Lord Greaves writes… We must make the Lobbying Bill work

Big Ben Orange Blue 200It is rightly said that this Bill has had a disgraceful lack of scrutiny, and I agree with that. But we are where we are. The Government are not going to withdraw it, and it is not going to stop. If we can work together as a House and the Government can work with us, we can make a much better fist of this Bill than we have at the moment.

Tony Greaves writes on the Transparency of Lobbying, Third Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, commonly known as the Lobbying Bill, drawing on his statements during the Second Reading on Tuesday. The committee stage begins on Tuesday 5th November, at which amendments will be tabled.

It is all part of election law, which is complex, obscure and widely ignored. The Bill specifically amends the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, or PPERA. I think [the Act] is poor legislation. It is based on the structure and system set out in PPERA (Part 6), which is frankly not fit for purpose. We are lumbered with it and have to do our best with it – but it will be legitimate in these circumstances to look in Committee not just at what the Bill says but at what PPERA says, to see whether a lot of the vagueness, obscurity and the problems in this area do not actually come from the original wording in that Act.

We are told that over the past 13 years Part 6 of PPERA has been tried and tested – but it has not. It has largely been ignored; it has never been tested in the courts; and I think that we should subject some of that to scrutiny in Committee. It is complex and difficult to understand; it is full of vague expressions, when clarity is needed; and it is subject to unsatisfactory advice by the Electoral Commission over the years. Those comments apply to PPERA, not just the Bill that we now have to amend it.

The whole thing is poor, flawed legislation. Whether we can make anything sensible out of it, we will find out in the next few weeks. This part of PPERA and these issues have really come to prominence only as a result of the present Bill – because the thresholds and spending limits are being reduced and what is defined as controlled expenditure is being substantially increased. That has put considerable fear among the campaigning organisations, whether or not they are charities, and that is what is causing the problems before us today. All of us – the Opposition, the Cross Benches and the two government parties – need to get together and try to thrash out a way in which to make this legislation a great deal better than it is now.

Constituency campaigning has a new emphasis in this Bill. It is a very difficult issue in relation to third-party campaigning, because it is within the confines of a particular electoral area, which is obviously considerably smaller than one of the nations of this country. It is considerably easier, if people have a lot of money, to throw money at a particular constituency and seriously affect the election result. This is a serious problem, and it is no good us pretending that it is not.

Yet we live in a changing world, in which political and campaigning energies are more and more being directed into single-issue and themed campaigning groups. At the same time, coming from a different direction is the threat of a large amount of money and corporate power being used in this country. It is not necessarily exactly the same as the super-PACs that are so distorting politics in the United States of America, but the same kind of problem is occurring. It is not easy to find a way in which to regulate all this, and to fit that into the traditional system of controls and regulation that is based on political parties and candidates. These are difficult areas at national levels. They are most difficult at the level of individual electoral areas, constituencies or even local government wards.

It is rightly said that this Bill has had a disgraceful lack of scrutiny, and I agree with that. But we are where we are. The Government are not going to withdraw it, and it is not going to stop. So the task before us is to test the Bill rigorously, line by line and clause by clause in Committee. We have to look at workability, which is crucial, as well as proportionality and unintended consequences, and one or two of the principles in it. If we can work together as a House and the Government can work with us, we can make a much better fist of this Bill than we have at the moment.

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13 Comments

  • Henry Tinsley 25th Oct '13 - 5:04pm

    Why not just dump Part 2 of the bill apart from the limit on constituency spending (which is the only reasonably sensible bit in it) ?

  • Could I just ask: if Part 2 concerns third-party campaigning, who are the first and second parties?

  • Henry Tinsley 25th Oct '13 - 6:30pm

    Part 1 is a very feeble set of proposals to control lobbyists; part 3 concerns unions, and is generally regarded as a bit of union bashing.

  • “So the task before us is to test the Bill rigorously, line by line and clause by clause in Committee. We have to look at workability, which is crucial, as well as proportionality and unintended consequences, and one or two of the principles in it. If we can work together as a House and the Government can work with us, we can make a much better fist of this Bill than we have at the moment.”

    I don’t that this is going to happen a) because not enough time will be made available to do this extremely tricky job – it amounts to entirely rewriting some of the bill,- and b) whipped voting on both Houses will prevent such a substantially improved bill being passed because the coalition would lose face. The coalition has been stupid enough to invest politcal capital in it. I am beginning to believe that the real problem is not only the poor quality of the bill itself, but also the problem of whipped voting which passess so much poorly scrutinised and outright bad bad legislation all the time. Members of the general public who have taken the trouble to follow in detail how this bill came about and what happened to this bill sofar can only have contempt for the politicians who allow themselves to be used as lobby fodder for bad legislation.

  • Henry Tinsley 26th Oct '13 - 8:20pm

    I wonder how daft the LibDem high command must be, to make enemies of many of the most active citizens in the country. It’s completely insane. Do they think everyone will forget by 2015?

  • Tony Greaves 27th Oct '13 - 12:20am

    It would be very nice to “just dump” Part 2 or most of it. I don’t think that the Government as a whole is sensible enough to do that, so we have to try to sort it out. Whipping is nothing to do with it really because sorting it out will need the co-operation of the government as a whole. I don’t know if that is possible in four or five weeks but I think we have to try.

    Yes, Part 2 as it stands is (in my view anyway) an act of political stupidity. But we are where we are, between 2nd reading and committee stage in the Lords, and we can’t gho back in time.

    Tony

  • “Whipping is nothing to do with it really because sorting it out will need the co-operation of the government as a whole.”

    In this country Parliament makes law, not the government. If MPs and Lords insist on properly scrutinising legislation and refuse to rush it through and vote according to their intelligence as responsible people, rather than as they are told by arrogant governments (often through cajoling, intimidation and even blackmail) the quality of legislation will be immensely improved. See, for example, Chapter 25 (A Peripheral Parliament”) of the recent book “The Blunders of Our governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, 2013. If the Coalition MPs in the Commons (and especially the LibDem ones!) had done their job properly, as real MPs and not Government zombies, the Lords would not have been insulted by having such a rubbish bill thrown at it. If anything positive is to come out of this cowboy job of a bill, it is some real political education of people who discover what a farce “parliamentary democracy” is in this country. By the way, are we again going to see the usual trick of Coalition Lords spinning out proceeding s of this bill until late at night so that most Lords have gone for dinner and the Government wins the votes?

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Oct '13 - 11:11am

    “spinning out proceeding s of this bill until late at night so that most Lords have gone for dinner and the Government wins the votes” (Tom Voute)

    I’m intrigued: do Coalition Lords not need to eat?

  • Andrew Colman 27th Oct '13 - 5:08pm

    I can see some interesting things happening if this bill gets through

    (1) Campaigning groups converting themselves into newspapers as newspapers are exempt (If not why are papers so quiet?)

    (2) Delibrate breaches of the lobbying law, timed to cause maximum bad publicity for incumbent politicians, particularly if they try to enforce this law

    As I said before, (like with the Poll tax) this will end in tears (including those Lib Dems who have foolishly supported this bill)

  • Tony Greaves 27th Oct '13 - 11:15pm

    Of course in an ideal world legislation would be dealt with better in the Lords and (particularly) the Commons. We do not live in an idea world and what I am doing is looking for ways in which – in our non-ideal world – it may be possible to fix Part 2 of this Bill. I don’t know whether it will be possible. What would be impossible would be to revolutionise Lords procedures in the next two weeks!

    “By the way, are we again going to see the usual trick of Coalition Lords spinning out proceeding s of this bill until late at night so that most Lords have gone for dinner and the Government wins the votes?”

    I’m afraid that only someone with little idea of how the Lords operates could write this. There are some very strange thngs about the way the Lords works, but the idea that government peers filibuster to ensure late votes is way off the mark. It’s usually supporters of amendments who spend a lot of time at Report stage arguing their case in detail and at length when they would do better just to get on with the votes! The Cross benches are often the worst offenders and the lawyers on those benches the worst of the lot!

    But if we are going to fix Part 2 it will have to be with the help of the government rather than winning votes, whether in the afternoon or late at night.

    Tony

  • Jeremy Morfey 4th Nov '13 - 8:05pm

    To save this Bill, Parts 2 and 3 need to be withdrawn and Part 1 extended to cover 100% of all lobbying, not just the 1% of lobbying by specialist lobbyists, who are mostly uncontentious and already well regulated.

    The fact this appalling Bill got through the Commons unscathed shows just how discredited Party-based democracy has become and warrants no public confidence. It seems that the electoral process is no longer to reflect public wishes in a fair and free forum. That elected Liberal Democrats, which had a long history of free and open political campaigning I myself got heavily involved with in the 1980s, should have voted this Bill through suggests that a major plank of their electoral appeal no longer applies. This is certainly an issue, perhaps more than any other, when the Liberal Democrats should have called the bluff of the Conservatives and if necessary forced a Vote of Confidence or a climb down. I see no case I can support for the House of Lords to replicate the discredited Commons in any way.

    There is a case now for all existing Lords to be removed from Parliament and replaced by a totally crossbench set of appointees by Royal Commission, with no party influence whatsoever welcomed. Many incumbent Lords who have shown good service may well be reappointed, but stripped of their Party affiliation. Constitutionally, the Lords should be as politically neutral as the Crown itself. I would support too a set of People’s Peers – each year a dozen individuals elected to serve a fixed term from a shortlist drawn up by Royal Commission from nominations from the public. There should be no restriction to qualification for nomination whatsoever, including age and nationality.

  • Peter Watson 4th Nov '13 - 9:52pm

    @Jeremy Morfey “This is certainly an issue, perhaps more than any other, when the Liberal Democrats should have called the bluff of the Conservatives and if necessary forced a Vote of Confidence or a climb down.”
    Tom Brake, a Lib Dem MP, has been the biggest cheerleader in the media for this bill so, sadly, I don’t think we can dismiss it as a Conservative measure.

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