Lord Paul Tyler writes…Lobbying bill is a major and unexpected advance

Today, the Government published its Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration BillIt marks a major and rather unexpected advance on the position only a couple of months ago.

As the Bill goes through Parliament, we will be arguing that the new information it brings into the public domain must be coupled with much better access to the information which the Coalition has already published.  This Government is the first to proactively publish information on who ministers meet.  Yet at the moment the information is too difficult to find, and not much use when you find it.  The Bill presents a good opportunity for the Government to commit to ensuring that this regime is improved further, so that the whole range of “who, when and what” information behind lobbying influence is easily accessible.

The second part of the Bill seeks to fill a gaping void in the existing regulation of non-party campaigning.   A Russian oligarch or other maverick millionaire could presently buy enormous political influence, without the checks imposed on parties.  So the Bill radically reduces the spending limits for spending by non-party actors during the year running up to a general election campaign from £988,500 to £390,000 UK-wide.  This is a prescient change for the Government to introduce, since the increasing “anti-politics”, anti-party sentiment in elections will – in my estimation – provoke significant non-party spending in future.  But such groups will still be influencing people’s votes, just as the parties do.

The Bill proposes two further important changes.  First, only a small proportion of the national non-party limit can be spent by any one group in any one constituency.  Without this provision, a well-funded campaign could totally distort the election discourse with up to £390,000 spent just in one place!  Secondly, the Bill seeks better to recognise (and it is a complicated business) where non-parties are in fact just acting as the non-partisan “wing” of one party.   So the Bill limits to £39,000 (10% of the overall limit) the amount of money a non-party group can spend clearly supporting one party without that party’s authorisation.  If a party authorises the campaign, then the spending counts both against the non-party limit and against the party’s own limit.

The third arm of the Bill is about ensuring that trade unions have accurate membership lists.  We will listen carefully to what people have to say about how the detail of this is set up, but the principle seems beyond dispute.  The membership numbers of a trade union have a bearing on how much money they can give to a political party through their political funds.  In this sense, the trade unions have a unique role in UK politics.  It is therefore important for transparency’s sake that the membership lists are accurate.

Since the intentions of the Bill were devised, there has been one further major development.  Ed Miliband’s speech suggested last week that he wished to see a very different relationship between Labour and the trade unions.  He said, “Individual Trade Union members should choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee, not be automatically affiliated.  In the twenty-first century, it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so.”  I agree, and such provisions were included in the cross-party Bill that I and others published in May.

Coalition Ministers have made clear that they are willing to assist – if the Labour Party wishes to make progress and work with the Government on this – by adding new clauses to today’s Bill, making provision for exactly what a Ed Miliband has said he wants to see happen.  It has even been suggested that his principled objective should require a new mechanism by which trade union members could indicate which party they wish to support.

If either change happens, Labour’s income would be reduced, and I think it would be fair in that light to look again at the balance of the package in the Bill.  An obvious candidate to “take big money out of politics” on the other side of the ledger would simply be to reduce from £20m the overall spending limit for the parties themselves, in the year before a General Election.  This would be a natural counterpart to the provisions reducing the non-party spending limits.   Do LDV readers agree that a £5m national limit should surely be more than enough?

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

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