I have spent much of the last week meeting with NGOs to discuss the Transparency Bill, in advance of the first debate on it in the Lords today. It’s striking that only the most strident can now use the term “gagging bill” with a straight face, and I think even they now realise that the Bill is nothing of the sort.
Readers of Lib Dem Voice, more than most, are well used to accounting for spending in elections. For the parties, it is clear that their purpose in life is to influence election outcomes. Candidates and agents have accepted the need to keep within spending limits since 1883. When I was first a candidate, we genuinely worried about ending up in prison if we spent too much during an election campaign! It was always unlikely but attention to this point is a good discipline in politics.
For non-party groups, the situation is bound to be more complicated. They are asking how they should know if their spending “could reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate”. The answer is that this definition has existed now for two general elections and, while by no means perfect, it has established custom and practice attached to it. To my knowledge, nobody has yet come up with a better definition of what is and what isn’t election campaigning.
If a group campaigned in 2005 and 2010 but did not do so to promote a candidate or party, and it does the same kind of campaigning next time, they shouldn’t have to register. And even if they do decide to go further in 2015 – by attempting to promote the interests of a particular candidate or party – and therefore do register, they will still be able to spend £390,000 across the UK. They just won’t be allowed to focus that ‘national’ limit only on only one or a very few constituencies.
Meanwhile the Bill is really not about charities; they are governed by quite separate charity law, which generally prohibits them from partisan campaigning anyway. The target is political campaigners who clearly seek to influence elections. The effects of their campaigns is well known where, for example, anti- or pro-hunting groups spend money in particular constituencies to swing the result one way or another. At local elections, we have already seen big union money pumped into campaigning to promote Labour’s chances, but which is spent outside the party spending limits.
There is still work for the Lords to do on this legislation. We will be seeking reassurances on behalf of NGOs that, for example, the ‘scorecard’ activity some of the environmental groups engaged in at the 2010 election would not be regarded – providing it is genuinely an all-party assessment – as promoting one or other party. And we will examine carefully what the right level is for the threshold on registration.
As ever, the Lords’ work is getting the details right. But I hope we go into the debate today with a reasonably clear consensus that the Bill does not restrict free speech; it simply limits election spending. With careful consideration and amendment, it can and should be on the statute book in time to stop potential distortion of constituency results for the 2015 general election.
* Paul Tyler is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords on constitutional reform issues