House of Lords
Monday 25 April 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.
Oaths and Affirmations
Viscount Camrose took the oath, following the by-election under Standing Order 9, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Deaths of Former Members
My Lords, I regret to inform the House of the death of the retired Member and former president of the European Parliament, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, on 15 April. I also regret to inform the House of the death of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, on 6 April. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to both noble Members’ families and friends.
Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre
My Lords, VMIC is a private company and, as such, decisions regarding the future of the facility were made by the VMIC board of directors, not the Government. As Minister Freeman set out in his letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, Catalent announced that it had purchased the VMIC facility on 6 April. It plans to invest £120 million and envisages providing up to 400 additional jobs, which of course further strengthens the UK’s life science ecosystem.
My Lords, within days of my tabling the Question, I discovered that this jewel in the crown of our vaccine policy had been sold off to a major American pharmaceutical company for a great deal of money. The process was not made public. Can the Government assure me that taxpayers will get a benefit from the £200 million that they invested in this enterprise? What safeguards exist against the exploitation of the UK talent and workforce by a company run according to the profit-led motives of American pharmaceuticals?
I am sorry but a number of assumptions behind the noble Baroness’s question are wrong. First, this is a private company that sold off its facilities to a very successful US manufacturer that produced virtually all the Moderna vaccine, with great success. The vast majority of the vaccines that we have used and successfully deployed were also rolled out by private companies. All the employees who work there are being guaranteed their jobs, on the same terms and conditions, and indeed the facility will be expanded. She needs to rethink her questions on this.
My Lords, I think that everyone across the House agrees that we were ill prepared when this pandemic arrived, and planning for future pandemics is very important. The security and investment Bill was intended to secure private facilities that might be needed to secure the future of this country. Was that legislation applied, and was this sale evaluated by the unit in the Minister’s department? If not, why not?
Of course the legislation applies, as it does to all transactions that have taken place in this country since 1 January, so we would bear any appropriate security considerations in mind in any potential call-in. I obviously cannot comment on any particular circumstances, as the noble Lord will understand, but we are happy for this transaction to proceed.
The centre has not been completed —it is still under construction—so it has not produced any vaccines yet. Obviously whether it does so will be a matter for its new owners. But the Government have a wide range of emergency powers that we may need to deploy in the event of any future pandemic.
My Lords, the sale of the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre has been described as akin to defunding fire brigades after they have extinguished a major blaze. Can the Minister tell us in detail what steps the Government have taken with the sale to ensure that this is not the case and that the UK remains well prepared for any future pandemics?
I assure the noble Baroness that this is indeed not the case. Her question is fundamentally misconstrued. The centre was originally set up a number of years ago to look at the development of vaccines for Ebola; it was a private company then and remains a private company now. It was grant-aided during the pandemic as a precautionary measure in case we needed additional facilities. All the facilities which delivered vaccines were also all delivered by private companies. I am not sure where the Opposition are going with this question. Of course, the facility remains in the UK. It will expand its production and another £120 million will be invested in the facility; it will be able to contribute to vaccine production in the future if we need it.
My Lords, if the Government do this, can the Minister guarantee, first, that if there is a need for a mass vaccination programme, we will have the ability to do it? Secondly, can he guarantee that it will be in the same cost frame as we have seen recently? When compared with the Americans, it seems a very cost-effective way of delivering things.
As I said, there are a number of other sites in the UK which also manufacture vaccines. If the Government need to procure vaccines for a future pandemic, I am sure that we will want to procure from this site, in addition to all the other sites which exist in the UK—all of which, I might add, are in private hands.
My Lords, in his response to my noble friend’s question, the Minister said that he could not give us any explanation of the process which had been followed for reasons which we would all understand. I did not understand why the Minister could not answer that question. I wonder if he could answer it now, as it seems to me that there are no reasons, in terms of commercial confidentiality, why he cannot answer that question.
The UK has an unfortunately long history of investing in research, developing products and then selling them and not getting the benefit of their extensive exploitation. Can the Minister say whether he thinks that there is any danger of that happening on this occasion? What efforts are the Government making to protect the research facilities which are, after all, the most remarkable thing about the way in which the vaccines were developed in the first place?
This received grant funding—as did a number of other R&D facilities. The noble Baroness makes an important point that we need to ensure that R&D funding is used to develop and benefit companies, individuals and employees in this country. This is one of a number of different vaccine manufacturing facilities and, as I said, it is not yet operational. When the additional investment goes in, I hope that it will be operational in the future. It will offer the UK another excellent, world-leading production platform for vaccines.
English Football: Independent Regulator
My Lords, the Government have endorsed the principle that football requires a strong independent regulator to secure the future of our national game. I am pleased to say that we will publish the government response later today, where we will set out plans to reform radically the governance of men’s football in England, accepting the 10 strategic recommendations of the fan-led review. Any legislation required to put an independent regulator on a statutory footing is of course subject to parliamentary time.
My Lords, as a supporter of Derby County Football Club, who as a team have shown tremendous spirit again adversity in the past months, I followed the fan-led review closely. Does the Minister accept that the time to legislate for an independent regulator is now, in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech? Further delays will add to the risk that the proposals will be watered down or simply not happen. What plans do the Government have to introduce a shadow regulator before legislation takes effect, which was also one of the key recommendations in the fan-led review?
As the noble Lord will know, the Government continue to engage closely with the English Football League about Derby County Football Club. Speaking so close to the gracious Speech, I hope that he will forgive me if I do not anticipate that, but the full government response to the fan-led review—which the Government commissioned —is published this afternoon. We have accepted all 10 of the strategic recommendations put forward by Tracey Crouch and the review. My honourable friend the Sports Minister will be setting out further detail in another place.
My Lords, as a supporter of Aston Villa, who beat Derby County to return to Premier League three years ago, I tell the House that the Premier League has accepted the need for reform of football. Can the Government therefore reassure the House that nothing will be implemented that could damage the global success of the Premier League and, in so doing, undermine the rest of the football pyramid?
The noble Lord makes an important point. We want to make sure that those who generously invest in football are able to continue to do so, and to make sure that this investment flows right down the football pyramid so that it can be enjoyed by people, because football clubs are important to their local communities, as noble Lords know. We think that the owner and director test needs to be looked at, but we want to encourage investment across the whole of football.
My Lords, the independence of the regulator is an important aspect of its work. The Government see the two key problems in English football as the significant risk of financial failure and the risk of harm to the cultural heritage of clubs. That is why we agree with the recommendations of the fan-led review and are setting out our details in another place.
My Lords, today’s announcement on football governance is of course a very welcome step forward. Fans, when you talk to us all, are demanding more than just consultation about club colours and stadiums. It is the day-to-day running and ownership of clubs that makes a difference to fans’ real involvement, as with their counterparts in Germany, for example. Therefore, can the Minister give assurance that this first step is not the last, and that fans will at long last have real input and a say in the running of their clubs in their communities? As already mentioned, can he explain why we need a White Paper or another consultation when Tracey Crouch has already consulted so widely? The last thing that football needs is more dilly-dallying and delays on this really important matter for fans and clubs.
The noble Lord is right that the voices of fans need to be heard clearly. That is why this was a fan-led review and why we are grateful for all those who participated and gave their thoughts. The issues highlighted in the review are, in some areas, complex and the reforms need careful analysis to make sure that we get them right and safeguard the sustainable long-term future of the sector. My honourable friend the Sport Minister will set out further detail in another place.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that all professional sport has had problems? Community-based clubs representing us nationally in both forms of rugby, for example, have come under pressure and indeed collapsed or had to be reconstituted. Will the Government use this example as a way of making sure that all sports are better regulated? If they become successful, they become community assets, and all deserve to be looked after.
The noble Lord makes an important point. There are lessons to be learned for other sports from the work that is being done here. The fan-led review had its origins in some of the challenges facing a number of football clubs, which is why the Government set it up. We are grateful to Tracey Crouch and to everyone for their thoughts. This review does have a wider application.
My Lords, I am grateful for this government initiative. It is overdue. Will Ministers talk to people in Europe and around the world? Given the problems we have seen in recent years, the same regulation is needed for both the European and international game.
The focus of the fan-led review is on men’s football in England. This is where the Government’s response, which is being set out today, is focused. There is work to be done internationally. We are discussing this with the international bodies, as well as with those at home.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord’s ministerial colleagues will have heard the strength of feeling in this House about the need to legislate quickly and to include something in the Queen’s Speech. I understand that the Minister cannot give an answer now. I accept the very welcome commitment in the response published today, but what assurance can the Minister give that the excellent report by Tracey Crouch does not suffer the same fate as that of the Football Task Force, on which I served more than 20 years ago? Those recommendations were kicked into touch, in effect, by the Football Association and the Premier League. I urge the Minister not to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Austin. He certainly does not speak for fans on this matter; nor does he reflect the feeling in this House.
The noble Lord knows Tracey Crouch, the former Sport Minister, as well as I do. She has worked extremely hard in leading the review and is the greatest evidence that it will be followed through. She will see that action is taken. We are glad to accept all 10 strategic recommendations in her report.
My Lords, at the end of March it was reported that DCMS had hired a New York consultancy firm, Oliver Wyman, to design the future independent regulator of English football. The department confirmed that but did not offer any further comment at the time. Can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on this contract today? Can he provide further information about, for example, the length of the contract, the terms of reference and its estimated value?
I cannot give the noble Baroness all these details, not least because my honourable friend the Sport Minister is setting out further detail in another place. I shall be glad to write to the noble Baroness to follow up on all these points.
My Lords, the running of the football league includes Welsh clubs. Under the new auspices, what do the Government intend regarding, for example, Swansea, Cardiff, Wrexham and Newport? In this sense the English football league is also the Welsh football league. Lastly, will the Minister use his considerable influence to persuade the Lords spiritual to pray hard for my own team, Everton FC? It is in trouble and may go down to a hotter place.
I cannot speak for the Lords spiritual, but I know that their prayers will be ecumenically directed. The noble Lord makes an important point. As with the application of the review to other sports, there are lessons to be learned for football internationally and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We are discussing this with individual teams and with sports bodies.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the problems with the Football League is that it never seems to have enough resources to conduct a proper fitness test on prospective owners and directors of football clubs? I realise that the Statement is yet to come. Is this issue being taken seriously enough to ensure that the regulator will have sufficient resources to do an effective job?
As I said, the current tests for owners and directors do not go far enough in assessing the suitability for ownership of clubs. My honourable friend will set out more detail, following the recommendations made in Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not anticipate what he will say.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Statement by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice on 15 March (HCWS682) and the Written Answer on 24 March (142529), why they have legislated to permit religious and civil marriage ceremonies to take place outdoors, but not similarly legislated for humanist marriages.
My Lords, legislating to allow outdoor civil weddings on existing approved premises was a long-standing commitment, accelerated to respond to the highly exceptional circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Following public consultation, this was made permanent in April. Humanists seek fundamental changes to marriage law, which requires more detailed consideration. The Law Commission is reviewing the matter and is due to report in July. The Government are awaiting the results of that consultation before deciding how to proceed.
My Lords, it is very important to humanists that they marry in a place that is meaningful to them. Not only can Quakers, Jews, Church of England and Church of Wales couples have their own religious celebrant, they can marry wherever they want. In 2020 the High Court ruled that when the Law Commission has reported, the Government must carry out the High Court ruling to legally recognise humanist marriage. Can the Minister confirm that when the Government implement this ruling, humanists will join the groups able to marry in a location of their choice?
My Lords, at present in England and Wales, other groups—faith groups or secular people—cannot marry where they want: it is a matter of the venue, as opposed to the celebrant, and that, at present, restricts choice in that area. To establish where we go from here, we will, as I say, await the report of the Law Commission.
My Lords, the High Court in its decision found that the Government were entitled to proceed by way of clarifying the law as it relates to all bodies, religious, secular or otherwise; albeit that there was a measure of discrimination against humanists, the Government’s course was appropriate.
My Lords, obviously we anticipate the advice of the Law Commission, but ultimately this is going to be a political decision made by the Government. Given the importance of humanism, in terms of both western civilisation and the British character, it would make enormous sense to end this rather silly discrimination and give humanists the right to get married in a ceremony and location of their choice.
My Lords, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 made provision for the Government to introduce legal recognition of humanist marriages by statutory instrument—as Quakers and Jews already have, in fact, despite the Minister’s earlier answer. Later this year, I understand, the Government are likely to give legal recognition to outdoor religious marriages by changing primary legislation, a vastly more complex process. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss how this very simple objective can be achieved for humanist marriages without further delay, there already being nine years since the primary legislation was passed?
My Lords, I am perfectly happy to arrange that someone from the relevant department should meet the noble Baroness—as, indeed, my colleague in the other place, Tom Pursglove MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, has met representatives from Humanists UK, and Crispin Blunt MP. That took place on 24 March.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats clearly support this change; the Labour Party supports this change; the Government in Wales support this change; the Government in Scotland support this change; and, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, it is ultimately going to be a political decision, so why are the Government waiting for the Law Commission’s report?
My Lords, what is it about the humanists that obstructs the Government from doing them justice? Scotland allows it; Northern Ireland allows it; the Channel Islands allow it. What is it about the humanists that means they are discriminated against in England and Wales? It is because they are not Christians?
My Lords, precisely not. The situation is that in Scotland the rules of marriage are, as I said in an answer to another question, based on the identity of the celebrant. In England and Wales, they are based on the venue where the wedding ceremony is to take place. That is a complex matter that will take time to unpick; it is not a matter of prejudice against one group—and specifically not a matter of their not being Christians.
My Lords, humanists advance a position as a belief system, as opposed to the simple negation of religious faith. We are advised that establishing a further category of wedding based on a belief system would be a profound change to the laws that bear on weddings. As a result, we are obliged to wait until the Law Commission has reported.
My Lords, I refer to my registered interests and ask the Minister a simple question: does he believe that the lack of legally recognised humanist marriages is unfair and discriminatory? If he does not agree that it is unfair and discriminatory, why not?
My Lords, if the question is directed to the department that I represent from the Dispatch Box today, there is no question of consideration of a belief that any such discrimination is unfair. If it is directed to me, I decline to answer.
On the former point, as I said in answer to previous questions, there is an outstanding Law Commission report. There is a High Court decision which considered that the Government were correct and acting appropriately in awaiting the position from which a more fundamental reform could be properly considered.
My Lords, I feel for the Minister: he is struggling and I think he would just like to be able to say yes. The Minister is talking about a profound change. It is not a profound change for those of us with different beliefs who take marriage very seriously and want to be able to have our humanist views expressed. This is not profound; this is a human right. How about—just as with Covid, when outdoor marriages were allowed on an interim basis—we do this on an interim basis and then we can sort out the details after the Law Commission reports?
My Lords, the Government consulted in 2014 on making provision for non-religious belief marriages, including a choice of location, using an order-making power. The consultation concluded that the matter raised a number of complex issues, including that by allowing humanists to solemnise marriages in unrestricted locations, the Government would create a provision for humanists that would not be available to all groups. Therefore, it was necessary to consider carefully the legal and technical requirements of marriage ceremonies before or at the same time as making a decision on whether to take forward the specific proposal to permit non-religious belief marriages. The loosening of restrictions on marriages taking place outdoors applied to venues within the existing provisions. Applying this to a humanist belief system could not be done within the existing framework; it would require innovation, which cannot be made.
My Lords, I speak as a Christian, but my noble and learned friend seems to be making a proverbial mountain out of a molehill here. Surely, if two people wish to commit themselves for life to each other and do not have religious beliefs, they ought to have the opportunity to do so in a solemn and seemly way.
My Lords, they do. My noble friend refers to the conduct of marriage in a solemn and seemly way. That is, of course, available outdoors, whether in a religious or civil setting. What is called for by reforming the law towards humanist weddings is a profound difference from that. Civil or religious marriages conducted indoors or outdoors can be as seemly as my noble friend wishes.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to tackle malaria globally; and what assessment they have made of the findings of the World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2021, published on 6 December 2021, in particular that after years of steady progress towards elimination, malaria cases and deaths are rising.
My Lords, first, I acknowledge and congratulate my noble friend on assuming the role of chair of Malaria No More UK, a charity we worked very closely with in the run-up to CHOGM in 2018. Turning to the specifics of the Question, the World Health Organization’s 2021 World Malaria Report notes that the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to an estimated 6% increase in malaria cases and a 12% increase in malaria deaths in 2020. The UK remains a very strong supporter of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, providing £4.1 billion to date. We also invest in research to help people to access new malaria treatments and diagnostics and support countries to strengthen their health systems.
My Lords, today is World Malaria Day. It is possible to end malaria within this generation, but we need continued UK leadership to do so, so I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. My noble friend mentioned the Global Fund; does he agree that it is one of the most effective and best value for money investments we can make with UK aid? This year will see the Global Fund replenishment. Can my noble friend give me any reassurance that the UK will make an ambitious pledge, as the United States has just done, to help get progress back on track?
My Lords, as I have said, the United Kingdom has invested £4.1 billion in the Global Fund to date and during the last replenishment. My noble friend is correct: the Global Fund’s investment case for the seventh replenishment has been presented to the Government. We are looking at this and reviewing our support in line with our published approaches to health systems and our commitment to strengthen work to end preventable deaths. We will announce our commitment in the near future.
My Lords, may I put the question in another way? In the last replenishment of the Global Fund, we were the third biggest contributor. We have been its founder and strongest supporter, and what we need now is an early and strong pledge to show leadership. Will the Minister confirm that “global Britain”—as the Government put it—will keep its leadership position in support of the Global Fund?
My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned our commitment and our support and leadership. Whether we are second or third, depending on which criteria are used, we remain very much committed to the Global Fund. As I said, I cannot pre-empt the announcement that we will make about the current replenishment because that decision is being finalised, but I can reassure the noble Lord and your Lordships’ House that we remain very much committed to fighting malaria and to the Global Fund.
My Lords, I was in Washington last week, and I met the US representative and board member of the Global Fund. She stressed to me very clearly that the Biden Administration’s earmark of $6 billion is part of the American approach of matching up to 30% as a percentage cap of the remainder of the contributions. So, if the UK cuts its support for the Global Fund, that will automatically cut American support, which would be devastating and a tragedy. The Americans have earmarked the funds—why can the British Government not state that they will not cut support for this crucial fund? It is over a number of years and the Government say they want to return to 0.7%, so why do they not make that announcement now?
My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Lord is tempting me to make a specific commitment, but as I said already, I cannot give a commitment in terms of the actual amount. I can again reassure the noble Lord that we are committed to the fund. I agree, as my noble friend has illustrated and the noble Lord knows well himself, on the real impact the Global Fund has had in tackling malaria. Regrettably and tragically, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a rise in cases—though not to pre-pandemic levels. Frankly, there has been a real challenge, particularly looking at young children and pregnant mothers, with the rise of cases of malaria, and these are preventable deaths. That is why we remain committed to fighting malaria.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. The Minister is quite right to point out what has gone backwards during Covid in terms of malaria, but today there have been extremely promising results from the Jenner Institute in terms of the new R21 vaccine. Does the Minister agree with me that our investment in science is equally important and bore huge results in terms of Covid? Will the investment case for the Global Fund look at the possibilities of reversing that decline in progress through the new vaccine?
My Lords, again, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work on this issue, but I share her commitment on the importance of the vaccine. She will be aware of recent trials that have taken place, including the World Health Organization’s approval of specific vaccines in key pilot countries. We are looking at that very closely. She is also right to point out the R21 vaccine being developed by the Jenner Institute in Oxford. As part of our focus on vaccines, I am also pleased that it now has an association with the Serum Institute to look at upscaling manufacturing of that vaccine once it has been tested. We are looking at working very closely with both those institutes.
My Lords, malaria deaths have risen year on year to the highest level in nearly a decade: 627,000 lives were lost to malaria in 2020. Could the Minister ensure that funding to the overseas aid budget is restored to 0.7% of GNI and that there is a successful seventh replenishment of the Global Fund? Could he indicate today when that announcement about the seventh replenishment will be made?
The noble Baroness is right to make the point about the increases in deaths from malaria. We did see a real reduction from the estimated 896,000 to around 560,000 in 2015, but we have seen a rise in cases under Covid, so I accept that point. As I said earlier, I cannot give a commitment on the amount, but it will be during the course of this year, as we look to the deadline of the seventh replenishment, to ensure we make a sizeable contribution that reflects our continuing commitment to fighting malaria around the world.
My Lords, as the Minister of State for the Commonwealth, I am working closely with our colleagues in Rwanda. Certainly, the United Kingdom was and is the biggest Commonwealth donor in fighting malaria, and we will be working closely with Rwanda to ensure this remains on the agenda for CHOGM in June.
My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord saw the encouraging report by Adrian Hill in the Times today about the vaccine trials. One of the things he said was that if the vaccine trial is successful, as it seems to be, it will cost a mere $3 per person to vaccinate the African population. That would require $600 million per year. Is the Minister aware of the cost of this scheme? Are the Government going to come forward with a response?
My Lords, the noble Lord is of course right to point out the impact of malaria, particularly on Africa. Indeed, when you look at the statistics, they are very stark: 95% of cases and 96% of deaths from malaria are on the African continent. I have not read the specific article, but I am aware of the support and the issue of having effective costs. I think the real progress will be made through the World Health Organization and ensuring that vaccines are made available to all those who need them at a cost which is acceptable, reasonable and sensible for those who require them.
My Lords, in October 2021, the WHO recommended the first malaria vaccine for children living in areas of high to moderate risk of malaria. The demand for the RTS,S malaria vaccine is estimated to be far greater than supply over the next few years. What is the FCDO doing to speed up equitable access to the vaccine?
The specific vaccine that the noble Baroness refers to, the RTS,S malaria vaccine, is one of those which has just gone through the World Health Organization’s approval process. This was based on trials in three countries, I believe: Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. Some 800,000 children received that vaccine. The conclusions of that—this is why it is important to continue research on the vaccines, which we are certainly committed to—is that the vaccine supply is limited and there are costs, as was pointed out just now by the noble Lord, to ensuring equitable access. The noble Baroness is right to point this out and, as I said earlier, we will work with the World Health Organization on equitable and fair access to the vaccines once they are scaled up. We should be encouraged that the Covid experience, through partnerships such as those with the Serum Institute, lends itself to a proper scaling up of the vaccines once those initial trials have been proven.
UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Arrangement
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the UK-Rwanda asylum partnership arrangement was concluded by a Memorandum of Understanding and was not therefore subject to parliamentary scrutiny requirements under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
My Lords, the UK has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda, which has now been published on GOV.UK, for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement and to address the shared challenge of illegal migration. The duty to lay before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 applies only to treaties. However, the safety, security and dignity of and respect for those relocated is assured through the agreement and will be subject to monitoring. We comply fully with our legal and international obligations.
The agreement will not be a treaty and it will not be enforceable. Given that the deal would end the Government’s legal obligation to certain refugee claimants and therefore reduce their rights, surely such a significant international agreement should be disclosed, debated and agreed by Parliament. Why have the Government tried to slip this agreement out as a memorandum of understanding, hindering Parliament’s ability to scrutinise it adequately? Does the Minister accept that important MoUs such as this with Rwanda that affect human rights should be routinely disclosed and debated by Parliament under the terms of the Ponsonby rule?
My Lords, as your Lordships’ House does, there will be ample opportunity to discuss the aspects of this agreement. It complies with our international and other obligations. There will be ongoing monitoring of the agreement, and there is nothing in the United Nations refugee convention that prevents this happening.
Does my noble friend confirm that, in the face of legal challenge, the Government have withdrawn their turnabout policies? Does this not suggest that the legal advice from the Home Office that the Rwanda policy accords with our international obligations should be treated with a degree of caution?
My Lords, the Government have clauses in the Nationality and Borders Bill to enable offshoring, which this House continues to oppose. If this legislation is necessary, why have the Government signed a memorandum with Rwanda before Parliament has approved it? If it is not necessary, why did the Government put it in the Bill in the first place?
I think I have explained the provisions in the Bill. They are underpinned by legislation going back over 20 years but, as I explained to the House during the passage of the Bill, it is the certification process that is now in play in the Bill.
If, as they say, the Government see the need for new and innovative means of dealing with the migration crisis now, did they have any contact with any of the other signatories to the refugee convention about these new and innovative methods before taking action on their own?
No, absolutely not. This Bill has been going through both Houses of Parliament for some time. I am sure that noble Lords have observed that people are dying at sea because of the actions of criminals facilitating journeys to the UK.
My Lords, first, why an MoU and not a treaty? I did not hear the answer to that. Secondly, why do the Government seek public interest immunity to protect the secrecy of the pushbacks policy and the fact that the policy could never have been used against asylum seekers? Finally, we hear from parts of the press that the Home Secretary thinks that criticism of the Rwandan deal is xenophobic. Therefore, can the Minister comment on the US State Department’s report on Rwanda of just last year? It reported significant human rights issues, including credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the Government, forced disappearance by the Government, torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the Government, and 10 other violations of that magnitude.
My Lords, I acknowledge the US country report last year on Rwanda. Our own country policy and information team carried out an assessment on safety in Rwanda before we entered an agreement. That report is expected to be completed in the near future. I cannot remember the other questions that the noble Baroness asked because it was quite a long question.
My Lords, Section 25 of the CRaG Act defines the meaning of “treaty” and says that it is a “written agreement … between States”, as long as it is “binding under international law”. Given that the Minister has said that this is a written agreement between states, is she suggesting that the agreement with Rwanda is not binding in international law?
My Lords, it is an agreement which both parties have agreed to be bound by. I will leave it to greater heads to unpick the meaning of that.
I have now remembered one of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which was, “why not a treaty?” I do not know why, but it seems that it was appropriate to have an MoU. I am very happy to write to noble Lords with further detail on that. I hope that they will appreciate that I have not had much notice of this Question and am not going to be blag my way through it; I will write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, Amnesty International’s latest annual report sets out that, in Rwanda:
“Violations of the rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and privacy continued, alongside enforced disappearances, allegations of torture and excessive use of force.”
This came following the UK Government’s own concerns, raised in July 2021 at the UN Human Rights Council. In the context of these human rights concerns in respect of Rwanda, it is deeply worrying that the UK Government have now decided that it is a safe third country to which they can offshore asylum seekers. Can the Minister please set out how these conflicting descriptions of Rwanda’s human rights situation have been reconciled?
Obviously, Rwanda has come on a very upward, positive trajectory since the genocide way back when. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world; it has a great equality record at the moment—certainly in its parliament —and it houses 130,000 asylum seekers. It also engages with both the EU and the UNHCR in placing asylum seekers.
My Lords, is not the real reason that the Minister is facing such anger in this Chamber today that, as everyone knows, the Government did it as a memorandum of understanding—not as a treaty—because they knew that the Rwanda deal would be extremely controversial, and that it would be raised by a number of noble Lords across this Chamber? It is of such significance that it should have been fully debated and discussed in both Chambers. Has it not come to something when a former Conservative Prime Minister stands up and says that this policy would have been found wanting on the grounds of legality, practicality, and efficacy? If the Minister will not listen to noble Lords in here, will she listen to the former Prime Minister? That is why people are so angry: there is a need for proper discussion and not for the Government to find some way of by-passing the process to slip through controversial policies.
My Lords, I do not think that anyone would accuse me of trying to stifle debate or of not trying to answer noble Lords’ questions. I do try to answer them and, if I cannot, I will get back to them. As I said earlier, we are abiding by our international obligations. The EU and the UNHCR work with Rwanda to relocate refugees there.
My Lords, further to the question of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, I do not think that my noble friend has responded to that point. A memorandum of understanding can be defined as a treaty under CRaG if it is a written agreement between states and it is binding in international law. Why does the Minister not say that the Government will lay this memorandum of understanding before Parliament under CRaG?
Will the Minister comment on another possible reason, in addition to the one advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for this not being a treaty? If it were a treaty, it would have to be registered at the United Nations, and there might be some embarrassment in seeking to register a memorandum of understanding governing an arrangement that is clearly totally inconsistent with the refugee convention, for which the United Nations is responsible. Can the Minister tell us in addition, since the agreement says that it is not justiciable in international law, how is it to be justiciable?
My Lords, the Minister said that there would be ample opportunity to debate this issue. We do not have any ample opportunity; what assurance can we have? There are so many questions of detail to which we do not know the answer. It is just a con trick by the Government, and they should come clean on the details before they remove a single person to Rwanda.
My Lords, as we are struggling to defend democracy and democratic decisions, is it not totally opposed to that to try to sneak through an agreement without it being discussed and decided on in this Parliament? Why are the Government so adamant and reluctant to put such matters to a vote of Parliament?
My Lords, my noble friend knows that this is a very controversial area of the Nationality and Borders Bill. I have moved amendments to the Bill, and we have had long debates on this subject. Another Minister indicated that no further legislation would be required to proceed with these arrangements. Can my noble friend confirm that that is the case? Is she saying that the Nationality and Borders Bill is required, or is it the Government’s position that no legislation is required?
My noble friend is right on two counts. First, the provision is in long-standing legislation dating from 1999, 2002 and 2004. Under the Bill, the certification process would not be needed, so essentially the policy could proceed with or without the legislation.
My Lords, the Minister has said that some people will find ways and means to make this agreement justiciable. Under our dual system in our constitution, any agreement made by government has to be underpinned by domestic legislation. If this is to be a binding agreement, as the Minister said at the Dispatch Box, it will require ratification by Parliament. How will this agreement be ratified?
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I would like to update the House on the arrangements for consideration of Commons amendments to Bills tomorrow. We have already announced consideration of Commons amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Building Safety Bill. It is also expected that the Commons will send back a message this evening on the Health and Care Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. We will also consider amendments to those Bills tomorrow. The deadline for noble Lords to table amendments relating to those Bills will be noon tomorrow. Peers can speak to the Public Bill Office for further advice. I will continue to make announcements on the approach to further consideration of Commons amendments throughout the week.
I also take the opportunity to remind the House that there will be a rehearsal of the new pass-reader voting system at 12.30 pm tomorrow. It will start in the Chamber, and it would help if as many Members as possible could attend in order to provide a robust and realistic test of how the new system will work.
Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill
My Lords, I will keep my remarks extremely brief. The Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill amends Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects on loan from abroad in temporary exhibitions in public museums and galleries in the UK. Cultural objects on loan from abroad featuring in exhibitions held in UK museums and galleries approved under the Act are at the moment protected from a court order seizure for a period of 12 months from the time when the object comes into the UK.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for approving these institutions in England, which can come under this regime, and the devolved Administrations have similar powers in other parts of the UK. To gain approval under the Act, the institutions must demonstrate that their procedures for establishing the provenance and ownership of objects are of a high standard.
When this Act was passed, 12 months was considered to be a very adequate period for objects to arrive in the UK and to be returned. During the Bill’s Second Reading, I mentioned that unforeseen travel delays can now result in works not being returned on time, and that risks undermining the confidence of foreign lenders to lend their art treasures to the UK.
The measures in the Bill would allow the current period, therefore, to be extended beyond 12 months at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, or indeed Scottish Ministers when it comes to Scotland. That will ensure that this protection remains fit for purpose. The new power to extend would only apply following an application from the approved museum or gallery. Extensions would be granted for a further three months initially, with a possibility of a further extension if considered necessary.
I am pleased to inform noble Lords that guidance for approved museums and galleries on how they can submit an application for extension has now been published in draft by the department, so the process and the guidance to support it are now ready to go.
I am delighted that the Bill has received such strong support, and I thank everyone who has contributed, including the Member for Central Devon, Mel Stride, for his work steering the Bill through, and the civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. As the department’s Secretary of State pointed out in the newspapers only today, they are knocking it out of the park in DCMS—whether they are present at their desks or not. Finally, I thank my favourite cultural object, who is, of course, our wonderful Minister, my noble friend Lord Parkinson. I am delighted that, after his successful visit to the Venice Biennale, he was protected from seizure and has returned to our shores to give the Bill the final seal of approval.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend not just for bringing forward this Bill but for his kind words. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Sonia Boyce, who represented the United Kingdom at the UK Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as well as Emma Ridgway, the curator, and everyone at the British Council who commissioned her work, which I am very pleased to report won the coveted Golden Lion for the first time since 1993. It is a tremendous achievement and everyone in the UK is very proud of them all.
I am pleased to reiterate the support of Her Majesty’s Government for this Bill. It is short and straightforward but will be of great benefit to the many approved museums and galleries in England and Scotland that rely on immunity from seizure protection when they borrow cultural objects from abroad. It will add an appropriate layer of flexibility to the existing legislation covering immunity from seizure. Currently, as my noble friend says, the maximum length of time an object can be protected from seizure while on loan is 12 months. As we learn and move on from the unprecedented challenges that museums and galleries have faced over the past two years in particular, the Bill rightly recognises that unpredictable delays do sometimes happen and that it may not always be possible for objects to be returned within that existing timeframe. The ability to extend the protection afforded to cultural objects is a sensible option to have. I am very grateful to my noble friend for presenting these helpful measures and for all his work in guiding the Bill through your Lordships’ House, to all noble Lords who have supported it, from all corners of the House, and, as my noble friend says, to the DCMS officials who have supported it.
As my noble friend says, the guidance for approved museums and galleries on how and when to apply for an extended period of protection has now been published in draft. The policy is therefore ready to be put into effect, subject to Royal Assent being granted. I am grateful to all those who helped the Bill speed on its way to the statute book.
Motor Vehicles (Compulsory Insurance) Bill
My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Motor Vehicles (Compulsory Insurance) Bill, has consented to place her interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
Report (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Constitution Cttee, 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st and 27th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Clause 15: Strategy and policy statement
45: Clause 15, leave out Clause 15
It is a very strange thing but, quite by accident—I promise it is by accident—I happen to have my copy of the Bill open at a part I have not really studied, called “Undue Influence”. Suddenly I find myself thinking, “What a very good thing to prevent that happening in this Bill.”
I have addressed your Lordships on a number of occasions about the Bill, particularly these clauses, including Clause 15, which we are discussing now. Noble Lords have listened with patience and courtesy and I have listened to the Minister with great patience. I regret that I am unconvinced by what he has said in the House so I intend to seek the opinion of the House at the end of this debate, but I intend to be brief.
I really do not think that anyone in your Lordships’ House can have the slightest doubt about the constitutional imperative that the Electoral Commission should be politically independent—independent of all political influence, whether direct or indirect, over the electoral process. If anyone disagrees with that, would they please say so? Any possibility that the party in government may have influence over the electoral process should be rejected.
Clauses 15 and 16 are repugnant to that foundational principle. They require the commission to have regard, at the very lowest, to pay close attention to the strategy and policy principles, and to follow the guidance, of the Government of the day. The importance of this feature of the language, which is tucked away but needs emphasis, is that the Electoral Commission will exercise its responsibilities in relation to the strategy and policy statement to enable Her Majesty’s Government to meet those priorities. If we rephrase that, it says that the Electoral Commission must enable the strategic and policy priorities of the Government to be met. That does not sound like independence. These are directive provisions. The word “duty” is used, imposing unequivocal statutory obligations on the commission that will govern—or, if not govern, will certainly influence —its own performance of its responsibility, and perhaps, dare I say it, is meant to influence it.
The commission, which everyone agrees—so far, at any rate—should be independent of government, is to be subject to a statutory duty to enable the Government to achieve their priorities: that is to say, their priorities, strategies and guidance to the extent that they relate to the electoral system. That is what the Bill says. This proposal came out of the blue without reference, consultation or, astonishingly—to me, at any rate, as someone who does not have a political background—for a proposal that has a constitutional impact, without cross-party discussion of any kind.
There is a problem with the Electoral Commission, as I have heard from all sides: it does not work as well as it should; it is inefficient; it does not do this, it does do this and it was wrong to do that. I have heard them all. Fine, but this proposal is not an answer to that problem. I simply ask us all to think: if this proposal had been included in the original Bill in 2000, outrage would have been expressed on all sides of the House of Commons. That is the problem.
What protections are we being offered? Before the Secretary of State produces the statement with his priorities and strategies, he must consult—not have anyone’s agreement or consent, but consult. He must consult the Electoral Commission. Fine, but the Electoral Commission can give us some evidence of how the consultation process is likely to be treated. It made a submission proposing that these clauses should not be applied. Okay, one might say that the Electoral Commission is biased, but I have seen nothing to suggest that the Secretary of State took any notice whatever of what it said.
The second group to be consulted is the Speaker’s Committee, a body which includes two government Ministers. I know that there are other members, including Back-Benchers; there are a total of nine members, but two are government Ministers. That is described in a system I come from as someone being a judge in his own cause. More important, perhaps, is that the power of checking whether the Electoral Commission has followed the guidance and strategy, and so on, is vested in the Speaker’s Committee. In other words, the judgment on the Electoral Commission is being made by a body which includes two government Ministers.
The third group to be addressed was the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, or PACAC, a cross-party committee of the House. The consultation process has now been changed; I understand that the removal followed a recent machinery of government change, and it is now the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. However, when this Bill was first promulgated, PACAC was the consultee. I shall return to PACAC in a moment, but it responded in the most unequivocal language after a close analysis of the whole of these provisions by suggesting that they should not be included in the Bill. For this purpose, I shall come back to it. Is there any evidence to suggest that the Government took the slightest bit of notice of that recommendation by a unanimous, cross-party House of Commons committee? Not that I have seen or that has been drawn to my attention.
What is this protective system? It is a consultation process, but there is nothing in statute requiring the Secretary of State to pay attention. No doubt they will be read; no doubt somebody will read them to the Minister and he will discuss them, but there is absolutely nothing in the Bill which says that the Minister must attend to the committee and that it should at least have some power to say that this is wrong. As it is, we end up with a situation in which the protection system is simply this: the Secretary of State asks these three bodies, they tell him what they like and then he does what he thinks. That is the full extent —apart from, ultimately, the provision coming to Parliament—of the protection given against what looks like, as I have submitted to your Lordships, something completely repugnant to the independence of the Electoral Commission.
It gets worse. There is a review provision, not dealing with typos and so on, but there the consultation process is reduced to one body. I do not think that three are very impressive but three are more important than one, and exactly the same position applies. Ultimately this has to be seen as the most important concern. A quinquennial review is required. In fact, a review can take place at any time: after an election or after a new Government have been put in power. Whenever it takes place, the powers that are currently being invested in the Secretary of State with this Government will be invested—and one day it will happen—in the Secretary of State chosen by a Labour Government.
What will the consequence of that be? Naturally enough, the Secretary of State will look at the way the powers have been exercised by the party formerly in power. He or she will decide that that is not agreeable, or appropriate, or has not worked. Suddenly, we will have a new system—a new statement—with new strategies, priorities and guidance being issued by the new Government to the same Electoral Commission. I do not know; it is a very strange independent body that can be tossed around like a football. That is what it comes to.
I come back to PACAC, because PACAC, having ceased to be a consultee under this process, nevertheless wrote to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, urging the Government to accept this amendment, as it had recommended in the first place. A few words from that report sum up everything that I want to say today. It rejects the purported government explanation to justify these clauses. It said it was “extremely concerned” about the potential impact of these provisions, and concluded:
“The risk inherent in these provisions is evident for all to see. This is an unacceptable risk to the functioning of our democracy”.
That is a cross-party view in the other place and of course I agree with it. I urge the House that we should protect the Electoral Commission from this proposed newly minted augmentation of executive power. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord in his amendments, to which I have added my name. We have a cross-party understanding, I believe, that, whatever their intentions, the Government have got this wrong. When the House has the kind of unanimity that it has in relation to the Electoral Commission’s powers and the strategy and policy statement process, it is incumbent on any Government to listen and to learn.
The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in his dignified and honourable resignation from the Front Bench—I believe we unanimously regret that he felt he needed to resign—said in his resignation letter that we have to take into account how others see us.
The noble and learned Lord referred to the legislation in 2000. I was a Member of the Cabinet at the time. We had a majority of 179. We could have pushed anything through, but the outrage which would have emerged universally across our media, as well as from the Benches opposite, would have driven us back inevitably to a situation where we would have had to think again. I ask the Government, with less than half that majority, to think again. It is not what might be intended, it is how that intention might be perceived—as well as the real outcome. There is the potential for a Trojan horse to lead us down a path which could be regretted at length as part of our constitution. Crucially, this will be seen from outside the country in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, perceived in relation to the rule of law.
Gideon Rachman from the Financial Times has written a book called The Age of The Strongman. In it, like many others who have written on this subject, he poses the real and present challenge of the international democratic process being undermined by the clash between the strong autocratic leadership of those outside the democratic fold; those within the purview of the democratic fold who are leading their nations into autocracy and the diktat of the centre; and the participative democratic world, which involves people being listened to, not just in parliaments but across the nations, and taken notice of.
I am afraid to say that the clauses with which we are dealing this afternoon are a measure of a Government who have not understood that they should be on the side of the participative democratic processes which defend us against the creeping autocracy we see internationally at the moment. It is as serious as that. The Electoral Commission and the electorate as a whole, who were polled over the weekend, have demonstrated their concern. Most people will not understand the detail of the Electoral Commission—why would they? However, they do understand when a Government start to believe that their party and their place in government are one and the same thing—they are not.
I tried to put this across in recent legislation in other areas of public policy. The Government govern for the nation as a whole; they do not govern for a particular political party. Of course, they will want to implement their manifesto and the mandate they have been given by the electorate. By the way, there is no mandate at all on this; there is no suggestion, as there has been in other parts of the Bill, that the Government had indicated, in their manifesto and during the election, that they wished to deal with the Electoral Commission in this way. There have been suggestions from one or two Members of this House at Second Reading and at Committee that somehow the Electoral Commission attracted the notice of the Government—or the Conservative Party, I should say—in terms of what happened in the 2016 referendum. This was backed up by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox; I was sat next to her at the time, and it was a rather half-hearted effort to defend the Government on this particular set of clauses.
There is no argument for it; there is no problem, as the noble and learned Lord explained. What we have is a solution in pursuit of a problem which does not really exist. Fundamentally, we have a vision and message going out from this legislation that will be rued by us all if we do not get this right. I have a very simple appeal to the Government: take these amendments and accept them when they go back to the Commons tomorrow; withdraw the proposal because it does not have support anywhere in this House, in the other House, other than the three-line Whip, or across the country; and allow us to unify on consulting properly on whatever perceived problems the Government—or the Conservative Party—Labour, the Lib Dems or the Cross Benches might have about the operation of the Electoral Commission. Consult properly, undertake this in a democratic fashion, understand how we are seen as a country and get it right.
I ask the Government to please understand this afternoon that some of us, at least, will go to the wire on this one. So let us be prepared to go into next week if we have to, to ensure that we defend our democratic processes and practices. If we do not, somewhere in years to come, someone should ask each of us, “Where were you? What did you do? Did you understand what you were passing? Were you in favour of it? If you were not, why did you not vote against it?”
My Lords, I will make three brief points in support of the amendments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. The first follows a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who has just made a forceful speech. As my noble friend Lord Cormack mentioned in an earlier debate, I was my party’s spokesman and I was in the shadow Cabinet of William Hague, now my noble friend Lord Hague, when the Bill establishing the Electoral Commission went through. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, implied, had the Blair Government sought to include these two clauses in that Bill, my party would have strongly opposed that. They conflict with the recommendation of the Neill commission’s report that
“An Election Commission in a democracy like ours could not function properly, or indeed at all, unless it were scrupulously impartial and believed to be so by everyone seriously involved and by the public at large.”
If it was right for my party to oppose those clauses then, it is right to oppose them today.
Secondly, I respectfully disagree with the argument in defence of the Government’s position put forward by my noble friend the Minister on March 10:
“It is entirely appropriate for the Government and Parliament to provide a steer on electoral policy … By increasing policy emphasis on electoral integrity … the Government are seeking to prevent interference in our democracy from fraud, foreign money and hostile state actors.”—[Official Report, 10/3/22; col. 1643.]
It is not the Electoral Commission that requires a steer, for example, on the importance of protecting our democracy from foreign money; it is the Government. The steer that my noble friend described—the statutory requirement to
“have regard to the statement”—
should be in precisely the opposite direction to the one in the Bill.
My third and final reason is related to the first. I have left the Government five times, which is more than anyone else in the Chamber—even the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. Once was at the request of the electorate in 1997 and three times were, sadly, at the request of the then Prime Minister, but the last was of my own volition, one month after the current Prime Minister took office, when he illegally prorogued Parliament. That was the first of a number of steps that injure out democratic institutions—in that case the House of Commons. It was followed by the failure to defend the judiciary from the “Enemies of the People” attack by the Daily Mail, the attempted interference with the verdict on Owen Paterson, the resignation of the Prime Minister’s independent adviser Alex Allan—instead of the Home Secretary—and the evident disregard, shown from time to time, for the role of your Lordships’ House and the Ministerial Code. These clauses are another step in the same direction; they are disrespectful of the ground rules of our constitution, and they should not be in the Bill.
My Lords, we have heard three splendid speeches, and I intend to be very brief. I will pick up on a comment made by my noble friend Lord Blunkett, who is of course quite right that the public will not be interested or involved in the details of this legislation. But I have no doubt whatever that they have an acute sense of fairness. In Committee, I suggested that, for the Government to give instructions to the Electoral Commission is akin to a party in a football match—one of the two teams—giving instructions and guidance to the referee prior to the match. I do not think that anyone in Britain would think that that was a fair situation. I do not think that anyone could seriously contend that that is not what would happen if these two clauses become law.
What I find particularly persuasive is that this letter from the Electoral Commission, which many of us have, is, unsurprisingly, signed by every single member bar the Conservative nominee—I make no criticism of the fact that he did not sign it, but it was signed by everyone else. It argues against these two clauses. As they say,
“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement – enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission – is inconsistent with the role”
of an “independent electoral commission”. If anyone is wavering on this, just substitute the words “Conservative Party” for “Government”. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and I strongly support political parties; I have been in one all my life and I would go as far as to say that they are the lifeblood of our democracy. I do not regard as superior human beings those people who have not joined political parties. If we substitute the word “Government” with “Conservative Party”—because of course Governments consist, in the main, of one political party—it reads as follows: “It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement – enabling the Conservative Party to guide the work of the Commission – is inconsistent with the role of an independent electoral commission.” Is there anyone here who could possibly dispute that statement? Forgetting about the Government for a moment, for one political party in a contested situation—which is precisely what elections are, which is why they can get fraught and need adjudicators—to give an instruction to the referee, or the Electoral Commission in this case, is clearly inconsistent and unacceptable as part of our electoral procedures. I urge everyone to see the fairness of that argument and to support the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to support the amendment put forward by the noble and learned Lord, which has, if I may say so, attracted very wide support on all Benches of this House.
Others have already identified some of the aspects of Clause 15 that are truly objectionable, so I will not go into any great detail, save to say that, on any view, the powers given to the Secretary of State are very extensive. They are, as has been said by a number of your Lordships, designed to make the commission an implementer of government policy. The requirement on the Government to consult is extraordinarily limited, and the obligation on the commission to report compliance will expose the commission to the cry “Enemies of the People”, as happened in 2016 when the judges held that Brexit required the consent of Parliament. I might remember, too, that the Lord Chancellor of the day did not push back on that criticism. I acknowledge that the substantive statement is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, but I also point out that, in the House of Commons at least, that will be the subject of the most strenuous whipping. In any event, of course, the statutory instrument procedure is not subject to amendment.
I have been in public life for 40 years—not as long as my noble friend Lord Cormack, but perhaps long enough—and I have come to a very settled conclusion: if you give powers to the Executive or to officials, in time they are certain to be abused or misused. That will certainly happen. As my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham—I have known him for over 60 years—rightly pointed out, the present Prime Minister illegally thought to prorogue Parliament. I am told by reading the newspapers that, at this moment, the Government are thinking of simply abrogating the Northern Ireland protocol—a treaty obligation to which the Prime Minister signed up very recently and on which, at the time, he incorrectly stated that it did not create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
As has been rightly said, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, election law is extraordinarily sensitive. I for one am not prepared to give powers to a Government that, if used, misused or abused, will certainly damage yet further the respect for our democratic institutions. It is for that reason that if, as I hope, the noble and learned Lord moves to test the opinion of the House, I shall support him.
My Lords, I would like to join in on all these comments about the Prime Minister’s failings, but I just do not think there is time in this debate.
I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and will obviously support the amendments, but before I speak to those specifically, I hope noble Lords will not mind if I speak briefly about what we are facing this week—and possibly next week—because the Government have created a legislative deadlock. This was not the fault of your Lordships’ House; it was the fault of the Government, and if this legislation is not passed in the next few days, it falls completely. I have no problem with that—I would like to see it all fall—but the fact is that that probably is not a position your Lordships’ House can take. However, we can obtain very significant concessions from the Government. They will not want to lose all these Bills, and this is an opportunity for us to throw out the worst bits of the legislation that we have all argued about over the past few months.
I make a plea to the Labour Front Bench and the Cross-Benchers that we maintain the maximum amount of toughness in the face of what the Government are trying to push through this House. We should not fumble this opportunity to improve Bills that we have tried to improve, only for almost all those amendments to be ripped out by the other place. So, I am looking forward to today. I have sat here and listened to the speeches with a real smile on my face; it has been wonderful.
Amendments 45 and 46 are a perfect example of why we should not back down. We have to insist that we will not pass the Bill if Clauses 15 and 16 remain in it. The Electoral Commission, as we have heard, said it best, and I agree. It says that the proposals are
“inconsistent with the role that an independent commission plays in a healthy democratic system.”
This Government are trying to reduce the amount of democracy we have in Britain, and that is a terrible failing for a democratically elected Government.
The Greens are very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for leading on these essential amendments. I am sure he is going to carry the House with him, and we will obviously vote for them again and again—as many times as it takes to force the Government to drop them or lose the Bill entirely.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I frequently do not agree with her; today, I most certainly do and I think, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, this is one that we take to the wire, because this is completely unacceptable in a Bill of this nature. In no circumstances could I possibly condone the Bill if it goes forward with these clauses in it.
As I was listening this afternoon to some excellent speeches, I thought of those famous words of Acton: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I am afraid we are in danger of our Government being corrupted. I use those words deliberately and slowly, but it is a real risk, because the arrogance that we see from this Government—my noble friend Lord Hailsham referred to this—is something that, in my 52 years in Parliament, I have not seen before. Coupled with it is a disinclination to disagree agreeably, and in a democracy it is very important to be able to do that.
For a Government to take these powers to themselves is something up with which we should not put. I referred to this in previous debates, at Second Reading and in Committee. We have here a potential seizure of power that, as my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham said, we would not have countenanced from the Labour Government, with their massive majority, 22 years ago, when he and I—he was leading—were dealing from the Front Bench with the Bill that established the Electoral Commission.
Of course, there are things wrong with the Electoral Commission. If they are so very wrong, if would not have been a dishonest thing to say that we will abolish it. I would not have favoured that, but to say that we will subvert it—that we will place ourselves in a position where we can undermine it—is an arrogance that defies belief. We just cannot have this in a Parliament, and the trouble is that if a sea change happens, it tends to stay.
One of the reasons why your Lordships’ House has such an excessive legislative burden on its shoulders is that in 1998, the then Labour Government—I was talking to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about this this morning —provoked by some Conservatives who kept Labour up late night after late night, decided that every Bill would be timetabled. When the Conservative spokesman said, “We, of course, will reverse this”, we all thought that that was absolutely right. And when Conservatives came into government, did they? No, because it was convenient for government. But the result of that convenience for government has created a situation where legislation is not scrutinised in the other place, hence the excessive workload in your Lordships’ House.
We should beware of going down slippery slopes. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has performed a signal service in putting down these two amendments. I believe it is our duty, it is incumbent upon us, to curb that arrogance of power and to make sure that these clauses are deleted from the Bill, or that the Bill—for all that it contains some things that are entirely acceptable —falls. That is the ultimatum we must place before the Government, and I hope they will see sense.
I thank the noble Lord for giving me a turn.
The case for removing these two clauses has been very powerfully made already and my point is a very simple one which will not take very long. These two clauses, if they remain in the Bill, will put in the hands of a successor Government the essential tools to immediately deliver the very first task set out in the autocrat’s playbook, which is, when you take power, make sure you keep it. In the UK, that means making sure that you have the Electoral Commission under your thumb.
I have only one question for the Minister. Taking him fully at his word that this Government would never in a million years use these powers to distort the actions of the Electoral Commission or to raise the bar for opposition candidates or opposition parties in any future election, what happens when the million years is up? What happens when another Government, less imbued with the deep ethical principles so clearly exhibited by the present Administration, less scrupulous about fair play and with less commitment to truth and accuracy, take office? Can the Minister say to your Lordships, in all honesty, that it will be safe to put these clauses on the statute book, just waiting for that ruthless successor Government to exploit? It could be an ultra-left Government with little regard for constitutional conventions, balancing the books or protecting industry from red tape, and perhaps ready to repudiate international treaties, undermining all those Conservative values that the Minister espouses so much.
Does the Minister think it is safe to leave these clauses in the Bill? I have seen the noble Lord in action. I do not believe that he is either so naive or so short-sighted as to believe it would be safe to do so, and it would not be in the long-term interests of the Conservative Party for these clauses to be in the Bill. I, my noble friends and other noble Lords all around the House have powerfully expressed the view that we are ready to help him get off the hook and to take these two clauses out of the Bill.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and to the House, for having pushed him so rudely.
When one sees the way the tide of opinion is flowing strongly, it is very easy to think that it is best to keep one’s head down and not provide a cautionary word about being careful what we wish for in taking these amendments through—should the House so decide. I note and appreciate the concerns expressed in powerful speeches this afternoon. These are replicated in the briefing from the Electoral Commission referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Several letters in the correspondence columns of the broadsheets have carried an equivalent message.
I also recognise that the drafting of parts of these clauses can best be described as uncompromising. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to this, though I think he was slightly dismissive about the consultation processes provided for in Clause 15, in new Sections 4C and 4D. He pointed out that the procedures for scrutinising secondary legislation are proving increasingly inadequate and ineffective for modern conditions. He knows that I agree with him. I am pleased to be able to tell him and the House that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, will publish a further end of term report at the end of this week. This will give grist to his mill—and indeed to mine.
Among the concerns raised is the use of what can be described as tertiary legislation. I spoke to the noble and learned Lord in advance of this debate, so he knows broadly what I shall say about creating bodies over which there is absolutely no parliamentary control but which, none the less, have powers that concern some of the most fundamental aspects of our society. One recent example is the College of Policing, an independent body able to introduce regulations and codes that affect every one of us.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra have made common cause in attacking this. I entirely support them. To come to the point, I am not yet convinced that, if these two amendments were agreed, we would not be creating another body equivalent to the College of Policing, but this time for electoral purposes—an equally important part of our national life.
Am I enthusiastic about Clauses 15 and 16? Not at all, but I recognise that there is some parliamentary involvement and approval in this process. If these amendments were accepted, the Electoral Commission—with all the criticisms that have been made of it, fairly or unfairly—would float free from any even minor scrutiny or accountability. In my view, this would be even less desirable.
I wish to make two points about these amendments. I do so in the hope—but not the expectation—that noble Lords who have set their faces against these clauses will look at them in a more favourable light.
First, all public bodies must be accountable, whether they are independent regulators or carrying out other kinds of function. This should not be a controversial statement. The role of the Speaker’s Committee, as set out in PPERA, with its focus on budgets and plans rather than outcomes and actions, provides a weak accountability framework. Indeed, the report on election fraud from my noble friend Lord Pickles, who I am glad to see in his place, found it ineffective. Clauses 15 and 16 beef up the Speaker’s Committee so that it can hold the Electoral Commission to account on the basis of the policy and strategy statement, remembering, of course, that that statement is not just the creature of government and must be consulted on and approved by Parliament. Anyone who opposes Clauses 15 and 16 really should explain how they would ensure that the Electoral Commission will be properly accountable, because the current arrangements are simply not fit for purpose.
Secondly, there is a myth that the strategy and policy statement is a de facto power of direction or involves giving instructions—I think that was the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—to the Electoral Commission. Clause 15 could not be clearer. There is no obligation on the commission to follow the statement. There is no alteration of the core duties and obligations set out in PPERA. The commission’s only duty is to have regard to the statement and report annually on what it has done in consequence of it. That report might, in theory, say that it has done nothing in consequence of the statement, but given the generally bland nature of these policy and strategy statements, I think that would be unlikely.
The opponents of these clauses, however, say that the strategy and policy statements will influence the Electoral Commission, with the implication that influence is always malign. I believe that the independence of the Electoral Commission is founded in the independence of the thought and integrity of the commissioners themselves, and those commissioners are not appointed by the Government. Genuinely independent commissioners will do what they think is necessary in accordance with their statutory obligations, and they will do that whatever the Government tell them to do. The commissioners are the first line of defence against undue influence. Influence can be a positive thing, too. I hope noble Lords would have no problem if, for example, a statement influenced the commission to focus on important issues such as those that arose in relation to Tower Hamlets. I remind noble Lords that the Electoral Commission did not cover itself in glory when first encountering the issues there. I urge noble Lords not to support these amendments.
My Lords, I shall cover two or three points. I shall not go into detail about some of my concerns about the Electoral Commission, except to make a limited comment about difficulties I have at the moment. I will start by referring to comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, earlier in relation to referees. I wear my rugby referee’s tie with pride today because it is an indication of the impartiality one is required to have under all circumstances. No player or spectator ever accused me of not being impartial. They may have accused me of being incompetent, and did so volubly from the touchline, but they did not accuse me of not being impartial.
I must disagree with both my noble friends Lord Hodgson and Lady Noakes. As far as I am concerned, there are ways of dealing with the problems of the Electoral Commission. As I think many Members know, I have had more problems and more dealings with the Electoral Commission over the last 12 months than virtually anybody in this Chamber—and, my godfathers, does it not drive you barmy? I have sympathy with the Government because they are trying to tackle the problem. All I shall say on my latest difficulty, which has been running for four or five days, is: will the Electoral Commission please look at itself rather than passing to others the responsibility for policing matters—administering elections and the like? This problem has run since 2013 to my full knowledge. It keeps saying that other people need to deal with these matters but it does not look at itself.
These clauses are not a way of tackling the problems that I and others have faced with the Electoral Commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, in effect, they tell us that the home team at a rugby match shall have the right to speak to the referee and tell him how he will referee that game. I am sorry, but I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: if you are giving guidance, however softly and subtly you do it, you are influencing the Electoral Commission and not giving others that opportunity to influence it in the same way. We need to look at the way that the commissioners are appointed, and we may need to look at the way that other organisations around it operate, but the one thing we do not need to do is to tie the commission to guidance from the Government.
The only part of the comments I made when we debated this matter previously that I want to repeat is that I have had the pleasure—or difficulty, for that matter —of being on a panel abroad looking at international elections. That is a process which many Members of this House have participated in. I want the honour— I use “honour” deliberately—of being able to say to other countries, “Look at what we do. Follow that as closely as possible, because that is the best way to run your elections”. However, with these two clauses in the Bill, I am afraid that I could not do that.
My Lords, my name is on these amendments. We have had a very powerful debate from all sides of the House, and I suggest that we now ought to move towards the Minister’s response.
I remind the Minister of the constitutional context we are in and of his responsibilities as, in effect, the only member of the Government with responsibility for the constitution and constitutional propriety. Noble Lords may not be fully aware that, since the last reshuffle, there is no longer any Minister within the Government who has been given the specific responsibility of being Minister for the Constitution. The responsibility for this Bill has been moved from the Cabinet Office to the department for levelling up, communities, local government and various other things which provide a very extensive portfolio for Michael Gove. That leaves the Minister in some ways stranded, but in other ways he is the only member of the Government—apart from the Prime Minister himself—who specifically has responsibility for constitutional propriety among his major responsibilities.
The Minister will be well aware that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, referred to issues of constitutional principle in his resignation letter and that, before him, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, also resigned on a matter of constitutional principle. I hope that the Minister will address the constitutional propriety of these two clauses in winding up. After all, we are in a wider constitutional crisis, both domestically—I have referred to the context of that—and internationally, given what is happening in Ukraine and the growth of autocracies around the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, who sadly is not in his place, addressed Britain’s constitutional crisis in his article in the Times last Wednesday. He reminded his readers:
“The British constitution, because it is unwritten, is particularly vulnerable to its limitations being resisted at the top of government … It is the responsibility of parliamentarians, and in particular Conservative ones, to insist”
that constitutional rules and conventions are followed. I welcome the reaffirmation made by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, of the Conservative Party’s proud tradition as the constitutional party—from Burke through successive Salisburys to the noble Viscount’s father, Lord Hailsham—and I regret our current Government’s failure to maintain fully that tradition.
I invite the Minister to explain to the House how he considers these proposals to be compatible with Conservative principles of limited government and parliamentary sovereignty. If he cannot reconcile the tried and tested principles of Conservatism—about which he has often spoken eloquently—with these proposals, he should accept that they should be removed.
My Lords, we very much welcome these amendments. We thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for tabling them and for his excellent and clear introduction on his concerns about the implications of leaving these clauses in the Bill. I will be brief, as he and many other noble Lords made excellent speeches today.
We have made it extremely clear on previous stages of the Bill’s consideration that we are extremely concerned about its intention to make provisions for a power to designate a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission, drafted by government. As other noble Lords have said, this would allow political interference in the regulation of our elections and calls into question the independence of the Electoral Commission from government and political control. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. It is a dangerous precedent. If we look at similar democracies such as Canada, New Zealand or Australia, there is always a complete separation between government and the electoral commission. It is essential that our regulatory framework strikes the right balance between upholding the independence of the Electoral Commission and ensuring it is properly scrutinised and held to account. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, made some good points about the fact that we need to look at how it operates, but this is absolutely not the way to go about it.
I remind those noble Lords who have said that this is not of any concern that new Section 4B(2) in Clause 15 says that:
“The Commission must have regard to the statement when carrying out their functions”—
“must”, not “may”. That is what really concerns us. We have had many excellent speeches, so I urge the Minister to listen very carefully to what has been said in the defence of our democracy. That is what we are talking about. We fully support these amendments and urge other noble Lords to do the same when this is put to the House.
My Lords, I have not detected universal enthusiasm for these clauses in the debate, but I will seek to persuade your Lordships that they should remain. Of course, in remaining, one of the things they do is provide a basis for further discussion.
Your Lordships’ House is a revising Chamber, but we do not have here amendments to revise. These amendments would simply remove clauses on the basis of arguments which, in my submission, are exaggerated in their concerns, although I understand and share the concerns for democratic responsibility and respect. We have even heard several threats to kill the whole Bill. I must remind noble Lords that this is a Bill that prevents election fraud and abuse; introduces the first controls on digital campaigning; cracks down in many ways on foreign spending; and improves the integrity of postal voting. These are matters which have wide assent across the Chamber and across both Houses. It would not be wise or proportionate for your Lordships to consider killing those proposals on the basis of this particular issue.
Would my noble friend accept that if the Government withdraw these clauses, on which there is a great deal of opposition, the Bill will go through? Several of us have said that it has many excellent features. We do not want to kill the Bill, but we do want to remove this anti-democratic element from it.
My Lords, I can only respond to the language I heard in the debate and, of course, that will lie in Hansard. Of course I listen to the range of concerns set out by your Lordships. The main concern that I hear, and understand, is about the potential impact on the independence of the Electoral Commission.
I stated in Committee, and I do so again now, that the Government’s proposals take a proportionate approach to reforming the accountability of the commission to Parliament, which some who have spoken have admitted could be reviewed, while respecting its operational independence. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and others that it is vital we have an independent regulator that commands trust across the political spectrum.
By the way, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, asked would I worry if the Labour Party had such powers on the statute book. I remind your Lordships that the Labour Party is a great constitutional party, and I would trust it to use the responsibilities and powers that it had in an appropriate manner.
In previous debates, parliamentarians across both Houses identified areas of concern with the commission’s work. My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts spoke to this. Under the existing accountability framework, in practice, parliamentarians are limited in their ability to scrutinise and hold the commission effectively accountable. The report by my noble friend Lord Pickles, whom I am pleased to see in his place, obviously alluded to certain issues that he felt had not been fully addressed. These measures will seek to remedy this by providing guidance, as approved by Parliament, for the commission to consider in the exercise of its functions, and by giving the Speaker’s Committee an enhanced role in holding the commission to account in how it has performed its duties in relation to the proposed statement.
It has been suggested, several times, that the “duty to have regard” to the strategy and policy statement placed on the commission in Clause 15 will weaken its independence and give Ministers the power to direct it. The Government strongly reject this characterisation of the measures. The Electoral Commission will remain operationally independent and governed by its Electoral Commissioners as a result of this measure, after as before. This duty does not allow the Government to direct the work of the commission, nor does it undermine the commission’s other statutory duties.
I wonder, given what the Minister has just said, whether he could explain the purpose of new Section 13ZA, on the examination of the duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement, which states:
“The Speaker’s Committee may examine the performance by the Commission of the Commission’s duty under section 4B(2) (duty to have regard to strategy and policy statement).”
What is the purpose of having the ability to examine the commitment to the policy statement? What would the Government do if it found that “have regard” had not been sufficient?
My Lords, I say to the noble Baroness that it is not a power to direct. The Speaker’s Committee is not a government institution; it is part of the architecture that is there, and has been there, to oversee the work of the commission. That was inherent in previous legislation; this legislation seeks to improve its ability to do so. What the legislation means is that when carrying out its functions, yes, the commission will be asked to consider the statement, but weigh it up against any other relative considerations.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, knows the respect I have for him. I have enjoyed discussing this matter with him and no doubt may again if he has his way in your Lordships’ House today, which I hope he will not, but our contention is that there are a number of safeguarding provisions around parliamentary approval and consultation built into Clause 15. I outlined that at length in previous debates and will not repeat it here. I believe, notwithstanding the noble and learned Lord’s remarks, that those safeguarding provisions should reassure those who have expressed concerns about strategy and policy statements being drafted by future Governments that may have ill intent.
The statement will set out guidance and principles. We have published an illustrative example, which is hardly the most threatening document ever published in the history of mankind. We ask that the commission have regard to that statement in the discharge of its functions. The statement will provide the commission with a clear articulation of principles and priorities, approved by Parliament, as it is reasonable for Parliament to do, to have regard to when going about its work, particularly in areas where primary legislation is not explicit and the commission is exercising the significant discretion it is afforded in terms of activity, priorities, and approach. My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts made some important remarks on what he described as tertiary legislative powers.
Under these proposals, Parliament will have an important role in debating and scrutinising the content of the statement, which in turn will influence how the commission exercises its discretion. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, doubted the adequacy of the provision for statutory consultation set out in Clause 15, but I do not agree that a statutory consultation process for the statement is nugatory. The provisions state that the Secretary of State must review and consider submissions from all statutory consultees before submitting a new statement for parliamentary approval. Furthermore, any new or revised statement will be subject to approval of the UK Parliament, thus ensuring that the Government consider parliamentarians’ views and that Parliament has the final say over whether any statement takes effect.
The proposed removal of Clause 16 is also put to your Lordships. It was noted in Committee that the Electoral Commission is already accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee—this again takes up the point made by the noble Baroness. However, the Speaker’s Committee’s existing remit is narrowly restricted to overseeing the commission’s finances, its five-year corporate plan, and the appointment of Electoral Commissioners. The purpose of Clause 16 is to expand this remit to enable the Speaker’s Committee to perform a scrutiny function similar to that of parliamentary Select Committees. As the noble and learned Lord acknowledged, that committee does not have an inbuilt government majority. By allowing the Speaker’s Committee to scrutinise the commission’s activities in light of its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement, we will give the UK Parliament the tools to effectively review the commission and hold it accountable.
My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the Speaker’s Committee is sui generis. Obviously, it has senior representation from political parties in the House of Commons. I have enormous respect and affection for the noble Lord. It is not reasonable to impugn the integrity of a Speaker’s Committee and I do not think that he was doing so—
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord rose. I had started to make it clear that I was not making any such proposal. The analogy I was using is just a mechanism in terms of the way that the committee will be able to conduct its reviews, effectively holding the commission accountable on a broader range of its activities than is currently allowed in law. As I sought to explain to your Lordships, that remit is currently narrowly restricted.
For the reasons that I have set out, I urge that my noble friends and noble Lords across the House oppose the amendments put forward by the noble and learned Lord, and that Clauses 15 and 16 stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has participated, including those Members of the House who do not agree with me. It is fun to listen to alternative arguments.
I have just a couple of points to make. The problem with these clauses is that they were inserted without any kind of discussion. When constitutional issues are being addressed, and when, in particular, the independence of the Electoral Commission and its performance are being addressed, surely, of all things, that is something for cross-party discussion, and it is for the cross-parties to make up their minds how to make the Electoral Commission do its job and perform its function better than it has. That is a matter for Parliament: I am not going to advance different solutions to this, but the problem is that nobody has asked anybody else. That is why I describe this proposal as “new minted”. It is “new minted”, and that is one of its problems.
The other problem is with the phrase “must have regard to”. I “must have regard” to everything the Minister says. I am going to listen to it; I am going to be influenced by it. I might not feel quite as strongly as I did against him—I do not know—but the point is that you have to have regard to the statement by the Minister of the Government’s strategies, priorities and guidance, and that would influence any body of people, however independent-minded they are and wish to be. That, surely, is the point of this legislation. The Government want the commission to be influenced by the strategy and priorities paper.
If the Electoral Commission says, “Well, we have seen what the Minister has to say. We have read the statement and we think it’s a load of rubbish”, what happens then? Apart from anything else, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will be briefed on a judicial review by the Government that the Electoral Commission was not exercising its powers correctly, and he would probably win. As I have told noble Lords before, he never won a single case in front of me; and as I have also told noble Lords before, on every occasion when he appealed, he won.
I would just add, on a serious note, that the noble and learned Lord makes an absolutely correct point. If the Electoral Commission said, “We do not agree with this document and we are not going to follow it”, there would be a real danger of judicial review. There would be a real danger, in particular, because this document would have the approval of Parliament, it having been whipped through.
Clause 16: Examination of duty to have regard to strategy and policy statement
46: Clause 16, leave out Clause 16
Amendment 46 agreed.
Clause 19: Notional expenditure: use of property etc on behalf of candidates and others
47: Clause 19, page 29, line 24, leave out “a local government election in Scotland or Wales” and insert “an election in Scotland or Wales under the local government Act”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 10, line 33.
Amendment 47 agreed.
48: Clause 19, leave out Clause 19
My Lords, after a long debate on a substantive issue, this will probably be a rather shorter, more technical debate. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, from the Labour Front Bench, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, from the Greens, for supporting the amendment to delete Clause 19 in Committee. I am also grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, and his team for engaging on this issue of accounting for election expenditure in constituencies. The Government’s position appears to be that no change in law is proposed. I therefore think that Clause 19 is unnecessary. The Government say that it is about clarification, but I think this has been provided by the courts and that guidance from the Electoral Commission—provided it remains independent—should suffice.
The Government blame confusion about the rules for election spending in constituencies for the prosecution of the Conservative candidate, the Conservative agent and a senior Conservative HQ staff member following the campaign in South Thanet during the 2015 general election. However, it does not address the widespread concern after that election that the basic principles of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883, which first provided a level playing field in constituency election campaigns, were being subverted in that election.
The origins of Clause 19 are in a Private Member’s Bill introduced by that Conservative candidate in that election and which the Electoral Commission advised
“would risk allowing parties to spend what they like (subject to their national limits) on promoting their candidates in key marginal seats”.
I think the clause is unnecessary because Southwark Crown Court acquitted the candidate and the agent, maintaining the simple principle that they could not be held responsible for what they were not responsible. But the Conservative campaign headquarters was held to be responsible for massive overspending in support of the Conservative candidate and a senior party official received a significant sentence.
Today, I seek significant assurances from the Minister that what is described as a clarification is not an attempt to make legal what was deemed illegal by Southwark Crown Court. Parliament must not be seen to give a nod and a wink to reversing the principle of the level playing field in constituency campaigns—a principle that was reaffirmed in the Representation of the People Act 1983. In his judgment on the case at Southwark Crown Court, Mr Justice Edis said that the existing law
“exists to ensure a level playing field and also to limit the extent to which the electorate can be manipulated by costly and sophisticated systems designed to spread a message on behalf of a candidate in a Parliamentary election.”
If we are to accept Clause 19, I would like the Minister to confirm that we are not supporting any change to that principle.
Two years ago, the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, confirmed that the Government accepted that the principle of a level playing field, as set out in the original 1883 legislation, is “timeless”. Is this still the Government’s policy? Do they accept the conclusions of Southwark Crown Court, which tested election law on these issues, or do they seek to overturn the decision about what was found to be illegal? Depending on the Minister’s response, I may wish to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
I do not have much to add to the noble Lord’s contribution. We support his contention that this is an unnecessary clause. I agree that the principle is one that we should completely reaffirm, as the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, did in a previous debate. We need the assurances from the Minister. If he is unable to give the assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, seeks, we will support him if he decides to divide the House.
My Lords, as noble Lords will know, Clause 19 is there to clarify the law on benefits in kind and make it clear that candidates need to report only benefits in kind that they have actually used or which they or their election agent have directed, authorised or encouraged someone else to use on their behalf. We had some discussion on this in Committee, as the noble Lord acknowledges. This was already widely understood to be true, prior to the Supreme Court judgment in R v Mackinlay and others. The Supreme Court judgment has led to concerns that candidates and agents could be responsible for spending they had not consented to or were unaware of or not involved in. This is an unacceptable situation and risks a chilling effect on people willing to put themselves forward as candidates and agents.
The noble Lord has been so kind as to refer to the positive engagement we had and I thank him for his continued interest in and engagement on the topic. In response to some of the concerns he raised, including those raised again today, I am happy to provide clarity on the government position. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked two specific questions and I can say to him that the Government are absolutely committed to the long-standing principle of a level playing field for general election campaigns, whether in campaigning being carried out at constituency level or nationally. The noble Lord referred to a statement made by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham in 2019 when agreeing with the importance of the principle of a level playing field in relation to spending at elections. The Government maintain the commitment my noble friend gave; nothing in the Bill seeks to undermine that principle.
The proposals in the Bill will not change the fundamental principle that party spending in support of a particular candidate in a local area falls to be recorded as candidate spending against the local limit. Instead, the clauses bring forward changes seeking to maintain the level playing field by ensuring that all candidates and agents across the political spectrum are clear and confident in their legal responsibilities. Clause 19 also makes an equivalent amendment to the same rules for other types of campaigners, such as political parties and third-party campaigners, to ensure that the rules are consistent. We believe that these changes will bring much-needed reassurance and clarity to candidates and their agents on the rules which apply to notional expenditure for reserved elections. In combination with expanded statutory guidance—which we will discuss shortly—from the Electoral Commission on this matter provided for in Clause 20, this measure will support compliance with the rules and ensure that those wishing to participate in public life can feel confident doing so, clear in their obligations.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked a further and very specific question. I can say to him that the Government are not acting in response to the judgment of Southwark Crown Court in 2019 in relation to campaigning in South Thanet in 2015. However, the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2018 related specifically to the consideration of a particular point of law and concluded that there was no requirement for authorisation in Section 90(3) of the 2000 Act, which was contrary to the understanding of many and led to concerns about what expenses could potentially be incurred on a candidate’s behalf even without their knowledge. As a result, there have been calls from across the political spectrum for clarification of those rules. A cross-party committee of MPs, PACAC and the Law Commission have called for clarity on the rules in recent reports. The changes enacted by the Bill will only clarify the law so that it can be commonly understood. As I said, any uncertainty could lead to a democratic chilling effect, with candidates and election agents, who are often volunteers and fearful of their personal circumstances, unwilling to expose themselves to risk.
Finally, it is important to note that Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already prohibits “local” third-party spending over £700 which has not been “authorised in writing”; therefore, it requires specific authorisation. Where such spending is authorised by a candidate, the candidate must also report on the spending incurred by the third party. If a third party, which could include a political party, spends over that threshold without authorisation, an offence has been committed. The Elections Bill does not alter this. Where a third party, including a political party, has provided property, goods and services free of charge or at a discount, or has made use of property, this must be recorded as a notional expense.
I can assure the noble Lord on those points that we are absolutely committed to the assurance my noble friend gave and that we are not acting in response to the judgment of Southwark Crown Court in 2019 in relation to 2015 and the issues of uncertainty that have arisen. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will accept those assurances and be ready to withdraw his amendment that would remove this clause from the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for those warm words and his reassurance, and for his engagement and that of his officials on this important issue of election law. We have certainly made great progress on the issue since we began discussing what may happen in relation to notional expenditure and the original Private Member’s Bill, but I take from everything that he says, when he refers to clarification following the Supreme Court judgment, that any court in future would say that nothing in this clause should be taken as a change in the law.
I remain unconvinced that it is necessary but I am pleased that the Minister, in his correspondence, particularly that to all Members of the House on 4 April—if I may paraphrase slightly what he said—made it clear that there is no get out of jail free card for a candidate or agent who encourages excessive spending in a constituency and simply relies on the claim not to have authorised it. The word “encouraging” is quite significant in how that may be taken in a court in future should there be controversy over election expenses. It means that there cannot be a nod and a wink to expenditure in the cause of winning a constituency without accepting that such expenditure must be specifically authorised, to a £700 limit, for a third party. An election agent who told their HQ that they were delivering a leaflet with the local volunteers over the weekend so it would be convenient if two coachloads of paid activists could come on Wednesday and Thursday would certainly be encouraging illegal spending, as would providing them with maps and assisting them with their dining and hotel arrangements when they came to canvass or deliver in the constituency.
In my view, it remains a loophole that we must examine at another time that parties can post huge quantities of direct mail to a constituency aimed at influencing the vote there but claim that it is nothing to do with the local candidate. However, given that the Electoral Commission should retain its independence to advise on such matters, and that such advice could again be evidence in court, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 48 withdrawn.
Clause 20: Codes of practice on expenses
49: Clause 20, page 31, line 20, leave out “or paragraph 3(7) of Schedule 8A”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, which leaves out the reference to an order under paragraph 3(7) of Schedule 8A to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (in the inserted paragraph (aa) for section 156(3) of that Act), is consequential on the new Clause that Lord Hodgson is seeking to insert after Clause 27.
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 54 and 56. Amendments 49 and 54 are paving amendments, and the bulk of what I want to say relates to Amendment 56.
The role of a Back-Bencher moving amendments is to spend a great deal of one’s time pushing on doors that are firmly shut and remain so. But every now and then a door opens and one staggers into the room off-balance with surprise, and so it is today. It is therefore right that I should begin by thanking the Minister and the Bill team for the way they have responded to Amendment 54, which I tabled in Committee and has now expanded to this group of amendments. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is not in his place, for again putting his name to an amendment in this revised group.
I do not intend to repeat my remarks except to say that the amendment is intended to address head-on the so-called chilling effect on third-party campaigning resulting from the provisions of the 2014 Act. At the heart of that problem is what is known as the “intent test”. The wording in the Act catches for regulatory purpose any activity that
“can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election”.
The decision on which actions or activities cross the line lies with the Electoral Commission. I make it clear that the commission has gone out of its way since the passage of the 2014 Act to reassure third-party campaigners about how it intends to implement these provisions, but we are here today scrutinising primary legislation and we want to future-proof it as far as possible. That includes future-proofing it from a future Electoral Commission that may adopt a less collaborative approach than the current one.
The answer is to introduce a series of statutory codes that have the following advantages: first, they require the Electoral Commission to undertake the intellectual heavy lifting needed to produce a code giving clarity and certainty to third-party campaigners; secondly, they give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise and approve the initial codes and any revisions thereto; and, thirdly, they give third-party campaigners the knowledge that compliance with the code provides a statutory defence.
Although the intent test is by some distance the most important aspect of third-party campaigning in need of a statutory code, other areas would usefully benefit from similar treatment. The amendment as drafted provides for that. The new amendment differs from the earlier one in only three ways. Two areas arise from the conventions of parliamentary drafting—that to identify specific issues or bodies risks diminishing the importance of others. So, the references in the earlier amendment to a code to define “the public” and to include civil society groups among those who have to be consulted are omitted. However, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will shortly be able to say on the Floor of the House that those omissions do not reflect any diminution in their relevance or importance. The only other change in drafting is to deal with the particular position of the devolved Administrations.
I end by thanking all those who have thrown their weight behind making these changes and, last but not least, my noble friend the Minister and the Bill team. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise briefly to welcome and support the noble Lord. Throughout the stages of the Bill, I have repeatedly welcomed some of his contributions, particularly in relation to third-party campaigning and creating the certainty and clarity that they need to ensure that the chilling effect does not have a huge impact on our democracy. I very much welcome this, and I welcome the principle that the code of practice provides that necessary parliamentary scrutiny. We welcome these amendments.
My Lords, one of the charming aspects of your Lordships’ House is that when a Minister is being chided for not listening to the House it is rammed to the gills but when the Government make a concession there are not quite so many here. None the less, I thank not only my noble friend Lord Hodgson but colleagues in other parts of the House who have made this case, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is not in his place for perfectly understandable reasons.
The amendment would create a new clause in the Bill which would remove a permissive power that allowed the Electoral Commission to prepare a code of practice, and instead, as your Lordships have asked, replace it with a requirement on the Electoral Commission to produce such a code of conduct. It also specifies the scope of the code, sets out the consultation process and procedure for the code, and creates a defence for third parties who are charged with offences under Part 6 of PPERA. It also makes the necessary consequential amendments to Clauses 20 and 25.
As my noble friend kindly acknowledged, in Committee I promised to consider his suggestions on a code of practice for third-party campaigners. He made his arguments in good faith, on the basis of great experience and genuinely reflecting the opinions of the sector. As he acknowledged, my officials and I have since met him and concluded that these changes are necessary and important for third-party campaigners.
The new statutory guidance—I do not know whether it will come to be called “the Hodgson guidance”—will provide certainty for third-party campaigners on how to comply with the rules relating to third-party campaigning. The amendment provides for the guidance to be comprehensive, and I say to my noble friend that it is our hope that this will address the term “the public” used in Part 1 of Schedule 8A on qualifying expenses.
The amendment requires the commission to consult the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, as in our earlier proposals on the strategy document. It also requires the commission to consult such other persons as the commission considers appropriate. As part of the statutory consultation, the Government would certainly expect a cross-section of civil society groups to be consulted; I can give my noble friend that assurance.
I am pleased to confirm that the Government are fully supportive of these three amendments, and I very much hope that your Lordships will support my noble friend.
Amendment 49 agreed.
Clause 21: Authorised persons not required to pay expenses through election agent
50: Clause 21, page 31, line 30, leave out “a local government election in Wales” and insert “an election in Wales under the local government Act”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 10, line 33.
Amendment 50 agreed.
Clause 22: Declaration of assets and liabilities to be provided on application for registration
51: Clause 22, page 32, line 14, leave out “party’s assets/liabilities figure does not exceed £500” and insert “assets/liabilities condition is met in relation to the party”
Member’s explanatory statement
The amendments to Clause 22 in the name of Baroness Noakes ensure that the reporting threshold for section 28(3D) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (declaration of assets and liabilities to be provided on application for registration) is expressed in terms that are consistent with accounting practice.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 51 I will also speak to Amendments 52 and 53 in this group, and I can be brief. The amendments are technical and, I hope, non-contentious, especially as my noble friend Lord True has added his name to them.
In Committee, when we were debating what is now Clause 22, I asked the Minister about the wording of the new subsections (3B) and (3C) in Section 28 of PPERA. This exempts small parties from the new requirement to make a declaration of assets and liabilities when they register. The threshold has been set at £500, which is in line with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, which recommended it be set by reference to assets or liabilities. The Bill added another reference point: assets plus liabilities. Being a very old-fashioned accountant, adding assets and liabilities together did not make any sense to me.
Since Committee, I have had very constructive exchanges with my noble friend the Minister and his officials, and the outcome of that is the three amendments in this group. In effect, the amendments say that the small-parties threshold is now expressed as £500 for either assets or liabilities. It does this by saying that a small political party has to meet an assets/liabilities condition, which is defined in proposed new subsection (3C), in Amendment 53, as being met only if both assets and liabilities do not exceed £500.
I am grateful to the Government for facilitating this small change to the Bill in the interests of good accounting practice. I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, to highlight the importance that provisions relating to electoral law are consistent with accounting practice. I know that the noble Baroness speaks with great experience and expertise in this area, having served as the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, as well as holding various senior positions in the accounting and finance area.
Specifically, these amendments focus on the registration of parties and the declaration of assets in relation to this process. It is crucial that the individuals and groups participating in elections are fully transparent in their practices—a point which these Benches have consistently raised during debates on amendments in previous stages of the Bill.
I hope the Minister can provide assurances that PPERA and other legislation governing political activities are already consistent with accounting practice, but I would also appreciate if she could use this opportunity to provide a more general update on how the evolving governance of accountancy and reporting will relate to political finances.
Finally, the Minister will be aware that the Financial Reporting Council is preparing to transition to become the audit, reporting and governance authority. Can she confirm whether the Government expect the new authority to play any role in overseeing finances relating to elections? I look forward to assurances from the Minister.
My Lords, Amendments 51, 52 and 53 were tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, whom I thank for sharing her considerable expertise in and knowledge of this topic. Her constructive engagement with the Bill, particularly this clause, has been gratefully received in order to ensure that the law works effectively and as intended.
Asset declarations upon registration as a political party is an important matter. In answer to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in Committee, I say that this measure was recommended by the Electoral Commission in its 2013 and 2018 reports—A Regulatory Review of the UK’s Party and Election Finance Laws, and Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters. This led to the Committee on Standards in Public Life making the very same recommendation in its 2021 report Regulating Election Finance.
Clause 22 introduces provisions that will require new political parties to declare whether they have assets or liabilities in excess of £500 when they register with the Electoral Commission as a political party. Those with assets or liabilities in excess of £500 will be required to give a record of them as part of their registration. This will provide an increased level of transparency regarding a political party’s financial position at the point of registration. As part of the registration process, new political parties are not currently required to submit a declaration of the assets they own or liabilities they have. This information only becomes available in their first annual statement of accounts, published on the Electoral Commission’s website, which may be up to 18 months after registration.
The central policy aim of Clause 22 is to ensure greater transparency regarding the financial situation of new political parties. It is my and the Government’s view that my noble friend Lady Noakes’s technical amendments make this clearer and easier to understand for political parties registering with the Electoral Commission. These amendments will remove the requirement to add together the assets and liabilities, therefore bringing this clause into line with the more standard accounting practices that my noble friend has shared with us. I will read Hansard tomorrow and make sure that the noble Lord has a written answer to the questions that he asked. Therefore, I am pleased to say that the Government support this amendment, and I urge the noble Lords to do so too.
Amendment 51 agreed.
Amendments 52 and 53
52: Clause 22, page 32, line 17, leave out “party’s assets/liabilities figure exceeds £500” and insert “assets/liabilities condition is not met in relation to the party”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in the name of Baroness Noakes at page 32, line 14.
53: Clause 22, page 32, leave out lines 19 to 25 and insert—
“(3C) The assets/liabilities condition is met in relation to a party if—(a) the total value of the party’s assets does not exceed £500, and(b) the total amount of the party’s liabilities does not exceed £500.”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in the name of Baroness Noakes at page 32, line 14.
Amendments 52 and 53 agreed.
Clause 25: Restriction on which third parties may incur controlled expenditure
54: Clause 25, page 35, leave out lines 27 to 35
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, to leave out subsection (6) of the inserted section 89A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, is consequential on the new Clause that Lord Hodgson is seeking to insert after Clause 27.
Amendment 54 agreed.
Clause 26: Third parties capable of giving notification for purposes of Part 6 of PPERA
55: Clause 26, page 36, line 34, at end insert—
“(10) An order under subsection (9)(b) or (c) may be made only where the order gives effect to a recommendation of the Commission.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes the power to remove or vary entries in the list of categories of third party that may be recognised for the purposes of Part 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 exercisable only on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission.
My Lords, Clause 26 allows the Secretary of State to lay legislation before Parliament to amend the list of eligible categories of third-party campaigners in PPERA 2000. As we discussed at earlier stages, this is necessary in instances where, for example, legitimate categories not currently on the list emerge in the future. Without it, they would be significantly restricted in their ability to campaign if they could not be added to the list quickly. We consider the power to remove and vary entries equally as necessary in ensuring that the list of categories remains accurate. Any order, regardless of whether it adds, varies or removes categories, will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny by both Houses, via the affirmative resolution procedure.
However, the Government have listened carefully to, and taken note of, concerns raised by noble Lords during debates, by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its recent report and by representatives from civil society organisations in recent meetings. In recognition of the strength of feeling on this issue, which I understand, I have therefore tabled an amendment that would mean that any order to remove or vary the description of a category of third-party campaigner can only—I emphasise “only”—be made where it gives effect to a recommendation of the Electoral Commission. This Electoral Commission lock will provide the necessary safeguard against any future Government potentially seeking to misuse this clause. I hope that noble Lords will recognise that the Government are earnestly seeking to reassure those concerned by this clause, and that they will support this amendment.
I now turn to Amendment 57, tabled in my name, which seeks to remove Clause 28, on
“Joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties”.
Again, I have very carefully considered concerns expressed in this House and the other place that this clause might have unintended consequences—they would have been unintended—which were feared to include consequences for the historic relationship between the Labour Party and some trade unions. I thank noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite for raising this topic and for their very constructive approach during our discussions. I also thank the Trade Union Congress and the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation for their advocacy and engagement on this matter.
I have a deep respect for the historic relationship between political parties and trade unions—although, not wishing to spoil the atmosphere, I venture to remind noble Lords opposite that few Conservative Governments would ever have been elected without the votes and support of many trade unionists. However, the measures on joint campaigning in the Bill were not in any way designed to threaten that relationship or disproportionately impact any particular group. Despite my best efforts to reassure and accelerate the speech-making of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, there remained deep concerns about unintended consequences, and as such the Government have tabled this amendment seeking to remove this clause from the Bill.
I therefore urge noble Lords to support my amendments, and I beg to move Amendment 55.
My Lords, I will be very brief again. I accept that, in Committee, I went on at length about this issue, although I did not repeat that later on. I accept that the noble Lord has entered into some proper consultation with the TUC and TULO. I welcome those meetings, and I certainly welcome the letter he wrote to both Frances O’Grady and Mick Whelan. It was welcomed particularly in reference to Clause 26—not only the reassurance that this will come from the Electoral Commission, but that there will be proper parliamentary scrutiny. So I very much welcome the Minister’s response and the fact that this House has been able to influence him in removing a clause from the Bill. I thank him very much.
Amendment 55 agreed.
56: After Clause 27, insert the following new Clause—
“Code of practice on controls relating to third parties
(1) After section 100 of PPERA insert—“Code of practice relating to controlled expenditure100A Code of practice on controlled expenditure(1) The Commission must prepare a code of practice about the operation of this Part in relation to a reserved regulated period.(2) The code must in particular set out—(a) guidance on the kinds of expenses which do, or do not, fall within Part 1 of Schedule 8A (qualifying expenses);(b) guidance on determining whether the condition in section 85(2)(b) (promoting or procuring electoral success) is met in relation to expenditure;(c) guidance on determining whether anything provided to or for the use of a third party falls to be dealt with in accordance with section 86 (notional controlled expenditure) or with section 95 and Schedule 11 (donations);(d) examples of when expenditure falls to be dealt with in accordance with section 94(6) (expenditure of a third party in pursuance of an arrangement with one or more other third parties);(e) guidance about the operation of sections 94D to 94H (targeted controlled expenditure).(3) The Commission may from time to time revise the code.(4) In exercising their functions under this Part, the Commission must have regard to the code.(5) It is a defence for a third party charged with an offence under any provision of this Part, where the offence relates to expenditure incurred or treated as incurred by a third party during a reserved regulated period, to show—(a) that the code, in the form for the time being issued under section 100B, was complied with by the third party in determining whether the expenditure is controlled expenditure for the purposes of this Part, and(b) that the offence would not have been committed on the basis of the controlled expenditure as determined in accordance with the code.(6) In this section, “reserved regulated period” means a period in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 (regulated periods for parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly).(7) Section 100B sets out consultation and procedural requirements relating to the code or any revised code.100B Code of practice: consultation and procedural requirements(1) The Commission must consult the following on a draft of a code under section 100A—(a) the Speaker’s Committee;(b) the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee;(c) such other persons as the Commission consider appropriate.(2) After the Commission have carried out the consultation required by subsection (1), they must—(a) make whatever modifications to the draft code the Commission consider necessary in light of responses to the consultation, and(b) submit the draft to the Secretary of State for approval by the Secretary of State.(3) The Secretary of State may approve a draft code either without modifications or with such modifications as the Secretary of State may determine. (4) Once the Secretary of State has approved a draft code, the Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a copy of the draft, whether—(a) in its original form, or(b) in a form which incorporates any modifications determined under subsection (3).(5) If the draft code incorporates any such modifications, the Secretary of State must at the same time lay before each House a statement of the Secretary of State’s reasons for making them.(6) If, within the 40-day period, either House resolves not to approve the draft, the Secretary of State must take no further steps in relation to the draft code.(7) Subsection (6) does not prevent a new draft code from being laid before Parliament.(8) If no resolution of the kind mentioned in subsection (6) is made within the 40-day period—(a) the Secretary of State must issue the code in the form of the draft laid before Parliament,(b) the Commission must arrange for the code to be published in such manner as they consider appropriate, and(c) the code comes into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.(9) References in this section (other than in subsection (1)) to a code or draft code include a revised code or draft revised code.(10) In this section, “the 40-day period”, in relation to a draft code, means—(a) if the draft is laid before one House on a day later than the day on which it is laid before the other House, the period of 40 days beginning with the later of the two days, and(b) in any other case, the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which the draft is laid before each House, no account being taken of any period during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than four days.(11) If the name of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee is changed, the reference in subsection (1)(b) to that Committee is to be read (subject to subsection (12)) as a reference to the Committee by its new name.(12) If the functions of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee at the passing of this Act with respect to electoral matters (or functions corresponding substantially to such matters) become functions of a different committee of the House of Commons, the reference in subsection (1)(b) to that Committee is to be read as a reference to the committee which for the time being has those functions.”(2) In section 156 of PPERA (orders and regulations), in subsection (3), before paragraph (a) insert—“(za) an order under section 100B(8);”.(3) In Schedule 8A to PPERA (controlled expenditure: qualifying expenses), in paragraph 3, after sub-paragraph (10) insert— “(11) This paragraph does not apply in relation to expenses incurred during a period in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 (regulated periods for parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly) (see sections 100A and 100B as regards expenses incurred during such a period).””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Electoral Commission to publish a code of practice on the operation of Part 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (which deals with controlled expenditure of third parties). The code of practice would not apply for the purposes of elections to the Scottish Parliament or Senedd Cymru.
Amendment 56 agreed.
Clause 28: Joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties
57: Clause 28, leave out Clause 28
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would leave out Clause 28 (joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties).
Amendment 57 agreed.
Clause 40: Requirement to include information with electronic material
58: Clause 40, page 50, line 33, leave out “reasonably practicable” and insert “possible”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment replaces “if it is not reasonably practicable to comply” with “if it is not possible to comply” to ensure that the majority of electronic material is within scope of the bill’s intentions.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 58 and speak to Amendments 60, 61, 62 and 65. The amendments in my name in this group closely resemble those I tabled in Committee and that I spoke to comprehensively then. They all relate to digital election campaign content, and I will not repeat the arguments I made for them at any length today. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Parkinson, the Bill team and officials from DCMS and DLUHC for meeting with me after Committee, and for what could perhaps be called a moderately enlightening discussion.
Through these amendments, I have been pursuing four aspects of digital campaigning. First, clear guidance on digital imprints is represented by Amendment 58. I have been assured that the Scottish provisions in law—and hence their guidance—are not nearly as prescriptive as those set out in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will give his assurance that the current interpretation of the Bill means that statutory guidance from the Electoral Commission—when it comes forward—will require the imprint in almost every circumstance to be on the image or post, unlike in Scotland. It is really only on platforms such as Twitter, where there is a character limit, that it can be considered not to be practicable to put the full imprint. In addition, I hope he will confirm there will be an expectation that the forwarding of posts will require either the full original imprint to be included or a new imprint to be placed on the material. There will also, I understand, be rules put in place for when and how long material must be retained for inspection.
Secondly, banning foreign actors is sought by Amendment 61. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord True, prayed in aid the new £700 limit and the imprint requirements at our meeting at Committee stage, but neither of them addressed the loopholes which will still exist where multiple identities can be created. This is where both Ministers’ statements were inadequate. The new amendment no longer covers British overseas electors, so I hope the Ministers come up with better assurances in this area. There is some consolation in the provision to review the operation of the Bill, but it is important at this stage—at this stage, not later—to take a view whether they are sufficiently watertight as regards foreign actors. This is an area where the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life advocated much stronger controls.
Thirdly, Amendment 62 would require promoters to establish advert libraries for digital campaign adverts placed, while Amendment 60 would require detailed information about expenditure on digital campaign material. Here, the main government argument seems to be that the social media platforms that take political advertising—i.e. not Twitter—are keeping libraries already and are different in character, so it would be inappropriate to have a one-size-fits-all regulation. But at the same time, the noble Lord, Lord True, sought to assure me that several important recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Electoral Commission, including those relating to advert libraries and more detailed information on invoices, are still under consideration by the Government. Given the timing of the introduction of this Elections Bill, surely it is high time for the Government to have made a clear decision. What is the state of play here, in terms of a decision having been made on those recommendations?
The fourth area is that of misinformation and disinformation, starting with my Amendment 65 to criminalise false statements about election integrity, which is designed to see what direction the Government are planning to take. As I outlined in Committee, a whole host of Select Committees and the Committee on Standards in Public Life have made recommendations in this area. This has particular relevance in the context of the Ukraine invasion and Russian behaviour in the digital space for many years now. As former President Obama said in a recent interview with The Atlantic magazine,
“if you ask me what I’m most concerned about when I think back to towards the end of my presidency… that is the degree to which information, disinformation, misinformation was being weaponized. And we saw it. But I think I underestimated the degree to which democracies were as vulnerable to it as they were, including ours”.
And the director of GCHQ, Sir Jeremy Fleming, made a strong point about values in his recent speech in Australia. As he said,
“we must make sure that we stay true to our values, those that have made our systems and democracies so successful and will do so in the future too”.
A recent Ofcom study has revealed that 30% of UK adults who go online are unsure about or do not even consider the truthfulness of online information. A further 6%—around one in every 20 internet users—believe everything they see online.
There is, of course, crossover with the Online Safety Bill. I was grateful for the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, at our meeting, where he gave some assurance about the operation of the Bill and the powers of Ofcom regarding the design features of social media platforms and the way that their algorithms amplify misinformation and disinformation; about the adoption of the Law Commission proposals for a new offence of false communication; and about the workings of the counter-disinformation unit together with the Defending Democracy programme and the so-called Election Cell—which I was assured was not as opaque as it seems.
I do not expect the Minister to promise amendments ahead of the Online Safety Bill coming to this House, but I hope he will demonstrate a strong awareness of the importance of this aspect of digital campaigning. We will obviously return to this subject when the OSB comes into this House later in the year.
All that said, it is clear that in many of these areas the guidance and review of an independent Electoral Commission is going to be critical together with parliamentary oversight. Responsibility for elections has now transferred to DLUHC from the Cabinet Office but it is no more acceptable for the Secretary of State for Levelling Up to set the policy and priorities for the Electoral Commission than it is for the Cabinet Office.
Given the risk of skewing our political system in favour of the incumbent Government, it is all the more important we hold fast when the issue which we determined in the first group today comes back to this House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have an amendment in this group—Amendment 59, previously tabled in Committee as Amendment 45B. The purpose of the amendment is very simple: it aims to increase transparency about third party campaigning by inserting this new clause, “Disclosure of status as a recognised third party”.
It is not concerned with the question of the imprints on electronic or printed material, which are, essentially, transitory—they come and go—and which are the target of the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, to which the Minister will reply in a minute. It is much simpler than that. It focuses solely on the homepage or the website, if it has one, of a registered third party campaigning organisation. If the amendment were accepted, the homepage of that registered organisation would be required to carry a statement along the lines of “XYZ”—the name of the campaigning organisation—“is a registered third party campaigner under Part 6 of PPERA 2000”, or similar wording.
The purpose behind the amendment is to ensure that individual members of the public viewing the website of a particular organisation are unequivocally, and at all times, made aware that the organisation is an active political campaigner. I have never suggested that this is going to bring about any radical change, but by increasing transparency about who is doing what to whom, it follows the direction of travel that the Government have said underlies the Bill.
In his reply in Committee, my noble friend the Minister was rather encouraging when he said:
“On the specific amendment of my noble friend, while the Government entirely agree with the principle that the public should clearly be able to identify recognised third parties, I can reassure the noble Lord that the current rules, supplemented by new rules in the Bill, will provide for that.”—[Official Report, 17/3/22; col. 477.]
He went on to say he wanted to go away to consider it further and asked whether I would withdraw my amendment, which I duly did.
At that point, my noble friend took the trouble to write to me. By this stage, I am afraid his remarks were rather less encouraging. He went on to say in his letter on 4 April:
“I … wanted to reiterate the Government’s position on your proposal to require registered third parties to disclose their registered status on a prominent place on their website, where they have a website … The Government entirely agrees it is right that third-party groups campaigning at elections should be transparent and clearly identifiable. Registered third party campaigners are already … listed on the Electoral Commission’s website, and the Elections Bill will introduce further requirements to ensure that any UK-based group spending over £10,000 registers with the regulator.”
If noble Lords read and consider that carefully, the outcome is quite different from that which would be achieved if my amendment were implemented. Yes, there will be rules about imprints on digital material, which might be strengthened by the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, if they were accepted, but unless a member of the public is visiting the organisation’s website because he or she has just received some imprinted material with a digital imprint on it, there will be no way of knowing whether or not the organisation in question is a registered third-party campaigner.
Yet we know that most people’s first contact with an organisation is via a website; indeed, my noble friend said as much in his reply to this debate in Committee. In these circumstances, the only way for a member of the general public to find out whether an organisation is a registered third-party campaigner will be to visit and search the list on the Electoral Commission website. The idea that people will do this is fanciful, because the default option for the casual inquirer is that the organisation would not be registered—why would they think otherwise?
The experts, with an interest in these electoral matters, will of course know about this and will search appropriately, but it is not the cognoscenti that we are trying to protect; it is the ordinary man or woman in the street. One sentence—just one sentence—on the organisation’s home page will solve the problem. Those who are concerned can then go on to the Electoral Commission website and search for more details. Those who are not interested can just carry on anyway. It does not result in a big administrative burden; it is not a big ask; it will help inform the general public about third-party campaigning, and I therefore hope that the Government will see the value and purpose of Amendment 59, which goes with the flow of the Bill.
My Lords, we had a lengthy debate on this in Committee and I accepted what the noble Baroness the Minister said at the time, that actually the requirements in the current law will be strong enough to ensure that the principle that we all want—greater transparency—will be applied. Certainly, I accepted that and understood it, because I think we all shared the concern that “reasonably practicable to comply” could be a huge loophole and she assured us that that would not be the case. We also discussed in Committee the fact that the industry itself, the online industry, had produced the means to ensure greater transparency. I made reference to the Adobe briefing, which I think is really important. I think we are all at one in terms of what is required.
On the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, I agree with him completely that it is again providing the means to ensure greater transparency. Certainly, from these Benches, we support his amendment and if he decides to divide the House, we will support him.
My Lords, the Elections Bill, let us not forget, will introduce one of the most comprehensive digital imprint regimes operating in the world today and I submit to your Lordships that whatever shortcomings they may feel, or however much further they want to o’erleap the ambitions of the Government, these proposals are about increasing transparency for voters and empowering them to make informed decisions about the material they see online. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, there is much agreement on that point, but we cannot, I fear, support Amendments 58, 60 and 62 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, because they do not, in our submission, strike the right balance between increasing transparency and proportionate regulation of campaigning, while Amendments 61 and 65 would be highly difficult to enforce and would risk unduly stifling online campaigning and free speech, although I concede to the noble Lord that this matter will be further debated in the Online Safety Bill.
Regarding Amendment 58, it will not always be practical to display the imprint as part of the digital material itself; for example, as noble Lords have said, in a text-based tweet, where there is a strict character limit. This amendment would not give campaigners the limited, yet crucial, level of flexibility afforded by the Government’s regime and would thus risk unreasonably hampering their ability to campaign on some digital platforms. The above reflects the carefully considered and pragmatic approach we have sought to adopt. I know the noble Lord’s concerns; I appreciated the discussion we had and I understood where he was coming from. The perceived permissiveness of the guidance surrounding the Scottish digital imprints regime, in so far as it created a perceived loophole, was worrying him. I am pleased to confirm on the record here, as I said privately, that our regime will not operate in the same way.
The digital imprint regime that applies at elections in Scotland does not specify requirements regarding the location of the imprint, which is why the Electoral Commission’s guidance in Scotland was not prescriptive in this respect. However, our new regime does provide the necessary specifics on the rules regarding the location of the imprint. Campaigners will be required to ensure that their imprints are displayed as part of the material. Only when this is not reasonably practicable—this touches on my noble friend’s amendment—may the imprint be located elsewhere, but it must still be directly accessible from the campaigning material. Those who do not comply will be committing an offence. Furthermore, the statutory guidance we are proposing as part of our regime will provide practical directions to campaigners on how to follow the rules, including regarding the location of the imprint. This guidance will be subject to parliamentary approval, meaning that parliamentarians will be able to ensure that it provides sufficient clarity for campaigners to comply with the rules. I hope the noble Lord will be reassured by those points.
On Amendment 60, candidates and registered campaigners already have to detail their election spending in their returns and provide invoices for payments over a certain amount, including in relation to digital campaigning. These are then made available for public scrutiny. The Government have explained that this requirement on campaigners to submit more detailed invoices or receipts about digital activity would need to be looked at carefully, as the detail provided is determined by the suppliers themselves, not the recipient. It could therefore prove difficult and burdensome for campaigners to comply with these additional requirements.
Similarly, Amendment 62 would require all campaigners promoting paid political advertising, and not the online platforms, to maintain a library of those advertisements, with specified information, for at least 10 years. I understand where the noble Lord is coming from, but we have explained that in our view this risks adding an unreasonable burden on campaigners, particularly smaller groups that rely on volunteers, or groups that are established only for the lifetime of a particular campaign. It is also not clear that there is a sufficient case for regulation in relation to political advert libraries, given, as the noble Lord acknowledged, that major platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube already make available libraries of political advertising that they host.
My response to Amendment 61 will focus on paid-for political advertising, as defined by Clauses 41 and 42, rather than other electronic material, as defined by Clauses 43 and 44, given that other electronic material is relevant only to UK-based entities anyway, with the exception of registered overseas electors who have also registered as third-party campaigners. The Government agree with the principle that there should be strict limitations on ineligible entities overseas spending money campaigning during UK elections, including on digital advertising.
Clause 25 will already remove the scope for any legal spending by foreign or otherwise ineligible third-party campaigners above a £700 de minimis limit. This is a huge reduction, given that those same actors can currently spend up to £20,000 legally during the regulated period in England, or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Further to this, by requiring an imprint on all paid-for electronic campaigning material, regardless of where in the world it comes from, the digital imprint regime will already greatly improve transparency of political advertising from overseas actors. For any material that is published in breach of the imprint rules, the enforcement authorities are able to require the relevant social media platform to take down the material.
Strict controls on spending and clear transparency about origin are essential. But I cannot agree to a fast-considered and potentially disproportionate blanket ban on all political material from foreign actors within scope of the digital imprint regime. We would need again to examine carefully the implications and practicalities of enforcement and restrictions on freedom of speech to avoid any risk of unintended consequences.
I turn to Amendment 65. The Government remain concerned that this amendment includes no reference to intent and that the proposed new clause, as drafted, could criminalise unintentionally false statements. It could, therefore, be very broadly applied. It could also discourage people from raising any legitimate concerns for fear of a statement being considered false. This offence could potentially provide broad powers to clamp down on anyone who expresses genuine concerns about the process of an election. Overall, we believe that this clause could have unintended but potentially severe implications for freedom of speech.
I reassure the noble Lord that the Government take electoral disinformation and misinformation very seriously, but we believe that these are best addressed through non-legislative measures, such as the counter-disinformation unit to which the noble Lord referred and which was explained during our debate in Committee. Any regulation must be balanced with the need to protect freedom of expression and the legitimate public debate which is crucial to a thriving democracy.
The response on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is one of disappointment, but I thank him for his amendments. I hope that I have brought some clarity to the questions raised. I hope he feels able to withdraw Amendment 58, although I acknowledge that he will pursue certain matters on another Bill.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 59, tabled by my noble friend Lord Hodgson. The Government entirely agree that it is right that third-party groups campaigning at elections should be transparent and clearly identifiable. This is why the digital imprints regime will require recognised third-party campaigners to declare who they are when promoting relevant online campaigning material to the public, including but not limited to their websites. Where third-party campaigners use their websites to campaign, as defined by Clause 43, an imprint will be required. Promoters will be required to ensure that the imprint—or access to it—is retained as part of the material, if it is moved on. Where promoters comply with the digital imprint rules by adding an imprint in material displayed on their website, the imprint will be visible for as long as the material is available to the public online and remains in scope of the rules.
I know that my noble friend is not convinced that it is sufficient that third-party campaigners are already publicly listed on the Electoral Commission’s website. We believe that the current rules, supplemented by the new digital imprint rules, will provide increased transparency and identify recognised third parties. There are specific problems about the construction of this amendment, which I have discussed with my noble friend. As currently drafted, the amendment would create a new offence but does not specify a penalty for its commission or any statutory defences against the charge. Further, and I am sure this is entirely inadvertent, the amendment is drafted such that any website owned and operated by a recognised third-party campaigner—for example, a large charity which might have many different websites—would be captured, even if it were unrelated to the campaigning activities for which the third party is registered. It could lead to a disproportionate application of criminal liability. These proposals would need further discussion with third-party campaigners and potential enforcement authorities. Digital regulation is a complex area. Few have thought about it more than either the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, or my noble friend. But these digital imprint provisions were consulted on publicly—twice.
My noble friend is not entirely enamoured of the letter I wrote to him recently to assure him that the Government will continue to keep the transparency of digital campaigning under review. I underline this commitment. I assure my noble friend and the House that I will ask my officials to engage with the Electoral Commission to consider whether my noble friend’s proposal could be included as best practice for third-party campaigners, which the House has agreed to secure, in the commission’s guidance.
With these assurances, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will feel reassured to some degree by the clarifications that I have been able to give and withdraw his amendment.