It is rightly said that this Bill has had a disgraceful lack of scrutiny, and I agree with that. But we are where we are. The Government are not going to withdraw it, and it is not going to stop. If we can work together as a House and the Government can work with us, we can make a much better fist of this Bill than we have at the moment.
Tony Greaves writes on the Transparency of Lobbying, Third Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, commonly known as the Lobbying Bill, drawing on his statements during the Second Reading on Tuesday. The committee stage begins on Tuesday 5th November, at which amendments will be tabled.
It is all part of election law, which is complex, obscure and widely ignored. The Bill specifically amends the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, or PPERA. I think [the Act] is poor legislation. It is based on the structure and system set out in PPERA (Part 6), which is frankly not fit for purpose. We are lumbered with it and have to do our best with it – but it will be legitimate in these circumstances to look in Committee not just at what the Bill says but at what PPERA says, to see whether a lot of the vagueness, obscurity and the problems in this area do not actually come from the original wording in that Act.
We are told that over the past 13 years Part 6 of PPERA has been tried and tested – but it has not. It has largely been ignored; it has never been tested in the courts; and I think that we should subject some of that to scrutiny in Committee. It is complex and difficult to understand; it is full of vague expressions, when clarity is needed; and it is subject to unsatisfactory advice by the Electoral Commission over the years. Those comments apply to PPERA, not just the Bill that we now have to amend it.
The whole thing is poor, flawed legislation. Whether we can make anything sensible out of it, we will find out in the next few weeks. This part of PPERA and these issues have really come to prominence only as a result of the present Bill – because the thresholds and spending limits are being reduced and what is defined as controlled expenditure is being substantially increased. That has put considerable fear among the campaigning organisations, whether or not they are charities, and that is what is causing the problems before us today. All of us – the Opposition, the Cross Benches and the two government parties – need to get together and try to thrash out a way in which to make this legislation a great deal better than it is now.
Constituency campaigning has a new emphasis in this Bill. It is a very difficult issue in relation to third-party campaigning, because it is within the confines of a particular electoral area, which is obviously considerably smaller than one of the nations of this country. It is considerably easier, if people have a lot of money, to throw money at a particular constituency and seriously affect the election result. This is a serious problem, and it is no good us pretending that it is not.
Yet we live in a changing world, in which political and campaigning energies are more and more being directed into single-issue and themed campaigning groups. At the same time, coming from a different direction is the threat of a large amount of money and corporate power being used in this country. It is not necessarily exactly the same as the super-PACs that are so distorting politics in the United States of America, but the same kind of problem is occurring. It is not easy to find a way in which to regulate all this, and to fit that into the traditional system of controls and regulation that is based on political parties and candidates. These are difficult areas at national levels. They are most difficult at the level of individual electoral areas, constituencies or even local government wards.
It is rightly said that this Bill has had a disgraceful lack of scrutiny, and I agree with that. But we are where we are. The Government are not going to withdraw it, and it is not going to stop. So the task before us is to test the Bill rigorously, line by line and clause by clause in Committee. We have to look at workability, which is crucial, as well as proportionality and unintended consequences, and one or two of the principles in it. If we can work together as a House and the Government can work with us, we can make a much better fist of this Bill than we have at the moment.