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Civil Society and the Democratic Process

Volume 783: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to bring forward amendments to legislation to ensure that civil society plays a meaningful role in the democratic process.

My Lords, the rules for third-party campaigning are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The law was changed in 2014 to ensure that third-party campaigning was more transparent and accountable through the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. The Government are keen to ensure that civil society plays a meaningful role in the democratic process, and believe that current legislation facilitates this.

Is it not the case that the present position harms our democracy and keeps important voices out of public debate? In fact, civil society was effectively snuffed out at the general election. Does the Minister agree that organisations involved in incomes for pensioners, the care of the elderly, the care and education of children, social housing and public safety should be allowed to express their views freely at the next general election?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I know he has taken a particular interest in this and served on the Select Committee that produced the report Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society. One of its conclusions was that although charities are quite properly regulated in their campaigning activities, particularly at election times, any new regulation or guidance should clearly recognise that advocacy is an important and legitimate part of their role, to be set out in clear and unambiguous language. We need to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the rights of civil society to campaign in the way the noble Lord has just mentioned, and on the other, maintaining the integrity of the electoral process by having transparency on expenditure.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is no legal bar to an organisation campaigning at a general or other election as long as, if it is a charity, it is consistent with its charitable objectives? However, it is right that it should be transparent about that by registering to do so with the Electoral Commission.

I am grateful to my noble friend, who piloted the relevant legislation through the other place. During those debates he made the point that the boundary between what you could and could not do has not changed. What we did was insist on transparency and accountability. Therefore, if charities or civil society organisations want to engage in certain activities during a campaign, they have to register and declare their expenditure.

I am glad that the noble Lord has raised the question of transparency. During the referendum, the DUP spent £250,000 on the leave side, but because of the rules in Northern Ireland it does not have to declare the source of that income. We do not know who funded that. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Kennedy and I, I asked for a meeting with the chief executive of the Electoral Commission about this serious matter, but she has declined to meet us. Can the Minister tell us what plans the Government have—which I am sure will not be affected by the deal with the DUP—to re-examine this issue?

I agree with the noble Baroness that we need to have another look at the exemptions that Northern Ireland has from certain parts of electoral law, in particular on declaring sources of expenditure. We have a new First Secretary of State, and I am sure he will be interested in taking this matter forward in discussions through the usual channels.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the time may now have come to make sure that transparency of income for campaigning charities is extended? It is striking that there are a number of charities, some Muslim, that the Charity Commission has been concerned about, but right-wing bodies such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Global Warming Policy Foundation do not declare their large donors. It would be useful, appropriate and an extension of democratic transparency if those rules were changed to ensure that donations were necessarily declared in their annual reports.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, who piloted the relevant legislation through this House in 2014. I mentioned a moment ago the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities report, Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society. Chapter 3 is on improving governance and accountability. The Government will look at the recommendations in that chapter, to which the noble Lord referred. In due course, we will respond to the Select Committee report. There has been a slight discontinuity because of the general election.

Is it not the case that the whole democratic process in this country has reached a new nadir, with public expenditure no longer being distributed on a needs basis or according to some consistent programme or policy, but with taxpayers’ money being appropriated by the Government of the day to buy votes from other parties to keep them in power? Is that not a thoroughly squalid and corrupt bargain?

I am not quite sure how that derives from the Question on the Order Paper. I refer the noble Lord to the exchanges in the other place yesterday when the First Secretary of State put the arrangement that he just described in a slightly different context.

I would like to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who referred to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, of which I am chairman. I am very happy to disclose the identities of all our donors, who are thoroughly respectable people. It is right, however, that if donors do not wish to declare themselves they should not be forced to do so, particularly since they will be vilified by those, like the noble Lord, who disagree with what we stand for.

The stakes are rising by the minute in this exchange about electoral expenditure. As I said a few moments ago, if transparency of income is one of the recommendations, it will be addressed by the Government. The whole House will have noted the challenge laid down by my noble friend Lord Lawson.

My Lords, the report by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on the flaws in this piece of legislation was published some considerable time ago. In view of the clear evidence of chilling on the part of the charities who felt unable to conduct their proper campaigning during the last election and the one before, will the Minister tell us when those recommendations will be implemented?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. It is indeed the case that the Hodgson review was published in March last year. Since then, we have had the report by the Select Committee and one of its recommendations was that the Hodgson report should be implemented in full. In due course, we will respond to the report and, by implication, to the Hodgson review, but at the same time there are other pressures on the Government in this field. We have had Eric Pickles’s report on electoral fraud and the Law Commission report on electoral law. We have also just had a general election and it might be useful to look at the experience of civil society during the recent election before we come to a final decision on whether legislation needs to be reviewed.