Transparency Bill update

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.  This is a great pity and a missed opportunity.  Never let anyone in the Labour Party bemoan the effect of this Bill on charities now; they had their chance and they flunked it.

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

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