Paul Tyler writes… Transparency not gagging

I have spent much of the last week meeting with NGOs to discuss the Transparency Bill, in advance of the first debate on it in the Lords today.  It’s striking that only the most strident can now use the term “gagging bill” with a straight face, and I think even they now realise that the Bill is nothing of the sort.

Readers of Lib Dem Voice, more than most, are well used to accounting for spending in elections.  For the parties, it is clear that their purpose in life is to influence election outcomes.  Candidates and agents have accepted the need to keep within spending limits since 1883.  When I was first a candidate, we genuinely worried about ending up in prison if we spent too much during an election campaign!  It was always unlikely but attention to this point is a good discipline in politics.

For non-party groups, the situation is bound to be more complicated.  They are asking how they should know if their spending “could reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate”.  The answer is that this definition has existed now for two general elections and, while by no means perfect, it has established custom and practice attached to it.  To my knowledge, nobody has yet come up with a better definition of what is and what isn’t election campaigning.

If a group campaigned in 2005 and 2010 but did not do so to promote a candidate or party, and it does the same kind of campaigning next time, they shouldn’t have to register.  And even if they do decide to go further in 2015 – by attempting to promote the interests of a particular candidate or party – and therefore do register, they will still be able to spend £390,000 across the UK.  They just won’t be allowed to focus that ‘national’ limit only on only one or a very few constituencies.

Meanwhile the Bill is really not about charities; they are governed by quite separate charity law, which generally prohibits them from partisan campaigning anyway.   The target is political campaigners who clearly seek to influence elections.  The effects of their campaigns is well known where, for example, anti- or pro-hunting groups spend money in particular constituencies to swing the result one way or another.  At local elections, we have already seen big union money pumped into campaigning to promote Labour’s chances, but which is spent outside the party spending limits.

There is still work for the Lords to do on this legislation.  We will be seeking reassurances on behalf of NGOs that, for example, the ‘scorecard’ activity some of the environmental groups engaged in at the 2010 election would not be regarded – providing it is genuinely an all-party assessment – as promoting one or other party.  And we will examine carefully what the right level is for the threshold on registration.

As ever, the Lords’ work is getting the details right.  But I hope we go into the debate today with a reasonably clear consensus that the Bill does not restrict free speech; it simply limits election spending.  With careful consideration and amendment, it can and should be on the statute book in time to stop potential distortion of constituency results for the 2015 general election.

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

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  • Tony Greaves 22nd Oct '13 - 1:13pm

    That’s all about Part 1 of the Bill (the Transparency of Lobbying part) – where there does seem to be a case that the tin is bright and shiny but the contents are not really what it says on the tin.

    I think that Paul is right about the objectives of Part 2 of the Bill. The fundamental question is whether the actual words mean what the government say they mean or what almost all the Third party bodies say they mean. (Or indeed whether anyone can understand what they mean, which I find difficult).

    There is also rather a lot of very obscure detail that needs sorting out, in my view.

    On the fundamental point, the government’s case is that the wording is now the same as it has been for over ten years under “PPERA” – the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

    The truth is that this part of PPERA is rubbish legislation – thank you Labour Party! -and has not been a problem partly because the thresholds for registration by Third Parties, and the spending limits, have been too high for the 3rd Parties to worry about them much, and partly because it has not been well-known and seems to have been widely ignored by smaller bodies. Also it has no tbeen tested in the Courts.

    I hope the Lords will be able to get beyond the “Yes it does” “No it doesn’t” Pantomime style debate and scrutinise this Bill rigorously and carefully – something that has not yet been done in Parliament.


  • >What about the accusations that the bill wont catch industrial lobbying of government/Whitehall?

    In some ways I’m more worried about transparency of lobbying at the EU, as increasingly the major decisions (EU-USA trade, IPR protection, etc.) are being taken in that forum…

  • Will Liberal Democrat Voice have to register?

  • Robert Hamilton 22nd Oct '13 - 7:18pm

    Tony Greaves.
    Yes Part One of the bill does almost nothing to stop or even make public the rich and powerful. Democracy is there to restrain these two, but the Bill gives them almost carte blanche.
    In Part 2, the bill merely repeats PPERA.. So we need this part only to clarify the definition of organisations that are restricted. Lowering the already low cap on expenses just extends bureaucracy. Paul Tyler needs to be clear about what his task is. His swipe at Trade Unions is typical Tory and his likening Unions to pro and anti hunting groups is absurd.
    There is nothing in the Bill to restrain businesses and rich donors supporting MP’s offices that helps the campaign but is excluded from campaign expenses.
    Not a word about the electioneering by newspapers. Not easy and if it was I would expect no Tory support for that.

  • Paul says

    “If a group campaigned in 2005 and 2010 but did not do so to promote a candidate or party, and it does the same kind of campaigning next time, they shouldn’t have to register.”

    This simply isn’t true. The bill cuts the threshold for spending allowed before registration dramatically, and even more dramatically expands the number of things spending is incurred on. The result is that many groups who previously came in under the threshold will have to register if they do the same thing again in 2015.

    As a specific example, in my former job at Friends of the Earth it was not entirely clear whether assessing manifestos and publishing our conclusions, or whether our local groups asking candidates to agree to support our “checklist” of key policies and totting up the overall results on a website was covered by the PPERA definition that it could “reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate”. We did not intend it to do so – the aim was to make information available to our supporters and other people who wanted to know the green policies of the major parties.

    We didn’t have the slightest intention of telling people how to vote. Individually, when we made our minds up who to support we considered the local electoral situation, our concerns on other areas such as education or health and our view of their local candidates. It was blatantly obvious our supporters would do the same thing, and so telling them how to vote would be impertinent and pointless anyway.

    However, the cost of the campaign materials was below the threshold, so this was avoided. The new thresholds and definition of expenditure would change that. My fear is it that similar campaigns may then simply be dropped – the legal advice, additional work to separate out accounts, fears that earlier campaigns for specific campaigns mentioned in the “policy checklist” may have also to be included, and general confusion may well lead to organisations being afraid to tell their supporters and members what the parties are proposing on matters they take an interest in.

  • I agree with Tony Greaves on this that the PPERA is problematic. This could have more of an impact with the new reduced spending limits. I am with another hat on the current involved with NO2ID and like the previous poster from Friends of the Earth we are very concerned with this bill. By promoting our issue during an election campaign it could be interpreted that we have promoted a particular candidate who may or may not hold a particular view that supports or opposes our position.

    It is not the nice understanding that parliament may have over the definition, but the threat that a vexatious person could report our organisation and we could face an investigation or risk prosecution. What volunteer in their right mind would open themselves up to that risk and the legal requirements of reporting.

    Think how difficult it is for a large political party to train its agents on legal compliance, now imagine how hard that is for a single issue campaign run on a shoe string by volunteers and a handful of donations. Those bureaucratic requirements will sadly be too much for many people, and we will see even less people wishing to get involved. That’s bad for democracy and last time I looked we were democrats.

  • Tony Greaves 22nd Oct '13 - 10:45pm

    Good 6½ hour Second Reading debate – general support around the House that there have to be significant changes.

    We will see how the processes of House of Lords and Government politics work in the next couple of weeks before committee stage starts.


  • Please someone tell me I’m wrong, but as far as I can see the restrictions of Part One apply only to ‘consultant lobbyists’ and not, for instance, to employees of big companies. So Monsanto, Tesco, Barclays, [fill in your favourite bête noire] are free to carrying on lobbying as now. If, for the duration of a campaign, they temporarily take their favourite ‘consultant lobbyist’ onto their books as an employee, they can even carry on using him.

    I recently met someone at a social function who works as a ‘consultant lobbyist’ within the meaning of the Bill so I naturally asked him what difference he and his colleagues expected it would make to them. His reply was that it would make no difference whatsoever as it will only apply to Ministers who are in any case already well hedged about with restrictions, with meetings recorded etc. He went on to say that in any case more than 99% of lobbying doesn’t involve Ministers but only working level officials. His take on the percentage of lobbying involving Ministers may be a bit off and, on reading the Bill, it seems that permanent secretaries are also included but even so his response suggests naïve drafting or some deeper , darker purpose.

    Meanwhile, Tony Greaves asks a key question about ” whether the actual words mean what the government say they mean or what almost all the Third party bodies say they mean”. Call me old fashioned but I thought that the intent of legislation should be crystal clear and not some sort of word game for the courts. The uncertainty is enough to enable deep-pocketed corporations to use the mere threat of ruinously expensive court actions to subdue citizen campaigns or at least to keep them disorganised which would have the same effect.

    In short, it appears that big company lobbying is exempt, that provisions on ‘consultant lobbyists’ are meaningless, that community groups will be affected directly and even more by the mere threat of action and that unions will be further circumscribed in what they can do to defend their members’ interests.

    Is this Bill really supposed to regulate lobbying effectively or to muzzle freedom of expression? On present evidence it looks like the latter.

  • Henry Tinsley 26th Oct '13 - 8:14pm

    The government is proposing to reduce the permitted expenditure of Third Parties by over 60%, to a mere 2% of that allowed to political parties. Why?

    Despite Tyler’s disingenuous assurances, it’s obvious it’s just a ploy to gag civil society in the run-up to the election.

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