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Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2013

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That, in the light of recommendations of the 7th Report from the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (HC Paper 601–1), the 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (HL Paper 61) and the 3rd Report from the Constitution Committee (HL Paper 62), and the report on Non-party campaigning ahead of elections from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, so much of the orders of the House of 22 October and 28 October as relate to Clauses 26 to 35 and Schedules 3 and 4 be vacated, and that those clauses and Schedules be instead committed to a select committee; and that the select committee do report by 13 February 2014.

My Lords, I should make it abundantly clear from the start, as I have done to the Leader of the House and the Minister, that far from being a wrecking Motion, this is a saving Motion designed to save the Government from doing untold damage to a very precious part of the big society that they claim to champion—namely, the voluntary sector—and to save the vast majority of voluntary sector organisations which have nothing whatever to do with the electoral process. That is why my Motion is confined to a very specific part of the Bill and organisations with which I and, I suspect, every other Member of the House are in regular contact.

I freely admit that it would have been more normal for me to have tabled my Motion at Second Reading, but it was only when the masterly report of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement entitled Non-Party Campaigning Ahead of Elections, under the outstanding chairmanship of my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth, was published after Second Reading that the need for urgent preventive action became abundantly clear. The report accentuated the points made by the constitutional Select Committees of both Houses and the Joint Committee on Human Rights to the effect that there are serious flaws in what is being proposed that the Government need to address. However, these could have been exposed had the Government allowed the three-month consultation period that hitherto they had been so keen to promote. By not engaging with the sector and pressing ahead with the Bill, which essentially addresses political matters, the Government appear to be oblivious to what they claim to be the unintended consequences for what I described at Second Reading as one of the “jewels in our national crown”; namely, the vast number of organisations that have nothing to do with the political process.

Last week, when we debated the unfortunate redundancies imposed on members of the Armed Forces within days and weeks of qualification for pensions, I mentioned the damage that this had done to the all-important mutual trust that there should be between government and people. I fear that the way that this Bill is being handled will seriously damage the trust that the voluntary sector has in the Government, which is something that the alleged champions of the big society can ill afford to lose. Indeed, the very clear exposition of the consequences set out in the commission’s report reminds me of the most succinct but unenforceable instruction that I ever saw in the Army: a note pinned to a company notice board which read, “A breach of common sense is a breach of the rules”. I was therefore glad when the Leader of the House contacted me last night, after I had tabled this Motion, to see whether there was a way of avoiding confrontation—which was, I assured him, the very last thing I wanted.

I hoped that a way could be found to mitigate the damage that had been done and to assuage a voluntary sector that is understandably worried and incensed. As it forms such an indispensable and irreplaceable part of our national infrastructure, I have to admit that I was amazed that the Government did not realise the risk they were running in tabling this part of the Bill. At Second Reading, I asked why the Secretary of State for Justice had not complained about the likely damage to those voluntary organisations that he hopes to engage as partners in his rehabilitation revolution. Like me, many Members of the House are wearing the annual symbol of the Royal British Legion, which, along with countless other organisations helping military veterans, is deeply concerned about these clauses.

During the day today I have had meetings with the Leader of the House, the Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the opposition Chief Whip and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, as well as regular contact with the voluntary sector. As a result of that, the Leader of the House has given me his word that he will alter the order of consideration of the parts of the Bill and instruct the Minister to consult my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries over the composition and terms of reference of an examination of the recommendations of the reports of the two constitution committees and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, as well as of the report of the commission, and to produce a report to the whole House before a delayed Committee stage. I know that many in the House and in the deeply suspicious voluntary sector will feel that the Leader’s word is not enough and that what he has offered is less than I was seeking, which was for a Select Committee to be allowed to specify a three-month consultation period to conduct a similar inquiry.

The Leader added that, of course, opportunities still remain for amendment in Committee and on Report. As a soldier, I am accustomed to accepting pledges given by my Government in good faith. Therefore, if I do not press my Motion to a Division, knowing that I shall face the opprobrium of those members of the voluntary sector who do not share my faith, I would be doing so because the word of the Government is on the line. I know that this House and the nation know what to do and to think about those who do not keep their word. If the regulation is felt to need tweaking, by all means tweak it, but not in this way. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for coming to talk to the Leader of the House and me this morning to set out frankly his concerns about the passage of the Bill to date. Following our conversations, and having taken on board his constructive suggestions, I am glad to say that we seem to have an agreed way forward. I believe that we have come up with a way of delivering a pause in our consideration of Part 2 of the Bill so that there can be wide consultation over the coming weeks and so that the Government can try to address the concerns of those involved and interested in Part 2.

One of the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was that we could revise the order of consideration to delay our consideration of Part 2. I can undertake to return to the House tomorrow with a revised order of consideration Motion, to take Parts 1 and 3 first and Part 2 last. I understand from the Chief Whip that I can also undertake that the two days in Committee on Part 2 will not be scheduled before 16 December, on the understanding that we need to finish Committee this side of the Christmas Recess. That effectively gives a near six-week pause in our formal consideration of Part 2.

In that period, I and my colleagues in Government responsible for the Bill will consult widely with all the interested parties—Members of the House and the many others outside. We intend to draw on the work of the Commission on Civil Society, chaired so ably by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and to build on it so that the charity sector has a proper opportunity to explain to the Government its concerns not only with this Bill but, as we discovered in our conversations, with the current statute electoral law in this area, in particular the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We can also consider the reports generated by the two Houses. I also hope to facilitate further discussions between the Electoral Commission and the Charity Commission about each of their sets of guidance, in the hope of achieving something straightforward and agreed for those who have to work within it.

If the commission of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, could report in three weeks, I am confident that we can find a solution in nearly double those three weeks. I stress that we are listening and that we want to listen. We have already shown willing: we announced this morning that we will bring forward an amendment, the effect of which will immediately be to exempt all smaller charities from the provisions of the Bill. If that listening ultimately proves not to satisfy all the concerns in this House, then there can of course be Divisions in Committee and on Report, as is usual and proper, and the House will have a final opportunity to stop the Bill completely on the Motion that the Bill do now pass at the end of the process. The House will therefore scrutinise the Bill in detail.

I believe that my proposal satisfies the concerns that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and others hold and offers us a practical way forward this afternoon, one that will better enable the House to go about its scrutiny of the Bill as we all seek to get it right.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for what has been said so far. Obviously, we support the Motion but we consider that this is a decision for the House to take about how it scrutinises the Bill.

We welcome the acknowledgement, albeit somewhat late, of the mishandling—if I may call it that—of the Bill this far. When it was in the other place, the same comments were made and were brushed aside. They were made at Second Reading but it has taken until this morning, I think, to have at least an acknowledgement that further consideration with those people affected by the Bill is necessary.

I will not rehearse everything that has been said about the Bill to date, but “raising significant concern”, “rushed”, “unacceptable”, “unnecessary speed”, “abuse of parliamentary scrutiny”, “lack of due process” and “truncated timetable” are all phrases that have come across all our desks. There was no warning of this part of the Bill. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny. It is no wonder that the Constitution Committee was very critical of the way it was dealt with.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights raised a slightly different issue from the hurriedness. The lack of effective scrutiny, it thought, had left serious questions about challenges to freedom of association and speech, which needed greater consideration by lawyers as much as discussion with the third sector.

Of course, the recommendation of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee was for a six-month pause so that serious work can be done, not simply in hearing the concerns but in responding to them. It would be worth keeping the words and for the Government to have a listening exercise if nothing changes at the end of it. What we need is much more of a commitment, not just to listen and engage, important though that is, but to act on what is heard.

There has been no indication that something other than the raising of the threshold is on offer. Not everyone has followed the detail of this Bill. Let us just say that it is one of the many asks that the third sector has but it is not the answer to the problems of the Bill. There is a democratic fear about Part 2—it is not the whole of the Bill—about the threat to freedom of assembly and free speech, which needs more than just consultation to be put at rest. It may be that there is not a problem but we need to be sure of that.

Nowhere is this issue more important than in Northern Ireland, a nation emerging from conflict, where civil society has had a prominent role. Indeed, NGOs’ participation in democratic processes is one of the key components of the peace process. The Assembly and civil society must be consulted—not merely, as the Government said yesterday in their response to the your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, that the Minister,

“wrote to the devolved administrations on the introduction of the Bill … to ensure they were aware of the proposals”.

That is not what we are looking for. That is not due consideration of their special circumstances, nor is the Government’s undertaking simply to provide,

“further clarification of the potential impacts”.

The third sector is not looking just for reassurance; it is looking for change. Amnesty International is concerned about the potential to undermine its vital campaigning on human rights. These are not the small charities that might now be exempted; they are the ones that are basic to our democratic engagement and discussion in this country. The Women’s Institute fears that its legitimate comment on policy could leave it,

“exposed to scrutiny for seemingly promoting a political party”.

We need to engage with the WI to see whether its concerns could be met by more fundamental change than is being suggested today.

Able though my colleagues on this side of the House are, I do not believe that they will be able to come up with amendments by 16 December that would answer those questions. I also point out that the week beginning 16 December is a short parliamentary week, and there may be people in this House who have made other plans for that week. Trying to engage with civil society in the period running up to Christmas and then to get the amendments written in time for Committee still seems a tall order under the offer that has been made.

We need to hear whether the fears of the third sector are founded or not. If they are, we need to respond. The third sector has organisational problems. It may seem simple to people with lots of accountants to change the way they account for staffing costs, travel costs, and all that. For any charity with a small back office, that is a big challenge and they need to be heard on that issue.

It may not have been the Government’s intent to wrap up charities and small organisations in the red tape that, elsewhere, they are taking off businesses. It may not have been their intent to frighten the third sector into thinking that their campaigning would be undermined, but that is the position at the moment. I fear that if we over-hurry this pause—if we make it just a breather, rather than a serious pause—it will not achieve what the Government want.

The NCVO has already heard of the offer being made, and said this afternoon that,

“one small change does not fix this bill, and it is important that any changes are considered as a package”.

In particular, in addition to a rise in thresholds, it is looking for the removal of constituency limits, the end-use of nil reports, the removal of staff costs, the removal of events and public rallies, change to the way coalitions are dealt with—not the one over there, the coalition of voluntary organisations—and a reduction of the regulated period to six months.

The Government may not accept that as a final package, but it is important that there is time to consider that and to ensure that a change in one part of the Bill does not leave effects elsewhere. Time spent now, before the Bill is set in stone, will help the Government to achieve their aims. We would like a pause as suggested—a longer one for the discussions. Having done that, we on this side of the House will do all we can through the offices of the usual channels to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book in the timescale that the Government want. We can work to do that, but without a sensible pause and a proper committee to look at it and report back, and to allow the Government time to change the Bill, we will not achieve what all of us seek.

My Lords, first, perhaps I may say how glad I am that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, tabled this Motion today. I pay tribute to him because he was willing to take the lead on this important issue and for all the hard work that he has done behind the scenes, keeping me and the commission in touch with what is going on. I also pay tribute to the Minister and the Leader of the House, who I know are genuinely anxious to get a real consensus on this issue.

The Minister has basically offered a five-week period of consultation. I remind your Lordships that the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended a pause of six months. The commission believes that six months is unnecessary, but five weeks is a very short period indeed. I can say that the commission will do all it can to help the Government during the consultation period, but if it turns out that five weeks is not long enough to get the kind of agreement that we all want on this crucial issue, I remind the leadership of some new advice which has just come from the Electoral Commission, which states:

“Should Parliament decide that a period of consultation is desirable before the Bill makes further progress, we would recommend that the start of the regulated period for the 2015 general election be delayed by an appropriate period”.

It goes on to say that that would give it good time to draw up its advice and educate the charities. Therefore, if the Minister finds that this five-week period is not long enough, there is an alternative that would still enable the Bill to get through in time for the 2015 election: namely, to heed the advice of the Electoral Commission. Meanwhile, I repeat that the commission will do all it can to support the Minister in this consultation period.

My Lords, the question has been posed as to whether this consultation has any effects on other parts of the Bill. This is the time to say that the question of consultation, which has been completely left aside in Part 3, has consequences a fortiori—and what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The trade unions have supported and are part of the coalition with the NGOs. The voluntary sector is huge, and trade unions are probably a bigger part of that sector than is the rest of civil society. I want to put the point on record that the time for more consultation should apply also to the trade unions, otherwise they will feel discriminated against.

My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for the excellent report of his commission, which has performed a service to the whole House and to everybody involved in the debate throughout the country.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for tabling his Motion today. It has performed an extremely useful purpose in concentrating minds, particularly within the Government. I would never say that the Government have been running around like headless chickens, but there has been a great deal of activity over the weekend and into today, to try to find a compromise which will do what a lot of us want. This is no excuse; anybody who heard my speech at Second Reading will know that my views on Part 2 of the Bill are not terribly complimentary.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to serious damage to the relationship between the Government and civil society as a whole. We have an extraordinary position in which on the one hand the Government are saying that black is black and, on the other, pretty well the whole of civil society is saying, “No, it is not. It is actually white”. Who is right in this instance? A great deal of scrutiny and investigation is required. The question is whether it needs a special Select Committee or whether it can be done through the normal processes of this House, augmented by enhanced consultation by the Government with all corners of the House, with everybody outside and with the whole of civil society in the mean time. Is five weeks long enough? Ideally, we would have longer, but we can do the job in five weeks.

We are often told that the purpose of this House, particularly in Committee and on Report, is to scrutinise legislation and revise it. Will my noble friend Lord Wallace give an absolute assurance that, as this scrutiny takes place with the groups in this Chamber and as there is further discussion and negotiation with outside bodies, the Government will be serious and honest—and will not, when we come to Committee, take the typical attitude of all Governments to Bills, which is to defend the status quo and the wording on their Bill, then give way when they are really forced to? As far as Part 2 is concerned, are the Government really going into this with an open mind? It is not just a matter of reassuring the third sector or civil society that the words in the Bill will not harm them, but of taking seriously their view that the Bill will harm them and of looking at ways of changing the Bill so that not only will it not harm them but civil society generally will accepts and be confident that it will not. Are the Government open to change in a serious way on Part 2? That is the fundamental question that we have today. If my noble friend can guarantee me that that is the open-minded approach that the Government are going to take in Committee and on Report, we can be justified in going ahead with the revised schedule, taking Part 2 later on and going to Report in January.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested that there was not enough time to write amendments. I am sure that that is not the case, but the important time for amendments is of course Report. If the amendments are going to be serious and are going to stick, and not be overturned when they go down to the House of Commons, they will have to have general consensus in this House—and that means general consensus by the Government, even if there is otherwise a majority in this House for what might be proposed.

That is the task before us. It requires a change of approach to the Bill, to some extent, on behalf of the whole of the Government, including parts of the Government that are not represented in this House—in higher places, perhaps—and an acceptance that Part 2 is not right yet but can be made right. I believe that the normal processes of this House, worked properly and well, can achieve that. I hope that I am right. I am very pleased that these discussions took place today and that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is seriously thinking of not pressing his Motion to a vote. If it does go to a vote, I will unfortunately not be able to support it. We have a compromise now and, in the best traditions of this House when negotiations take place around the House between the Government and parts of the House and a compromise is reached, we should accept it and go ahead on that basis.

My Lords, I was very concerned about the Motion that was put down today. I am very glad that a compromise has been reached for dealing with this issue without going ahead with the Motion. It has been said that five weeks is not enough. As we know, these things are not absolutely inflexible, but we know how quickly the Governments can work and how quickly amendments can be produced when there is the political will to do so. I accept the assurances that have been given on behalf of the Government about the spirit in which this is being done.

I was extremely concerned about the idea that we should depart from our ordinary practice for the scrutiny of Bills. As far as I know, one part of a Bill has never been sent to a Select Committee in this way. In my time, the whole of a Bill was sent when an office that had lasted for more than 1,000 years was to be abolished by a press release from No. 10; the House then sent the whole of the Bill to a Select Committee. So far as I know, though, a Select Committee has never been appointed to deal with part of a Bill.

The danger that I see about that is that if it were to be done, it would suggest that we were not confident in our own procedures for dealing with all forms of questions. It would undermine the confidence that exists at the moment in the integrity of the parliamentary process that we have come to know and respect. One thing about this House that I seek to emphasise as often as I can is that anyone who has a point of view that they can persuade a Peer to raise will see it raised in consideration of the Bill in this House, and the Government will have to give an answer. People may not always be very keen on that answer, but at least they can get one. That is a very valuable aspect of our House’s procedure, and I am delighted that it has been preserved in the arrangement that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has made with my colleagues.

Another danger here would be if we departed from our ordinary procedure in a particular case in which a lot of Members of this House are particularly involved, as they are in the charitable and third sectors— I am a member of a number of charities, as noble Lords might have thought—whereas, for example, we never subject to special procedure Bills on disabled people or on the particularly poor. I am very relieved that this has been agreed to, and I sincerely hope that it will work. I am sure that the Government can work very speedily, with political will, if that should be necessary.

My Lords, I assure the House that the Government are open-minded on the possibility of changing a number of aspects of the Bill. One thing we discovered in the course of the consultation is that the language of PPERA 2000, particularly of Part 6, does not meet the needs or requirements of a very large number of those who are now to be affected by it. I hope I will not embarrass my noble friend Lord Greaves if I quote him as having said that he had never previously read Part 6 of PPERA 2000, and now that he has, he does not like it very much. I think that opinion is shared by a number of voluntary organisations outside the House.

Clearly, we will need to look at that in consultation with others. It may well be that we will need a government amendment. That is the process through which we should go on that and a number of other concerns that were set out very well in the Harries commission report: for example, the range of activities covered, the treatment of campaigning coalitions, the reporting procedures requested of campaigning groups and so on. We are open to listening, we are open to adjustment, and we expect that when we come back to Committee and Report, this House will give the Bill the detailed scrutiny that it needs.

I have one narrow point. That was just a list of things that would be considered. One thing was mentioned specifically. It figures very largely in the report. It is the special situation in Northern Ireland. Will that be taken seriously in the five weeks? I was Minister for Northern Ireland for only a year, unlike many Members of this place, but I know that the nature of the third sector there and of its relationship with the political process is completely different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I give an absolute assurance that we will take that fully into consideration. If the noble Lord would like to come to talk to me about it, I will be very happy to hear from him as well as from others.

I am very grateful to all those who have spoken in this short response to the Motion. In particular, I paid great attention to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said. In fact, in preparation for this, I consulted a previous recommendation to a Select Committee, which was made by my noble friend Lord Owen at the time of the Health and Social Care Bill. It was proposed and debated, but it related to a constitutional measure rather that a measure like this. However, I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord that the processes of the House should be allowed to proceed.

After reflecting on this and, in particular, listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and her catalogue of things that need to be addressed, which I did not list, I hope that the Minister will be able to exercise the flexibility that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, mentioned, and that if, when this consultation and examination gets under way, it is discovered that the work needed cannot be done in the time before the new date for Committee, rather than rush things through, consideration will be given to pushing the Committee date yet further back to enable all the proper consultation and examination. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others said, this is a hugely important matter that cannot be allowed to go by default.

However, in the spirit of the assurances given to me by the Leader of the House, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.