Lord Paul Tyler writes: An update on the Lobbying bill

The Government’s Transparency Bill is nearly complete.  It is a very different Bill from that introduced to the House of Commons in the autumn.  Full marks to Tom Brake who, while robustly rebuffing the more hysterical accusations about the Bill, has listened, and worked hard inside government to secure a sensible package of improvements.  The first was in the House of Commons, where MPs voted to ensure the definition of non-party campaigning remained the same as for the last thirteen years.  If this were a ‘gagging law’, then so too was Labour’s PPERA of 2000.

In the Lords, we have concentrated on detail.  Throughout, Labour have frankly been useless.  They have tabled hardly any amendments, and simply carp about the genesis of the Bill.  This legislation has not benefited from exemplary and early consultation.  But having accepted that, it is the House of Lords’ job to improve it, and only we Liberal Democrats and the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, have been so doing.

Liberal Democrat amendments in Committee always kept in mind the central objective of the Bill – restraining the influence of wealthy organisations over constituency results – while meeting the concerns of the many NGOs to whom we spoke.  By Report Stage, which took place this week, the Harries Commission members, who had previously had their own amendments, adopted our approach on a number of key issues.  We had several ‘wins’ together.

First, the House voted to remove ‘background staff costs’ from the list of items that non-party organisations will have to account for.  Our amendment would require campaigners to account for staff costs only in relation to the production and distribution of election material (which they already have to, under existing law) and for costs in relation to canvassing.  They would not, however, have to account for the half an hour that a policy adviser spends booking a meeting room for a public event.  Asking for such costs to be measured hardly increases transparency sufficiently to justify the bureaucratic burden.  We now hope the Government will see the sense in that amendment and agree not to overturn it in the Commons.

Secondly, I moved an amendment to tighten the scope of the new constituency limits for non-party campaigners.  What really makes a difference, as we all know, to a constituency campaign is leaflets through doors, letters sent, and telephone calls made.  These costs and no others should be included in the constituency limits.  On a promise that the Government will consider this further, I did not press the amendment to a vote but it will certainly return at the final stage in the Lords.

The major disappointment of the day, however, was on the cross-party attempt to exclude charities from the ambit of this legislation.  Charities are very heavily regulated by charity law and cannot really campaign in a way that would “promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate” in any event.  So worrying them with this legislation helps no one, and has simply concerned our natural allies.  Shirley Williams and I attempted to encourage support for a simple charity exemption but Labour’s decision at the last minute to back the government against charities meant there was no chance of winning a vote.  Garbled guidance from the Charity Commission was also quoted extensively and unhelpfully.  We are still actively pursuing this to see if, at the 11th hour, a charity exemption could be won.

The architecture of the Bill is now much improved following a whole raft of government amendments.  The question now is simply whether charities wish to live inside it or outside these regulations.  More of them will now break ranks with the campaigning NGOs like Countryside Alliance (which is not a charity but likes to hide behind them) and support the exemption we have proposed.  If you have any contacts in the charity world, please strongly encourage them to do so.  There isn’t a moment to lose!

PS:   Quite separately, on Monday I won – with the support of 30 Lib Dem Peer colleagues, against our whip – an amendment to the provisions about registration of consultant lobbyists.  The Government believes only those who meet Ministers and Permanent Secretaries should register.  We beg to differ.  Those who meet Special Advisers (SpAds) should have to register too.  And in turn SpAds, like Ministers, should have to publish who they meet about what.  Again, I am urging colleagues in Whitehall not to let David Cameron insist on overturning this small but significant advance in the cause of open government.  You can read the debate here

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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11 Comments

  • I agree with both —
    Geoffrey Payne 17th Jan ’14 – 7:28am
    … basically this is still a corrupt government.
    Gareth Epps 17th Jan ’14 – 10:04am
    nothing in this Bill would stop those who seek inappropriate access

    See for example —
    http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Ed_Davey

  • Fabius Maximus 17th Jan '14 - 11:49am

    Your comments in this article are in remarkable opposition to your earlier article on LDV in which you asserted that everything about this bill was an unmitigated win for democracy.

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/lord-paul-tyler-writeslobbying-bill-is-a-major-and-unexpected-advance-35363.html

    Also, I was watching the Lords debate on Part 3 some months ago and your own comments about how this bill would be a battering ram for reform of the Labour Party, was what would nowadays be known as “concern trolling”. What business is it of yours to involve yourself in their constitution, and to do so in such a circuitous and, some might say, dishonest manner?

    Even Lord Cormack commented the other night in the Lords that the TU peers had made a very strong case against Part 3 and this dubious office of assurer. Part 3 seems like vindictiveness, and no good case has been made for the existence of the “assurer”

  • Countryside Alliance 17th Jan '14 - 1:05pm

    Lord Tyler asserts that because the definition of “controlled expenditure” at clause 26 of the Lobbying Bill was amended in the Commons back to wording virtually identical to that of Labour’s PPERA of 2000, then this is not a ‘gagging law’.
    This completely fails to note that the Bill extends the scope of what counts towards electoral expenditure while massively reducing spending by campaigners. This means the effect of the Bill is much greater than that of the 2000 Act.
    On the issue of charities, modern charity law – as set out in the Charity Commission’s guidance – allows charities considerable scope to campaign and their campaigns are just as capable of falling within the definition of clause 26 as a non-charity campaigns. Therefor neither the Charity Commission nor the Electoral Commission believes charities should be exempted from the PPERA rules.
    As for the Countryside Alliance hiding behind charities, this is quite untrue. Our President, Baroness Mallalieu QC, sits on the Commission for Civil Society and has been perfectly up front about our position both on that Commission and on the floor of the House of Lords.
    The example she has given is that had charities been exempt when the Bill to ban hunting was going through Parliament charities such as the RSPCA and LACS would have been totally unregulated in their campaign spending against hunting but the Countryside Alliance would have been severely restricted.
    The legislation is about regulating activity around elections not types of organisation. Lord Tyler is entitled to his opinions but not to ungentlemanly and untrue asides about an organisation to whose face he has been courteous and helpful in discussions over this Bill.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Jan '14 - 3:11pm

    The CA is obviously not up to date with the substantial changes which took place to Part 2 of the Bill on Wednesday.

    It is ironic by the way that the Countryside Alliance is fronted in the House of Lords by Lady Mallalieu who sits as Labour peer! It’s no wonder the Labour Party have been so useless on this Bill – as I have observed. Feeble is the word. They even forgot to call a vote on Wednesday and were then all upset it had not happened.

    The real heroes on this Bill in our ranks, in the Lords, have been Jim Wallace as the lead Minister (and William Wallace who started the Bill off in the Lords, before he retired to have an operation) and Paul Tyler who has led our party team (in which I have been pleased to play a small part so have seen closely what has been happening). The work that has been done “within the Coalition” – and so hidden from public view – has been enormous and outstanding. The Harries Commission has been remarkable and very very useful, indeed essential – but without the huge amount of work done within the government machinery it would not have come to very much.

    If only all the Ministers in the Lords were Liberals!

    Tony

  • Fabius Maximus 17th Jan '14 - 5:37pm

    “This is precisely what I have done. I said in July that we would listen to what people said on the Trade Union section but in fact I have had hardly any contact from anyone about it. Even Labour have been rather muted in their opposition.”

    Lord Tyler,

    I listened to almost the entire Part 3 debate and Lords Whitty, Stevenson, Morris and Lea (amongst others) conscientiously objected, in the strongest possible terms, to the content of Part 3. The government refused to listen, to the point where even Lord Cormack, no friend of the TU movement, commented that he had grave concerns and the TU peers had made their case.

    And to say that the government has had no contact from the Labour/TU side is misleading in the extreme. The minister moving the bill has been in contact with Labour/TU peers. Why should they contact you about it? You were not the minister moving the bill, and your own words in the House showed the ideological basis of your support for Part 3.

    The imperious and peremptory attitude of the government benches, setting themselves up in obvious opposition to almost all of civil society, is a troubling and dangerous precedent. This is not a government that listens.

    Fabius Maximus

  • We should continue to remind Paul Tyler and all his fellow LibDems for a very long time to come that this Bill was cooked up in secret by persons who still haven’t owned up to it. It had no advance consultation with stakeholders and no pre-legislative scrutiny. Not even the Electoral Commission, which has to implement part 2, was consulted in advance and commented that quite a lot of it of it didn’t much sense, but might become more clear as and when the Government got round to explaining what its actual policy objectives were. There is still no factual evidence that there was actually a need for this bill in this form – let alone why it should be rushed – so that we still don’t know whether or not the amount of very expensive parliamentary time spent on it is just wasted. It is in any case now certain that the whole thing will have to start again from scratch after the 2015 elections to do the job properly. If there was a need of this Bill, which could not possibly aim to advance any party political agenda, it ought to have been prepared by a balanced all-party Committee and not be rushed through parliament on a partisan basis as whipped government legislation. It was badly drafted and put before the Commons without proper notice and Committee time in the Commons was cut so short that it could not be scrutinised properly, giving every appearance that the Coalition Government , inits arrogance, tried to avoid debate and scrutiny as much as possible, and it was voted through by mobilising the Coalition Government’s obedient lobby fodder who did not have much idea – if any at all – of what they were voting for.
    This Bill has diminished Parliament and brought it and its MPs into disrepute. It remains a constitutional outrage which has reduced the British legislative system to that of a banana republic.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Jan '14 - 11:24pm

    “The imperious and peremptory attitude of the government benches, setting themselves up in obvious opposition to almost all of civil society, is a troubling and dangerous precedent. This is not a government that listens.”

    I am reluctant to respond to an anonymous poster, but I have to point out that in relation to Part 2, which is the civil society stuff, this is evidently and comprehensively not true! The battle has been won, largely by Crossbenchers and Liberal Democrats. Just a fact. With Ministers, mainly Liberal Democrats, not just listening but taking action.

    Tony

  • To say that “the battle has been won” is ludicrous party-political propaganda talk. At best, a certain amount of damage limitation has been achieved. This damage limitation only means that the bill is now not quite as much a Mickey Mouse bill as it was to begin with and, more importantly, that there is now an official commitment to embark on a proper legislative initiative to replace this utterly inept effort and do the job properly after the 2015 elections, with something more thought through and after proper consultations. I don’t think that much damage limitation has been achieved in respect of the way this bill has brought the entire legislative process into disrepute. Whether much damage limitation in respect of the number of members, supporters and votes which have been lost by the LibDems because of this shabby episode, precisely from the most socially active sections of society – i.e. people who are most likely to vote – is not yet known.
    As a point of detail I note, for example, that Amendment 40, which would have updated the definition of what constitutes a “third party supporter” to one more in tune with the reality of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, fell by the wayside. This element will certainly will have to be revisited when PROPER legislation to regulate 3rd part ycampaigning at election times is embarked upon.

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