John Thurso MP: Lobbying Bill to be amended to protect charities and lobby groups

Big Ben Orange Blue 200Government’s “Transparency” Bill seeks to ensure that those who are not standing in an election, but nonetheless wish to spend money influencing the outcome, are also subject to tight limits within constituencies and have to be transparent about the source of their money. It builds on existing law passed by Labour, and reduces present spending limits.

However, the Bill has caused an unexpected row, with charities and lobbying groups claiming that restrictions on election expenditure could be a “gag” on their right of free speech. That is not the experience of candidates. Nonetheless, I wanted to make absolutely sure the Bill was about changing what people could spend, rather than restricting in any way what they could say. I tabled probing amendments at the Committee Stage of the Bill, and for the first time in my parliamentary career, a Minister accepted my argument from the Despatch Box and promised to do roughly what I had asked!

Our Minister, Tom Brake, was as good as his word. First the Government has agreed to retain the existing definition of what non-party campaigning actually is: that is, activity that can “reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success” of a party or candidate. Secondly, they have reverted to an existing definition of what constitutes “election material”, on which there is long established Electoral Commission guidance. These are crucial concessions, since those definitions have been in play since 2000, and no charity or non-party campaigner has ever claimed they were “gagged” as a result.

The Electoral Commission has advised government that rallies, meetings and events should be covered by non-party campaigning limits, just as they are for the parties themselves. The Bill set out to follow this advice, but NGOs worried that their routine internal conferences or annual rallies would be caught. The Government is therefore changing the Bill to make sure internal events will not be affected, and to give a specific exemption for annual events such as a regular public conference or rally. Finally, the Bill will be amended to make it crystal clear that there is absolutely no restriction on simple comments in the media about policy issues.

Now the Bill is to be amended, it is time to start standing up for the principles it is designed to uphold. Labour has made full use of its bandwagon season ticket. But there is nothing liberal in permitting vast fortunes to be spent in the pursuit of electoral success. If there were, we would be arguing for the repeal of the 1883 Prevention of Corruption and Illegal Practices Act which has limited candidates’ expenditure at elections for 130 years. No one is making that case: not 38 Degrees, not Friends of the Earth, not the Countryside Alliance, not Hope Not Hate.

The existing national limits – with the potential for nearly £1m to be focused in one or in just a few constituencies – are too high, and need to change. The Bill will ensure that no millionaire’s cheque book can outgun the voices of small organisations or of election candidates with a good case to make. We cannot allow that simple principle to be blown away in a gust of hot air about “gagging”.

We used to say don’t believe everything you read in the papers. Today, don’t believe everything you read in your inboxes either!

* John Thurso is Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

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17 Comments

  • Trying to get these concessions has been like getting blood from a stone. Why on earth did ministers try to portray the bill as fantastic, only to (partially) concede?

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Oct '13 - 2:30pm

    This bill will just make politicians and the leaders of political parties more powerful and in fact actually increase the likelihood of lobbying scandals so it should be stopped at all costs.

    The problem with lobbying is not people spending money in constituencies – it is politicians listening to lobbyists who fund their party or worse. This bill will mean more people will have to go direct to politicians to gain influence – rather than go direct to the electorate.

    I am not an expert on this bill, so feel free to challenge me, but I am worried about it and very disappointed that it doesn’t even tackle the main problem, which is lack of democracy and civil or criminal charges against politicians.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Oct '13 - 2:43pm

    Regarding civil and criminal charges: I find that politicians and lobbyists both miss-sell policies and both should be subject to fair selling rules. I don’t think lobbying should be reduced, but at least if balanced arguments are given then the public cannot be mislead.

    These are the rules that politicians have enforced on financial services, which I agree with, so they should also be enforced on lobbyists and politicians. However the chances of this happening are clearly slim, but it is irritating to see “one rule for us and another for them”.

  • David Babbs 4th Oct '13 - 3:48pm

    Sadly, not many voluntary organisations agree with this analysis.

    See for example this from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations:
    http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/documents/press-releases/lobbying-bill-amendments-do-not-go-far-enough-joint-statement-ncvo-acevo

    “Responding to the publication of the government’s amendments, Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO of NCVO said:

    “The government’s commitment to address the legitimate concerns of many charities and other voluntary organisations remains welcome, however, the proposed amendments do not go far enough. The assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house to ensure that charities will still be able to support specific policies that might also be advocated by political parties have not been met.” “

  • HenryTinsley 4th Oct '13 - 5:21pm

    What rubbish. The Gagging Bill, a nasty illiberal piece of legislation, is still pretty much intact. NCVO and ACEVO are both very unhappy with the bill, as are many civil society organisations.

  • Simon Banks 5th Oct '13 - 10:32am

    This is welcome. Remember Nick Clegg angrily dismissed the criticisms of the unamended Bill with “what nonsense!”.

  • Nigel Jones 5th Oct '13 - 10:42am

    John’s comments do not address two key issues.
    One is the ability of charities and other non-party political organisations to campaign on a particular issue and the fact that the cap on expenditure proposed looks very unfair to them, compared with political parties and candidates.
    The other is that the bill does not address properly the lobbying that any organisation can do other than that of a company dedicated to lobbying.
    I am not quite clear on the latest details on these two matters, but I thought the main purpose of the bill was to deal with lobbying by ANY organisation, especially those that have lots of money and connections with government.
    As regards ‘pressure’ groups, the key matter is that they should be on a level playing field with regards to single issues, but restrictions are needed when they campaign for or against a particular candidate or party. As a Parliamentary candidate in 2010, I received much mail on singles issues and was happy to see the point of view of these ‘specialist’ groups. I was not happy, however, when some of them went over the top with treats to campaign against me if I did not subscribe entirely to their views. There is also a fine line between campaigning and informing, yet it is a vital part of our democracy that any publicly supported group should be fully able to inform parties and candidates the facts and issues on a particular matter, during an election campaign.

  • Henry Tinsley 5th Oct '13 - 5:32pm

    It’s bizarre that political parties will each be able to spend around £19 million each, while civil society groups will have their allowed spend reduced to about 2% of this. Illiberal and an attack on free speech.

  • Michael Parsons 7th Oct '13 - 2:33pm

    I despair!This bill raises the question: how are the public ever going to curb domination by these Parties? especially now that they have guaranteed themselves an unchallengable five-year parliamentary tenure, and are seeking these further powers to limit our ability to campaign against them? We could mount a mass challenge to their right to exist, I suppose, proposing reforms as the Chartists did; and surely promote at all costs a proper deliberative democracy along the lines suggested by Fishkin.
    Why waste further time talking to them? How about a peaceful million-men- march (women included of course) on L,ondon? Unemployed, OAP’s, looted savers, NHS ,Unions, disgruntled police, betrayed veterans, health campaigbers, : ending the decriminalisation of Banks and pay-day lenders; ending the protection of MP’s against public opinion at and betrween elections would be a start. The recruitable mass of UK disaffection must be growing by the day. Let us remind them: they are baptised by the waters of Universal Suffrage, now they must be made to live with their feet in it.

  • These Government amendments were produced just 2 working days before they are to be debated! Everything about this bill is a total omnishambles. It has been procedurally completely mismageged right from the beginning when it was tossed at the Commons, badly drafted and without proper pre-legislative scrutiny and consultations with stakeholders and then guillotined. The Elexctoral Commission could’nt make much sense of it, the cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said it should be halted. It has even managed to upset the mainstream religeous groupings such as Methodist Church in Britain, World Jewish Relief, Operation Noah, Church Action on Poverty, The Salvation Army UK and Ireland, the, Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Conference, the Evangelical Alliance, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Quakers in Britain, the Assembly of Reform Rabbis, UK, CAFOD, You really need to have an exceptional talent for blundering to make such a total mess of a bill which could have been produced on an all parties basis and with so much goodwill from all sides to get it right. Why on earth did the LibDems go along with it in this form? The whole thing is a dreadfull embarrassment for the LibDems. Why not drop it altogether, start again and do it properly?

  • Henry Tinsley 8th Oct '13 - 3:49pm

    It’s quite something for the government to have annoyed so many people that Guido Fawkes, Friends of the Earth and 38 Degrees are working together on this issue. And, as Tom says above, they have managed to unite most religious groups in opposition.

    Do LibDem MPs have a death wish? If not, they should oppose this illiberal nonsense.

  • Peter Watson 8th Oct '13 - 5:17pm

    @John Thurso “the Bill was about changing what people could spend, rather than restricting in any way what they could say.”
    Surely charities and campaigning organisations have to “spend” in order to “say” anything, through billboards, posters, fliers, personnel, email servers, stationery, etc., so are deliberately restricted by the proposed legislation.

  • Henry Tinsley 8th Oct '13 - 7:37pm

    Peter is absolutely right. How can the government justify reducing the permitted election expenditure of campaigning organisations by about 60% when there’s no such reduction for political parties? There is no justification except wanting to gag people.

  • Jeremy Morfey 10th Oct '13 - 11:15am

    It has been suggested that Liberal Democrat support for this Bill, that does indeed fly in the face of the traditions of free speech I thought the Party stood for, was so that the voice of disgruntled students, saddled with huge debts after Nick Clegg categorically pledged not to do so, were he in Government, could be suppressed in university seats for twelve months before an election. Sheffield Hallam is such a university seat.

    It does nothing to reassure me about the condition of democracy in this country, when spending on corporate lobbying is effectively unregulated, and the real boot of suppression is on those who pose a threat to the established parties with genuine public grievances. I find is so sinister, I think it is fair to presume that party democracy in the UK will become worthless, and we may well have to consider resorting to the old aristocratic patronage system to get a fair hearing at all.

    As a former SDP activist and Area Chairman, it did not surprise me that the turnout at the national Conference this year could barely fill a village hall.

  • I am appalled that any Lib Dem MP could even think of supporting this Gagging Bill. I appeal to all Lib Dems to listen to the continuing concerns expressed by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. I have voted Lib Dem in the last three elections but never again if this goes through

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