We agree with 38 Degrees. With Conservative Home. With the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. With Owen Jones. With the Quakers in Britain. With Labour List. Polly Toynbee, Helen Mountfield QC, British Medical Association, Shelter, the Royal British Legion, the British Heart Foundation and Guide Dogs. We could go on.
We expect this does not happen very often. What has led to this rare outbreak of cross-party unity, pan-political co-operation, non-ideological, rational agreement?
Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you the “Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill” Specifically, Part 2 of the Bill, which covers non-political party campaigning.
Some have reported on the concern that the bill could ‘gag’ charities. Others have highlighted how the administration burden could be huge. What is clear is that as the Bill currently stands, it is not fit for purpose.
However, there are some simple, fundamental points that we feel worthy of repeating.
Under existing law [Section 85(2) Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 – PPERA) expenditure is controlled with regard to “election material made available to the public or a selection of the public”. Under the Bill, this will widen to cover largely any activity, from advertising to producing a manifesto, leaflets, market research, transport and public events.
As Polly Toynbee writes, there is a clear risk that “Any organisation spending £5,000 a year and expressing an opinion on anything remotely political must register with the Electoral Commission.”
Mark Wallace on ConservativeHome makes the same point: “The Bill is so loose in its language and so vague in its drafting that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way said to potentially affect an election will be caught up in the rules it lays out.”
The Bill poses a clear threat to freedom of speech.
The Bill introduces a test of expenditure in connection with “affecting the prospects of a party or candidate” that is dangerously broad. So, for example, if Big Brother Watch was to highlight an MPs fervent support for ID Cards, or praise a candidate’s work to roll back council snooping, then we would be caught by the legislation. Indeed, in a legal opinion for the NCVO Helen Mountfield QC warns that producing a manifesto – as we did at the last election – or calling on specific parties to adopt specific policies would be caught.
The Electoral Commission itself has deep reservations, warning: “In our view, it is not at all clear how that test will apply in practice to the activities of the many third parties that have other purposes beyond political campaigning. For instance, it seems arguable that the new test could apply to many of the activities of charities, voluntary organisations, blogs, thinktanks and other organisations that engage in debate on public policy.”
The Cabinet Office assures the public that the Bill is not intended to be so broad. We welcome these reassurances but the only way to properly ensure this Bill does not have a dangerous chilling effect on campaigning and public debate in Britain is to significantly narrow the legislation. The absence of any meaningful external input and parliamentary scrutiny (the Bill was published two days before Commons rose for the summer recess and is back in the commons today on the second day of the new session) only further reinforces the failings at the heart of this legislation.