Liblink: The lobbying bill is no ‘gagging law’

At the outset, ministers believed the bill would be a fairly non-controversial measure, limiting the political influence of maverick millionaires in elections. It was construed very differently by people we Liberal Democrats most strongly identify with: our natural, liberal allies in the voluntary and charitable sector saw the bill as a broad assault on their freedom of speech.

So write Paul Tyler and Shirley Williams in the Guardian.

The so-called ‘gagging law’ is keeping the definition of ‘non-party campaigning’ in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 – as that which “can be reasonably regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”. The significant changes are:

  • lower spending limits – from almost £1m nationally to £450,000
  • constituency spending limits
  • and a wider range of types of campaigning covered (eg rallies)

Many campaign groups are expressing concerns that their activities may be regarded as coming under this established definition, although they are only campaigning on policy, and that the other changes mean that this same definition bites harder than it did. Charities also have expressed this concern, although it is alraedy against the law for them to ‘procure electoral success’. Tyler and Williams are now seeking to give further comfort to these charities.

However, this week we are calling on the government to go further still. Charities cannot campaign for and against candidates or parties, because charity law precludes it. Yet they remain worried that their routine policy campaigning could be caught up by the provisions of this bill. Our view is that the simplest way to avoid this problem is for the government to accept an amendment, entirely exempting charities from electoral law. They are already regulated by the charities commissions in each part of the UK, which are fierce in their enforcement of the principle that charitable campaigning may be political but not partisan.

Unfortunately, some of our coalition partners are not persuaded to accept this simple, reassuring amendment. They maintain that there is a “narrow band” of activity that could be both charitable and at least tacitly party-political. Our judgment is that the band is so narrow as to be irrelevant.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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20 Comments

  • Seems like a sensible move.

  • John Ramsbottom 13th Jan '14 - 3:48pm

    What point are you trying to make? Are you for or against this part of the bill?
    It looks to me as if it is an attempt to stop, for example, a charity such as Shelter from campaigning for better housing in the run up to a GE. Charities lawyers also interpret the act as gagging them from campaigning during an election year.
    Who do you trust most, a politician or a lawyer?

  • A Social Liberal 13th Jan '14 - 3:58pm

    Extend the exemption to pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Amnesty and 38 Degrees and I would be satisfied with the amndment

  • So are the LibDems going to be promoting a lobbying bill in their 2014 EU manifesto? as the EU certainly is in need of one – you only need to look at the level of lobbying around US trade, IPR etc. to see that the real big spend lobbyists are already focusing on the EU and not national governments…

  • Peter Watson 13th Jan '14 - 7:02pm

    @Joe Otten “The point about charities is that they are already prevented from partisan political campaigning by charity law.”
    I’m still confused about what this Bill will actually achieve. What about non-partisan campaigning on the core issues of a particular charity, e.g. anti-hunting, in the year before an election campaign in which some candidates (and/or parties) have well-publicised views on that issue? What about simply informing voters about the stance that individual candidates have taken on that core issue (e.g. parliamentary votes or public statements or riding around in a daft costume on Boxing Day) so that they can make up their own mind; is that partisan campaigning? Would the “Better Together” campaign, supported by Lib Dems and Tories to oppose the SNP’s drive for Scottish independence, be feasible or legal under the proposed legislation?
    I can’t escape the feeling that the Bill was rushed out with a load of padding to obscure its anti-trade union / anti-Labour motives, and the lack of thought that went into that padding has made the whole thing look hopeless.

  • “At the outset, ministers believed the bill would be a fairly non-controversial measure, limiting the political influence of maverick millionaires in elections.”

    Anyone who imagines that anything to do with election spending is going to be ‘non-controversial’ is sadly misguided. On the one had some will see it as their divine right to spend their millions to get what they want, on the other hand there are those who believe in democracy. It’s a very ancient fault line.

    Is the Guardian article linked by Joe another example of what appear to be a developing trend – namely tabling legislation with wording that doesn’t really do what it says on the tin but then claiming it’s all right really because it’s all been clarified in a post on the Guardian website? I think Norman Baker was attempting a similar manoeuvre recently. Has anyone told the courts this is how it works?

  • Peter Hayes 13th Jan '14 - 8:01pm

    I would be happy if there was a limit on party Central offices expenditure in target constituencies. As I have said in another thread Cheltenham was snowed under with generic Vote Conservative posters which did not count against their candidates expenditure. All paid for by one Conservative supporter who I suspect is not resident for tax purposes. As for charities, what about the so called think tanks, should their status be reviewed?

  • If I was slightly more of a cynic than I actually am, I might say that much of part 2 of this bill has been floated just to distract attention from the other two parts. Enough final concessions on part 2 will make the exhausted lobby fodder vote the whole thing through with relief, leaving us with a seriously inadequate measure on lobbying, only a partial restriction on big spenders and a trade union section which is argued to be both redundant and sinister in some unspecified way.

  • Tony Greaves 13th Jan '14 - 9:27pm

    The Government (mainly Liberal Democrats in the Government) have done enough already in amendments already tabled to alleviate a lot of the problems.

    The real game-changer would be to exempt charities altogether on the grounds that what the Bill is supposed to cover, they are not allowed by charities law to do. They can campaign but not campaign party-politically. It would just make that very clear indeed. This is what the Liberal Democrat amendment at committee proposed. Andrew Phillips has tabled the same amendment for Report stage this week with support around the Chamber.

    The area where we disagree with groups such as 38degrees and Hope Not Hate is on constituency spending limits. It is ridiculous (and, more important, wrong) that candidates can be limited to say £12000 during the election campaign but third party groups can effectively spend as much as they like in a constituency, within the national limits.

    It’s at the constituency level where rich persons, corporate bodies etc could buy and rig elections. We are not saying “go back to the days when such spending was believed to be illegal” – just that they should be subject to reasonable limits, as candidates are.

    Tony

  • “It is ridiculous (and, more important, wrong) that candidates can be limited to say £12000 during the election campaign but third party groups can effectively spend as much as they like in a constituency, within the national limits.”

    But Section 85 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 already prohibits third parties from spending more than £500 in support of or in opposition to a particular candidate.

  • John Ramsbottom 13th Jan '14 - 10:43pm

    Joe, if Shelter campaign for more homes to be built and one party has a far more ambitious house building program in their manifesto than the others they will be seen as trying to secure electoral success for that party. Both Shelter and that party would be proposing the same political agenda and they will fall foul of this bill.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Tony, appreciated.

  • It seems to me not to be rocket science to be able to differentiate for the purposes of legislation between the Tax Avoiders Alliance, which is political, and the Salvation Army which is not political.

  • “Chris, the £500 limit is the amount that can be spent locally without registering.”

    As far as I can see, that limit currently applies whether the third party is registered or not.

  • Michael Parsons 15th Jan '14 - 1:28am

    Surely since political parties are sustained almost entirely by gifts from lobby-groups, wealthy people and companies and run on ideas fed to them by funded “think tanks” etc.( the idea that “limiting electoral expenses” somehow generates a level playing field is futile in itself.
    Since UK is a demagogic plutocracy in terms of political analysis, an oligarchy with very minimal social mobility, the suggestion that preventing Civic Societies from campaigning does anything but increase wealth’s stanglehold is , frankly, unconvincing.
    When we talk politics we are talking about a world run by financial racketeers, and trillionaires, offering trivial advancements like places in the Lords, the “honours list” etc as sops to distract the potential activity from effectively interfering with their asset-stripping and bid for global domination.
    One can see the process blatant in EU: raise “bail out” money against the assets of a company or country, then appropriate the real wealth (islands, property, resources)on the grunds that this will run-down the debt you have created in order to acquire control. L:et’s find out why UK ownership is passing from the people to the 0.1%, and generate pressure for re-taking control. If not, as members of the EU, once the new EU-USA free-trade agreement is completed, the NHS will be dismantled on the grounds that it inhibits competition from US Health Companies, and tobacco restrictions will be removed likewise, not to mention an open door for Montano GM products (which it would become “trade discriminatory” to restrict). No wonder the idea of popular-movement people-funded campaigning is greeted with resistance when it attempts to break away from the oloigarchy’s current subduing controls.

  • Can anyone explain why the existing per-constituency limit doesn’t satisfy Tony Greaves’s requirement, please?

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