The government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act has been wholly incorrectly and unfairly termed the “gagging” law, as I will explain below.
The Lib Dems have long campaigned for more transparency and accountability in our political system. In the coalition agreement the government said that it wanted to “regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency”. Through this Act, which gained Royal Assent on 30 January, this is what has been achieved.
The Act sets up a Statutory Register of Lobbyists, and this means consultant lobbyists, who meet ministers and civil service permanent secretaries on behalf of others, will have to publish a list of their clients. Consultant lobbyists will also have to make public which of the voluntary public affairs codes of conduct they adhere to. If they adhere to none, this will be out in the open for the first time.
Thanks to the Lib Dems, provision has been made for consultant lobbyist transparency to be immediately extended to meetings they have with party political special advisors, though we will have to have a majority coalition partner to agree with us on this to take it forward, as the Tories are blocking the use of this power at present.
In the United States wealthy lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association can directly influence policy and election results. This Act is intended make sure our politics is not influenced by big money in the way it is in the US. So, when third party groups campaign in a way which supports a particular political party or candidate, they will quite rightly have to register and disclose how they spent their money. This is a principle already well established in election law and what the Act does is create a level playing field to prevent wealthy organisations and individuals from skewing an election in their favour by using lots of money.
The provisions of the Act do not prevent anyone from campaigning and nor will it stop or even impede people and groups from calling for changes to government policy. The vast majority of charities and campaign groups, such as 38 Degrees for instance, work on campaigns to do with policy issues, which could not “reasonably be regarded as intending to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate”, and are therefore not covered by the legislation.
Charities in particular have always been largely unable to take up what might be implicitly party political campaigning, because doing so is against longstanding charity law. There is no reason why any organisation should be affected by this new legislation unless they are planning to spend large amounts of money on behalf of a particular party or candidate, even without that party’s direct involvement, in an attempt to change the outcome of the election in a particular constituency in favour of one candidate or another.
At the moment a rich oil baron or energy consortium for example, could spend huge amounts of money in a constituency held by an MP committed to green energy, and overwhelm their spending, as there is a limit on how much candidates, but not external people or organisations, can spend on campaigning. This situation is not right and has the potential to distort the outcome of an election. The government’s Act gives voters the information they are entitled to: who is behind well-funded non-party election campaigns in their constituency, and how much money has been spent.
Under the government’s Act, spending on elections by third party organisations will be set at a generous £450,000 per group across the UK and to £9,750 in any one constituency. Importantly, changes made to the Act by the government in the House of Lords mean that no group spending less than £20,000 in England, or less than £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will be caught by this legislation. The thresholds at which third party campaigners have to register with the Electoral Commission and declare their spending were increased to these levels by the government – double their previous level. This is crucial in preventing “the ordinary citizen” from being excluded from any campaigning activity they wish to undertake.
To make the point about charity campaigning completely clear Lib Dem Peers pursued the possibility of exempting charities from the Act’s scope altogether. Many charities actually opposed this suggestion however, saying they thought they should be regulated if they intervened in election campaigns. If the Act now is such a threat to charities’ work, then it makes no sense that the Act’s opponents, including Labour, were so determined charities should remain within its scope, against the wishes of the charities themselves.
The government is now working closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that their guidance is as clear and straightforward as possible for campaigners to follow. The government will also ensure the Electoral Commission publishes joint guidance with the Charity Commission to explain the extremely limited circumstances in which a charity could be affected. There will also be an independent review of the effect of the Act after the next general election.
Some people continue to refer to the Act as “the gagging law”, completely incorrectly. “Gagging” was never the purpose of the Act, nor its consequence, and continuing to refer to it in this way ignores the very significant changes secured to it by Lib Dems in parliament over the past few months. The Act can only “gag” individuals or organisations who would want to spend significant sums of money to distort the result of an election in a particular seat.
Government ministers, MPs, and Peers have all worked tirelessly on this Act with a wide range of charities and organisations. As a result of all the input during the passage of the Act through parliament, we now have a balanced and proportionate piece of legislation, which does not impinge in any way on what an individual or group can say during elections. It only affects what they may spend on supporting particular political parties or candidates.
I hope this is helpful and that you will conclude, as I have, that this Act is actually a welcome and beneficial piece of legislation that enhances accountability, and prevents elections in particular seats from being bought.