“vary any percentage for the time being specified”

in that Act’s provisions. That amounts to an order-making power. Why does the order-making power itself need to be made subject to another order-making power? If clause 30 came into effect and into law on the day the Bill received Royal Assent, its provisions would still be subject to the Secretary of State’s having the power to make a variation. If we want to give the Secretary of State that power, why do we need to cover it by saying, “Well, we won’t give him the power to make an order until he has brought forward an order giving himself the power to make the order”? By including sub-paragraph (i) in clause 41, we are making the provisions less direct and more confusing. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation of why he thinks clause 41 is so vital.

Similar arguments relate to my amendments 5 and 6, which would ensure that clauses 30, 34 and 35 came into effect directly on the date of Royal Assent. Looking at those clauses, one again wonders why the Government are nervous about allowing these provisions to take legal effect from the day of Royal Assent. Clause 34 deals with

“Third party expenditure in respect of candidates”,

9 Oct 2013 : Column 183

changing the limit from £500 to £700. If that is a good idea—I am not disputing that it might be—why not include it and implement it from the day of Royal Assent? Why leave everybody guessing about whether the provisions might be brought forward at some subsequent stage through an order-making power? Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation.

Similarly, clause 35, dealing with

“Functions of Electoral Commission with respect to compliance”,

changes the general function and substitutes the expression “duties”. It deals with legislation relating to the Electoral Commission. If that is a good thing—obviously, the Government think it is—why is it not such a good thing that it cannot be brought into effect on the day of Royal Assent?

The way in which the Government do legislation nowadays seems to me to be about leaving as many opportunities as possible for further order-making, when the statute book and our democracy would be enhanced if we were able to have greater clarity so that the provisions enacted were actually implemented from the commencement of the Act, alongside all the other provisions. Again, I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about that.

My second group of amendments—10, 11 and 12 —relate to clause 42. Amendment 10 would leave out subsections (3) to (6); amendment 11 would leave out subsections (7) and (8); and amendment 12 would leave out subsection (9). Clause 42 is quite important, because it deals with “Transitional provision”. It is quite complex. The explanatory notes state that because of the interaction of the European Parliament elections in the latter part of May next year and the fixed-term Parliament provisions that assure us of a general election in May 2015, we need special provisions to cover that scenario. As explained therein:

“Clause 42 makes provision to deal with this situation by creating”

what is described as

“a bespoke regulated period…that will apply only in relation to the next UK general parliamentary election.”

I am instinctively suspicious of “bespoke” regulated periods or of anything brought into statute in order to deal with a particular scenario; I am much more in favour of general principles that can be applied whatever the circumstances. We are getting into dangerous territory whereby the Government are taking transitional powers, interfering with existing law, and doing so on the grounds that the situation is complicated by the European parliamentary elections next May, while at the same time not dealing with the situation of the Scottish referendum in September next year. I do not understand why there are no transitional provisions for that Scottish referendum; perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us. If we are to have strict limits on spending by registered political parties during a period that includes what amounts to a national referendum in Scotland on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, surely we need some special provision to deal with related expenditure.

I do not understand what these provisions are all about, but the Bill would be better if these specific provisions were excluded from it. In a sense, my amendments

9 Oct 2013 : Column 184

could properly be described as probing amendments. As I say, I cannot really understand all the detail of clause 42, but I think the Bill would be better without the provisions which my amendments would remove. I would certainly be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about why we have a bespoke regulated period for one particular scenario, while such a bespoke period will not be necessary in the future. Why has no provision been made for the interaction of the general election and the proposed Scottish referendum?

Mr Allen: I thank the hon. Gentleman and would like to put on record my thanks to other colleagues who sit on the Select Committee, some of whom are in the Chamber today. We faced incredibly difficult conditions, providing a report for this House at very short notice, which meant being called back during the recess. I compliment the hon. Gentleman and the rest of my Select Committee for doing that and for giving the House half a chance to debate this issue seriously.

The hon. Gentleman seems surprised that stuff that we are meant to have in front of us—on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—is not in front of us, while we are halfway through the Bill’s proceedings. However, he answered his own question in his opening remarks when he referred to the Government’s failure to provide the proper amount of time, consideration and consultation that we should expect in the House. Let me quote, very briefly, what has been said by the Electoral Commission:

“We await confirmation of the Government’s view of the impact of the Bill on the referendum on independence for Scotland.”

I am perfectly sure that had that impact been known, even today, a great many more Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have been present. This is an outrageous attempt to push a measure through with great speed, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue to emphasise that in his speech.

Mr Speaker: I was wondering whether at some point the hon. Gentleman might wish to make a speech on the matter, but then I realised that he had in fact just done so. We are grateful to him, and I remind those who are attending to our proceedings beyond the Chamber that his celebrity status should now be universally known. He is, of course, the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, and it is, I know, in that capacity that he seeks to advise the House. Even so, he will want to ensure that the subsequent interventions that he will make from time to time are moderately briefer.

2 pm

Mr Chope: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his succinct intervention, and also for his generous comments. The points that he has made are exactly the points that caused me to vote against the programme motion yesterday. I think the least that can be done if a Bill has not been given sufficient pre-legislative scrutiny is to ensure that there is sufficient time for it to be scrutinised properly in the House. I may be wrong, but I doubt very much whether we shall have time even to debate all the groups of amendments and new clauses that have been tabled for debate today. As I said earlier, we were not able to reach some of the amendments that

9 Oct 2013 : Column 185

were tabled in Committee, although fortunately some of them were tabled again on Report, and are being debated now.

I do not think that I need to make a meal of this, and I am sure that the House will wish to hear further from the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, but I will say that I do not think that new clause 2 really cuts the mustard. All that it says is:

“Part 2 of this Act shall not come into force until the Electoral Commission and the Minister have laid a report before both Houses of Parliament”.

That in itself introduces a concept of indecision. People looking at the legislation will want to know when part 2 will come into force. If things are found to be wrong with part 2 as a result of

“an assessment of the separate and specific impacts of Part 2…on third-party engagement”,

and so on, that will need to be put right before Royal Assent, rather than being left to a post-legislative assessment on a time scale that is imprecise and unspecified. I understand why the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) is frustrated by this whole process, but I beg to differ with him on whether his proposed solution is the right one.

Similarly, as I said earlier in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I do not think that the requirement in new clause 3 for

“Within one month of Royal Assent…full cost projections of the impact of Part 2 on their running costs”

from the Electoral Commission, along with an

“assessment of the administrative impact”

is any good. It would, at best, be closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, and it would not be a helpful substitute for dealing effectively with the substance of the Bill before we give it final approval and it receives Royal Assent. The time to do that is now, and we are doing it. Obviously we hope that those in the other place will do even more of it, and that when the Bill returns to the Commons, it will be much better than it was before.

I end as I began, by regretting that this process has caused us to deal too much with the form and the process rather than with the substance, which is what we should be dealing with in this House.

Mr Allen rose—

Mr Chope: I will give way once more.

Mr Allen: Before the hon. Gentleman—who is a distinguished member of the Select Committee—ends his speech, may I return, very briefly, to the question of the controlling of expenditure of non-party campaigners? Will he underline the fact that the Electoral Commission does not know what impact the Bill will have on the referendums in Scotland? Are we not in danger of jumping straight into a hornets’ nest if we do not consider that before the Bill is passed, rather than saying “Let us see what happens”?

Mr Chope: If I were a member of the Government faced with such advice from a body on which the Government rely to give them advice, I would say “We will withdraw the Bill, or at least delay further consideration of it until we have received a proper response.” That, I think,

9 Oct 2013 : Column 186

would have been the mature way in which to deal with the matter, if I may put in it in a somewhat patronising way.

There are many examples of Bills that have been held up between their Committee and Report stages. Normally they have been held up for a good reason, namely that the Government have been having a rethink, discussing with third parties and other interests what is the best solution. Here we have a glaring example of something else. Effectively, the statutory adviser on these issues has said to the Government “We do not know what the implications are. Please help us. We can help you, but we need a bit of time if we are to do so.”

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always an optimist. I hope that, before the end of this evening’s proceedings, we shall have heard the Government say that they wish not to press the matter to the end, but to give the House a chance to engage in further debates, and that they will table further amendments.

Wayne David: As the hon. Gentleman implies, there is nothing to stop the Government from saying, at any stage, “We have listened to the concerns of Members on both sides of the House, and we have listened to what people outside the Chamber are saying. We will withdraw the legislation, and will engage in full consultation.” Labour Members can give a cast-iron commitment that if that were to happen, we should be only too happy to engage with the Government, the Electoral Commission and others in an attempt to achieve a consensus on how our electoral law can be modified and made appropriate for the modern age. That is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and I only hope that the Government will feel able to respond to it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it represents a good way forward?

Mr Chope: Obviously I do. I am often suspicious of the word “consensus”, but I think that when we are dealing with changes in electoral law, consensus is very important.

In my capacity as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I go off and monitor a fair number of elections, and the most difficult cases with which to deal are those in which a Government have used their majority to introduce changes in the electoral law, and, in some cases, have used a politically motivated electoral commission to support their actions. That brings democracy into disrepute, especially in some of the emerging democracies in eastern Europe. I think that this is an instance in which we should be aiming for consensus, and if consensus could be achieved by the Government’s withdrawing the Bill, or not continuing with it at the current pace, I should be all in favour of it.

Dr Francis: The hon. Gentleman’s approach is precisely the approach adopted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We said as much in our meeting this morning, and I was delegated to convey that sentiment to the House this afternoon.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is invidious to make comparisons, and I know that his is a Joint Committee of both Houses, but I think it a pity that the Committee has not been able to present a report to the House by this stage. If our Committee could do it, I am sure that his Committee would, or

9 Oct 2013 : Column 187

should, have been able to do it as well. It is very sad that his Committee’s no doubt excellent report will be available to their lordships, but is not available to Members of this House. This is not a criticism of the hon. Gentleman, but I hope in future he will cancel all leave when necessary and bring his troops back.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the word consensus, but is it not sad that there is broadly common agreement which could be arrived at if the will were there?

Mr Chope: I am not going to get into the semantics of the difference between consensus and common agreement, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.

I am pleased the Government have done quite a lot of listening. They have brought forward a number of amendments and put forward various propositions. Some people are claiming what the Government are saying will not work in practice in the way they say it would, but that is a reason for having further discussions, instead of forcing inadequate law through this House.

Mark Durkan: I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) around the muddle and clutter in the Bill in relation to variable commencement dates and the transitional provisions. The Government may well say that the clauses are framed in a way that allows for slippage if that is needed, but slippage at the hands of a Minister in relation to commencement will give rise to suspicions of slipperiness and the possibility of partisan motivations. The variable commencement provisions that apply to different parts of part 2 are evidence of just how scrappy the thinking has been, and provide an argument for there being a longer pause for thought.

I wish to speak particularly in support of new clauses 2 and 3. Some Members have said that neither of the clauses on their own goes far enough. That may be so, but they do recognise gross deficiencies in the Bill. They may not meet them in full, but at least if this Chamber agrees to these amendments it will be creating a basis on which there will be further amendments and further consideration to meet those gross deficiencies. It is a derelict argument to say that, because they do not completely meet the deficiencies, we should not adopt them. There are even more inadequacies in the Bill that we would leave unamended, so saying that they do not go far enough and would need to be supplemented by other changes should not be used as a justification for voting against them.

New clause 2 refers to the very confusing impact this legislation would have in the context of the devolved areas. I have a particular interest in Northern Ireland, of course. I have no wish to bungee jump in and out of the debate about the Scottish referendum, but I take on board the point that has been made on a number of occasions by the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and we need to hear it answered as it seems to be a pretty basic and fundamental one.

I want again to inform the House that many Members have referred to the vast numbers of third sector groups—charities, Churches, policy advocacy groups—that have

9 Oct 2013 : Column 188

expressed concern throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and they have also done so in Northern Ireland. In many ways their concerns are even more vexed because, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has said, civil society in Northern Ireland has been playing a significant, telling and growing role in helping to move politics on and improving the content and climate of political debate in Northern Ireland.

2.15 pm

The key British-Irish axis, the power-sharing institutions and the new beginning to policing are three important wheels of the peace process, but the fourth wheel on which the peace process runs is that played by civil society in reinforcing the sense of progressive political debate and helping to inform an otherwise sectarian binary political debate, which passes for political exchange but does not really address some of the underlying public policy issues that affect people’s economic, social, environmental or cultural interests. Anything that puts at risk the growing role of civil society in improving politics in Northern Ireland has to be a cause for worry.

The problems do not relate just to the chill factor, which we have heard discussed by other Members today and in previous debates, that will potentially be created through controlling and measuring people’s contributions to public policy debate in a Westminster election year. They could extend to the very conduct of the Assembly itself and of politics at other levels. I will explain that because Ministers will say, “No, this is clearly in the main about Westminster elections.” The fact is, it is not always about Westminster elections. Some aspects of clauses 26, 27 and 28, for example, apply to Northern Ireland Assembly elections while others do not, but that creates uncertainty and confusion, and it means that at any time any campaign group—a charity, a service delivery group, a body promoting policies, or a conglomerate of different interests and groups hopefully on a truly cross-community basis—might be stuck with having to check their legal position, what resources they might bring to any campaign, and what may or may not be counted against them. We do not want that sort of chill factor to change the nature of political exchange in Northern Ireland.

We must also recognise that, even in a separately designated Westminster election year, politics still continues at other levels—local government or the Assembly. During the relevant period leading up to a Westminster election there could be very live issues that need to be debated in the context of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They could be live issues on which many groups would want to campaign—put forward their views, support a private Member’s Bill, object to Bills being put forward by Departments or rallying behind amendments proposed or championed by one of the Assembly Committees. However, some of those issues on which the Assembly might be deliberating might also be issues on which the parties and candidates lining up for the Westminster elections have different and distinct views. Will we then have a situation whereby the Electoral Commission is asked to judge whether a campaign around a proposed piece of legislation is really a non-party campaign with the aim of procuring support for parties or candidates in the Westminster election pretending to be a campaign around legislation in the Assembly? Do we really put it past parties or individuals in the Assembly to come up

9 Oct 2013 : Column 189

with proposals for Assembly legislation, which may be specious or speculative on one level, or worthy and worthwhile on another? Such proposals should be able to be the subject of a campaign, for or against, and people should be able to make legitimate points. However, we will be told that it is okay to do that in Northern Ireland, even though it has a direct impact on people standing in a Westminster election, because it is happening under the Assembly, but that would not be the case in another context.

In an earlier intervention, I gave the example that the Northern Ireland Assembly may or may not be asked to legislate on same-sex marriage. The Assembly has expressed a view and voted, with a majority of the Members voting in favour of same-sex marriage. However, that was on the basis that it did not have cross-community support and that therefore the vote would not stand. It was a statement of opinion or wish; it was not a legislative proposal. Should a legislative proposal come before the Assembly in the same year as a Westminster election, will people argue that that is really a way of groups advertising where they stand on how Northern Ireland Members—possible candidates in that Westminster election—voted on same-sex marriage when that Bill was being considered by the House of Commons?

If the Government are serious that the point of this Bill is to make sure that non-party campaigning cannot be done in a way that is prejudicial to people or parties in Westminster elections, they really have not come up with an answer to that. The proposals need to give further consideration to how any valid issues and concerns are addressed without giving rise to other serious problems.

All Members of this House rightly expressed support for the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) when she found herself, her home and her offices subjected to untoward threat and violence, with gross intimidation targeted at her and her party. Let us recall that the background to that was the issuing of leaflets by a political party pointing out the role of the Alliance party, my party and Sinn Fein in a vote in Belfast city council. The Democratic Unionist party’s agenda—I am sorry that nobody from the DUP is in the Chamber—clearly had nothing to do with the whether the flag was flying over Belfast city hall; it very much related to the DUP trying to undermine the position of the hon. Member for Belfast East, with a view to maximising its opportunity to take back that seat in the future.

If we can see that politics in a local council chamber in Northern Ireland can be used with an eye to future Westminster elections, we certainly cannot rule out the possibility that people might use politics or proposals within the Assembly in the same way. That unfortunate propensity for some political parties in Northern Ireland to fall back into negative stereotyping politics and rallying to the old binary polarities in Northern Ireland is all the more reason to make sure that civil society is confident and comfortable in the space it has been taking increasingly.

When we were negotiating the Good Friday agreement and we had difficulties with even getting talks started, the role of civil society at so many levels, in canvassing support for the possibility of progress, change and agreement, was important, just as it has been in building on the agreement. Indeed, we would have made far more progress on many areas if civil society had been in

9 Oct 2013 : Column 190

greater command of the agenda and fewer things were vetoable by individual parties, whether on the Bill of Rights or other things.

Let us examine some areas where we have not made progress in Northern Ireland but where we could build fully on the spirit of the agreement. One thing we notice is that a number of the commissions that have been in place to deal with the vexed problems that the political process could not discharge, such as the Parades Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, also find themselves, from time to time, accused of having a particular slant or bias. Despite the difficulties they face and the nuances of the issues they are managing, they are able to cope with those accusations and tensions, and to manage them on the basis of their mandate and of their proven balance in their other work. However, there is a serious danger that we could inadvertently add the Electoral Commission to the list of commissions that get embroiled in the particular contentions of Northern Ireland politics.

If the Electoral Commission has a role whereby it has to arbitrate and adjudicate on whether campaigns were injurious to a particular candidate in a given constituency or to a party across the region, or on whether they had the effect of enhancing one, it will find itself resented, and not just for those issues where it does intervene and make a judgment; it will find itself accused on issues where it does not intervene and make a judgment. It will be put in an absolutely impossible position in Northern Ireland. It will be sucked into a quicksand of “whatabouttery” and will have to observe a completely contrived symmetry, whereby if it deals with an issue relating to one campaign, it will have to be seen to be dealing with another contrived issue relating to some other campaign. If it does not do so, it will find itself accused of being on one side or other of the old arguments that we are trying to move beyond in Northern Ireland. I ask the House to support new clause 2, not because it solves that problem completely, but because it begins to recognise that that problem and those implications will arise. It will then force us into doing a bigger job of work, engaging with the Assembly and others.

I noted in an earlier exchange that one hon. Member referred to the Royal British Legion and the work on the military covenant, which he said all parties support. All parties in Great Britain do indeed support it and all parties in Northern Ireland have supported the RBL’s work. As I understand it, all parties in Northern Ireland, whether or not their individual members wear the poppy, subscribe to the campaign and the collection. Indeed, mayors of all parties, including Sinn Fein, have always launched the poppy campaign, so there has been that broad support. Is there universal support on the military covenant? No, there is not. Even the recent inquiry by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs showed that there was not agreement on what the military covenant would or would not, and should or should not, mean in Northern Ireland. That is the case for obvious reasons. When that earlier exchange was taking place, I sensed that the Deputy Leader of the House was planning to say that the fact that there was consensus and that all parties agree on the military covenant proved that the RBL’s campaign would not be caught by this legislation. However, it could be caught in Northern Ireland, because not all parties would subscribe to it in the same way, for their particular reasons.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 191

During campaigns in Northern Ireland where people are asking parties to say what they are going to do in Parliament, some parties campaign not to take their seats and some campaign to take their seats. That, in itself, creates a differential in Northern Ireland that does not exist anywhere else and could give rise to people saying, “We are supporting you because you are going to vote a particular way. We would not want to commend candidates who are not going to vote that way or take a stand on that sort of issue.” So we face added, particular difficulties in the context of Northern Ireland and the Government have simply not thought about them. I do not believe that even the parties in Northern Ireland have fully thought about them enough or that the Assembly has done so, perhaps because people are distracted by other issues.

If we do get deliverance out of things such as the Haass process and dealing with some of the other vexed issues, it would be an awful tragedy, having climbed that ladder, to then be pushed down a snake because of Westminster legislation that has not been properly thought through.

2.30 pm

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): It is good to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I am still hoping to get to Derry/Londonderry, the great city of culture for 2013, before the end of the year, but I am conscious that time is running out—[Interruption.] My speech will not take us to that date.

I want to make a couple of comments on these new clauses and amendments on timetabling and scope. I thank the Leader of the House for the letter that he sent and the amendments that the Government have tabled, which we shall reach later, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for his conversations, briefings and help in dealing with the Bill.

I assume that those on the Front Bench accept the spirit of amendment 65, although I do not assume that they will accept the amendment itself. It states that the Bill will not be enacted until all Committees of both Houses that are reporting on it have reported. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights—our Chair is also in the Chamber now—and it is common knowledge that we are considering the Bill. It is no secret that we hope to complete our work this month—we are doing it as quickly as we can—and to publish our report. The amendment is effectively asking the Government to take into account the deliberations of the cross-party Committee of both Houses and any other Committees before there is further detailed consideration of the Bill. I hope that there will be general acceptance of that.

I am not competent to speak about the details of new clause 2, but the Electoral Commission, to which we are grateful for its up-to-date briefing, has an open mind on it—at least, that is how it expresses it. The commission’s summary states that

“we expect that as far as possible Parliament will wish the Government to set out a thorough assessment of the likely impact of the provisions in Part 2 before the Bill is passed.”

I assume that the Government will do that and that the new clause seeks to deal with elections and campaigns other than the general election in Northern Ireland,

9 Oct 2013 : Column 192

Scotland and Wales. They are clearly relevant and we must consider them. My reading is clear: the Electoral Commission has not come down specifically in favour of or against the new clause in its briefing, although it has a clear view on other parts of the work before us today.

Wayne David: The right hon. Gentleman has accurately referred to the Electoral Commission’s commentary on new clause 2. The commission expresses the hope that the Government will set out a thorough assessment of the likely impact of the provisions, but as things stand, I am not aware of a firm commitment that the Government intend to do that.

Simon Hughes: That is why my assumption is that, although the Government might not respond directly by accepting the new clause, colleagues on the Front Bench will be able to answer the point made by the Electoral Commission, as there is obviously regular engagement between the Government and the commission. I hope those on the Front Bench will be positive about that point.

It is clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said earlier, that new clause 3 is not supported by the Electoral Commission. For want of other guidance, the Electoral Commission is always the best place to go to for a steer on the appropriate response, so I will not support the new clause.

My concern is that the Government should give time for Committees to report and for their deliberations to be considered and that, when the Electoral Commission expressly supports the Government’s proposals or proposed changes, the Government should be responsive.

Let me make a general point about the timetable. Obviously, the Bill took a huge amount of time in gestation and was then born very quickly—it shot out of the cot, or cradle, or wherever it had been kept—

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Andrew Lansley): That is often the way.

Simon Hughes: Yes, it is. The Bill was held in dock for a long time, but then somebody suddenly pressed the button and out it came. I do not think that anyone can complain that there has not been enough time in Committee or on Report; the complaint is that, as people know, we have not had the pre-legislative scrutiny that all Bills ideally should have. I know that the Leader of the House would accept that in principle.

We are in the second day on Report and we must have Third Reading, so we cannot now do all the revision and careful scrutiny that we would like to. That is probably true across the House. I am in favour of many of the Bill’s principles, so I do not have issues with some of the changes, but I hope that the Government will ensure that there is the time for that careful consideration and to listen to the voices before the Bill goes from this place to the House of Lords.

A commission has been set up, prompted by the voluntary sector, to be chaired by the Lord Bishop of Oxford, who is a Member of the House of Lords. It is considering these issues and will have a valuable contribution to make, provided it can report soon. I hope, too, that the Government will take seriously what it says.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 193

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman outline to the House how he thinks we can have further scrutiny of the Bill between the completion of business today and its progress to the House of Lords?

Simon Hughes: I made it clear that because this is the second and last day on Report and because we must have Third Reading, at this round of our deliberations we cannot do that in this building. Other work is taking place, however, not least in the Joint Committee on which I serve with colleagues from both Houses. We want to report in time for our work to be taken into account up the corridor in the House of Lords. Any amendments made in the Lords must still come back to this place, so I ask the Government to give time for the Committees that are working and have not reported to report and for those reports to be considered by the Government in good time to be seen by colleagues in the Lords and for the independent commission to report and to be seen, provided it gets on with the job quickly.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): Before I tackle new clauses 2 and 3 and the amendments, I welcome the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) to his place. I am not sure whether this is his last appearance in his current position—

Wayne David: Probably.

Tom Brake: Okay. I also welcome the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is making his first appearance in this capacity, as well as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who is staying put, I believe. This is also perhaps the first opportunity for me to welcome the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). He might be familiar with a quote from Christopher Hitchens:

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

He might have found during the debate that a lot is being asserted by Opposition Members without evidence. Clearly, the Government dismiss that with evidence rather than without it.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly made an enticing offer that we should pause the Bill, but I am afraid that I shall have to decline. I can only imagine the hue and cry from Labour were we to do nothing with the Bill only for someone to spend just under £1 million in one constituency or another during the run-up to the next general election to try to unseat a candidate they did not want to support. Would the hon. Gentleman then accuse us of failing to take action?

We have also heard some examples of Opposition Members’ belief that the Bill would have stopped updated health and safety provisions in relation to mining disasters. We heard from the Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that the Labour party would not have existed had the Bill been in place. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will become familiar with such arguments, which are completely outwith anything the Government propose in the Bill.

New clause 2 would require the Government and the Electoral Commission to undertake a post-legislative assessment of the impact of part 2 on third parties

9 Oct 2013 : Column 194

campaigning in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly and on third parties campaigning in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland constituencies for the UK parliamentary elections. That assessment would also have to consider the impact of part 2 on referendums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Part 2 would not come into force until a report of the assessment was laid before Parliament.

Only some of the part 2 provisions apply to third parties campaigning in elections to the devolved Administrations. At the time of the Bill’s introduction, the Government published an impact assessment to accompany it. The analysis has been thorough. To require the Government to undertake another analysis at a later date serves no purpose. In addition, the Electoral Commission already has a statutory function of reporting on the conduct of elections under current legislation. As part of that function, the Government would expect the commission to examine the impact of changes to rules on third-party campaigning at future elections. It would not be for the Government to duplicate the role of the independent regulator.

The main thrust of the remarks of the hon. Member for Caerphilly was about the potential risk of impact on the Scottish referendum. I want to make it clear that the Bill does not have an impact on referendums. Although the regulated period for the 2015 UK parliamentary election will overlap with the regulated period for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, spending in the Scottish referendum is a matter for the Scottish Parliament. Such expenditure could not, in our view, reasonably be regarded as intended to promote electoral success and would therefore not be controlled under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or regulated by the Bill. We believe that expenditure incurred during the regulated period for the referendum would be treated as referendum expenditure and not controlled expenditure for the election, unless there was a clear or direct link to a campaign in the election. We do not think that the commencement of part 2 should be delayed as the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr Allen: Up until yesterday, the Electoral Commission, which is charged by Government and the House in these matters, was still stating:

“We await confirmation of the Government’s view of the impact of the Bill on the referendum on independence for Scotland.”

So even yesterday, the Electoral Commission was unclear. The Minister is stating unequivocally that there will be no impact whatsoever on the contending parties—those that support voting yes, voting no or whatever—and there will be no impact whatsoever on the independence campaign by any of the players or third parties. This was not made clear to the Electoral Commission even yesterday, when the question arose.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which gives me an opportunity to restate the fact that the Bill has no impact on the Scottish referendum. The Electoral Commission wanted that clarified, and I have today very publicly done so. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had clarified that point in discussions with the Electoral Commission yesterday.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 195

Wayne David: Surely, the comment from the Deputy Leader of the House depends on clearly differentiating expenditure for election campaigning and referendum campaigning. We might find that sums of money are used for identical purposes at the same time. Common sense dictates that that is bound to lead to complications.

Tom Brake: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House in 1999 when PPERA was being debated and when it became an Act in 2000. That Act seeks to address that sort of issue. Our position is clear. I do not think that I need to restate it a third time, but I will: the Scottish referendum is not affected in any way by what we are debating here.

I shall move on to new clause 3, which would require the Electoral Commission to identify the Bill’s impact on both its own resources and on third parties. It would require the commission to lay a full cost projection before Parliament within one month of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. As I have just explained, the Government have already published an impact assessment to accompany the Bill. That assessment considers the impact on both the Electoral Commission and third parties. The assessment estimates that the lowered registration thresholds will bring 30 more third parties into the regime administered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—that is, third parties that campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate.

The assessment also estimates that only 10% of third-party organisations will see their expenditure affected by the reduced spending limits proposed in the Bill. At the 2010 UK general election, only two organisations even passed the lower limits proposed in the Bill. There will be a relatively small administrative cost to each registered third party as a result of the new reporting provisions that the Bill introduces. The impact assessment considers that the enforcement cost to the Electoral Commission will rise by a maximum of £390,000 annually. Let me say again that this analysis is comprehensive, and I see no need to repeat it after the Bill has received Royal Assent.

The Electoral Commission states in its parliamentary briefing:

“We do not support this amendment since there are more appropriate vehicles for consideration of these issues.”

The Electoral Commission is already required, under PPERA, to submit an estimate of its income and expenditure to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission each financial year. That estimate must indicate what the commission considers its requirements for resources for the next five-year period might be. There is therefore already provision in legislation for the commission to provide the information that the amendment seeks.

2.45 pm

Wayne David: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very generous. Before we move on from new clauses 2 and 3, may I ask whether he is categorically rejecting the Electoral Commission’s request for a thorough assessment of the likely impact of these provisions? Let us be clear that he is rejecting that Electoral Commission advice.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 196

Tom Brake: I am afraid I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by restating what I have said. We have already carried out an impact assessment and the Electoral Commission will no doubt want to conduct one on the impact of third parties.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) referred to amendment 65. I can assure him that the Government will listen to the Committee’s views, although we are working to a timetable that requires the Bill to be in place to address the next general election, and the regulated period for that starts 12 months before. We will of course listen to the Committee’s views and to the views expressed by others, including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Electoral Commission or anyone else who has views on the subject. We are not closed to other views.

Angela Smith: Is the Deputy Leader of the House therefore saying that he and the Government will listen to the views of the Committee and the independent commission before the Bill goes to the House of Lords?

Tom Brake: No. The hon. Lady paraphrases me incorrectly. That is not what I said. I said that we would listen to the views, but at the same time we are working to a timetable. The sooner those views are available the better, and the sooner there will be an opportunity for them to be considered.

Amendment 65 would amend clause 41 in order to prevent part 2 from coming into force until a Committee of either House has undertaken an inquiry and published a report on the impact of the Bill. As drafted, however, the amendment does not in fact require an inquiry to take place—it merely assumes that one might. The amendment’s effectiveness is therefore limited, as in the absence of any inquiry part 2 will come into force regardless. I once more reiterate my earlier comments: the Government have already published an impact assessment to accompany the Bill. That assessment considers the impact on both the Electoral Commission and third parties, and is thorough.

Amendments 66, 4, 5 and 6, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) spoke, would amend clause 41 so that the entire provisions of part 2 came into force on Royal Assent, subject of course to the transitional provision in clause 42. It is more appropriate—this is the response to the query he raised—for certain provisions, namely clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35, to be commenced at a date appointed by the Secretary of State, rather than on Royal Assent. That is normal practice. The purpose is to allow preparations to take place and the people involved to be brought up to speed on those aspects of the law, rather than forcing adoption on the day of Royal Assent.

Mr Chope: The right hon. Gentleman says that it is important that people should be able to get up to speed, but many of the Bill’s provisions will take effect on the day of Royal Assent. How is it that people will be able to get up to speed on those provisions in time but not on this provision?

Tom Brake: Clearly the Government have made an assessment of the areas where it is possible to prepare in time for Royal Assent and those where it is not, which I think is reflected in the clauses to which I have just referred.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 197

Clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35 do not have a direct effect on the regulated period of the other provisions in part 2, which are affected by the transitional provision. It is more appropriate for clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35 to be subject to commencement by order in the usual way. Amendment 67 takes the opposite approach and appears to intend that, subject to amendment 66, which we have just discussed, all of part 2 but clauses 30, 31, 34 and 35 would not come into force on Royal Assent. However, its effect would in fact be the contrary. In the absence of any considered commencement and transitional provision, all of part 2 would come into force on Royal Assent. I suspect that that is not the intention, but it would be the effect.

In relation to amendments 10, 11 and 12, tabled and spoken to by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, it appears that he is seeking to delay the Act’s measures, rather than to have them swiftly implemented. He has already tabled amendments 4, 5 and 6 to clause 41 so that all of part 2 would come into force at the same time and then become subject to the transitional provisions of clause 42. I know that he was seeking to bring clarity, but the effect of amendments 10, 11 and 12, together with amendments 4, 5 and 6, is that the measures in part 2 would not come into effect before the 2015 general election. Amendments 10, 11 and 12 would remove the transitional provision of clause 42 altogether, with the result that the part 2 provisions would come into effect only at the commencement of the next regulated period after Royal Assent, which is unlikely to be the regulated period for the 2015 general election. The Government are committed to enhancing the transparency of spending by third parties, and that includes enacting the measures within part 2 in time for the regulated period of the 2015 general election. I therefore do not consider it appropriate to delay their implementation until after the 2015 general election.

Mr Chope: Going back to the point about people needing to be given time to get up to speed, if clause 30 was brought in immediately on Royal Assent, it would state:

“The Secretary of State may by order vary any percentage for the time being specified”.

What is the point of not bringing that into effect on Royal Assent, because the only impact of doing so would be to give the Secretary of State the power to bring it in? Does the Secretary of State need to be brought up to speed?

Tom Brake: That is a challenging question, so I might need to get back to my hon. Friend shortly on it. I think that the whole issue of percentages is one that might require a response from others and measures to address it. I have heard his query and will ensure that he gets a specific response.

Mark Durkan rose—

Tom Brake: I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and the hon. Member for Caerphilly not to press their amendments.

Mr Allen: I will make a small contribution in order to make a request on behalf of those of us who have considerable respect for the opinions expressed about

9 Oct 2013 : Column 198

Northern Ireland and concern about the impact of the Bill there. I think that the Deputy Leader of the House inadvertently passed over that without responding to the pertinent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). This takes the whole question of people intervening when there are questions of free speech to a rather more delicate and, indeed, darker level. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House has some response to the points made by my hon. Friend.

Tom Brake: I will respond to those points, subject to your approval, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I think that would be helpful.

Tom Brake: I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will agree that I tend to take many interventions and make a point of trying to respond to them. To respond to his point on the impact in Northern Ireland, clearly the new definition of controlled expenditure will have an impact on the devolved Administrations. The lowered registration thresholds will also have an impact in Northern Ireland. With regard to Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the amount that a third-party organisation can spend campaigning against a named candidate is being increased from £500 to £700 through this legislation.

Mark Durkan: Will the Deputy Leader of the House clarify something? If there is a non-party campaign on a legislative proposal in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh National Assembly in the same calendar year as a Westminster election, will that count as being within the regulated period, and will that campaign about devolved legislative proposals count as part of controlled expenditure?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific and detailed question. The difficulty in answering it is the extent to which any local community campaign organised at any level would have an impact on Westminster elections. Rather than giving him an off-the-cuff response, I will ensure that he gets a detailed reply. On that point, I will conclude my remarks.

Wayne David: It is not the Opposition’s intention to press new clauses 2 and 3, on the basis of the commitment the Deputy Leader of the House has given to have further discussions, particularly in the House of Lords, which we hope will lead to substantive change. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26

Meaning of “controlled expenditure”

Tom Brake: I beg to move amendment 32, page 12, leave out lines 31 to 33 and insert ‘“where—

(a) the expenses fall within Part 1 of Schedule 8A, and

‘(b) the expenditure can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election for—

(i) one or more particular registered parties,

9 Oct 2013 : Column 199

(ii) one or more registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties, or

(iii) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates.”’.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 33

Amendment 101, page 12, leave out line 37 to line 9 on page 13 and insert—

‘“For election purposes” means activity which can reasonably be regarded as intended for the primary purpose of—

(a) promoting or procuring electoral success at any relevant election for—(i) one or more particular registered parties;(ii) one or more registered parties who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of such parties; or(iii) candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies or who otherwise fall within a particular category of candidates.’.

Government amendments 34 to 45.

Tom Brake: Clause26 sets out the test that third parties need to meet in order to incur controlled expenditure. There has been extensive comment from a number of bodies, such as charities and voluntary organisations, that the Bill will capture their ordinary campaigning activities. That was not the case. However, the Government gave an undertaking in Committee to revert to a test based on the wording of the existing legislation, which provides that controlled expenditure is only that

“which can reasonably be regarded as intended”

to promote or procure the electoral success of parties or candidates. The Government’s amendments meet that commitment.

I would like to thank the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Electoral Commission and others for the constructive discussion we have had in relation to the amendments. I accept that there is not total agreement on our amendments, but I know that the NCVO, for instance, is at least partially happy about the proposals we have come forward with.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): The Deputy Leader of the House will have seen the letter today from Sir Stuart Etherington of NCVO, which states:

“Simply returning to the previous form of words does not solve the problem… In our view, the assurances given by ministers on the floor of the house that charities campaigning on policy issues will not be affected have not been met”.

Tom Brake: I am aware of that, but I am equally aware that Karl Wilding, the NCVO’s director of public policy, said yesterday that it is partially happy about what the Government have done and that we have made some progress. [Interruption.] Yes, I accept that it is partially happy, but it is worth remembering that one of the NCVO’s other concerns, as highlighted in its letter, is the PPERA legislation, which goes back to 2000,

9 Oct 2013 : Column 200

under the previous Government. It may be pertinent to remind the Labour party what the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), said:

“In terms of the day-to-day non-campaigning part of their activity, third parties will not be caught by the provision but, if they seek to influence an election, which is the expenditure in question, our proposed arrangements are reasonable.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 41.]

That is very much our view. We are in the same place.

I know that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) is new to his position, but I am sure that he will have been told in his briefing that, in response to a request from one of my right hon. Friends, the Government undertook to ensure that we reverted to the definition applied in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is precisely what we have done.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): If the statutory arrangements put in place by the previous Government in the 2000 Act were satisfactory, why does the Minister wish to change them now? Can he list even one example of behaviour by third parties that has led him to believe that new legislation is needed?

3 pm

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman may not have understood. The fact is that we had no intention of changing the test of what constituted promoting or procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. By reverting to the PPERA legislation, we have put charities and other organisations back to where they were in the run-up to the 2005 and 2010 general elections in relation to what constituted procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. I accept that in other ways we have changed things in response to the Electoral Commission’s request about the definition of controlled expenditure.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): In his letter, Sir Stuart Etherington says:

“A health charity could publish a leaflet highlighting the dangers of smoking. If smoking legislation became a party political issue in an election this activity could be deemed to have the effect of supporting a party’s campaign”.

Has he simply misunderstood the legislation?

Tom Brake: If an anti-smoking organisation ran a campaign subsequently adopted by a party, that would not count as controlled expenditure unless that organisation subsequently said, “Oh, by the way, party X is supporting our campaign, so vote for party X.” The mere fact of running a campaign supported by a party would not incur controlled expenditure. That is clear.

Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD): There is another point. Back in 2010, the Royal British Legion ran a campaign called “Time to do your bit”. There seems to be an illusion that that would not be possible under the new legislation. Can the Minister assure me that such a campaign would be possible?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. That campaign was clearly run on the basis of PPERA, which is what we are reverting to. If the Royal British Legion said, “We are endorsing a candidate who has

9 Oct 2013 : Column 201

supported our position and encourage people to vote for them,” it would be caught.


Of course it would be caught, because it would be procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. If it intended doing such a thing in the 2015 general election, it could choose to register as a non-party organisation and spend £390,000 across the country running that campaign. However, I question whether the Royal British Legion would want to be in such a position.

Stephen Twigg rose—

Tom Brake: I will give way once more, then I need to make progress.

Stephen Twigg: Will the Minister respond to the specific point raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the Royal British Legion campaign? In that case, what might apply in England, Wales and Scotland would for obvious reasons not apply in Northern Ireland.

Tom Brake: What applies in Northern Ireland could equally apply in Scotland, England or Wales. It would all depend on whether the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland was in some way or other promoting or procuring the electoral success of a party or candidate. If it was doing that, it could be caught. If, for instance, it was promoting or procuring the electoral support of a number of candidates because a number had endorsed its message, that would also be deducted from its spend as a third-party organisation if it was promoting the electoral success of a party or candidate. As I said, I doubt whether the Royal British Legion would want to be in the position of promoting a party or candidate. That is not what it does.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Is not the point that all the organisations that we describe in these case studies do not seek the support of one political party, but set out to win a consensus across the political divide for their cause? Therefore they should have nothing to fear.

Tom Brake: That is absolutely the point. I would make a stronger point. In all the conversations that I have had with charities, they have gone to great extremes to underline the fact that as charities they do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate because the Charity Commission would stop their charitable status if they were seen to be campaigning politically. They do not do that, so the argument that the threshold or total national cap is being dropped or will in some way inhibit charities is not true.

Charities do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate so the threshold would not apply and they would not need to keep details of controlled expenditure. [Interruption.] I find it hard to believe that the question is still being asked. Charities are not affected by the Bill because they do not campaign for electoral success.

The Government amendments meet the commitment we made in Committee, and I thank the organisations that we have worked with on the issue. We believe our amendments provide clarification and reassurance to charities, voluntary organisations, community groups and other campaigners that their normal engagement with public policy will not be subject to regulation as

9 Oct 2013 : Column 202

long as it cannot reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate.

By reverting to the existing terminology, amendment 32 achieves the aim of making the test for controlled expenditure one that has been in existence since 2000. I have seen continued comment from some organisations that the rules will prevent charities and other campaigners from making their views known. Those objections are based not on what is being done in the Bill but on the rules already set out in PPERA. Those rules have been in place for a number of elections, including the 2005 and 2010 general elections. I am sure that everyone on both sides would agree that, during those elections, charities and other campaigners were not prevented from engaging and influencing public policy.

Stephen Twigg: Why change it then?

Tom Brake: I will come to that. Others in the House will know from experience that campaigners make their views abundantly clear at election time, as they should.

In answer to the sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I should say that we are changing the controlled expenditure provisions because the Electoral Commission asked us to bring in line the controlled expenditure that applies to third- party organisations to that which applies to political parties. Do the Opposition believe that the current ability for an individual or group of organisations to spend a large amount in one parliamentary constituency is acceptable, or do they think that it should be controlled, as we do?

Mr Harris: The Minister made a good point in stating that the Royal British Legion would not want to be associated with any particular party or candidate. That charity is a good example of one that tries to generate consensus across the electorate.

May I ask the Minister about a different kind of campaign? The RSPCA has a well known objection to the badger cull. It is possible that, in the run-up to the 2015 election, it will run information campaigns opposing the cull. They would not be national campaigns, because they would focus on areas where the cull was happening. Such campaigns would not be for or against any particular party, but we all know what conclusion voters would draw. Would such a campaign be included in this legislation?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to judge whether that campaign would fall foul of the rules without sufficient detail about what it might constitute. It is not my position to do that; it is for the Electoral Commission. If the RSPCA ran a campaign in a number of constituencies saying, “We are against the badger cull”, and subsequently a candidate announced that they were also against it, provided that the RSPCA did not say, “Candidate A is backing our campaign—vote for candidate A”, it would be able to proceed with campaigning. [Interruption.] Someone is saying that I am not able to give a detailed answer. In fact, I am sure that in the run-up to the 2005 and 2010 elections the Electoral Commission had discussions with a number of different organisations to clarify where the boundaries lie on these issues, and it is right for it to do so.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 203

Angela Smith: The Electoral Commission has made clear its view that it should enforce the rules already laid down by Parliament, not determine the rules. The Deputy Leader of the House said that it is up to the commission to decide what is permissible and what is not; surely that is not right.

Tom Brake: The Electoral Commission has produced guidance that the different organisations have to work within, and it will investigate any issues that are believed to have arisen. It clearly has an important role. The Government are not in a position to set out in legislation each and every possible type of campaign that the commission might have to account for. That is why it produces guidance and why—we will support it in this—it will sit down with campaigning organisations to ensure that that guidance is available for them so that they can work effectively.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I recognise that some progress has been made on the precise wording of the clause, but there remains a huge amount of uncertainty among the charities and, indeed, the Electoral Commission as to how this will work. Does the Minister recognise that that makes it very difficult for people not only to understand it but to support it?

Tom Brake: I do. It would be foolish of me to say that some charities are not concerned about this issue. Clearly they are, and the NCVO and others have expressed their concerns. Our role is to restate as many times as is required that, as my hon. Friend will know, charities overwhelmingly do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidate and therefore are not caught by our proposals. We can restate that in as much contact with charities as possible. Of course, as I think she would agree, other organisations that are clearly campaigning for the electoral success of a party or candidate should be caught by this legislation, as they are caught by the current legislation. Nothing that we are proposing changes that, apart from the things that I mentioned earlier as regards, for instance, the level of controlled expenditure that we allow.

Dr Francis: The theme of the Deputy Leader of the House’s remarks is that there is considerable misunderstanding out there among voluntary organisations. Would it not be reasonable and decent to provide more time for his proposals to be better understood?

Tom Brake: What is reasonable and appropriate is for us, as a Government, to set out very clearly our intention, which is not to stop charities campaigning on policy issues, and to restate that intention as often as is required so that charities can see what it is. That is what we will carry on doing, and I am confident that we will get the message across.

Government amendment 33 removes the additional test that expenditure might otherwise enhance the standing of a party or candidate. I hope that charities and campaigning organisations will see this as a positive step in providing them with greater clarity. Although we do not consider it to be a significant change, we recognise that this additional limb of the existing PPERA test was perhaps less clear and might have suggested a more remote connection from promoting electoral success,

9 Oct 2013 : Column 204

and we want to be clear that that is not our aim. This should provide further clarity and reassurance to campaigners as to the test they have to meet in order to incur controlled expenditure.

3.15 pm

The Government believe that these amendments, together with the existing prohibition under charity law of party political activity by charities, should give charities the reassurance they have sought. Only activities that can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success of a party or candidates will be subject to the provisions in the Bill.

The Government amendments to schedule 3 provide further reassurance and clarity. As we discussed in Committee, schedule 3 takes forward a recommendation from the independent Electoral Commission to align the activities by which third parties incur controlled expenditure with the situation for political parties. I am assuming that Labour Members do not object in principle to our doing what the Electoral Commission has asked us to do in that respect. The amendments replace the separate listings for advertising, unsolicited material and manifestos or policy documents with a reversion to the existing description of election “materials”. This is language already used in PPERA and with which third parties and the Electoral Commission are already familiar. The Electoral Commission already has guidance on this area, and we recognise the benefit of that familiarity. In other words, in relation to that particular area of activity charities will have the certainty that they acquired from the elections fought in 2005 and 2010.

We are making it clear that only public rallies and events are regulated, in line with the existing “publicity” test for election material set out in existing commission guidance. The effect of this is that events to which the public are not admitted, such as meetings or events for an organisation’s members or committed supporters, will not be regulated. There is also an explicit exception for annual conferences—the TUC was very keen on that—as is the case for political parties. That should reinforce the message that we are not seeking to regulate the ordinary activities of charities, non-governmental organisations or other campaigners. Similarly, we are making it clear that canvassing or market research must involve the public at large, not just a third party’s members or supporters. We are also removing the limitation that only canvassing which “ascertains polling intentions” is captured by the Bill. That removes any potential ambiguity.

In relation to dealings with the media, the amendments mean that only press conferences and other organised media events will be regulated. Third-party campaigners who respond to ad hoc media questions on specific policy issues will not be covered by the Bill. If a third party organises a major media conference to which it invites the press, TV and radio, and during the course of that conference says, “Vote for party X”, then that will be caught, and quite right too.

Let me emphasise that in all these cases only activities that can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate will be subject to regulation. I suspect that all Members will be thoroughly sick of that phrase by the end of today, but I will not stop repeating it.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 205

Simon Hughes: My right hon. Friend has set out all the things that should be of reassurance, which is very helpful to those in the House and, I hope, outside it. Will he repeat the assurance that he and the Leader of the House are willing, if necessary, to have a further conversation with Stuart Etherington or the commission to make sure, face to face, that what has been said is understood? A great deal of heat and noise has been generated, and at the beginning there might have been some justification for that. The Government are trying to deal with it, but it might be better dealt with by also having some further conversation to make sure that there is dialogue as opposed to just two separate statements in different places.

Tom Brake: I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the doors of the Leader of the House’s office and mine are permanently open to that sort of approach. In fact, the dialogue with the NCVO has been very active and constant, and I am keen to pursue that. The NCVO is, as I stated earlier, at least partially happy and has in the past said that the amendments significantly meet its concerns. There is common ground and we want to ensure that it is developed further.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Although the Deputy Leader of the House has said that this issue is clearly to do with candidates or parties, there is a slight problem with the wording of lines 1 to 4 on page 13, which note that “for election purposes” means

“for the purpose of or in connection with…candidates who hold (or do not hold) particular opinions or who advocate (or do not advocate) particular policies”.

Although this is a valuable Bill which has been widely misrepresented by 38 Degrees and others, I think that wording presents a potential risk to charities such as the one for which I used to work and campaign, in that it might restrict what they perceive to be their political activity.

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My issue with his concern is that that terminology is used in PPERA, which has been around for 13 years. One would therefore have expected such concerns to have emerged in the past 13 years, and seeing as they have not, I am reasonably confident that they will not emerge by 2015 either.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): I welcome the fact that the Government are in listening mode on these issues. Given that Government Members often accuse Labour Members of listening too much to trade unions, I was particularly interested to hear that the Deputy Leader of the House and the Department have been listening to the TUC with regard to the annual conference, so perhaps they are not exempt from lobbying by the unions. The issue of the annual conference is obviously one for the main political parties and some of the minor political parties plus the TUC. Is there a list of defined organisations for these annual conferences?

Tom Brake: I am not aware of a list of defined organisations. If hon. Members look at the list of third-party organisations that registered in 2010 and 2005 they might be able to draw some conclusions about which annual conferences I have in mind.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 206

As I have said, the Government believe that the amendments provide the clarity and reassurance that charities, voluntary organisations and the Electoral Commission have sought. We are aware that campaigners will want to understand how to comply with the provisions of the regulatory regime as amended by the Bill. Just as it has for previous elections, the independent regulator, the Electoral Commission, will develop and produce guidance to inform campaigners what expenditure it is likely to consider to be regulated or not regulated. The Government stand ready to support this work.

Amendment 101, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), seeks, along broadly similar lines to Government amendment 32, to revise the definition of “for election purposes” to be activity which can reasonably be regarded as promoting or procuring the success of a party or candidate. However, the amendment would also introduce a new primary purpose test, which the Government cannot support. Such a test would be likely to create greater regulatory uncertainty and an obvious avenue for avoidance activity that could fatally undermine these rules, which are supported in principle by the hon. Gentleman’s party.

The concerns of campaigners and the Electoral Commission on the introduction of the draft Bill was that the revised language was untested and caused uncertainty. Our purpose in reverting to the original PPERA test is to address those concerns by reintroducing a test with which the commission and campaigners are familiar, and on which the commission has existing guidance and experience. Introducing a new and untested primary purpose test would completely undermine those benefits. Rather than having the clear test of whether the expenditure can be reasonably regarded as intended to promote electoral success there would be two tests: can it be so regarded and is it also the primary purpose? The opportunity for uncertainty and legal challenge would only be increased by the following questions. What is the primary purpose of your campaign? Is it to promote the issue or to promote those who support your issue? That is an additional test which does nothing to provide the clarity that campaigners say they want.

Perhaps more damaging is the opportunity for avoidance. The primary purpose of an environmental organisation’s advertising campaign might be claimed to be to recruit new members and encourage donations, but it might also urge support for its preferred party. It may be said that the primary purpose is to protect animal welfare, but that may be done only by encouraging support for particular candidates. Those are activities that are and ought to be regulated. The primary purpose test would drive a coach and horses through the legislation. Groups carrying out these activities have previously undertaken campaigning as recognised third parties, which is perfectly appropriate: they can campaign without restrictions. Under the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, however, all could be potentially excluded from registration. The Government have responded to concerns from the Electoral Commission and other groups that the test for controlled expenditure needs to be clear. The amendment would introduce unwanted uncertainty for campaigners.

The amendment would also create a loophole in the law that third parties could use as an avenue for avoidance and that would undermine the regulatory regime. That is not just my or the Government’s view. The Electoral Commission has expressed concerns that the amendment

9 Oct 2013 : Column 207

would introduce a new subjective element test which could lead to significant regulatory difficulty. It has also stated that it does not support an exemption for charities from these rules. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment.

Stephen Twigg: May I first put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), have led on the Bill until now? I also welcome to his post the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), whom I will be shadowing in my new role.

I have heard very little today to change the view I held before the debate started that part 2 of the Bill is little more than a gag on charities and campaigners which, as hon. Members of all parties have said, both today and during the Bill’s earlier stages, will have a chilling effect on our national political debate. Earlier my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly reminded the House that the Bill underwent no pre-legislative scrutiny, and doesn’t it show? Given that it was published just before the summer recess, it is to the particular credit of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), that it was able to give the Bill a degree of scrutiny and table a number of constructive amendments in September and today. What we are left with from the Government is a half-baked set of proposals that pose a real danger of causing more harm than good. It is clear from the widespread concerns raised by charities and campaigning organisations that the lack of consultation and full scrutiny will limit their activities in practice—not in furthering political objectives, but simply in meeting their own charitable objectives.

I listened very carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House’s speeches on this and the previous group of amendments. Nothing that he said has changed the sense I had in preparing for today’s debate that part 2 is a solution in search of a problem.

As the Minister has rightly reminded us, the previous Labour Government introduced a cap on third-party spending, because we do not want to go down the American route of unaccountable organisations spending vast sums of money. We introduced the cap and have no objection to a tough cap on third-party spending. However, the big money in British politics is not third-party spending but spending by the political parties. At the last election, political parties spent 10 times more than third parties. If the Government were serious—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House heckles me from a sedentary position—I cannot quite hear what he is saying—but if he and the Conservative party in particular are serious, why do they not confront their reliance on a tiny number of wealthy donors from the City of London? There is nothing on that in the Bill, which is supposedly about getting the big money out of politics.

In the 2010 general election, political parties nationally spent £31 million; third-party campaigners spent £3 million. The biggest third-party expenditure was 4% of the £17 million spent by the Conservative party, which spent the

9 Oct 2013 : Column 208

same as all the other parties and all the third parties added together. Let us be clear: if the Government were serious about taking big money out of politics, they would consider ideas such as a reduction in the overall expenditure cap for political parties during election years and the introduction of a £5,000 cap on donations to political parties.

Tom Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Twigg: I will give way when I have made this point. This Government—[Interruption.] Do I get a permanent commentary on my speeches from the Leader of the House? I will get used to it. The Government have wasted an opportunity to tackle the real problem of big money in politics, and thereby ripped up a cross-party approach to party political funding.

3.30 pm

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman will know that no agreement has been reached on party funding, but the Liberal Democrats would clearly welcome one. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that the overall controlled expenditure cap is generous, but does the Labour party believe that it should be reduced or that it is set at the right level?

Stephen Twigg: I will come to that, but I am not aware of a problem. When an hon. Friend intervened, we did not get an answer from the Minister on whether there is an example in practice of the limit being too high. However, the Opposition do not have a closed mind on a proper cross-party, evidence-based debate on the matter. We do not believe the Government have done that.

John Pugh: One thing that puzzles me is that, during previous debates on electoral legislation in the House, Labour Backbenchers pleaded time and again with the then Labour Government to do something about expenditure in marginal constituencies—Ashcroft money. Some of them are no longer Members of the House. Why did the Labour Government not do anything?

Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman moves the debate to party political spending, which is not addressed in the Bill. I would happily work with him and his colleagues to address party political funding—I would be delighted to do so. Perhaps we can pursue that beyond today’s debate.

In Committee, the Minister, who has led for the Government today, promised

“to ensure that, on Report, the fundamental concern of charities over the confusion that they say the Government have introduced into the definition of election materials and election purposes will be addressed.”—[Official Report, 10 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 862.]

In reality, the Government amendments simply fail to fulfil his promise.

I refer the House to the legal opinion of Ros Baston, who has been working with a number of third sector organisations. Her legal opinion, which is one of a number of which the Minister will be aware, demonstrates why we need far more scrutiny and consideration of part 2. It states:

“Issues-based campaigning will continue to be covered by regulation. It appears that the government considers that removing

9 Oct 2013 : Column 209

the previous reference to ‘enhancing the standing’ of parties or candidates has a significant effect on the scope of what is covered…In my view, it does not…The natural meaning of ‘promote’ is to enhance the standing of, or make people think better of, something or someone…The natural construction, therefore, is that issues-based campaigning will be covered where it can be reasonably regarded as intended to encourage voters to look more favourably at candidates or parties who do or don’t support particular policies, as well as support for a specific party or candidates. This is primarily an objective test, and, in simple terms, looks at the likely effect of the activity.”

The Minister spoke of intent, but Ros Baston asks us to look at the likely effect of the activity. If an activity is likely to make people think better of parties or candidates who support something, it might be covered by the Bill, even if there are reasons for it such as awareness-raising—the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has made that point.

Ros Baston also states:

“Campaigns could fall within regulation if they…promote policies which, for whatever reason, are associated with one or more political parties or candidates”

and not others

“such as housing, welfare, a referendum on EU membership, wind farms or HS2”


“use MPs or candidates as active advocates of their cause”.

She continues:

“I do not consider it sustainable to argue that the campaign is not hoping that people or parties sympathetic to its cause are elected. Therefore, when it undertakes public awareness activity in the run-up to elections, it may well at some level intend to improve the chances of election for those who support their cause as well as to encourage others to join the campaign. There is, after all, no requirement in the Bill or the proposed amendments for the activity to be directly or obviously partisan, or for candidates to be named.”

The opinion goes on:

“The effect of the Bill remains that more charities and low spending campaigners will be subject to the enhanced and much more onerous restrictions. This is because the range of activities covered will increase”—

that is why it is not simply the same as the current legislation—

“and the thresholds for registration will decrease to just £5,000 in England and £2,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

We will discuss those thresholds under the next group. Furthermore, it states that the additional

“limit on spending in individual constituencies could mean that a single joint campaign on a specific issue in one area could result in further spending—local or national—being unlawful.”

Ros Baston’s final point is that the

“amendments make two changes which are of concern to campaigning organisations.”

Those relate to “market research and advertising” and to

“the definition of a ‘section of the public’, and the removal of the exclusion for material sent to ‘relevant supporters’”.

She states:

“It remains unclear as to whether the costs for research which is used in publications are included, and the government has not excluded staff costs (which are excluded for political parties). It also remains very probable that many political blogs will be covered notwithstanding the amendments. This could lead to a bizarre situation where political parties would not have to account for spending on certain types of market research, but that non-party campaigners would have to do so.”

9 Oct 2013 : Column 210

I do not want my entire speech to be made up of the opinion of Ros Baston, but I will give one final quotation because it is an interesting and forceful opinion:

“The drafting is so vague that campaigns will have to consider whether market research will be caught, regardless of whether the results are used to produce material available to the public or to target particular members of the public. Further, there is no requirement for the research to actually be used in practice at all.”

John Thurso: I listened to the whole of the hon. Gentleman’s point about the legal advice because I wanted to hear exactly where it was going. Leaving aside the issues that do not relate to this group of amendments, does he agree that the amendments will take the definition back to that in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, which is largely what I sought to do in Committee? The opinion of Ros Baston, which is full of conditionals such as coulds, mights and subjunctives, is a commentary on the wording of the 2000 Act. Should we not take into account what happened in 2005 and 2010, because that would show what is actually happening?

Stephen Twigg: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who attempted to improve this appalling Bill in Committee. However, as is made clear in the extensive quotation that I gave from Ros Baston’s opinion, she does not accept his point that the amendments simply restore the status quo because of the other changes that we will discuss later. We are merely scratching the surface of the changes that the Government are proposing.

Mr Lammy: Is not the point that if senior counsel extensively examines legislation and suggests that big gaps and vacuums exist within it, there will be litigation? For the third sector, that means that money that people have raised will go to lawyers and not towards the causes. That is serious. The purpose of the legislation must therefore be agreed across the House. If senior barristers are arguing against the proposals, it suggests that much litigation will follow.

Stephen Twigg: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that one risk is that the Bill will result in litigation and a shift in the use of moneys that charities would otherwise use to fulfil their charitable objectives. However, I think that the situation might be worse. As I have said, nothing that I have heard today has changed my view, which has been expressed by other Labour Front Benchers, that many organisations will be gagged because they will simply stop their campaigning work owing to their fears about the legislation. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House can shake their heads, but that is what organisations fear. That is deeply unhealthy for our democracy.

In conclusion, will the Government amendments mean that issue-based campaigning will be excluded from the regulations? From Ros Baston and other lawyers it is an unequivocal “no”. Secondly, and crucial to today’s discussion, will the amendments make any significant changes to the categories of activities to be covered by regulation? Ros Baston finds that the changes will not improve the clarity of proposed regulation, and indeed are likely to result in new uncertainties. In other words, instead of making progress, the Government amendments risk making a bad situation even worse.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 211

We have already heard about the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which the Deputy Leader of the House said was partially happy. I invite colleagues to read the letter, dated today, from Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO. He states:

“The Leader of the House suggests that at both the 2005 and 2010 election this wording has not prevented charities and voluntary organisations from campaigning and influencing policy…The Leader misses an important point. At previous elections the definition of controlled expenditure only applied to ‘election material’ (a much narrower category of activity) and expenditure thresholds were set at reasonable and workable levels. The Bill in its current form has significantly expanded the list of activities, and considerably lowered the threshold. The overall effect will therefore be that more charities and voluntary organisations will be subject to the enhanced and much more onerous rules.”

Tom Brake: I am afraid that the phrase I have repeated many times will get repeated again. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that charities and voluntary organisations do not campaign for the electoral success of a party or candidates, and therefore will not be caught by controlled expenditure?

Stephen Twigg: If that is the case, why are we having this conversation and debate? If there is no issue, why have the Government brought this Bill before the House, unless there is something about which they are concerned?

As others have said, there is a real risk of a chilling effect on our national debate given the timing and rush of this Bill. The Minister has acknowledged that the Government are in a rush to get the legislation in place for the 2015 general election, and inevitably people will think that they are trying to insulate their own record, MPs and candidates from legitimate democratic criticism. A number of high-profile campaigns could have been stymied by the legislation, such as that run by the National Union of Students in 2010 on tuition fees, the equal marriage campaign by Stonewall, or, as many Members have said, the Royal British Legion military covenant campaign.

At a time when trust in politics is at an all-time low, why are the Government bringing forward a measure that could restrict the one part of our politics that is doing a good job of engaging people? As well as having a chilling effect on debate, the Bill could also allow this Government, and future Governments, to escape scrutiny on their record and policies. To pluck an example of interest to the Liberal Democrats, might it stop the National Union of Students from holding them to account for how they voted on tuition fees, stop organisations such as the excellent Family and Childcare Trust from highlighting how the Government have driven up the cost of child care for working families, or stop the Royal College of Nursing from warning the public about the impact of Government health policies?

The Royal British Legion was mentioned earlier in the debate, and its circular makes an incredibly powerful case about the weakness of the Government amendment. The Royal British Legion remains

“unconvinced that legitimate awareness-raising activities won’t be captured by the revised definition”.

The Electoral Commission’s own briefing confirms those concerns:

“activity does not have to be ‘party political’ for its costs to be regulated.”

9 Oct 2013 : Column 212

Is it really the Government’s intention for the excellent work of organisations such as the Royal British Legion to be curtailed because of this hastily thrown together Bill? Surely it is not. Had they undertaken proper pre-legislative scrutiny—a case made powerfully by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—they would have discovered the problems that this clause and this part of the Bill will create.

3.45 pm

As has been said, the NCVO has been vocal on the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny. It points out that if the Government were serious about the national compact between government and the voluntary sector, it would have taken far greater care.

“The Compact states that where it is appropriate, and enables meaningful engagement,”—

Government should—

“conduct 12-week formal written consultations, with clear explanations and rationale for shorter time-frames or a more informal approach. The timing of the Bill is problematic, given that we are only 18 months out from an election. If enacted, the provisions of the Bill will come in from next May, leaving only a matter of weeks for organisations to adapt to the new restrictions.”

The NCVO states that it does not believe that this has been followed. Its legal advice, which is separate from the legal advice I have already quoted, is alarming. It finds that the amendments tabled by Ministers will not alleviate restrictions on organisations such as the Royal British Legion, contrary to what we have been told by the Deputy Leader of the House. According to the NCVO, many of its member organisations will have to consult the Electoral Commission before undertaking campaigning activity during an election period to ensure that they are not falling foul of new regulations. Surely that is not healthy for a thriving democracy. Having third sector organisations jump through hoops to meet their charitable aims cannot be what the Government intended.

Ministers propose that the Electoral Commission should police the conduct of charities during election periods. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, the Chair of the Select Committee, I attended the Electoral Commission’s briefing yesterday. I think it said that it had six staff to do the policing, but I shall take my hon. Friend’s figure of 12. If it has 12 members of staff and there are 650 constituencies, then each one is expected to monitor activity in more than 50 parliamentary constituencies. That can be neither feasible nor, in a healthy democracy, a desirable use of the Electoral Commission’s limited resources.

Mr Tom Harris: Each member of the EC having to monitor 50 constituencies is a breathtaking statistic. I hope my hon. Friend will also mention that that is not just for a four-week period, but for a year. In one year out of every five, those 12 people will have to do a job that cannot be done.

Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My recollection is that it was not 12 people, but six, so they would actually have to monitor more than 100 constituencies each for a year.

A joint statement from the NCVO and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations states that the Government’s commitment to address the legitimate

9 Oct 2013 : Column 213

concerns of many charities remains welcome, but that the proposed amendments do not go far enough:

“Legal advice provided to NCVO indicates that the proposed amendments put forward by the government will mean that much campaigning activity by charities and other voluntary groups will still be covered by this excessively bureaucratic and burdensome regime.”

Sir Stephen Bubb—[Interruption.] There seems to be some dissent toward Sir Stephen on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of ACEVO, said:

“The government is clearly keen to show it is listening to civil society, but these amendments don’t prevent the Bill curbing freedom of speech around elections. The Bill greatly increases bureaucracy for civil society groups in the year before an election, by halving the spending thresholds above which organisations have to register with the Electoral Commission. It also drastically restricts civil society’s spending on public campaigns in election years. The public wants legislation that makes politics and corporate lobbying more transparent. Instead this Bill makes almost no change to lobbying rules while punishing civil society for a loss of trust in politics that is not its fault. Publishing these amendments today leaves 2 working days for civil society to consider them before they are debated in the Commons. This rushed timeframe is an object lesson in poor law-making, and will only necessitate further damage-limiting amendments after the next debates.”

I referred earlier to the important work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. Our view, which I have expressed, is that the Government amendments tabled today fail completely to meet Ministers’ promises in Committee. For that reason, we will support my hon. Friend’s amendment 101. We believe that the Government need to reconsider this whole issue and that the definition in their amendment needs to be tested widely and consulted on. Our view is that amendment 101 provides a better basis for reform than the dog’s breakfast put forward by the Government.

The Prime Minister used to talk about the big society and about how we could strengthen the role of the voluntary and charitable sector. In part 2, we have a direct assault on that sector and a sinister gag on legitimate democratic activity. It is a solution in search of a problem. Even at this late stage, I urge the Government to go back to the drawing board and work on a cross-party basis with the Select Committees and the voluntary sector. We believe that amendment 101 provides a basis on which to do that, and I urge Members on both sides of the House to support it.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): It is a great pleasure to be given the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I welcome Government amendment 32, with its reference to expenditure that could

“reasonably be regarded as intended to…procure electoral success”,

because it demonstrates that the Government listened in Committee. On Second Reading and in Committee, we discussed the concern of charitable organisations that they would be captured by a wide-ranging definition, leading to their suffering the sort of litigation that we heard about earlier. I would be interested to hear what such litigation could be. As I understand the Bill, it would not change what charities have been able to do for the past three elections. My view is simply that we are moving back towards the definition in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, since when there have been three general elections.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 214

Mr Harris: The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I and my colleagues on the Labour Front Bench have also raised. If nothing has changed, why must we have these provisions in the Bill? Has he been told by Ministers why these provisions are in front of us, if everything is going so swimmingly?

Stephen McPartland: The hon. Gentleman might be surprised to know that my communication with Front Benchers is not as great as it should be. I voted against the badger cull, to which he referred earlier, so I would imagine that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will not be running a campaign in my constituency.

I always vote on the Bill and the amendments placed in front of me, not on what happened 13 or 14 years ago, and I am happy with Government amendment 32. It demonstrates that Ministers listened in Committee and on Second Reading when we talked about charities’ concerns and their wish to understand better how the Bill would affect them.

I have listened carefully to the examples given, and I understand that there is nervousness, but I hate the word “gagging”, with which people have tried to scare the third sector almost into stopping their campaigning. [Hon. Members: “It’s the Government who are scaring them.”] I do not think the third sector is scared. I am proud of the more than 400 charities and local community groups in Stevenage, none of which have approached me independently to talk about their concerns.

Hon. Members have mentioned the concerns about the campaigns that large charities might wish to run, but I do not think that that will be an issue. One of the big points people are missing is that charities are not allowed to engage in political activity that could affect the outcome of an election at the moment.

A lot of the activity that has been referred to today would already be captured by the controlled expenditure regulations in PPERA. Additionally, those engaging in such activity could be referred to the Charity Commission and investigated to determine whether they should retain their charitable status. We need to explain that to the third sector, because this talk of gagging is causing great fear among the wider charitable sector. As I have said, none of the smaller local charities in my constituency has had a problem with the proposals, but some of the larger national ones are concerned. I understand that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which represents 10,500 charities, has a range of concerns.

I said in my speech on Second Reading that I would never be involved in a Bill that would lead to any loss of freedom of speech. A constituent spoke to me the other week about the Bill. He jokingly made a good point that an organisation that tried to gag the press might then complain of being gagged itself if the provisions were deemed to affect it as well. It seems to depend on one’s point of view. The amendment demonstrates that the Government have come our way, and I am pleased that they have listened.

Mr Ward: In the 12 months leading up to a general election, given the differing views and policies of the political parties involved, would there be anything that a charity could campaign on that was not political?

9 Oct 2013 : Column 215

Stephen McPartland: Most charities campaign for improvement. I am the chairman of a large number of all-party parliamentary groups, and we meet various charities that campaign for improvements in respiratory health, for example. As the law stands, those charities can do that. The amendments demonstrate that that will continue to be the case. A problem would arise, however, if a charity were to say, “If you vote for this candidate, that would be best for our charitable purposes.”

Mr Harris: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can answer a question that the Minister failed to answer. He has just talked about charities endorsing particular candidates. Which charities? Which candidates? Can he give me one example of that?

Stephen McPartland: I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman such an example. I would love to do so, but that is not the point that I am trying to make. People have suggested that, if a candidate refused to sign up to a pledge with a certain charity, that charity could e-mail its members to tell them which candidates had signed up and which had not. Under the current law, any such candidate who felt that such activity would have an impact on the outcome of the election could complain to the Charity Commission, on the grounds that the charity had been seeking to secure the political benefit of one candidate over another. The current law would then determine whether such activity would fall under the rules on controlled expenditure. A lot of the examples that we have heard today would fall under those rules.

Mr Allen: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who made a particularly pertinent and sensible speech in Committee. I have a question for him, but I do not know whether he can answer it. Perhaps he could write to me if he cannot answer it now. As a member of the Conservative party who voted against the badger cull and who has spoken eloquently against the cull, would he object to being on a list—produced by, say, the RSPCA—giving details of which way Members of Parliament had voted on that issue?

Stephen McPartland: I imagine that I am already on such a list of Members of Parliament—

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): It is in the Whips Office.

Stephen McPartland: I am definitely on a list in the Whips Office, as my hon. Friend says. I would love to write to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) about this. It is highly unlikely that I shall get preferment—[Interruption.] Sorry, I am choking with laughter. It is highly unlikely that I shall get preferment in this Parliament. If the RSPCA were to e-mail its members in my constituency and ask them to support me as a candidate because I had voted in a particular way, I would be very uncomfortable about that.

Chris Heaton-Harris: I am sure that the Whips do have my hon. Friend’s name on a list, but that is a matter of public record; the votes in this place are always a matter of public record. I would be surprised if Members of any party were not keen to stand on their voting records in the House, and I am sure that my hon. Friend is keen to stand on his record. Surely, then, he

9 Oct 2013 : Column 216

could answer the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) by saying, “Yes, I am on a list, which is in the public interest and on public record.”

4 pm

Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend is indeed a great friend. He is no doubt on a number of those lists with me, but probably not with regard to badgers—especially when his constituency is Daventry.

Mr Allen: With the hon. Gentleman’s best interest at heart, will he have a discussion with the RSPCA? I would hate anyone during a whole year before an election inadvertently to produce a list that shows some Members supporting various things on a public vote and other Members not supporting them, particularly if such a list is available during an election year. The hon. Gentleman should take some advice from the RSPCA about its activities—perfectly innocent activities—because if he does not, the person who will decide the matter will not be the Deputy Leader of the House, who is talking away from a sedentary position preparing his next intervention, but a judge. I would always accept the view of the Deputy Leader of the House, but it will not be him who decides.

Stephen McPartland: I have great respect for the Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, and I read his reports with great interest—probably with greater interest than some other Members—because I genuinely believe that they are valuable. We agree a great deal about pre-legislative scrutiny, but without teasing him too much, when it comes to the Bill, I am very happy to stand on my record in Parliament. I am very happy for the RSPCA or other organisations to put me on their lists. The point that I would make, however, is that if they then e-mailed their members, asking them to support one candidate or another, that might—under current law and under the Bill—affect the outcome of the election, which would be considered wrong and would fall under the auspices of controlled expenditure. I am comfortable with that.

Mr Allen: The hon. Gentleman does not know what the outcome would be—neither do I and neither do Front Benchers on either side; that is the problem we face. The additional problem for the hon. Gentleman—I am looking out for him again—is that, unfortunately, some of the expenditure of a body such as the RSPCA in this hypothetical situation would be added to his own election expenses without his knowledge. He must be very careful. Both Front-Bench teams should be very careful, too, about committing into law provisions that will have what the Electoral Commission views as totally unforeseen outcomes.

Stephen McPartland: I take the hon. Gentleman’s warning to heart, and I will take it away and review it more closely and in greater detail, as well as speak to the RSPCA about it. Amendment 101 would introduce the primary purpose, but I am not sure why it is much better than the present amendment in addressing the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised with me. If I have to decide which way to vote, I shall vote in support of the lead Government amendment 32.

9 Oct 2013 : Column 217

I genuinely believe that we pressed the Government hard on Second Reading and in Committee and received commitments from the Dispatch Box that Ministers would listen, try to improve the Bill and try to allay some of the charities’ fears. I believe that they have done that, as the amendment provides for a reasonable assumption. British law is founded on reasonable assumptions. If a judge is to make a test of someone’s behaviour, it will be based on reasonableness; the judge will determine whether the expectation that behaviour has led to one or another outcome is reasonable. For once, then, I congratulate our Front-Bench team on moving our way and on providing greater clarity, so that I can support the amendment.

As for the NCVO and the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Commission has produced a report today, stating that it welcomes and is pleased with the steps that the Government have taken. I understand that the NCVO, too, is broadly pleased with the outcome. Many queries come down to the question of definition in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which has been in place for 13 years, and there have been three general elections since. The questions put to me as I have tried to support Government amendment 32 have revolved around not the welcome reception of the reasonability test, but “what if?” scenarios and what might occur.

Members have referred to e-mails and election material. The cost of an e-mail is probably 0.0001p, so a great many people would have to be engaged in such activity for it to have an overall effect. Many of the campaigns to which we have been party since we have been elected—in my case, since 2010—have been e-mail-based, as is 95% of the correspondence that I receive from my constituents. In fact, I prefer to deal with constituents face-to-face, because it is much quicker and more interactive. I think that much of the concern about the impact of issues such as cost on larger charities will not come to the fore if the amendment is passed. It really would improve the Bill, and I think that if it were voted down, the Bill would be left in a much worse state. At least the amendment makes clear that the expenditure must

“reasonably be regarded as intended”

to change the outcome of the election of candidature process.

Earlier, in an intervention on the Minister, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said that he hoped that representatives of the NCVO and the Minister could sit down and have another conversation at some stage, and the Minister said that his door was always open. As has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), there is so much more that unites us on these issues in Parliament than divides us. We need to send a strong message to the many charities out there that the Bill does nothing to gag them or to alter the way in which they campaign. We should tell them, “Please campaign as much as you can, and become involved in the process as much as you can. Add your voice, add the voices of your members, and try to influence what is going on in government and in local communities.”

I fear that the suggestion that this is a gagging Bill will deter smaller charities from engaging in the process. I fear that not the Bill itself, but the language surrounding it, will put them off. That frightens me, because I am a great defender of freedom of speech and freedom of

9 Oct 2013 : Column 218

choice, and I think it important for us to do all that we can to involve as many people and organisations as we can in politics and issues that affect their local communities. I shall end my speech there, because my voice is going again.

Mr Allen: I should begin by declaring an interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am the chair and founder member of a charity. We do not need to read what Sir Stuart Etherington thinks might happen, because I can say what I think might happen on the basis of my experience as a trustee and the chair of a charity.

Having listened to the debate today, I am even more convinced about how I shall respond if my chief executive comes to me and says, “We should get involved, because this is a great year in which to influence politics and people on the issue that we care about, that of children and babies. This is our moment: MPs are at their most open, and we can gain access to them and talk to them. It is absolutely wonderful.” I shall say, unreservedly and without equivocation, “Do not go anywhere near this just because that nice Mr Brake—that nice Deputy Leader of the House—has said that it is all going to be okay.”

If it were to be left to the Deputy Leader of the House to decide on these matters, I would be entirely reassured. I would not even be on my feet, because I trust the right hon. Gentleman implicitly on a personal level. The problem is that it will not be the Deputy Leader of the House who makes the decisions. Someone in a wig and gown down the road will decide what should happen in Stevenage if a certain body has said, “I want to show you the results of an historic vote that took place a while ago; I want to show you which Members of Parliament were for and which were against.”

I know that we have already had that debate. I apologise for intervening earlier on the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), but I realise that he is one of those Members who appreciate a dialogue in the Chamber rather than a monologue, and I think we both reached the conclusion that neither of us actually knew what the outcome would be. So we are going to employ our own solicitors to decide. It might be a very tight election in Stevenage; the hon. Gentleman might win by a handful over a Labour candidate who was desperate to kill, personally, as many badgers as he could lay his hands on.

This might be very significant, therefore. Situations such as an intervention by someone on—to be less humorous—an anti-racist platform or a pro-racist platform who says something totally outwith what the hon. Gentleman would want said on his behalf will start to influence our politics. It will not be well-meaning, good-hearted people in this House who decide on that. It will be people outside it; it will be people in the judiciary. They will not be taking the cases, however. The people who will be taking the cases will be people who are vexatious—people who normally do not like each other, people who are on opposite sides of a political, social or environmental argument. They will be pro-frackers and anti-frackers. They will be the League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance. These guys do not lie down easily together. They will take opportunities to get hold of somebody and change our politics in a particular way; they have proven already in the right way that they are prepared to do that and long may that

9 Oct 2013 : Column 219

continue. It is something we should encourage. Those people should not be chilled from undertaking activities and campaigning in election year, and that should certainly not be the case for the broader range of people—the Royal British Legion, Civil Society, those in the big society and the third sector. These people are our lifeblood. They are the people who have supported us, and they include people who are affiliated to political parties as well. They are people who care about out politics and our democracy. It is those people, as well as my charity, who I will not allow to enter the minefield we today are in danger of creating.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The Deputy Leader of the House made it clear in relation to amendment 101 that not only will these decisions be taken by people in wig and gown, but that the “primary purpose” definition in amendment 101 will result in legal dispute and interpretation. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, and what is his defence of the expression “primary purpose”?

Mr Allen: I will get to that, but what I will say now is that this is an old trick. The civil service has got loads of people writing drafts, and hopefully they are doing the job well, and a Back Bencher then gets up with a proposal that comes in through the voluntary organisations, and the response is, “Oh, there are difficulties about the drafting here.” I will accept that. We will not divide the House on a nuance of drafting. I am very happy that my words do not appear in any Bill. Even though we will divide along party lines, what is uniting the House is that we all know this is a dog’s breakfast and clauses 26 and 27 are the heart of what is wrong with the Bill. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has made a game attempt to try to get it right, but we all know there is something wrong here. I will not be hung on a particular set of words, therefore.

I hope the House votes in favour of amendment 101. If we do so, we will be sending the strongest signal to the Government not that the words of the amendment should be added to the Bill, but that the Government should go away, think again, listen and do the consultation they should have done over a year ago. If we pass the amendment, the House will in effect be allowing the Government to put right the mess they made in previous times. That is the role of the House and it is something we can do.

Where did this start to go wrong again in the last week or so? I pay tribute to the Government for having listened to the outrage there was about clause 26. They realised that legislating and changing the rules was wrong. So off they went and, all credit to them, they have come back, having listened to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—we supported each other in that debate—and said, “Okay, let’s back off quickly lads and see if we can get back to where we were before we even opened this can of worms.”

4.15 pm

Perhaps “can of worms” is not the right phrase to use, because Pandora’s box is what has been opened. When the Government say to a large part of our civic

9 Oct 2013 : Column 220

society that the current law is inadequate and they are going to change it, people ask, “How are you going to change it? What are you going to do?” The Government may then say, “We did not quite get it right that time and we are going to go back to where we were. Let’s stop the music,” but they have already opened Pandora’s box—they have already said that what went before was not adequate. What they are now doing is frightening those people even more than they were frightened before.

I have tabled an amendment that is sponsored by the NCVO—I make no bones about that—to open this debate up. The NCVO is saying, “We now know that you want to open up the law and change it. We have a different view about how you can do that.” It is putting forward its view to protect its own interests. Either we can go along with that signal and let things be opened up for proper debate and consideration within the Government or we can say, “No, we don’t even trust the fact that you now feel you have found a way forward and a form of words that can take us forward on this question of ‘primary purpose’”. We should listen to the NCVO. This is not the last time we are going to debate this issue; it will go to the second Chamber and it will come back here. I think we should listen to the NCVO and support amendment 101, so that that breathing space can be given.

John Pugh: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Pandora’s box. He is Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, but I understood him to be suggesting that he wanted us to vote for a form of words, as an amendment to a Bill, that he did not want in the Bill. If that were the general practice throughout the House of Commons, it would create a strange precedent, would it not?

Mr Allen: Well, we were just being serious for a moment there. The hon. Gentleman normally joins me in being serious about the role of Parliament. I know that he is having a bit of fun, but this is a serious issue. Some 10,500 voluntary organisations and their parent organisations are saying, “We think you’ve got this wrong—think again.” If he feels that if the amendment were to be won tonight—whatever form of words we use—it would survive the process in the second Chamber and come back, he is having a little joke and we can all have a laugh at that. [Interruption.] I am being told to speed up so that we can get to the vote, so I would like to be allowed to make progress.

I am not just talking about 38 Degrees getting a bad press—rightly, some might argue—or people sometimes being annoyed, depending on their political view, with those on the fringes of some voluntary organisations, because a lot of other people have written to us just this day. A number of them have said things such as they fear this Bill, they are worried about unintended consequences and this does not have legal certainty. Are those the wild and wacky people we need to legislate against? I shall tell hon. Members who these people are; I shall tell the House who said those three things. They were said by Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK, Neil Thomas of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain and Paul Parker of the Quakers. I could go on to cite a list of about 20 people from faith groups. According to the Leader of the House, they are

9 Oct 2013 : Column 221

making something up in order to embarrass the Government or because they have been wound up. I do not believe these people are so frail-minded. These people are anxious, just as the chairman of a charity who is standing before you is anxious, that we are putting in the Bill and into law something that will chill our ability to campaign. I guarantee to the House that it will chill my organisation’s ability to campaign, because if some bright spark wants to take a case, for some reason or other, against what has been said inadvertently, my budget—I go around cap in hand trying to raise money for my charity—will be spent in a court of law, not on providing the service that I think is appropriate through my charity for babies, children and young people. How many staff would I have to fire if I got landed with a £200,000 legal bill? That is why amendment 101 and the symbolism of tonight’s vote are important. They are important for all those charities outside that have been inundating us with their views.

As the Chair of the Select Committee, elected by this House on an all-party basis, and not as a Back Bencher on the Labour side doing the bidding of the Whips to cause a few problems for the Government, I have a request for Members from all parties. When we last considered the question, the difference between the proposal’s falling, meaning it had to be reconsidered, and its passing was 16 votes. I am asking 16 Members of this House to vote with those who voted last time on amendment 101. That will mean that we give the Government a chance to rearrange the clause in a way that will satisfy people in this House and, above all, that will satisfy people outside who fear what we are going to do today.

John Thurso: It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), and we often agree on these points more than we disagree. I was not going to begin by referring to amendment 101, but following his speech, let me address it with one or two short remarks. His argument is that we should vote for amendment 101 because it sends a signal by introducing the primary purpose test. He invites us to vote for that, knowing that if it is successful it could be put right with a better form of words at a later stage. He asks us to support the symbol rather than any particular words, a concept with which I am familiar and to which I often agree in legislation.

I have a much more significant problem with amendment 101, however, in that it introduces something that worries me greatly in legislation—that is, a subjective as opposed to an objective test. I have been involved in various bits of legislation, many of them rather dry and sometimes technical, such as the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, where we have sought to introduce tests that get certain things done. Whenever one is tempted to introduce a test that is not purely objective and does not have objective criteria, one comes up against all sorts of difficulties. Although I have a lot of sympathy with the concept, I could not support this amendment because, for me, it crosses a major legislative Rubicon between the objective test and the subjective test.

Andrew George: In that case, in what way is the intention described in Government amendment 32 any less subjective than that proposed in amendment 101?