Government’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.