38 Degrees on the Lobbying Bill: Let’s hope the House of Lords sorts it out

30 Degrees Gagging LawIt was heartening to see an increased number of Liberal Democrat MPs vote against the Lobbying Bill, or ‘gagging law’, this Wednesday. But the majority of Lib Dem MPs voted loyally in support of the government. Overall, this week parliament did nothing to dispel the perception that the gagging law is being actively driven by Lib Dems.

Why is this? Most Lib Dems tend to assume it’s a Conservative bill driven by Andrew Lansley. Amongst those closer to the party leadership, the tone is more bullish and the attitude towards the bill’s critics is actively hostile. Those that fall between the two camps say that the bill is well-intentioned but has unintended consequences which need fixing.

Senior Lib Dems make three claims:

  • It’s about stopping US style super PACs from distorting politics in the UK.
  • It’s about bringing greater transparency to the democratic process.
  • The concerns and the legal advice to much of the voluntary sector are totally without foundation.

Most of the voluntary sector would probably sign up to stopping super PACs and promoting transparency. 38 Degrees members certainly do.

But this bill does not take big money out of politics. It constrains organisations like 38 Degrees, the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Royal British Legion and Christian Aid – diverse groups fuelled by small donations from tens of thousands of members. On the other hand a multimillionaire like Lord Ashcroft or Lord Sainsbury can continue to make huge donations to political parties as much they like.

The Lib Dem leadership rejoinder to this is that at some point in the future, if party funding were sorted out, super PACS could become a problem. Perhaps in that case we should introduce some kind of donations cap on individual donations to third parties for any activities which fall under regulation by the electoral commission.

When I suggested this idea to Tom Brake a few weeks ago, his response was that “no one has suggested that before.” If he’d held any consultation before pushing through the gagging law, maybe someone would have! If the gagging law is withdrawn and a proper process of consultation launched, the voluntary sector would eagerly participate in trying to improve the regulatory framework.

As for the bill being about transparency, there are bits of the bill which are about transparency, and they are not for the most part the bits which the voluntary sector is objecting to. The big exception to this is spending thresholds. To impose the same reporting regime on large, national organisations like 38 Degrees and on tiny local campaign group turning over just over £5000 a year, is to risk swamping small organisations with red tape. With proper consultation surely we could come up with a more gradated system which improves transparency without stifling small local groups?

We have made public the legal advice on which our analysis is based. Tom Brake is unable to do the same with the legal advice upon which he says his counter-analysis is based.

We now need to look to the House of Lords to fix this dangerous, desperately flawed bill. The timeframe the government is trying to impose on the Lords risks making a hard task impossible.

The formation of a Commission on Civil Society and Democracy should help. It is encouraging that Tom Brake has apparently agreed to appear before the Commission and give evidence. Let’s hope that the Commission is able to come up with some solid recommendations in the little time government is allowing.

* David Babbs is the Executive Director of 38 Degrees.

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13 Comments

  • The Ashcroft problem was a problem because huge sums were poured into marginal constituencies which did not support a specific candidate but a party and so evaded the limits on candidate expenditure. Labour backbenchers and
    ( I can recall David Heath and myself during the passage of electoral legislation ) pleaded with the likes of Harriet Harman to close this loophole ( Gordon Prentice in particular).

    Oddly they didn’t and in 2010 we found out why as union cash was used to similar effect . This of course raised the whole issue of third party expenditure (and the potential development of PACs) on what is basic electioneering- particularly in marginal seats.
    I am not clear as to whether David is suggesting that all third parties should be restricted or all except those who call themselves charities . Charities exist in many forms.
    Charities of course in so far as they are just generally campaigning and not engaging in activity to influence electoral outcomes are not constrained by the legislation- though it is a moot point as to whether the Bill makes that distinction clear to apply.
    But it would be worth hearing from David as to whether he thinks Charities overtly trying to influence an election or deliberately engaging in activity likely to influence an election in a specific constituency should or should not (like other third parties) be constrained in what they can spend doing so ? He suggests a cap on donations to 3rd parties but this would not stop a union leader pumping a lot of money into a marginal constituency.

    Bear in mind that the Countryside Alliance, the Taxpayers Alliance have their charitable incarnations.

  • Chrome diplomat 13th Oct '13 - 4:16pm

    Gareth- on what basis would every single group who has site in campaigns have to register? From my understanding and from listening to the debate it is only those who seek to actively support the electoral victory of a particular candidate or party that are in anyway affected- and then only if they spend above a certain amount.

    Any charity which decided to campaign for, for example, the Labour candidate to be elected in a seat would already be breaking the law as charities are supposed to be apolitical. So it only really impacts campaigning organisations-and even then only if they spend above a certain amount. surely if you want to support a particular candidate then you should do so by funding there (regulated) campaign?

    I can understand some of the concerns about the Bill but the claim it’s going to stop charities from doing what they do just doesn’t seem to stack up…

  • Tony Greaves 13th Oct '13 - 4:45pm

    “( I can recall David Heath and myself during the passage of electoral legislation ) pleaded with the likes of Harriet Harman to close this loophole ( Gordon Prentice in particular).”

    Ashcroft and the Tories bought Pendle in the 2 years before the last election.

    Second Reading in the Lords will be on Tuesday 22nd October.

    Tony

  • HenryTinsley 13th Oct '13 - 5:18pm

    Donations by third parties have been regulated since 2000. While the regulation isn’t perfect (there should probably be a limit on constituency spending), there can be no justification for reducing their permitted spending by 60%. At the same time, nothing is being done to tackle the biggest scandal, the right to give unlimited donations to parties. Lords Aschcroft and Sainsbury are untouched.

    And is it reasonable that political parties can spent £19 million in the election while campaign groups will only be allowed 2%of that?

  • The legal advice is out of date, in part, since some of the terms of the bill have reverted to those in the existing law. But only in part. The electoral commission made some proposals for bringing electoral legislation up to date which seemed sensible when presented to the select committee but they were surprised, confused and angered (in the most professional terms of course) by the additional measures which are still largely in this bill.

    I have no idea how part 2 of the bill is intended to apply to an early election (which can still happen), or to the months before the controlled period, which is when our PACs (Ashcroft and some union activity) have often done their work.

    The first part of the bill, which fails to cover the lobbying which was the reason for the thing in the first place, seems likely to go through under the smokescreen of the second. Similarly the third part will slip through without the same level of scrutiny. I wonder how well the Lords’ debate will be managed to spend overmuch time on part 2 before last minute major concessions.

  • Tony Greaves 13th Oct '13 - 10:27pm

    “I wonder how well the Lords’ debate will be managed to spend over much time on part 2 before last minute major concessions.”

    Not sure what this means. I am sure that the Lords will scrutinise the Bill adequately . It will be disappointing if there not further siginicant changes in the Lords.

    Tony

  • David White 14th Oct '13 - 1:39pm

    On leaving the lower house en route to the Lords, this is still far from being a satisfactory bill, in terms of muzzling the Big Bucks Bullies while permitting the Little Guys some freedom.

    The 2010 general election successes of milords Ashcroft and Sainsbury have been mentioned in other comments. There can be little doubt that Lord Ashcroft’s millions ensured that the Watford constituency went from NewLab to OldCon.

    I fear that Lord Greaves and other decent peers will have to work very hard to make this bill fair for we ordinary folk and for those small organizations we support.

  • A Social Liberal 14th Oct '13 - 6:05pm

    Tony

    Has the Legion passed on its concerns about this bill to you. If not and you wish to see it I can email it to you

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