The Lobbying Bill

October 14, 2013 5:41 PM

A large part of my time over the past few weeks has been focused on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, more succinctly known as the Lobbying Bill.

From the literally hundreds of emails and phone-calls that I have received from constituents on this issue, I am convinced that fundamentally we all have the same aims for the Bill - we all want to see greater transparency in politics, so we know who is lobbying who, how much money is being spent on election campaigning and prevent the influence of 'big money' in national and constituency campaigns. The difficulty is in drafting legislation that effectively captures the right people and organisations without preventing anyone from legitimately making their views known on political issues.

I want to make clear that it is not, and has never been, the Coalition Government's intention to gag charities or any other third party organisation; as someone with a background in charity campaigning I would never support a law which prevented charities from campaigning and putting their case as strongly as they want. We have ensured that this Government is the most transparent ever, and we are using this Bill to take another step towards reforming the way that lobbying and third-party funding operates in the UK.

The principle behind this Bill is to extend transparency further to give people more confidence in the way third parties interact with the political system. So, where third parties campaign in a way which supports a particular political party or its candidates, they will be required to fully record and disclose their expenditure on those campaigns.

Campaigning by third parties and political parties is already regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). If a third party wishes to campaign in the run up to specific elections, including general elections, they must register with the Electoral Commission and be subject to regulation which includes spending limits and reporting requirements. This was the case for both the 2005 and the 2010 general elections.

The problem is that at present third parties are subject to different controls and reporting regimes than registered political parties. That is why the Government is introducing a more comprehensive spending, donations and reporting regime for third parties. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me for non-party organisations to have to complete the same kind of paperwork as political parties, if - like political parties - they are trying to influence the electoral result.

All we are saying is that no organisation, whether that is an investment bank or an online campaign group, should be able to use money to unduly affect the outcome of an election and without that information being available to the public. Of course everyone is entitled, and indeed encouraged, to make their views known and highlight problems or things they don't like about any public policy, but I don't believe any organisation should be able to simply throw money at an issue to buy policy change. It is important that spending by third parties is properly controlled and fully transparent, so that it doesn't distort the political process.

Political parties and candidates are already limited in what they can spend during an election campaign, and I believe this is completely right and proper. I don't want to go down the American route, whereby parties spend literally billions of dollars trying to buy their way to power, rather than convincing the public of the strength of their manifesto.

I don't think it is unreasonable to apply the same principle to third parties. £388,080 is still a significant amount of money, and particularly for the kind of campaigning that 38 Degrees and other such organisations do so well - the growth of social media sites and the increasingly widespread use of technology has made it far easier for people or organisations to reach a wide audience, as the marginal costs are low; it costs nothing to send an email or post on a website.

I know that many other campaign groups and charities have also expressed concerns that this Bill will be a "gagging law", which will stifle their ability to campaign on issues that matter to them during an election period. Although, as I have said, this has never been the Government's intention, the Government has listened to these concerns and modified the Bill to make completely certain that this won't be an unintended consequence of the legislation. Thanks to amendments tabled by Liberal Democrats, led by John Thurso MP, it is absolutely clear that charities can continue to campaign on policy issues as they always have. Very few charities undertake expenditure for electoral purposes so most will not be affected, but for those who do, the test will now remain the same as it was for the 2005 and 2010 elections, when no one has suggested that charities and voluntary organisations were in any way prevented from campaigning and influencing public policy.

I hope this clarifies what the Bill is trying to achieve. I have long campaigned for greater transparency and accountability in our political system, and I believe that the stated aims of this Bill are important steps that need to be taken to achieve this. But it is important that we get it right. I am pleased that the Government has listened to campaigners and acted to clarify its intentions in this legislation.

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