he was seeking to make that change. However, it is the coalition Government’s view that it would dissociate the register from the clearly articulated problem that it is designed to address. The amendment tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee would further detach the register from its objective, by extending the scope of the register to those who lobby senior civil servants.
The register is designed to complement the system by which Ministers and permanent secretaries publish their meetings and to address a specific and discrete problem within that context. Our view is that to extend the scope of the register to other public officials would provide no appreciable benefits because they are not required to publish their diaries.
Yes, we accept that lobbyists make communications to Government other than directly to Ministers and permanent secretaries, but ultimately it is Ministers and permanent secretaries who are responsible for the decisions taken within their Departments. Lord Tyler suggests that the register should apply to those who lobby special advisers. Special advisers may provide advice, but they are not decision makers. It is Ministers, not special advisers, who are ultimately responsible for the actions of their Departments; and it is therefore only right that Ministers, not special advisers, are the main focus of the meeting reporting system and the register.
The Minister will know as he has been in this place a while—I am a relatively new MP; I have been here only since May 2010—that when we see a Minister, as we often do in Portcullis House or around this building, they often have, on their right arm, a special adviser. That special adviser is with them morning, noon and night, and also has meetings in the evenings and at weekends. The idea that we can dissociate that special adviser from the Minister is frankly ridiculous. I cannot understand the Minister’s rationale.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that I have not finished my comments in relation to special advisers. There is an amendment in lieu to which I am about to refer. Ultimately, whether or not there are contacts with the special adviser, it is not the special adviser who signs off the decision; it is the Minister.
The description I would use is glued at the hip. Coming to this place as an outsider, my observation is that special advisers are absolutely key to decision making. If our aim is genuinely to improve transparency, we will miss an important opportunity if we do not include special advisers.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I have not finished commenting on special advisers, so perhaps I should pursue that. There might be further interventions, but let us wait and see.
Special advisers are defined by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which includes the requirement that they are a person
“appointed to assist a Minister of the Crown after being selected for the appointment by that Minister personally”.
The Act also provides for a statutory code for special advisers that makes it clear that they may not authorise the expenditure of public funds, exercise any power in relation to the management of any part of the civil service of the state or otherwise exercise any statutory or prerogative power.
As the code makes clear, the employment of special advisers adds a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers. They are an additional resource for the Minister, providing assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available from the permanent civil service. I must restate this: unlike a Minister or permanent secretary, a special adviser is not a decision maker, even if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) says, they are attached to the Minister’s hip. We are aware, however, that there are those in this House who agree—[Interruption.] Members need to listen.
We are aware that some Members agree with the conclusion of the House of Lords that communications with special advisers should be captured. Indeed, many Liberal Democrat peers and Members of Parliament agree that they should be captured, but no amendments were tabled to extend the scope of the register in such a way when the issue was discussed in this House. In the House of Lords, Lord Tyler’s amendment was agreed to, but by a small majority.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the third-party register of lobbyists focuses specifically on Ministers or permanent secretaries. That is what is before us today.
We are not persuaded that the calls to capture communications with special advisers are sufficiently strong to justify amending the Bill in the manner that Lord Tyler proposes. We are, however, aware that the discussion about including such communications within the scope of the register is likely to continue. We therefore propose as a contingency an amendment in lieu that would introduce a power for the Minister to amend the definition of consultant lobbying provided for by clause 2 so that it could subsequently, if necessary, include communications with special advisers. Such a power would enable Ministers to extend the scope as suggested if and when they were persuaded of the case for doing so without the need for primary legislation. It should therefore assuage the concerns of those who have asked that we do not eliminate the possibility of expansion of the scope if it is justified in future.
I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Lady an answer to that question immediately. However, if she wants, she can do what a number of newspapers have done when they have produced so-called scoops. They have gone through the quarterly ministerial reports, looked at the meetings registered and added up the number of meetings with the permanent secretary. That information is there if she wants to pursue the question.
On the question of the definition of “special adviser”, will the definition the Deputy Leader of the House has cited include the new class of policy advisers who, we are told, will be “specialist” rather than “special” advisers and will be appointed by Ministers to move policy along in significant areas?
The argument so far has concentrated on any lobbying of the final decision maker, but does the Deputy Leader of the House not agree that the process of eventually making the decision is equally important? That starts with senior civil servants and goes through special advisers, and is as important as any lobbying of the final decision maker.
I think the hon. Gentleman is asking me to require the Government to publish all the internal workings of government, but that is not done by any Government. My view is that the Government’s proposed amendments in lieu will be a pragmatic response to the Lords’ concerns.
Let me turn to the amendment tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I should remind the House that we have discussed the matter and that no relevant amendments were moved. Similar amendments were moved in the House of Lords, and the extension of the register to public officials such as civil servants was rejected by a substantial majority of 51. As I have outlined, the register is intended to complement the existing Government transparency regime. Both systems are intended to enhance the transparency of key decision makers—Ministers and permanent secretaries—and those who communicate with them.
It is somewhat unfair of the Minister to rely on the fact that no amendments to expand the scope of the register to include special advisers were moved in this House. Many amendments were tabled that would have extended the scope to include special advisers and senior civil servants, and it was only the exigencies of time that meant that Members did not move them, as they would have lost time for debate by calling a Division.
Had we had the opportunity to discuss amendments on civil servants, for instance, we could have considered the impact, the scale—that is, how many thousands of civil servants it would have included—and the potential costs associated with such an extension. In some ways, I would have welcomed that.
As we have previously outlined, there is little value in extending the scope of the register to those who are not required to publish their meeting details. We are not persuaded that the introduction of meeting reporting obligations for senior civil servants is appropriate. Such a system would result in an unnecessary, disproportionate and unhelpful administrative burden and the cost to the public purse could not be justified in the light of the limited transparency benefits that would be achieved.
Given that amendments (b) and (c) were made available only at 11 o'clock this morning, it would be really helpful if the House could understand the differences between the proposals of the amendments in lieu and those in Lords amendment 1. The House deserves a clear explanation.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The clear explanation is that our amendments in lieu provide an opportunity for such a change at a point in the future, if the debate leads to a consensus on proceeding with the reporting of special advisers’ meetings. That is what we are facilitating. Who knows? A future Labour Government might well have to make that decision, and it would be interesting to know whether they would want to take it.
There are about 5,000 senior civil servants in the UK. Is there really public interest in seeing the details of all their meetings with external organisations? [Interruption.] Surely the huge costs that that would involve are hardly justified. I heard a number of Members saying “Yes” from a sedentary position, but I wonder if any of them have costed the possible impact and the effect that such a change would have on the activities of those 5,000 senior civil servants. I am waiting—
We would need consensus within the coalition Government that we wanted to proceed in such a way. As I stated, a number of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament and peers would like to see us proceed in such a way, but we are not in a position to do that and that is why, if the position changes, we are facilitating either this Government or a future Government in taking such a decision without primary legislation. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not use his intervention to outline the cost of extending the provision to 5,000 civil servants, which now seems to be the official policy position of the Opposition.
May I again commiserate with the right hon. Gentleman, a sensible and capable Front Bencher, on being lumbered with the Bill? I am sincerely sorry that he has been landed with this—I hope that it does not influence his long-term career prospects.
Making legislation on the hoof may allow us to repent at leisure. I would like the House to understand what was added to the amendment paper last night, because I do not understand it as much as I would like. Is the crux of amendment (b) on special advisers the word “may”—regulations may be made some time in future—which does not need to be included in the Bill, as the Government can introduce new legislation to do that, or is it a commitment that, with some certainty, that provision will be introduced in the near future? If it is the former, many of us would find it difficult to support. If it is the latter, some of us would be sympathetic towards what the Deputy Leader of the House is saying.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not sure that I can add much to what I said earlier, other than that this is about providing an order-making power to a Minister to enable the inclusion of special advisers in the terms of the third-party register at some point in the future, which could be the day after Royal Assent, if that was desired. We should streamline public services, not impose additional burdens on them.
It is a point of order. In view of the response from the Deputy Leader of the House, I shall probably not press my amendment to a vote, so that the House can vote on the issue of special advisers. It is not satisfactory not to regulate that in some shape or form.
I need to make some progress, as we do not have much time for the debate.
We should streamline public services, not impose additional burdens on them. We should provide the public with relevant and useful information, not overwhelm them with huge volumes of unhelpful and extraneous data. The House accepted these arguments in our debates on part 1, and did not seek to extend the scope of the measure in the manner proposed by hon. Members. We should respond to the Lords amendments constructively by proposing an amendment in lieu in respect of the proposed extension to capture special advisers, but we should not seek further to extend the scope in a manner that the Lords have specifically rejected.
Briefly, Lords amendments 2 and 3 deal with recipients of communications. They are minor amendments and improve drafting to clarify and provide greater consistency in the terminology used in relation both to the recipients of the lobbying communications and to the communications themselves. Lords amendment 4 is a minor amendment that clarifies the fact that the term, “Minister of the Crown” does not, in the context of the Bill, capture the two bodies of persons, the Defence Council and the Board of Trade. As clause 2 makes clear, the communications that the register is intended to capture are those that are
“made personally to a Minister of the Crown or permanent secretary”.
The definition in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975 includes the Defence Council and the Board of Trade. Both those entities, however, are bodies of persons with which it is not possible to make personal communications. As such, the Lords amendments remove those bodies from the definition, and in doing so provide further clarity regarding the communications that fall within the scope of consultant lobbying.
Lords amendments 5, 6 and 7 deal with the code of conduct. In Committee in both Houses, the Opposition tabled amendments that required lobbyists to sign up to a statutory code of conduct and face sanctions for any breaches. As we exposed during the debates in both Houses, the Opposition’s amendments were based on a miscomprehension of the role of codes, both statutory and voluntary, in the regulation of lobbying. While the Opposition suggested that such codes are in existence and operate successfully in other jurisdictions, we have not been able to identify any international precedent for the type of code that has been proposed. Furthermore, the Opposition could propose just one provision for inclusion in that code: a prohibition on inappropriate financial relationships between lobbyists and parliamentarians, which is unnecessary, given the fact that there are parliamentary codes, as well as laws, on bribery and corruption. Once the shortcomings of the Opposition’s amendments were demonstrated, both Houses were able confidently to reject them.
My Lords—not my Lords—the objective of the part 1 provisions is to enhance transparency.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do not anticipate a sudden transformation of the House into the other place.
The objective of the part 1 provisions is to enhance transparency and scrutiny. We are not seeking to regulate behaviour. During the debates, however, the Government heard calls from both Houses on the importance of ensuring that the statutory register complemented the existing self-regulatory regime. That reiterated the message of inquiries by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The self-regulatory regime is the mechanism by which the industry promotes the ethical behaviour that is essential to the integrity and reputation of the lobbying industry. We are grateful to Members in both Houses for their thoughtful suggestions as to how we can best ensure that the register complements the regime and, after careful consideration and discussion with the industry and transparency groups, we have concluded that the most effective option is to provide for a statutory link between the statutory register and the industry-hosted voluntary codes of conduct.
As such, we made amendments in the House of Lords that would require consultant lobbyists to state in their register entries whether they subscribe to a publicly available code of conduct in relation to their lobbying activity and, if so, where a copy of the code could be accessed. The House of Lords welcomed the amendments, recognising that such a provision would enhance the transparency and scrutiny of registered lobbyists. Indeed, the Opposition withdrew their amendments on the matter, persuaded that they were unnecessary.
I was therefore surprised to see that the Opposition in this House have tabled amendment (a) to Lords amendment 7. Amendment (a) is very similar to the amendment that was withdrawn by the Opposition’s colleagues in the Lords. First, I should point out that amendment (a) in lieu of lords amendment 7 is defective and internally inconsistent, and that its effect in uncertain. It would completely undermine amendments that we have made in this regard. Those amendments are supported by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and have been approved by the House of Lords. I imagine that the Opposition’s intention in tabling amendment (a) is to require everyone undertaking the business of consultant lobbying to subscribe to a voluntary code of conduct. We have previously explained why such a provision is unnecessary and inappropriate, but I will do so again. Requiring lobbyists to declare whether they subscribe to a code will expose those who do not abide by the ethical principles that are essential to the integrity of the industry. It is not the Government’s intention, however, to introduce a high-regulation, burdensome regime whereby the registrar is responsible for monitoring and enforcing subscription to, and compliance with, codes of conduct.
The Government are confident that the requirement on lobbyists to declare whether they subscribe to a code will increase transparency, enhance scrutiny, and drive up standards. The Government amendments made in the Lords ensure that that is the case; the Opposition amendments in this House would undermine it.
Lords amendments 8,10 and 11 deal with notices. They are minor amendments and improve drafting to ensure consistency in the language used in the provisions relating to the cancellation of an information notice or the variation or cancellation of a penalty notice. Lords amendments 8 and 10 increase the procedural protection for recipients of information or penalty notices by requiring the registrar to serve in accordance with clause 25(2) any notice to vary and/or cancel such notices on the person on whom the original notice was served. By ensuring consistency of terminology, these amendments will further clarify the detail of the provisions relating to the cancellation and/or variation of the notices and ensure consistency with approaches to such matters in other legislation.
Lords amendment 9 is a minor amendment that clarifies the fact that any individual, not just employees, can commit the offence of carrying on the business of consultant lobbying while unregistered if their organisation is unregistered. The amendment removes any ambiguity as to whether the provisions apply to individuals who undertake consultant lobbying in the course of a separate business, but are not employees of that consultant lobbying business—for example, contractors. It therefore ensures that the application of the provisions in that respect are absolutely clear.
Lords amendment 12 is a minor amendment that clarifies and ensures consistency in the language used in the provision in clause 21 allowing the registrar both to revise and to replace the guidance that he or she has published, including replacement guidance.
Lords amendment 13 is minor amendment that clarifies the fact that the charges associated with registration will be set to ensure that the sums received offset the total costs of the registrar’s activities. Treasury guidance requires that if a charging regime recoups costs other than those directly associated with the service provided—in this instance, the keeping of the register—the position should be made explicitly clear to Parliament. This amendment reiterates that the charges provided for in clause 22 will be set to recover the total cost of the registrar’s activities, including those that are not directly connected with the keeping of the register, such as enforcement activity.
Amendment 14 is a minor amendment that removes provisions in clause 22 in relation to the netting-off of moneys from the Consolidated Fund for the funding of the registrar. Such funding will instead be arranged administratively between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
Amendment 15 relates to regulation-making powers and is tabled by the Government to fulfil their commitment to implement the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in relation to part 1. The Government are grateful to the Committee for its thoughtful consideration of the delegated powers in part 1 and have accepted the Committee's recommendations in relation to this part in their entirety. The amendment therefore alters the part to require that regulations under clauses 4(5) or 5(4), the first regulations to be made under clauses 11(3) and 17(3), and any regulation that amends or modifies the provisions of the Bill must be made by the affirmative procedure. By doing so, Parliament will be provided with the opportunity to undertake detailed scrutiny of any regulations made under the powers in those clauses. I reiterate the Government's thanks to the Committee for its detailed report on this part.
Amendments 101 and 102 are minor amendments that clarify the position in relation to employees who make lobbying communications as part of their employment. Specifically, amendment 101 provides that employees will not be considered as carrying on the “business of consultant lobbying” if they make lobbying communications as an employee in the course of a business carried on by their employer. The amendment therefore clarifies that in-house lobbyists are not captured by the part 1 provisions and that it is the consultant lobbying firm, rather than its employees, that is required to register in respect of any lobbying activity carried out by it or its employees. As Ministers have made clear throughout the Bill’s passage, the register is designed to address the problem that it is not always clear whose interests are represented by consultant lobbyists. Conversely, it is always clear whose interests are being represented by in-house lobbyists—those of their employer.
Amendment 102 provides, first, that where an individual makes a communication in the course of the business of another, both the individual and that other business or person make that communication. As such, the amendment ensures that the client on whose behalf consultant lobbying communications are made is always declared on the register, even if that communication is undertaken by a sub-contractor that the consultant lobbying firm has engaged. The amendment also provides that if the individual happens to be an employee—as opposed to a contractor, for example—the employee is not to be regarded as making the communication on behalf of their employer, but rather only on behalf of their employer's client, reflecting the fact that in-house lobbyists and employees of consultant lobbying firms are not required to register.
Amendment 103 is a minor amendment intended to remove any ambiguity as to the maximum period of a re-appointment term of the registrar, which is three years. An individual may be re-appointed twice, and the maximum period for each of those terms is three years.
I look forward to the discussion on these amendments. The Government are confident that our proposed response to Lord Tyler's amendment is sensible and constructive and will facilitate agreement between the two Houses. Equally, we are confident that the Government amendments agreed in the Lords will further enhance the part 1 provisions and ensure the delivery of a robust registration system that will enhance the transparency of consultant lobbying.
The Opposition share the astonishment of charities, lobbyists, campaigners and members of the public at the way in which the Bill has been handled. Until this morning, we had been led to understand that the Government were intent on reversing the progress that had been made in the other place. This morning, when the list of amendments was published, we thought that they had conceded on special advisers. In fact, they appeared to have got themselves into a position where they were disagreeing with themselves. After listening to the Deputy Leader of the House for 47 minutes of the two hours that we have been given to debate this important part of the Bill, I, like the Chair of the Select Committee, am none the wiser as to what the Government propose. From the interventions of Members on both sides of the House, it appears that the Minister himself is not entirely sure what he is proposing either.
It is important that we understand how we arrived at this state of extreme confusion. Clause 2—indeed part 1 of the Bill—was drawn so narrowly that none of the lobbying scandals that gave rise to the Bill would have been caught by it. The Bill was massacred in the other place, and rightly so. The decision to include special advisers was made by a decent margin, and prompted 30 Liberal Democrat peers to vote against their own Government. There have been three defeats in the other place on fundamental aspects of the Bill, and it is important that Ministers and the House ask why. This is a lesson in how not to introduce legislation. There was a lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, and no expert witnesses were allowed to be called. After three years of silence on this issue, proposals landed out of the blue just two days before the summer recess. We had a two-paragraph response from the Government to a well-considered Select Committee report. We had the spectacle of a Government refusing the request from across civil society to pause the Bill for long enough to make what was branded “a dog’s breakfast” by the Chair of an influential Select Committee into a workable and effective piece of legislation. The speed is frankly ridiculous.
The Government were still suffering defeat in the other place yesterday evening. In its report written last night and published this morning, the Select Committee said:
“The timetable that the Government has imposed for this Bill indicates a contempt for Parliament and a lack of belief in…parliamentary scrutiny.”
Baroness Williams said that the gap between the Bill leaving the other place and arriving here was “frankly ludicrous”. Of the two hours that we have to debate this important part of the Bill, the Minister took 47 minutes, and we are none the wiser. Like hundreds of constituents who have e-mailed me over recent weeks, I have reached the conclusion that this is a Government who have very little commitment to democracy and are not willing to be challenged.
That is a good question. Those of us who listened to the Minister earlier are still grappling with how on earth the Government could have got themselves into this position.
Unlike the Minister, we have been consistent in our support for extending the definition of lobbying to include special advisers. Throughout this shambolic process, Ministers have been unable to find a single good reason why that should not take place.
We can understand why the Government are in a muddle, because there is no public support for the Bill. However, there is public support for something to be done about lobbyists, rather than attacking trade unions all the time.
Absolutely. I would simply add to my hon. Friend’s comments the voice of many charities, which quite simply cannot understand why they, as well as trade unions and grass-roots campaigners, are the target for this Bill, when it lets off the hook powerful vested interests.
And by a majority of the charitable sector as well. The reason for that is that the Bill, as the Chair of the Select Committee has said, is a dog’s breakfast, which is so fundamentally flawed that it should be put on hold, with sufficient time for it to be thoroughly revised. If we had had pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation in the first place, we would not be in this situation.
Ministers suggested that it would be practically too difficult to extend these provisions to special advisers. But as the Deputy Leader of the House just said in his long contribution, the Government already publish information about special advisers. They publish details of gifts and hospitality received, and details of meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors’ editors and senior executives on a quarterly basis. There is no obvious reason why this could not be extended further. The truth is that there is no political will to make this happen. Ministers have consistently been told by many of us that this really matters. Many of the scandals that this Government have been caught up in have involved Government advisers, not the Minister or the permanent secretary, whom the Deputy Leader of the House is so keen that the Bill should cover. Let us take the example of Fred Michel, an in-house lobbyist for News Corp who was exchanging written communications with Adam Smith, then special adviser to the then Culture Secretary. In e-mails and text messages exposed by Lord Justice Leveson, it became clear that that was entirely inappropriate, yet the Government have gone to great lengths to ensure that no transparency requirements will be extended to such advisers or to such in-house lobbyists.
My hon. Friend, who has long been a champion of that sector, is absolutely correct. She shares my bewilderment at the Government’s target in the Bill.
As Lord Tyler made clear when the Bill was considered in another place,
“two of the big lobbying scandals in this Parliament… would probably never have got to this stage had encounters between close ministerial advisers and outside groups been a matter of public record.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 29.]
There are 98 special advisers across Whitehall but, as we have learnt through the dialogue with the Deputy Leader of the House today, there are many others who are considered to be advisers and are, like special advisers, the first, if not the only, port of call for lobbyists. As was said earlier, the process of arriving at decision making matters as much as the decision itself.
The hon. Lady is obviously a strong advocate of transparency. One of the things that the Government have asked the Opposition to do, in the interests of transparency, is make available information on meetings that shadow Ministers have. Is that something they will do?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question, because it gives me an opportunity to say that, unlike the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives when they were in opposition, we publish details of meetings on a regular basis. In fact, we are the most transparent Opposition ever. I find it absolutely astonishing that, three and a half years after the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, made a commitment to shine a spotlight on the shadowy world of lobbying, the Government have climbed down on all the measures that we have been urging them to accept and the only thing that they can do is challenge us on our shadow ministerial diaries. The Deputy Leader of the House’s own argument was that the Government are responsible for making decisions. My point to him is that the Government are responsible for making decisions, and for the process by which they are made. We would like the measures that we have proposed to be put into the Bill. We can still see no good reason why the Government are resisting those calls.
The issue of special advisers is so important to the House because of the decision that we are being asked to make in less than an hour. I would like to ask the Deputy Leader of the House a series of questions that I have come up with in the last two hours, since the Government decided to table their somewhat bizarre and obscure amendments. First—I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)—what is the difference between what they have tabled and the amendment proposed in the other place? The answer to my hon. Friend appeared to be that the Government are simply kicking it into the long grass. Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that that is the case? Is this a guarantee that it will happen? The Government amendment states that the Government “may amend regulations”. Why use “may”?
The Deputy Leader of the House said that there was a need to reach consensus. I can tell him, because, unlike the Government, I have been listening to the clamour outside this place, that there is consensus. In fact, the only people who do not appear to have reached consensus on the issue are sitting on the Government Front Bench. If he looks behind him, I think he will find that many Government Members are as concerned as we are. Are Ministers planning to introduce the proposed measure in regulation? Do they have a time frame for doing so? Why is it not being introduced now? What are the Government worried about? We urgently need to clear up the lack of understanding about the definition of special adviser.
The Government’s amendments refer to the definition in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. I asked the Deputy Leader of the House whether Lynton Crosby would be covered by that. Would it cover Adam Smith, Adam Werritty or any other Government adviser who has been involved in the plethora of scandals in recent years? [Interruption.] The Leader of the House is shaking his head and muttering under his breath. I can tell him that this matters not only to Members of the House, but to people outside this place. He will know that because he will have received hundreds of e-mails about the Bill from constituents, as we all have.
My reading of the amendment is that Lynton Crosby would not be covered, because he does not adhere to the special advisers code of conduct. If that is correct, it is a disgrace. The Deputy Leader of the House, in answer to an earlier question, did not seem at all clear about who was covered by his own amendment. I am not surprised, because it was made available to us only at 11 o’clock this morning, and he expects us to vote on it shortly.
The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee asked about senior civil servants. If Ministers are conceding—I am still not sure if they are—that the requirements in the clause can be extended to special advisers, they can also be extended to senior civil servants. It is fairly obvious that permanent secretaries are rarely lobbied, whereas senior civil servants and special advisers are. Ministers do not have to believe me; they can listen to the deputy chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, Iain Anderson, who said:
“The vast majority of lobbying is not about meeting Ministers or permanent secretaries”.
The TUC, Spinwatch and other lobbyist groups have made the same point. The truth is that there is no reason at all not to support the sensible amendment tabled by the Chair of the Select Committee.
The Prime Minister used to be fond of quoting US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Perhaps he ought to reflect on something else Mr Justice Brandeis said:
“People who feel uncomfortable under the bright light of scrutiny and criticism often have something to hide.”
Are the Government afraid of challenge? Let us consider the evidence: the right to challenge cut back through legal aid restrictions, employment tribunal fees and restrictions on migrant appeal rights; an Education Secretary who is fighting the Information Commissioner tooth and nail to block information from the public domain; and a scandal involving the use of private e-mail accounts at the heart of the Department for Education. Only this week Downing street refused to reveal how many guests were hosted at Chequers. The Prime Minister released a partial list that excluded special advisers, officials and, it seems, Conservative party donors. Without the amendment tabled by the Chair of the Select Committee and the important change on special advisers made in the other place, the Bill will do absolutely nothing to increase the transparency of lobbying.
During the 47 minutes of the Deputy Leader of the House’s speech, the only reason that I could understand for why he objects to that sensible measure is his claim that it would impose additional costs and bureaucracy. I simply do not understand how the Government have the nerve to talk about costs and bureaucracy when they are placing unnecessarily restrictive, expensive and onerous burdens on charities, grass-roots campaigners and trade unions, who are the lifeblood of democratic debate in this country.
That matter was investigated thoroughly in the previous Parliament by the Public Administration Committee. There might be a burden if records and diaries were still kept by clerks working at high desks and writing on parchment with quill pens. We know now, as was made clear in the Committee’s report, that transferring the information is simple, could be done electronically and would cost nothing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as ever, for his wise words. I absolutely concur. I do not see why it should be difficult in this day and age to put such information on a website.
Before the general election the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, said that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen. It did happen, repeatedly, and to him. After three years of scandals, we believe that it is shameful that the Bill does absolutely nothing to raise standards in lobbying. As Lord Norton has said,
“the Bill does not enhance transparency and it is not actually about lobbying. It is about lobbyists; it is about status, not about activity.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 13.]
We believe that it should be. That is why the amendment standing in my name and those of my hon. Friends would make it a requirement that registered lobbyists have to abide by a code of conduct.
The Government have conceded that registered lobbyists should record whether they are signed up to the code of conduct in the register, and we welcome that. However, the risk remains that the register will be used by lobbyists and by the public as a means of granting legitimacy to a company and its activities. It is surely no stretch of the imagination to imagine lobbyists using the term “registered” to grant themselves some kind of legitimacy that the public may not understand. Even with the changes made so far, there is nothing to stop lobbyists of any kind getting on to the register—even those who have been convicted of illegal activities. Without the amendment, there is also no mechanism to strike lobbyists off the register.
These views are shared by many in the industry. Gavin Devine, the chief executive of MHP Communications, said in a submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
“There is a real danger that a register by itself may make the situation worse, since it is likely those on the register will describe themselves as a ‘registered’ or ‘approved’ lobbyists, without having to meet at least some minimum standards. In short, there is a risk that the register will give a kitemark or endorsement to some who do not deserve it”.
We agree with the lobbying industry, campaigners, charities and transparency activists that our proposal would help to set the standard of behaviour. The voluntary code that already governs part of the industry has sanctions for those who breach its provisions. As such, the measure proposed by the Government is a backward step—a register that could legitimise lobbyists without any standards or sanctions whatsoever for bad behaviour. This is a £2 billion industry that has been beset by scandal, to the dismay of many of us, those in wider society, and reputable lobbyists in the industry.
Absolutely not. This is another aspect of the confusion that exists among Government Members. I say that with the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful for his question. We have consistently called for higher standards, and that is the purpose of our amendment. Indeed, we would have liked to table it earlier so that there was much more opportunity to discuss it with Members in all parts of the House, but unfortunately the unseemly haste with which the Government have pushed this shambolic Bill through meant that we were unable to do so. We want to make sure that all the lobbyists who are registered on the Government’s register adhere to a code of conduct, with proper sanctions for poor behaviour and the ability to strike them off for it.
This Bill was the Government’s opportunity to begin to restore trust in politics, and we would have fully supported them in that mission. When the Bill was published, leading figures from the charity sector wrote to the then Minister, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), saying that they stood ready to work constructively with the Government to try to improve a piece of legislation about which they had genuine concerns. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said that the pause that was agreed in the House of Lords felt more like “a rebuttal exercise” than a listening exercise. In our view, the Government have shown civil society almost total disdain throughout this process, and in doing so they have shown, yet again, that they are not listening to a voice that they have a duty to hear.
We are unlikely to press our amendment to a vote, for one reason and one only—the severe time constraints that this shambolic process has placed us under. We are deeply concerned about what the Government are now proposing on special advisers and we believe that there is an urgent need to address the many chilling measures that are still in the remaining parts of the Bill, which we have only a couple of hours to debate after we finish debating this part. Ministers should be in no doubt whatsoever that we share the view of the Select Committee that this part of the Bill is unsatisfactory and inadequate and will stifle democratic debate.
On Second Reading, the Leader of the House said,
“we have sought to be the most transparent Government in history.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 169.]
What a joke that now appears. The Government have proved throughout this process that they will not stand up to the wealthy and powerful but prefer instead to target charities, trade unions and grass-roots campaigners. This Bill lies in tatters; it is a shambles. The Government should be ashamed to have introduced something like this to us today. Ministers seem determined not to hear the roar of noise coming from outside this place, but we remain determined that they will hear it.
Order. May I inform the House that we have just 30 minutes left for this part of a timed debate? A lot of Members are indicating that they would like to speak. May I ask each of you to help each other out so that we can try to get everybody in before the 30 minutes are up?
I appreciate the work that the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has done. He knows, because I said so on Second Reading, that I agree with his points about pre-legislative scrutiny. I, too, regret the haste with which the Bill has progressed. However, we are where we are, and I will not debate that but crack on as you have asked me to, Madam Deputy Speaker.
On Second Reading, I said that I supported the principles of the Bill but had severe concerns about some areas of detail. In Committee, I tabled amendments, some of which the Government listened to and took on board and others they have looked at again in the other place. During the Bill’s passage through the other place, I have met on numerous occasions and worked closely with my noble Friend Lord Tyler, who has done a power of good to the Bill and improved many of the most unsatisfactory elements by a considerable degree. He has also done an outstanding job in terms of the level of his engagement with the charitable and third sectors. He has worked tirelessly to talk to them, to understand their concerns, and to try to move things forward. When we come to debate the next group of amendments, I will mention many of the things that he has achieved. My noble Friends Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Lord Wallace of Saltaire have also worked extremely hard to take on board people’s concerns.
As a result of the amendments that their lordships made and that the Government are accepting, this Bill has been transformed from the difficult Bill that we considered on Second Reading to what we now have before us. I thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for the work he has done and for meeting me, colleagues and representatives of the charitable and third sectors several times. Underlying all this is the principle to which I still adhere—that we need much more transparency in lobbying and in the activities of third parties. The Bill is achieving that.
I tabled an amendment in this place covering special advisers though I did not press it. Lord Tyler has put through an excellent amendment. It is no secret that there is a divergence of opinion, if I can put like that, between the two coalition partners. My hon. Friends are very keen to include the amendment, while our partners perceive considerable dangers in doing so and wish to proceed at a rather slower pace. I fully expected the Government to reject my noble Friend’s amendment, but instead they have proposed a compromise that I am willing to accept. As has been evinced by Labour Members, the amendment uses the word “may”. They criticised that, but if we do not put such an enabling clause into a Bill, we cannot take action at a later stage. The amendment admits a concept and a principle that it is important to place in the Bill and it is a considerable step forward.
What does this mean in practice? There are two potential outcomes: first, the coalition partners discuss the measure, decide to implement it, and it is implemented this side of an election—an outcome devoutly to be hoped for but one for which I will not necessarily hold my breath. Secondly, at the next election I have an opportunity to go to the electorate and campaign for it, as would, I believe, all my hon. Friends.
I am very aware that “shall”—that is probably the word I would look for—would achieve consensus across the House, but not on the Government Benches. I would rather stick with the consensus I have and that will go through than die in a ditch for something that will not.
That is my argument in a nutshell. I urge my hon. Friends to accept the very considerable concession from the Government, which takes us much closer to the objective that I seek to achieve.
I participate in this debate with great sadness, because within the last hour the funeral has taken place of Terry Butkeraitis, a miners’ leader and community organiser, and a legendary figure at the Glastonbury festival. Terry dedicated his life to the collective organisation of working people and proved that coal miners are as innovative, entrepreneurial and business-savvy as anyone else in society. Without question, Terry would have wanted me and his other friends to be in the Chamber to vote against further attacks on the unions, British values and our democracy.
When the Deputy Leader of the House listed what he claimed were the achievements of the Government’s openness, I thought I heard Terry heckling from that public gallery on high—demanding to know, if this Government are to show openness, where the documents relating to the miners’ strike are. We are still awaiting those documents.
Listening to the Deputy Leader of the House, I wondered whether his inability to explain the Bill in his 47 minutes was because he does not have a special adviser to tell him what it is all about. For some reason, I have never been a special adviser—I cannot understand why I have never been invited to apply for such a position; I do not know where they are advertised—but I have had opportunities over the years to have words with them. Frankly, the idea that any Member believes that special advisers and civil servants around Ministers do not have excessive influence over legislation is nonsense.
I will spare his blushes, because he did it for the right reasons, but one of the ministerial colleagues of the Deputy Leader of the House came up to me just last week and asked me to assist in tabling parliamentary questions to influence his civil servants and doubtless his special advisers to ensure that the legislation came forward more promptly.
Hansard will prove whether or not I did, and it may even identify the Minister.
Such things are almost incongruous to us in this House; perhaps it is less clear to people outside the Chamber that that is how business operates here. If someone says to me, “I’ve got a great idea to amend legislation. How do I get it through?”, particularly if my party was in power and I therefore knew and could track down the special advisers, the first thing I would say is, “Here’s the list of the people with influence. You’ve got to get to them, because Ministers’ time is so dictated by civil servants—it is deliberately jam-packed—that if you want any serious dialogue, you’ve got to get in first.”
Ministers of course ratify decisions and good ones ensure that their decisions go through, but, frankly, I can think of numerous examples where that has not been the case. Going to special advisers and civil servants, although usually with general ministerial consent—perhaps not from the particular Minister, but from No. 10 Downing street or the Minister’s boss—is precisely how someone can get changes made.
Anyone who has participated in a Public Bill Committee knows that. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) will remember that we sat on the Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill for what seemed like a year. I tabled an amendment about endangered species and wildlife. External bodies wanted it, and the Minister and colleagues from both sides of the Committee were very supportive of it, but the Minister’s response was, “Well, we need to check the details.” The only reason we got the amendment accepted was that we sat down with a special adviser with access to civil servants, and with the civil servants themselves, to clear every dot and comma so that when I got up in Committee, with support from all sides, the Minister said that the Government accepted the principle and would come back with their own wording—strangely, it was identical to mine—and it was later presented as their amendment. That is how it works here. If we are to control these lobbyists, of course the special advisers and civil servants—whoever is in power—have to be included.
I will finish by raising one other issue. I have in my possession documents showing that in recent times a senior, well-known lobbyist has set up a fake company—or a real company, but using a false name and date of birth. How will the Minister deal with that under the Bill? When such a case eventually comes before him and other Ministers, how will they deal with its unethical nature, and how will they respond to the influence of such a lobbyist over the Government? Does he agree that anyone who does that should automatically be prevented from having any access to any Ministers?
I rise to support amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1 which was tabled on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I am a member, and to address the specious Government amendments (b) and (c), as well as to deal with the choices presented by the different amendments.
Let us be clear that amendment (a) builds on the amendment made in the other place so that special advisers are rightly caught within the scope of the part 1 of the Bill. Many of us argued for that during earlier stages of the Bill. Contrary to what the Leader of the House implied, we did so seriously; we did not press it to a Division simply because of time constraints and to allow debate on other matters. Only amendment (a) gives us the opportunity to make sure that senior civil servants and special advisers are within the scope of the Bill.
Amendments (b) and (c) to Lords amendment 1 almost amount to an act of misdirection by the Government. They may allow people to satisfy themselves that special advisers might be brought within the scope of the Bill. They will, however, leave senior civil servants outside its scope, which is exactly their aim. Of course, they may not even bring special advisers within the scope of the Bill. Amendment (b) is a fig leaf for the Leader of the House, who tabled it, and a figment in the minds of its supporters: there is no real risk that it will bring special advisers within the scope of the Bill. Those supporting it have clearly set their face against special advisers. Today and on previous occasions, they have given all the arguments why special advisers should not be included. We are fooling ourselves if we think that they will reconsider that issue in a matter of months between now and the election or some other time. That is absolute nonsense, and we would make real fools of ourselves if we fell for it.
Amendment (b) not only says that regulations “may” amend subsection (3) of clause 2, but is worded carefully to provide that
“communications made personally to a special adviser are within that subsection.”
When I see highly qualified and specific wording such as
“made personally to a special adviser”,
I wonder whether it is done deliberately. Perhaps there are all sorts of other forms of communication that can take place with a special adviser. For example, other parties like donors who do not have a direct interest or who are not consultant lobbyists, but who are friends of other businesses or interested parties, could communicate with a special adviser.
We will not address any of the serious issues that have been raised about this part of the Bill by the public or in this House and the other Chamber by nodding along to amendments (b) and (c), which are notionally in lieu of Lords amendment 1. The Deputy Leader of the House could not tell us whether the term “special adviser”—whether in Lords amendment 1 or as defined in amendment (c)—would include the new breed of advisers that the Government are determined to appoint.
I have received clarification on that point. The new type of adviser to which the hon. Gentleman is referring exists only as a recommendation in a report on civil service reform. Such advisers do not currently exist, so it is impossible definitively to confirm or deny whether they would be covered by the proposals. If the new advisers are employed on the same basis as special advisers and are therefore covered by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, they would be covered. If they are not employed on that basis, but are employed as civil servants, they would not be covered.
In what I have read, Government officials have said that the new advisers will not be special advisers—they might be specialist advisers, but they will not be special advisers. They will advise on policy. We are told by the Ministers who back the idea that it is about trying to break the logjam in Government and move policy along decisively. They will therefore have a key role in moving public policy along. It is Ministers, not Opposition Members, who are planning to have this new breed of advisers—this addition to the ecosystem of government and the networks of advice—so if the Government have not worked out what class of beast they will be, they cannot condemn the rest of us for asking and wondering. As legislators, we are meant to think forward to things that are planned and that are likely to happen.
The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has said that the reason he will not press amendment (a) to a Division is purely to afford the House time to discuss the issues in part 2 of the Bill that need to be discussed. However, I want to stress the merits of amendment (a). I hope that in future Ministers will not abuse the fact that a proposal is not being pressed to a Division out of courtesy to the Chamber because it has other serious concerns to discuss to make out that Members do not care about the issues or that the issues are not serious, as they have done today. These issues are serious. In my view, the Government have deliberately used the audacity of their proposals in part 2 as a human shield to cover the paucity and weakness of their proposals in part 1, which will apply only to those who present themselves in the Yellow Pages under the heading “Consultant Lobbyists”. People can engage in the business of professional lobbying on any other paid basis, whether it is in-house or for any of the big accountancy or legal firms, which provide all sorts of services.
I tabled amendments earlier in the Bill’s progress because I was very concerned about private lobbying and private lunches with friends, which can have a great deal of influence through the chains that the hon. Gentleman is describing. That is a weakness with this part of the Bill. I am only sorry that we do not have longer today to listen to the important nuanced arguments that are being made.
I know how much pressure there is on time, so I will make two short points.
First, I pay tribute to the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the members of that Committee for all the hard work that they have done under incredibly difficult circumstances. In spite of the odds, they have provided Members with good information for this debate.
Secondly, the Government must be in a parallel universe if they genuinely think that the reassurances that they have pretended to give today will provide any comfort to people in this institution and, more important, those outside this institution. It is deeply insulting to our intelligence to say, “Well, a Minister might be able to change the meaning of this clause some time in the future,” and think that we will all go home thinking that that is fine.
That matters not just because of the importance of the Bill, but because what is happening here today is being watched by people all around the country. People are very dismayed about what a shambles this process is. It undermines our credibility as an institution if we cannot organise ourselves better to do justice to the arguments that have been debated in public meetings up and down the country. I have had more contact and received more letters on this issue than on anything else, other than the reorganisation of the NHS. People care about it deeply. It shows how out of touch the Government are that they think that they can rush the Bill through and get plaudits from people outside for the few amendments that they have introduced at the last moment, which do not go anywhere near far enough.
No matter how many times the Government repeat that there has been consultation or that there is transparency, I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking-Glass”, when he says that words mean whatever he wants them to mean. That is what is happening here. The Government are in a parallel universe. They are deeply out of touch with ordinary people. If more Government Members had listened to the public, they would know that they cannot get away with this.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If we had more time, we could speculate further on the motivation for this very sinister Bill. I agree with the motivation that he ascribes to it.
Finally, the Government came to office saying that they would champion the big society, so it has been deeply disillusioning for everybody to see how they have muzzled it at every turn. I hope that people will remember that when they vote in the election in 18 months’ time.
In view of the time, rather than have Members wandering around the Lobbies to produce a result that we all know in advance, I will not press amendment (a) to a vote. However, I underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan): we in no way accept that the Government’s proposal is good. On the contrary, we believe that senior civil servants should be covered in the Bill, but they are not. I hope that all colleagues in this House and in the other place will realise that the only reason I am withdrawing the amendment is to ensure that there is only one vote and that we do not take up the House’s precious time, which has been so curtailed by the Government’s timetable. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.—(Tom Brake.)
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
Government amendments (b) and (c) made in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendments 2 to 4, 101 to 103 and 5 to 15 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendments 13 and 14.
Meaning of “controlled expenditure”
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 16.
With this it will be convenient to take the following:
Lords amendments 17 and 104 to 107.
Lords amendment 108, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 19.
Lords amendment 20, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 21 to 25.
Lords amendment 26, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 27, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 28 to 54.
Lords amendment 55, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 56 to 58.
Lords amendment 59, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 60 to 74, 109 to 116 and 18.
Lords amendment 75, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 76 to 98.
Lords amendment 99, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendment 100.
Lords amendments 26, 27 and 108, with which the Government disagree, relate to constituency limits and staff costs. I ask the House not to support amendments tabled by hon. Members to Lords amendments 20, 55, 59, 75 and 99.
After the Bill was last seen by the House, during consideration in the House of Lords, the Government undertook a further six-week consultation with interested parties—on part 2 of the Bill—that built upon the Government’s already considerable engagement with many campaigning groups. During the consultation, which took place between Second Reading and the Committee stage of part 2 of the Bill in the Lords, the Government held detailed, important and exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—talks with some 50 organisations. Those discussions informed the Government amendments, with which the Lords agreed. As the House will have discerned from my opening remarks, many amendments—100 in total, encompassing 20 substantive issues—to part 2 have returned from their lordships, and we propose to accept all but three of them. The amendments, agreed in consequence of our discussions in the Lords, represent a considerable body of work undertaken in that House, and we are grateful to their lordships for that work.
The changes are designed to address the practical concerns raised by third parties, while preserving the important principles of transparency that underpin part 2. The amendments reduce the burden on smaller third parties who campaign at elections, ease the transition to the new regime and clarify the regulatory rules. That last point is important, because it became clear during the consultation that concerns often stemmed from a lack of awareness of the existing rules in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
As the House will recall, the PPERA established a framework for the regulation of non-party campaigning at elections, and many of the representations derived from an objection not to the Bill, but to how the PPERA rules, in the view of those making the representations, would have worked. This debate has enabled us to introduce amendments that meet many of the concerns raised, to clarify how charities and campaigners can legitimately campaign on policies and issues without falling subject to the election law regulatory regime and, where they may fall to be regulated, to reduce the burdens of compliance and ensure that small-scale campaigns are exempt from that regime.
The House will recall that before the Bill was sent to the Lords, we made significant changes to it here. In particular, we returned to the definition of “controlled expenditure” in the PPERA—in other words, expenditure
“reasonably regarded as intended to…promote or procure the electoral success”
of a party or candidate—but narrowed it slightly so as not to include the additional limb about enhancing the standing of parties or candidates. We had, therefore, already made some clarifications to the Bill before we sent it to their lordships.
Of those changes, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, one of the largest and most prominent umbrella bodies representing charities and the voluntary sector, said:
“The government’s commitment to abandon the change to the test of what constitutes non-party campaigning is a significant step in the right direction.”
The Leader of the House knows, because we have told him often enough, that on these issues we actively encourage the participation of the third sector in Scotland. In the light of that, why have the Scottish Government not received one reply from this Government regarding the Bill, particularly concerning its effect on our referendum and on Scottish charities?
The Bill, of course, will have no effect on the referendum in September. I do not recall receiving a letter from Ministers in the Scottish Government, although I do recall receiving letters from the First Minister of Wales, which I replied to. If Ministers have received any such letters, I shall gladly take advice on what the reply has been.
On the amendments to part 2 that their lordships have returned to us today, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has said:
“Much of the risk to charities from this legislation has now been averted. We are grateful that the government has listened to the concerns charities have raised in recent months. Charities, by law, may not campaign in a party political manner…The bill now provides a much more sensible balance than it did to begin with between creating accountability and transparency in elections while still allowing for charities and others to speak up on issues of concern.”
One need not fully embrace what NCVO said about the character of the Bill in the first place to recognise that we have arrived at what I hope continues to meet the principles of transparency in election campaigning while continuing to enable charities and voluntary organisations fully to exercise free speech on policies and issues.
That is absolutely right. I am sure my right hon. Friend will recall—it has been interesting to have these conversations—that if charities comply with the guidance, called CC9, issued by the Charity Commission, we can be pretty confident, except in very limited circumstances, that they will not fall to be regulated under election law. It could happen if, for example, a charity pursued its purpose in a run-up to an election, received various pledges from various candidates or parties in relation to its objectives and then chose to issue details to the public. That could be held to be seeking to influence electoral outcomes. Frankly, however, our discussions have increasingly demonstrated a mature approach on the part of the charities, many of which have recognised that the Bill was not really about exempting charities and that only in very limited circumstances would charities fall to be regulated. Many charities completely understood and agreed that it was right for those who wished to influence election outcomes to do so openly and transparently. That is what the Bill is all about.
The Leader of the House implies that, in accepting all but three of the amendments to part 2, the Government are being generous, yet many of the amendments are, of course, Government amendments. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that, as well as the charitable sector demonstrating its maturity, the Government might have learned some lessons from this particular process? What are those lessons, and does he not accept that he could have done things better?
I am sorry, but I think that, in this respect, my hon. Friend has not understood how these issues have often worked. I shall not go through all the amendments in detail, but many of those that he says are coming back to us as Government amendments were tabled as Government amendments on Report in recognition of the character of the preceding debate and consultation in Committee. Members of the House of Lords often raised issues in Committee. My noble Friends Lord Wallace of Tankerness, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Gardiner did magnificent work in determining where it was appropriate for the Government to make amendments in recognition of the concerns expressed. [Interruption.] I do not think that Opposition Members should sneer at the idea of the Government tabling amendments in the other place in order to bring them back here to meet the concerns, which is nothing other than a proper process of scrutiny.
There are a lot of amendments in the group, so let me set out the Government view of the main ones, starting with those with which we disagree. It is important for Members to understand where the burden of the debate lies.
Lords amendment 108 seeks to exclude staff costs associated with any member of staff of a third party from the calculation of controlled expenditure for transport, press conferences, organised media events, public rallies and public events. When Parliament passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it believed that the inclusion of staff costs was an important element of ensuring a transparent regulatory regime. As Labour Members will recall from their time in government, that Act included staff costs in the calculation of controlled expenditure for non-party campaigners. The decision was taken on the basis that where a third party undertakes other activities besides political campaigning and enters into political campaigning, its spending for those purposes should be fully transparent.
There is a distinction between the handling of staff costs for political parties and their handling for non-party campaigning. That was the point I was making: in so far as political parties have permanent staffing costs, they are not necessarily included, but it was determined in the 2000 Act that we should aim to identify the additional costs. [Interruption.] They are included in individual constituency calculations, but not in the total spending limits for political parties, as applied under PPERA on a national basis. Otherwise, if a political party had more staff, it would automatically have less money available to spend at the time of the election. It is essentially about parity of arms. Where third parties are concerned, except in relation to the election period, almost by definition they do not have permanent expenditure on party political campaigning, so what they spend at election time needs to be calculated.
I shall avoid drawing the parallel that the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) drew between political parties on the one hand and charities and voluntary organisations on the other, which rather gave the game away. Let me refer more helpfully to the fact that my Select Committee supports the view that staffing costs should be included. However, we also support the second Chamber in its view that, for practical reasons, that should not apply this time round. The Electoral Commission and their lordships argued on practical grounds that because of the extra bureaucracy and the shortness of time, staffing costs should be exempt on this occasion, whereas they should normally be included.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point at this stage. He was a member of the Government who included staff costs for non-party campaigning in the 2000 Act, and I think it would have been consistent for him to have stayed with that position.
On the concerns of third parties about the difficulties associated with calculating staff time, that is an existing element of the regulatory regime. Its operation in the last two general elections, alongside Electoral Commission guidance, shows that such costs can be accounted for without it being overly burdensome. In its current guidance, the Electoral Commission takes a proportionate approach to the calculation of controlled expenditure, including staff costs, by stating that third parties should make an honest assessment of the costs, which need to be reported.
It should also be noted—Lords amendment 19 is relevant—that with the proposed increases in the registration threshold, smaller organisations, whether they be charities or other campaigning organisations, will not be subject to any regulation. The need to calculate staff costs will not apply in that case, and it is the same for any larger organisation that spends only relatively small sums. Volunteer costs will, of course, continue to be excluded from the calculation of controlled expenditure.
As such, the Government believe that the inclusion of staff costs is an important element of the regime. We have none the less agreed to a review of the operation of the Bill during the 2015 general election. The inclusion of staffing costs will be an aspect of that review. Lords amendment 108 would, however, create a significant gap in the operation of an effective regulatory regime at the next general election, so I ask the House to reject it.
The next Lords amendments with which the Government disagree are Lords amendments 26 and 27—adding up to the total of three. These amendments provide that only limited activities should be considered as part of controlled expenditure for constituency limit purposes. The amendments would require that only the costs of election materials—whether they are addressed to households or otherwise distributed—and unsolicited telephone calls to households should count towards those constituency limits. They therefore fail to take into account the principle that lay behind the introduction of constituency limits, namely the principle of transparency. It is essential for members of the public to know when third parties are campaigning in the constituencies in which they live, and to know how much money they are spending in doing so if it rises above any significant level.
As Members know very well, campaigning does not revolve around leafleting and cold calls. There are events such as press conferences and rallies; there is transport to bus supporters to an area, and there are the payments made to campaigners. All those are significant aspects of campaigning, and excluding the costs of such activities would undermine the effectiveness of the constituency limits. The constituency limits applying to third parties were introduced to prevent candidates and political parties—they are, of course, the main actors in any election, and rightly so—from being outspent and overwhelmed by the activities of third parties, so that parties do not put their own candidates forward in an election. The Bill does not prevent third parties from campaigning, but it does require them to be open and up front about their spending, and not to overwhelm and outspend the candidates and parties.
I wonder whether the Leader of the House has listened to all the non-governmental organisations that have tried to explain to him that, by and large, they do not organise on a constituency basis, and that trying to allocate the costs in that way is incredibly complex and time consuming. Is he ignoring those organisations because he does not understand how they work, or because he does understand how they work and wants to shut them down?
I have listened very carefully to what has been said to me. I think that campaigning organisations often object to constituency limits because they erroneously assume that when they are undertaking a national activity there will be disaggregation to individual constituency limits, because of, as it were, the coincidence of where that activity takes place. It will form part of a constituency activity in circumstances in which there is a significant effect in that constituency; otherwise, it will form part of a national activity. [Interruption.] The guidance will make clear that a constituency limit will apply when there is a significant effect in a specific geographical area or individual constituency, but that when the activity concerned forms part of a national activity, national limits will apply.
We need constituency limits. I do not know whether the hon. Lady is proposing that we should not have them, but when we sent the Bill to the House of Lords, a clear decision made by Members of the House of Commons expressed their belief that it was right to have them. Without them, the national limit could all be spent in individual constituencies: it could be targeted on a small number of constituencies in a way that would completely distort elections that are meant to be between political parties. That is the basis on which the Bill is structured.
No. I need to make progress now.
Amendment (a) to Lords amendment 20, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), would return the spending limits to a higher level than that for which the Bill provides—effectively, to the current level in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. It proposes a spending limit of £793,000 for England, £108,000 for Scotland and £60,000 for Wales. The limit for Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Bill, would continue to be £30,800.
During our debate on the last group of amendments, the hon. Gentleman spent half an hour lecturing us about the procedures of the House. He is the Chair of a Select Committee that, on Report, proposed amendment 102, which would have deleted clause 27 and left the spending limits as they were in PPERA. He argued for that, and the House rejected it by a majority of 51. Now he has presented a report to the House—from a Select Committee of the House—which completely ignores the House’s decision. The House has a view on this matter, but the Committee has ignored that view. The hon. Gentleman is simply re-presenting the same argument to the House, ignoring—on behalf of his Select Committee—the fact that the House has already rejected it. If the Select Committee does nothing else, it should take account of the view of the House before submitting a report to the House.
I wanted to intervene so that the right hon. Gentleman could calm down for a moment and stop wagging his finger at Members.
Had my Select Committee—the majority of which consists of coalition Members—had more than two working hours in which to produce a report, we would have done an even better job; and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if we had had the time that he has had in which to produce a Bill, we would have done a damn sight better job than he has managed to do.
I shall not wag my finger at the hon. Gentleman, but he has made a ridiculous point. If the members of his Select Committee wanted to produce an additional report, they should have directed themselves to the Lords amendments. [Interruption.] They have not done that. What they have done is reintroduce, by way of an amendment to a Lords amendment, a subject—[Interruption.] Amendments were agreed in the House of Lords. The hon. Gentleman has tabled an amendment whose purpose is not to address the Lords amendment, but to reinsert a provision that was previously rejected, and was not even pressed in the House of Lords.
Both this House and the House of Lords agreed that a reduction in spending limits was sensible. The £450,000 overall spending limit that the Bill now proposes is at a level that few political parties exceed, accounting for the same range of activities. For instance, at the last general election only four political parties—ourselves, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the UK Independence Party—spent more than that.
We have equality of arms under the legislation, although I think I remember that, technically speaking, the Labour party spent more. But we will return to that.
There are about 100 other political parties, campaigning on a national basis, which managed to do so without exceeding that overall spending limit. Surely, if third parties wish to campaign on the basis of involving themselves directly in the influencing of elections, they should be able to do so without spending more than the great majority of the small political parties in the country have chosen to spend.
As a member of the Select Committee, I think it a bit rich for us to be lectured on proposing amendments to Lords amendments by someone who is proposing that we reject a number of significant Lords amendments. If the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied that the Bill, as it broadly stands—with the Government’s suggested response to the Lords amendments—is so perfect, why did the Government table Lords amendment 99. which gives Henry VIII powers to Ministers enabling them to change the very law that he says is so perfect?
I shall deal with Lords amendment 99 later. What I will say now is that the amendment that we are discussing would leave the spending limit in Northern Ireland as it is under existing legislation, not least because my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House went to Northern Ireland to meet organisations there and discuss these matters.
The third party spending limit allows for a great deal of activity. That is partly because much electioneering activity can be now conducted by means of new technology at a much lower cost than used to be the case, but in any event a third party could print 40 million leaflets, it could take out a dozen front-page advertisements in a national newspaper, or it could make 780,000 telephone calls from a professional phone bank. That, I think, demonstrates that the limits proposed by Lords amendment 20 are proportionate.
I note that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) wants to increase the amounts. Given that elections are meant to take place between political parties, why are the limits so extensive, and why have the Government allowed them to be so high?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. We have set out to strike a balance, and, in Lords amendment 20, we have changed the limits applying to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On the basis of all those arguments, I ask the House to resist amendment (a) if it is pursued by the hon. Member for Nottingham North.
Turning to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 55, the Government have worked closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure reporting requirements are not overly burdensome. The Government removed the need for nil reporting and have also reduced the regulated period. The regulated period for third parties will commence in September this year, not May, and this will allow additional time for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance and for campaigners to be fully aware of the regulatory regime. Owing to the reduced regulated period, this will impact on the quarterly reporting cycles for the 2015 general election, with the final “quarterly cycle” being compacted from September—three months is a short period running up to the general election.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North has tabled an amendment intending to deal with this situation. However, the Government believe that as this is late in the cycle and only reports of donations over £7,500 are required, third parties will have systems in place to cope with this reduced period. As there is no requirement for nil reports, a period—short or otherwise—will require nothing at all unless a large donation is accepted during that period. It should be noted that third parties will have to provide weekly reports after the Dissolution of Parliament, so the compacted final quarterly cycle will not result in an overly burdensome reporting requirement, particularly in the light of the Lords amendments, which we will come on to, relating to reporting requirements.
On the hon. Gentlemen’s amendment (a) to Lords amendment 59, third parties will have to submit a donations return to the Electoral Commission only where they have received a reportable donation of £7,500 or more. Where they have not received a donation of this value, no report needs to be submitted. This underpins the aim of part 2, which is to increase transparency without placing overly burdensome reporting requirements upon a third party. As is the current practice, under section 96 of PPERA a third party will have to provide a full report of reportable donations three months after polling day. This return is submitted to the Electoral Commission. The Government believe that the section 96 return provides an important safeguard where a full record of reportable donations is provided and visible. This will allow both the Electoral Commission and the general public to ascertain the amount and source of all reportable donations received by a third party during the regulated period. The Government do not believe that this requirement is overly burdensome, as the information will have already been prepared by the third party. It also allows the opportunity for the third party to declare any reportable donations which it has failed to declare previously. This underpins the regulatory regime. We therefore do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, which requires the same donation to be reported only once as that would risk a lack of transparency through this section 96 return coming after the election.
Most of the correspondence I have received from concerned members of the public is in support of charities, some very small, whose normal activities are not related to the electoral success of a political party or individual. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to set their minds at rest that this Bill will not be detrimental to them in any way?
Yes, I can, for two reasons. First, only expenditure which would reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the success of a party or candidate might fall to be regulated as election expenditure, and it is demonstrable at previous elections under this regulatory regime that large amounts of policy-related campaigning has been undertaken by charities and that has not required to be regulated. The second reassurance, as we will come on to see with other amendments, is that we are proposing to lift the registration threshold up from the current level of £10,000 to £20,000. That will allow small-scale campaigning by organisations not to be part of the regulatory regime.
Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s amendment (a) to Lords amendment 75, a statement of accounts has to be provided only if the third party has incurred controlled expenditure over the registration threshold. In addition, an individual is excluded from the provisions. Those third parties who prepare accounts under another enactment need not prepare additional accounts if the commission is satisfied they include equivalent information. When a third party registers with the Electoral Commission it must state, using a simple tick box, whether it is an individual or one of the bodies that can register as a third party. From this information, the Electoral Commission can ascertain whether the body provides accounts under another enactment. As a result it would add unnecessary additional bureaucracy to ask the third party to submit a subsequent declaration that it is exempt from the provisions, as the amendment requires. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman will not persist with that.
Turning to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 99 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), the order-making power, to which the hon. Member for Foyle just referred, would allow for the Government only to make consequential amendments. It would not allow the Government to amend the fundamental principles and provisions included in part 2 of the Bill. Any changes to primary legislation would be subject to affirmative resolution in any case. The power is also time limited, so that it could be used only until the date of the next general election. I should emphasise that I hope this power will not be needed, but I consider it prudent to insert it into the Bill, to ensure it is possible to make changes should unforeseen or unintended effects be identified after the Bill receives Royal Assent which could be put right by consequential provision.
The Government have introduced—the Lords is introducing—a number of amendments of significant benefit to campaigners, and we would not want to risk them being ineffective for any technical reason. We agree that it is important to consult the commission and I can assure the House that we will consult it before making an order under this power. The commission in its briefing agrees with this approach. Should the commission make a recommendation to us to use this power, we will consider such a recommendation extremely carefully. Because of the limited scope of the power and this assurance, the Government do not believe it is necessary to accept this amendment.
Baroness Thomas, the Chair of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the House of Lords, described the power yesterday as
“well precedented and here it is very narrowly drawn. The House need not worry that the Government are in some way exceeding their powers or doing something they should not on this occasion.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 615.]
Consequently, we cannot support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Let me turn to the Lords amendments with which we agree. Lords amendments 106 to 107 set out in schedule 8A a consolidated and extensive list of the types of expenses which are excluded from counting as controlled expenditure. Further to the current exclusions provided for in PPERA, the Lords in these amendments extend them to include: expenses related to translating materials from English to Welsh or from Welsh to English; costs associated with providing protection of persons or property in relation to a public rally or event; and reasonable expenses incurred that are reasonably attributable to an individual’s disability. The exclusion of translation costs reflects the position of the Welsh language, which is governed by the Welsh Language Act 1993. Under that Act, the English and Welsh languages have equal status in Wales. This differs from other languages spoken in the UK, where the UK Parliament has not legislated to give them the same status as Welsh.
Lords amendment 19 increases the registration thresholds in the Bill, as I was discussing in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson). Those were set in the Bill at £5,000 for England and £2,000 for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The amendment however raises these amounts substantially, from £5,000 to £20,000 for England and from £2,000 to £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This change is in response to the many representations this Government have received from campaigners who spend only small amounts of money and were concerned that the Bill’s transparency provisions, though essential, would in fact impose unduly onerous compliance requirements. It is important to recognise, as many organisations did, that election expenditure should in principle be disclosed and regulated, but there were concerns that smaller organisations would be caught by the provisions. By raising the thresholds to levels that also take into account the extended range of activities proposed by the Bill, small campaigners can be assured that they will not suddenly be subject to administrative controls that they are not resourced or equipped to comply with.
Yes. The registration threshold is the threshold of expenditure at which one is required to register, and all the limits for the registration threshold and the total spending limits are in relation to the definition of controlled expenditure which includes staffing costs for third parties.
Lords amendment 20 increases the spending limits—not the registration thresholds—for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by £20,000 each. This is an increase from the levels set in the Bill when it went to the Lords. The new limits will be £55,400 for Scotland, £44,000 for Wales and £30,800 for Northern Ireland. Campaigners have argued that the spending limits for those parts of the United Kingdom were disproportionately low—so low in fact, that they might force campaigners to step aside and not participate in elections. It has never been our intention to prevent third parties from campaigning altogether. They are a key aspect of the democratic process and, to ensure they remain so, the spending limits have been raised to more suitable amounts.
Lords amendment 18 relates to coalitions. It is important to recognise that the Bill did not change the regulatory regime for coalitions, but the debate on the Bill has enabled us to identify a change that will help campaigners that do incur small amounts of expenditure. The Government received many representations on the existing PPERA regime on coalitions. The concern was that the Bill’s provisions would put onerous reporting burdens on them. This fear was particularly pronounced in relation to those who often campaign as part of a coalition.
This new procedure introduces a new framework. A third party may participate in as many coalitions as it wishes. When it takes part in this procedure, it will not have to report for its expenditure, provided it does not incur total spend above the registration threshold—the numbers to which I just referred. The third party would take on the status of a “minor campaigner”. Another third party who agrees to act as a “lead campaigner” in the coalition’s common plan would instead report the expenditure it and the minor campaigner had both incurred. As with the registration thresholds, this provision is also intended to reassure small spending campaigners that new burdens will not be imposed upon them. Indeed, it will reduce the burden compared with the regime in the 2000 Act.
Lords amendment 28 removes the post-dissolution constituency limit of £5,850. Campaigners may now spend the entire constituency limit of £9,750 at any time during the regulated period, or just in the last few weeks before the election if they so wish. That makes it less restrictive and easier to comply with.
Lords amendments 91, 94 and 96 shorten the length of the regulated period for third parties. The regulated period is the time before an election within which only limited expenditure can be incurred, and certain campaigning rules must be observed. Reports must be submitted to the regulator. The regulator, the Electoral Commission and campaigners have argued that they need more time than the Bill would otherwise allow to understand fully the new rules and their responsibilities under them. The Government agree about the need to ensure suitable guidance is in place for campaigners. If the Electoral Commission needs further time to produce this guidance, and ensure it is relevant, clear and useful, the regulated period can be shortened to facilitate that. That is why the regulated period for third parties, for the purposes of the 2015 parliamentary general election only, will be reduced to seven and a half months—starting immediately after the Scottish referendum—instead of the usual twelve months.
Let me stress that the regulated period for political parties is not being similarly reduced.
The Lords have also introduced amendments to allow royal chartered bodies, charitable incorporated organisations, Scottish charitable incorporated organisations and Scottish partnerships to register as a recognised third party. This reflects the fact that the list of bodies that can register as a third party has not been updated since 2000.
The Lords have made further amendments that seek to reduce unnecessary burdens on recognised third parties. As a result, recognised third parties will have to provide a donations report to the Electoral Commission only when they receive a reportable donation of £7,500 or more. There will no longer be a requirement to provide nil reports. In addition, a recognised third party will no longer have to provide a spending return or statement of accounts if it only incurs controlled expenditure below the necessary registration threshold. When a recognised third party has to provide a statement of accounts, this can be sent to the Electoral Commission in a longer time frame—within nine months of the end of the regulated period, if they do not have to be audited, or 12 months, if they do have to be audited.
On non-party campaigning, in order to ensure that the provisions of this Bill are subject to review, Lords amendment 88 stipulates that the Government must, within twelve months of Royal Assent, appoint a person to review the operation of the PPERA provisions, as amended by this Bill, at the next general election. The findings of that review must be laid before Parliament within 18 months of the next general election—that is, by November 2016. The review will provide a unique real-time opportunity to assess how the new regulatory regime is operating, in good time for the 2020 general election.
Lords amendment 87 is not about non-party campaigning. It introduces a new measure to ensure that candidates’ personal expenses will be excluded from counting towards their election expenses limits at local elections in England and Wales. This change will harmonise those arrangements with the existing situation for parliamentary elections, police and crime commissioner elections and Greater London authority elections, at which personal expenses are already excluded from candidates’ expenses limits.
This change has been brought about principally so that disabled candidates are not unfairly penalised for incurring disability-related costs, which can often be quite high. The need for the change became apparent following the creation of the access to elected office for disabled people fund. The fund was established by this Government to provide grants to disabled people who are, or who go on to become, candidates at elections. The fund provides grants to help candidates to overcome any barriers to elected office that might arise as a result of their disability. However, electoral law considered those grants to be personal expenses and therefore deductable from candidates’ election expenses limits at local elections—the one poll where personal expenses counted towards a candidate’s expenses limit.
Lords amendment 87 therefore brings the treatment of personal expenses at local elections into line with the arrangements for other polls where they are already exempt. It would be particularly unfair to penalise disabled candidates standing at local elections for accepting fund grants or even incurring their own disability-related costs. The amendment does not as yet extend to local elections in Northern Ireland or Scotland, as those polls are devolved. However, we will work with the respective Governments to ensure that there is consistency.
Much work has been done in this House, in the Lords and with external stakeholders to ensure that the Bill meets the principle of enhanced transparency for third parties who want to influence the outcome of elections, while preserving the essential freedom to speak out on issues. I should like to thank those who have contributed to the debates, and I reiterate my thanks to my noble Friends in the House of Lords. As has been said many times before, the purpose of the Bill is to bring greater awareness and clarity to campaigning activity. I believe that, through these amendments, that is what we can achieve.
I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft civil legal aid regulations. The Ayes were 304 and the Noes were 231, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
A total of 1 hour and 50 minutes has been allocated for this important debate on part 2 of the Bill, and the Leader of the House has just spoken for almost three quarters of an hour. That leaves the rest of us just over an hour to address an issue on which Members on both sides of the House have received dozens of items of correspondence in the past few days.
Let us remind ourselves that the Bill started out as a lobbying measure. It was meant to be the Government’s response to what the Prime Minister called
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
However, the Bill has been a disaster from the very beginning. It was meant to address the next big scandal; instead, it has turned into an attack on civil society, on campaigners and on trade unions. It was meant to fix our broken politics; instead, it risks stifling free and open democratic debate. It was supposedly about stopping big money coming into our politics; instead, it creates the risk that civil society will face unnecessary and burdensome regulations.
It was noted in our earlier discussions on part 1 that the process by which the Bill has been conducted through Parliament is entirely in line with the draconian nature of the Bill itself. There has been a distinct lack of scrutiny at every stage. It has been a shambles. Deliberations on the Bill in the other place finished yesterday—
Order. I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is very interesting, but I must remind him that this is not a Third Reading debate. His remarks should refer specifically to the amendments before us, and I presume that he was about to speak to them before I interrupted him.
I am grateful to you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will deal with the amendments in a moment, but it is important that we consider the context, because the speed with which the Bill has been considered, particularly in the past few days, has affected the ability of Members in this House to propose amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said in the debate on the previous group, Baroness Williams of Crosby said yesterday that the timings, whereby the Lords finished yesterday and the Commons resumed consideration today, are “ludicrous”.
In moving on to deal with the amendments, I wish to praise one of the proponents of the amendments in the Lords, the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries. He has worked diligently to propose sensible amendments on behalf of his Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement in an attempt to improve a deeply flawed Bill. Weeks of engagement, careful drafting of amendments, debate and consultation led to a position where, as has been said, the Government were defeated on three amendments, one in part 1 and two in part 2. As the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said, there are lessons to be learned by this Government from this process. Some of these issues might not have arisen had the Government published this legislation and enabled pre-legislative scrutiny to take place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and all the other members of the Committee. As my hon. Friend reminded us, the Government parties have a majority on the Committee yet it offered a damning indictment of the way in which the Bill has been handled. The Committee stated:
“The haste with which Lords amendments are returning to the Commons is yet another example of the way in which this Bill has been rushed through Parliament. The timetable that the Government has imposed for this Bill indicates a contempt for Parliament and a lack of belief in the value of parliamentary scrutiny.”
I remind the House that last September we asked the Government to think again.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and let me move on to address some of the specific Lords amendments. First, may I welcome changes that have been made which respond to concerns that have been raised by civil society, but I urge the Government today, notwithstanding what the Leader of the House has just said, to go further and accept the Lords amendments on staffing costs and on constituency limits? Raising registration thresholds is a sensible move that will stop many small and local campaigners becoming entangled in complicated and burdensome regulations. Allowing large campaigners to provide a single expenditure report on behalf of a coalition of smaller campaigners will incentivise and help collaborative working by organisations of different sizes. Simplifying the reporting regime is also a sensible reform.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the burden on third-party organisations. Does he agree with the point made by Lord Harries that it would be almost impossible for the Electoral Commission to police third-party expenditure?
I absolutely agree. Of course the Electoral Commission made the same point, and I will deal with that when I reach the relevant amendment. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that important point on the record.
The Government are proposing to legislate for a review of part 2 following the general election. A review is a sensible thing to carry out, and we support it. However, is there not an irony in rushing legislation through Parliament without appropriate levels of consultation and only at the end, after the event, to add a Government amendment for a serious and thorough review? Surely that is the wrong way round. For many of those who have been campaigning on this Bill and on the Lords amendments, this amendment is a cruel twist. Having been denied a serious process of consultation with the aim, which is blatantly obvious, of stifling campaigning before the next election, the Government now say that there will be a substantial review, but that it will be undertaken after the general election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s proposal amounts to a tacit acceptance that there are fundamental defects in what has been proposed? Would it not be far more sensible if they were honest and straight and recognise that and delayed the whole process?
Absolutely, but I will not be tempted too far down that path, because I must address the Lords amendments that are before us today. My hon. Friend, who led for us on this part of the Bill along with my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), makes a powerful point.
Is my hon. Friend not surprised at the Government’s attitude to this particular set of amendments? The Prime Minister talks about the big society, yet the way that this legislation has been formulated will stifle that same big society.
My hon. Friend makes her point extremely powerfully. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, a measure that was supposed to address a serious crisis around lobbying—we have addressed that in part 1 earlier this afternoon—has instead turned into something that is at real risk of chilling debate among citizens in the period between now and the next general election. The Bill is being rushed through so that it can take effect and be in place for the general election campaign in 2015. Then there is an offer of a serious review, but only after that election. That is churlish, and it is cheap politics from the Government parties. Let me refer to Steve Bubb, the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. He 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 Select Committee agreed with that, and said:
“We do not believe that the Government has clearly communicated the need for Part 2 of the Bill, or has provided a satisfactory account of the basis on which the new levels for registration and expenditure by third parties have been set.”
There are many other examples that I could quote. I chose to quote Sir Stephen, but I could have quoted many other figures. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as aware as I am that there is pretty much unanimity among civil society, left to right, on this question. I will come back to that very point in a moment.
In an attempt to improve what we see as a flawed Bill, we support Lords amendment 45. It is an amendment of incredible importance to campaigning groups and charities. It is clear and simple, and calls for the removal of background staffing costs from activities such as press conferences, media events, transport costs and public rallies. We absolutely support the aim of transparency and accountability. The amendment is not designed to take these activities out of the parameters of the regulation. It is about removing the background staff costs from the activities set out in new schedule 8A.
I will take the Leader of the House at his word. Let me say “the relevant amendment”. I believe this relevant amendment is modest. It is primarily about not the costs themselves but the additional bureaucracy that this would involve. For many smaller charities, it would be incredibly difficult to differentiate the amount of time that the staff member spends on these activities from the time they spend on other activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned Lord Harries of Pentregarth. What he said in the other place is worth considering. It is easy to assess the amount of money that one will spend on hiring the hall for a public rally, because there is an invoice. However, there is no invoice for a member of staff or for the 10% of the time spent over four weeks carrying out the work.
I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman is correct. I have already said that we welcome some of the changes to the registration and threshold levels, but there is still concern among charities about the impact this change could have and the Lords amendment simply clarifies and improves that element of the Bill.
There is no desire in this House to create a regulatory system that is impossible to abide by. We do not want to stifle charities or the other voluntary and citizens’ organisations that are often the bedrock of our communities with further unnecessary red tape and changes to their accountancy structure. Many such organisations rely on volunteers, but they have to try to cost the time of their volunteers.
I believe that the Lords amendment is a compromise. The Opposition share the preference that the Electoral Commission has expressed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, the Chair of the Select Committee, reminded us earlier, the Electoral Commission said that for the 2015 election it would prefer all staff costs to be removed. The amendment does not go as far as that recommendation, as it would merely count for background staff costs in relation to certain activities that are being brought into regulation.
It is clear that some costs should be accounted for, such as those with an indirect relation to the canvassing of voters. It seems to me that it would not be very difficult to identify those costs, but organising a meeting, travelling to a venue or setting up a press conference might take merely a few minutes and it would be absurd to expect small and medium-sized organisations to have to account for that time, too. We see the amendment as a tidying up exercise that could save valuable time and money for charities and voluntary organisations while maintaining the purpose of transparency and accountability for those activities that relate directly to elections.
When the amendment was considered in the other place, only three peers who were not from the Government Benches voted against it. The Government were defeated, and on that basis I urge them to listen. Lord Tyler, the Liberal Democrat peer and a former long-standing Member of this House, made a powerful case, saying:
“Bluntly, I do not think that anyone cares if a policy officer, whose job for the rest of the year is something completely different, spends a little time booking a room for an election rally, or incurs costs travelling to it…if the regulations go through without us thinking about the implications, they could unnecessarily tie up campaigners in accounting for their time—and, worse still, could deter some from campaigning at all.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 280.]
Surely the problem is not about the amount of money. The danger is that the Government are completely ignoring the fact that small charities believe that the Government are setting out to tie them up in knots and prevent them from expressing opinions that they might find difficult. That is why this is regarded as an attack on freedom. Is that not the problem?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why throughout our discussion of the Bill we have used the phrase “chilling effect”. There are the direct effects of the legislation, but in a sense the greater concern is the one of which he has reminded us—its broader effect on the ability of civil society and citizens to participate in debates in the run-up to elections.
Let me refer to other contributions in the other place. Lord Cormack—Patrick Cormack, a Conservative Member of this House for 40 years—urged the Government to take this step. He was supported by his Conservative colleague Lord Northbrook. They supported the amendment and argued that it would make life a lot easier for campaigners and would therefore give citizens a voice. I urge the Government to reconsider and, if they will not, I urge the House to stand with the other place on this amendment.
Let me move on to constituency limits. We are supposed to be addressing the issue of big money in politics. Bearing down on third party spending while leaving political party spending unreformed seems to me to be unfair and does not represent the radical reform we are looking for. Just now, the Leader of the House spoke about party spending at the 2010 general election. The biggest third-party spender spent 4% of the amount spent by the Conservative party at the last election—4%. If the Government are serious about taking the big money out of politics, they need to confront their reliance on a tiny number of wealthy donors.
My hon. Friend makes the point better than I did, and I thank him for doing so.
Given that both the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee supported the restoration of the third-party limit to the levels in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we believe that that is the right approach. The Lords have advocated a clear, simplifying amendment, which would ensure that there are new reporting requirements for third parties in relation to telephone calls, literature to households and physical distribution in a defined area. The Government’s wider scope of activity, which would have to be reported, has been described by the Electoral Commission as unworkable and unenforceable. It said that
“it will be challenging to obtain robust evidence to determine and sanction breaches in specific geographical areas, for example, regarding the effects of a leafleting campaign or mobile advertising in different constituencies…it is likely to be difficult to demonstrate that a breach meets the necessarily high test for using a stop notice to intervene to halt campaigning activity.”
Surely there is nothing worse than our passing a new law that is unenforceable and unworkable.
The Electoral Commission states that the Lords amendments would reduce its worries about enforceability, although it still has concerns about this part of the Bill. The Government’s plans risk increasing the administrative burden on charities and campaigning groups. Often, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, those groups are not organised regionally or locally, let alone by constituency, and they would have to modify their accounting structures and the way in which they monitored their expenditure.
Let us consider the kind of cross-party campaigns that we are talking about: people campaigning on the badger cull; on HS2; on a hospital closure that might affect a region or sub-region; local food banks; and road extensions. There are many such examples, and I do not believe that the Leader of the House, in his response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, gave sufficient reassurance that the Government have addressed that issue. The Opposition support the Lords amendment, and we hope that the Government will have a change of heart.
In the debate in the other place, Lord Cormack said that he welcomed amendments that were trying
“to make a bad Bill better”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. 281.]
He urged the Government to improve the Bill by supporting the Lords amendment. The chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action said that the Government have
“turned an awful Bill into what might at best be described as a deeply flawed Bill.”
They have another opportunity to try to mitigate the disaster of the original Bill. Even at this late stage, I urge the Government to accept the amendments that the Lords have proposed after careful and pragmatic consideration. For a party that used to talk a lot about the big society, it seems to me that without the Lords amendments, this is a cruel attempt at making society that bit smaller. The Lords amendments are sensible and modest on staffing costs and constituency limits, and they would help charities and other voluntary and campaigning organisations. If we keep the Lords amendments, they would improve the Bill considerably. I urge the House to accept them.
It is a real privilege to contribute to this debate. I have contributed to all the debates on the Bill so far. I am quite optimistic about the Bill’s purposes, but today I want to confine my remarks to Lords amendments 108, 26 and 27. The Government reject amendments 26 and 27 because they are keen to take the big money out of politics and to ensure that local charities and organisations can be involved in campaigning. One of the things that has crept into every stage of debate on the Bill is that it is a gagging Bill. It is frightening good people in communities throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very political point and I want to confine my remarks to the amendments.
Earlier, we heard an exchange between the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House regarding Unison and small local charities. The reality is that we need to stop the trend of large third party organisations—in the United States, they are called super PACs, or political action committees—attacking a small number of 90 to 100 constituencies that determine who wins the general election and will form the next Government. That is something that all hon. Members should be in favour of.
The hon. Gentleman disappoints and upsets me by suggesting that that is a ludicrous remark. The reality is that most people in this country want big money to be taken out of politics. Part 1 of the Bill is all about lobbying.
Some of the rhetoric that has come out of this House is frightening good people up and down the country and stopping them engaging in the process. One thing that hon. Members have intentionally not taken on board is that it is illegal for a charity to get involved in a political process and try to affect the outcome of an election. The whole purpose of the Bill is to do with third parties, but people seem to be advancing behind a screen of small charities. If we look at registration—[Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has done a fantastic job as Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and I have read his reports with great interest. In fact, the first 15 of the conclusions and recommendations of the latest report, which was a very good job done overnight, agree with the Government, and accept that the Government have listened at every stage of the Bill. The Government have tried hard to listen to and work with local charities and community groups across the country to achieve some kind of success. [Interruption.] I have great respect for the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who says that that is not what is happening in her area. I am proud to have 400 charities and community groups in my area. Not one has contacted me about the Bill. Not a single one is upset about it because none would have the financial resources to spend these amounts of money. If those charities contact me, most do so because they need money to keep going and to maintain the services that they are interested in. This is very much about taking the big money out of politics and stopping the formation of large super PACs, which can create huge problems.
Can the hon. Gentleman recall any massive public outcry against the excesses of organisations like the British Legion, Oxfam and Save the Children in order to get the Bill through? Can he recall the outcry, from the Prime Minister and everyone else, against the greedy activities of corporate lobbyists? The Bill is designed to distract attention from the Government’s failure to deal with corporate lobbyists by attaching blame to the minnows, the small charities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am very proud of the Government’s commitment to match all public contributions to Oxfam between now and mother’s day—hon. Members should contribute as much as they can. I am also proud that the Government are doing a lot of work with charities of all scopes and sizes. I cannot recall any such outcry, but the Government are trying to cut big money out of politics. From my point of view, this will stop the formation of large super PACs, which would contribute large amounts of money and resources to a small number of seats that will determine who wins the general election.
The hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech that the Bill was designed to address the issue of big money in politics, but that is not what it will do. All it will do is attack small charities and third party organisations. The real money, which lies in lobbying Ministers and special advisers, has been ruled out. The Bill will not achieve the stated aim because it does not target those who need to be targeted.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I shall have to wrap up my remarks in a moment so that other Members can contribute.
The reality is that the Bill proves that the Government listened. They are the most transparent Government ever. The Bill has been consistently improved by Members on both sides of both Houses, and that is something the Government should be given credit for. I am proud to be a part of this Government, who work closely with charities across the country. Every Member of this House works hard with charities in their local communities, and those charities will not be affected by the Bill. I shall therefore be pleased to support the Government today in the Lobby.
On Lords amendment 108, which relates to excluding staff costs for charities and third party organisations, small charities in our constituencies will not be in a position to campaign in 80 or 90 other constituencies; they are just trying to survive in their small towns, cities and villages and to deliver for local people. Members should not use the frightening rhetoric that we have heard in relation to the Bill. That rhetoric stops charities and community groups engaging with us and getting involved in the political process. I urge all the community groups and charities in my constituency not to be frightened but to continue to engage with us and do what they always do, which is to campaign on policies and try to get them implemented.
It is a great privilege to speak in the debate on this group of amendments—the first time I have done so when you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. Should I run dry, I will refer to my deputy Chair from her days on the Select Committee, who I am sure will be able to help me out!
Before speaking to the amendments, I would like to thank one or two people. I thank colleagues in the second Chamber, who I think have done an excellent job. I would certainly like to put on the record my thanks to members of the Select Committee, our Clerk and staff for the brilliant job they have done yet again in very short order. I would also like to thank the Leader of the House. He gets a bit tetchy when Select Committees and Parliament do their job of holding the Government to account, but I think that he is a decent man. Although he sometimes tries not to, I think that he has inadvertently listened to one or two of the arguments made in the House and made some helpful changes in the second Chamber. I would like to put on the record my gratitude to him for that. If he can do it on a number of occasions, he can probably do so on two or three more, giving the Bill the wonderful finale that it so thoroughly deserves.
We have heard about the changes proposed in the other House with which the Government wish to disagree. Given the time available, I will not go over them again, but they relate to staff costs and material costs not being included in the definition of the amount to be spent, which will of course diminish. I urge the House and the Government to support these sensible proposals as they are supported by the Select Committee. In principle, we would not wish staff costs to be excluded, but on this occasion, as we are running into an almost immediate election, with 469 days until election day, it makes sense to be practical by not including them.
The Leader of the House referred to the three amendments on reporting requirements that I tabled on behalf of my Committee. The essence of this is that we are dealing with charities. As representatives of the second Chamber eloquently explained, many of those institutions do not have the infrastructure to handle heavy bureaucracy. The Government have accepted that argument, to some extent, and I ask them to look again at our amendments. It is surely not in anyone’s interests, least of all those of the Government, who say so much about deregulation, to place such huge amounts of red tape and bureaucratic burdens on to charitable institutions that are trying to participate in the democratic life of this country. Difficulties are placed in their way by excessive reporting, and surely that is not what the Government are trying to achieve.
The crux of the matter is that we are coming up to one minute to midnight and no one has identified the problem that part 2 is intended to address. What was the burning issue that led people to demand it? Unlike part 1 on lobbying, where clearly abuses were taking place, although none of them is being addressed, part 2 is not needed to deal with any abuses, public scandals or big political issues. Even now, at one minute to midnight, the question of what the problem is has not been satisfactorily answered.
Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that the Government have done a clever bit of magician’s deception in successfully stirring up a great deal of public anger about the charities part of the Bill in order to distract attention from the fact that the much needed first part of the Bill is woefully inadequate?
My hon. Friend is a very eminent and distinguished member of the Select Committee, but he is a very cynical person if he believes that that is why the Government have done this. [Interruption.] No, we are talking about charities and I think we should be charitable in saying that it is not conspiracy but incompetence.
Very much so, unfortunately. That is why the amendments improve a Bill that needed and still needs a great deal of improvement. I was quoted as saying that it was a dog’s breakfast, and one hon. Member said that that was an insult to canine nutritionists. The Deputy Leader of the House said that the Bill has been transformed. Well, the dog’s breakfast might have been transformed from Winalot to Pedigree Chum, but it is probably not much better than that.
The issue is incredibly serious. There will now be an opportunity once every five years for charities, voluntary sector organisations and everyone else to participate in a general election, which is the lifeblood of our democracy, with its give and take and its challenge from all sorts of organisations from the League Against Cruel Sports to the Countryside Alliance. People are entitled to participate and we should facilitate their participation, but we are not doing so.
For example, people have said that there will be severe unintended consequences, that they do not believe there is legal certainty and that they fear the Bill. Who are the crazy people saying that? They signed a letter. They are Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK, Neil Thorns of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain and Paul Parker of the Quakers—absolutely fringe elements who are a danger to society! They genuinely feel that their activities during a period of political interaction and give and take could land them in trouble.
I speak as the chair of a charity, and should perhaps declare an interest as such. From my experience of sitting through every day spent on the Bill in this House, I do not have the confidence to give my charity a definitive answer about whether we could be caught by some of the provisions. The question is not whether my charity or any other wishes that to happen, but whether it is possible. That possibility is the reason there is a chilling effect, not that charities will clearly be caught.
What do we rely on? We rely on the good faith of the Leader of the House. I am sure he means it when he says, “Don’t worry—all that activity won’t be caught.” If that is the case, why do we need the Bill when we already have very strong provisions to catch people, particularly in the charitable field, who seek to offend? I again ask why. What problem are we trying to address? There is a chilling effect, and reassurances in Hansard and keeping our fingers crossed will not be enough.
We have a fixed-term Parliament, and if we choose to take the opportunity, that will give us a year’s interactive, open debate during which we might do cross-party or all-party stuff to clear all the dross out of the way, with a ding-dong during the last 28 days as normal. We might start to work together to find answers, and to campaign together with civic society and all those institutions, like our charities and voluntary sector organisations. What a wonderful debate and what a great opportunity it would be for our democracy to have such a year; we know that the election is 469 days away. It could be a great liberating opportunity, but what will happen if Parliament and the Government are held in contempt by the electorate? We will throw away that opportunity and be unable to take the chance to involve people. In one or two years’ time, we will look back at this as a terrible wasted opportunity.
I briefly repeat a comment I made on the previous group of amendments: the Bill left this place in an unsatisfactory state, but went to the Lords and had a considerable amount of work done to it. A huge number of the amendments made were either proposed by the Government after listening or accepted by them following a debate. I repeat that my noble Friend Lord Tyler was central to much of that process, and the Front Benchers Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, among others, did a splendid job in that regard.
When I spoke to Lord Tyler, he told me that he shared two of my major concerns, which he expressed very well, about the degree of bureaucracy and the degree of complexity, and everything he did was to try to remove bureaucracy or complexity. He made the very good point that the Bill builds on the PPERA, but that the process of engagement with charities and the third sector threw up the fact that many of them did not understand that earlier legislation and were not perhaps compliant with it. Therefore, if nothing else, this process has helped them to understand what is necessary.
I will touch quickly on the Lords amendments that have succeeded. The fundamental change was raising the registration rates to £20,000 for England and £10,000 for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We began with the position that the rates would be halved and they have now been doubled. That is a significant change. It has lifted the vast majority of smaller organisations and charities out of the legislation completely. That is a considerable concession by the Government and it has achieved a great deal. I make the small point, in parentheses, that I do not know why the rate for Scotland should be half that for England, but I shall move on quickly.
Charities also had a critical concern about coalitions. That has been dealt with by removing all the burdens from low-spending participants in a campaigning coalition and allowing the larger campaigners to provide a single report on their behalf. That has lifted a large potential burden. That change, along with other changes such as removing the requirement for nil returns and the review, has changed dramatically the way in which the Bill can be viewed. It is now much closer to achieving the principles that I want to see, which are greater transparency and accountability in third parties. It is also less heavy-handed with those who are not a target, such as small, local organisations and charities—virtually all charities are exempt.
This process has allowed good, informed criticism to be taken on board. It has also allowed us to flush out some very ill-informed criticism. I received an e-mail from a constituent yesterday urging me to support Lord Tyler, which of course is always a pleasure, because he wanted to continue to campaign against wind farms in our area and because he wanted to be able to campaign against the building of houses on the battlefield of Culloden if anybody ever suggested it. I was able to point out to him with complete certainty that those two things would never be covered by the Bill. There are many people out there who think that it does cover such matters. It is important to have the opportunity to dispel those ideas.
I will turn to the two principal amendments that I wanted to discuss. Lords amendment 108 removes a huge raft of things that were included in the proposal before their lordships. I took the trouble of finding schedule 3 in its unamended form. The Lords amendment relates to sub-paragraphs (3), (4) and (5) of paragraph 1, which include not only transport costs, but some pretty heavy bits of expenditure, such as public rallies. Their lordships were right to think that they had cut too far and too hard.
I urge my colleagues to support the Government in rejecting Lords amendment 108 for a simple procedural reason. If we accept it, that will be the end of the matter. However, if we do not accept it and send it back to their lordships, they can, through ping-pong, propose something that takes account of the justifiable concerns about transport and so forth but does not go as far as this amendment, which has clearly gone too far.
Lords amendment 108 does not take out the major costs of rallies and big events. It takes out only any costs in respect of remuneration or expenses that are payable to staff in relation to rallies. It does not relate to the overall costs of rallies, such as equipment and hiring space. Those would not be taken out by the amendment.
I am well aware of that. However, the staff costs, particularly in relation to sub-paragraphs (3) and (5), will be considerable, so they should be included. I would like to give their lordships the chance to think again about that.
On Lords amendments 26 and 27, I should explain that subsection (1) of proposed new section 2A in Lords amendment 26 is an amendment made on Report by my noble Friend Lord Tyler. It is a clear amendment that does exactly what it says on the tin, and I have almost complete sympathy with it. Lord Harries added subsections (2) and (3), which render the amendment unworkable. If I may paraphrase what Lord Tyler said, the lawyers have got hold of it and they have gone far too far. In particular, it is almost impossible to work out how one would begin to consider policing subsection (3), which is so defective that it has rendered what was a sound amendment almost completely ineffective.
To those of us who like legislating, it might be quite fun to look at different definitions, but I seriously contend—I hope the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who often helps me out on such matters, will agree—that subsections (2) and (3), particularly subsection (3), put a coach and horses through the very good amendment my noble Friend put through on Report in the other place. I suggest, therefore, that we reject it, because their lordships should be allowed to have another look at it. The intention was to simplify the Bill, making it easier and taking out bureaucracy. The amendment would, however, introduce massive complexity and a great deal of bureaucracy, and runs utterly counter to the other amendments that have been accepted. For that reason, I accept the Government’s view that it cannot be accepted and that their lordships should try again.
My final point is that there is an inconsistency. The limit is now £9,750, and the registration is £10,000. The fact is that any organisation in our constituencies could spend £9,000 and we would not know about it until after the election. It is a shame that we have not had a chance to address such an unintended consequence.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I just point out to the House that we have some 17 minutes left of this debate and that if each Member takes only just more than six minutes then everyone will have a chance to speak? If Members speak for longer than that, not everyone will have a chance to speak. It is up to Members to behave as they see fit.
I congratulate the shadow Minister on raising important issues. I do not say for one second that the Minister is ignoring them, but the fact is that charities are not convinced by the arguments put forward. The hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) said that the charities in his area have not contacted him with concerns. I can tell him that the charities in my constituency, and across the whole of Northern Ireland, have stated clearly that they do have concerns, and I want to present them now.
I support Lords amendment 45, which was tabled by Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He outlined some of the issues relating to seeking to narrow the requirement for third-party campaigners to account for staff costs, which has come up again and again. Charities in my area are deeply concerned by the original proposals, and we must address this. It is beneficial for staff costs to continue to be included in controlled expenditure in relation to election material, marketing and canvassing, and when they directly relate to communicating with the electorate. The simplification of the requirements will make them much more understandable and workable for charities. I agree with commentators who say that that will make it easier to comply with the proposed legislation. One need only ask any farmer about being bound in red tape by European legislation that stifles everything to understand why it would be prohibitive for charities to undertake the original provisions.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady, and that issue will run through all my comments.
I am thankful that the Lords has seen fit to make these amendments for our consideration. Were the amendments to fail, many charities could be prevented from doing charitable work, which would be a tragedy. The amendment on constituency limits will rightly reduce the regulatory burden on charities and voluntary organisations campaigning in individual constituencies. In particular, it will more clearly define the activities covered by the constituency controls so that they cover spending on election material sent to voters and households and unsolicited phone contact with them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment, and clearly those are issues that all charities have concerns about.
The amendment would also reduce the amount of red tape for charities simply seeking to help people who are unable to bear their own burdens. I have been contacted by charities—in Northern Ireland and across the UK—highlighting how some constituency boundaries split towns between two constituencies. For example, Ballynahinch is not only in my beautiful constituency, but in the constituency of South Down—the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) is not here—which makes clear why the amendment is necessary. I hope, therefore, that the House, like me, will support it.
I also support the amendment that would allow charities that work together in coalition to campaign together. Our recent debate on rare diseases, such as Duchenne and Prader-Willi, in Westminster Hall brought together and gave a voice to many different charity and health bodies. It was clear that such charities were so small that it made more sense for them to campaign and fundraise together under the umbrella of rare diseases while still working for their individual illnesses. The current situation is working and should be allowed to continue working, and the amendment goes some way to allowing them to work together to the benefit of all member groups. It would also eliminate the unfair anomaly in existing law that means that a partner in a charity coalition campaign on one issue would be limited in its spending on other, totally unrelated issues by virtue of the continued spending by other charity coalition partners.
Mencap has said:
“However, we are still concerned about the potential of the Bill to curtail legitimate campaigning by voluntary and community organisations. On a practical level we are concerned that staffing costs are still to be included in regulated expenditure and the rules around separate organisations working on joint campaigns are still unclear. We are most concerned about the subjective way in which the Bill aims to determine the intentions of a campaigning activity. Charities are already bound by charity law which prohibits party political campaigning. However, this Bill applies to campaigning by organisations which might influence elections—whether they intended to or not.”
We need clarity on how that issue of intention to influence will be dealt with, but we have not had it from the Minister. I agree with the comments of the shadow Minister and of the charities and organisations concerned, and I support the Lords amendments.
At the outset, I should say that I speak this afternoon as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Many of these amendments relate to amendments suggested in the Committee’s report, and I wish to acknowledge that the Government have moved considerably in its direction, particularly in relation to raising the threshold for non-party organisations to register with the Electoral Commission; to raising the spending limits for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; to reducing the regulatory period for the 2015 general election; and to introducing a review of non-party campaigning rules after the 2015 general election. Once again, we wish to place on the record our thanks to the Government for making those changes.
Let me move on to deal with some of the specific amendments. Given the concerns about the potential “chilling effect” of the Bill, it will be important for any post-election review of the non-party campaigning rules to include a careful examination of the impact of part 2 on campaigners’ rights to freedom of expression and association. Does the Minister envisage that such a review will specifically examine the practical effects of the Bill’s provisions on campaigners’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association?
It is worth noting some of the comments made in the second Chamber about the Government’s proposed post-election review of non-party campaigning rules after the 2015 general election. In withdrawing his amendment to exclude charities from the rules, Lord Phillips of Sudbury said that the review of the workings of this legislation in the wake of the 2015 election would be vital. In the discussion on the Government’s amendment to establish the post-election review, Lord Harries also stressed that this review would be essential.
In welcoming the Government amendment, let me nevertheless express once again unease at the fact that so much reliance is being placed on post-legislative scrutiny, particularly when there is an election in the intervening period, and repeat the concerns raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights about the lack of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny prior to the Bill’s publication.
Before concluding, let me draw attention, as other Members from across the Chamber have done, to the views and contribution of constituents. One of my constituents, Sylvia John of Briton Ferry, is one of many who wrote to urge me to support the Lords amendments, which I shall do later. Her words were echoed by Children in Wales, one of the most respected charitable organisations in Wales, whose chief executive, Catriona Williams said that the Bill remains “deeply problematic”.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and his Select Committee for the tremendous work carried out right up to today, and particularly last night, to deliver the final report. We have had the benefit of being able to read it today. I also commend the work of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, under the wise chairmanship of Lord Harries of Pentregarth.