As Nick mentioned to party members in his Letter from the Leader over the weekend, the government has signalled its willingness to accept the principle of amendments to Part 2 of the bill from John Thurso and other Liberal Democrat MPs.
I would like to thank John for the hugely constructive approach he and many other Liberal Democrat MPs have taken to this bill. It is not, and has never been, the intention of this bill to in anyway restrict the ability of charities to campaign to change government policy or on other issues they feel strongly about. And government is more than happy to consider amendments to make that crystal clear and set to rest any concerns parliamentarians and campaign groups might have.
So what we are doing is finding the best way to make it clear that this bill will in no way stop charities doing their normal campaigning. We intend returning to wording very similar to the existing 2000 legislation, and thereby confirming that any charity not affected in the 2010 General Election (or indeed 2005 or 2001) will not be caught by this legislation in the future if they continue to campaign as before.
Liberal Democrats in government have always been clear this legalisation should not have an impact on charities going about their normal business and that is what we are delivering. This also addresses clearly the concern raised by some that our bill may have a “chilling effect” on charities – charities have three General Elections worth of precedent and examples of campaigning on issues of concern to show that they can continue to campaign as normal. Instead this legislation is aimed squarely at preventing big money distorting our electoral system, something we know already happens in the US, and something which we as liberals and democrats absolutely should be seeking to act upon. Our willingness to move on this has been recognised by Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the NCVO, who has said:
I am pleased the Government has listened to and significantly met the concerns of charities and community groups. I understand the Government’s intention was not to make their normal work subject to this regulation.
I know some Liberal Democrats have also asked why the government is not focussing on party funding reform. That is a very fair question, with a very simple answer. Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrats in government have done their best to try and deliver party funding reform however the other two parties have been unwilling to stand up to their vested interests – big business for the Tories and the Trade Unions for Labour.
Of course Liberal Democrats would like a number of further reforms to happen in the area of political and constitutional reform – we have made no secret of that. And I’m sure our manifesto in 2015 will reflect that. However just because you can’t do everything you want, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything. This is an important step to ensuring big money does not distort our political system – something our party has long fought for.
* Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Spokesman