Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lobbying and Transparency Bill

A few months ago the Coalition Gov't brought forward a bill to fulfill its promise to control lobbyists and introduce more transparency into government. I thought there were major improvements needed, and I arranged meetings with the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley who is responsible for taking this Bill through Parliament. Today we reached the stage where the House of Commons were  considering amendments made to the Bill in the House of Lords. Those we overturn will be sent back to the Lords for more consideration before coming back to the Commons. This process in known as 'ping-pong'. This post lays out where we are and how we got there. I have written it because there has been a orchestrated campaign pressurising MPs to abandon the Bill. Though its written as my take on it, I accept that its also written from a Coalition Gov't standpoint.

Its important for democracy that campaigning in elections is transparent and properly accounted for. Fundamentally, this Bill contains reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability to the political system. The measures in the Bill do not affect organisations who do not seek directly to influence the outcome of elections.

During its passage through the Commons, the Gov't made many concesions to meet the concerns of MPs on all sides. The bill sent to the Lords was much changed. In addition, during passage through the Lords Government made amendments which address the concerns raised about the potential impact of the Bill and existing rules on non-party campaigning at elections. These changes have been welcomed by charities and other groups.

Fundamental to the amendments was the raising of the registration rates to £20,000 for England and £10,000 in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will effectively exempt most campaigning groups and charities who are either small or undertake limited political campaigning from the requirement to register as a third party, and the associated reporting requirements that entails.

Other key Government amendments to which the House agreed were:

• Increasing the spending limits in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the levels originally set out in the Bill, giving an uplift of £20,000 to each nation.

• Removing all burdens from low-spending participants in a campaigning coalition by allowing larger campaigners to provide a single report on their behalf.

• Removing the requirement for a return, or a nil return, in relation to spending returns, donations reports and statement of accounts, if a recognised third party has not spent above the registration threshold.

• A review of the effects of the provisions of Part 2 to report following the 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, to ensure the regulatory system remains effective and proportionate.

• Reducing the length of the 2014/2015 regulated period for non-party campaigning. It will now commence the day after the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014.

• An exemption for the costs of translating material from and into Welsh, and for campaign costs relating to disability and security.

My view is that the Lobbying and Transparency Bill is now much better than it was, and that a lot of my concerns have been met. On balance I am now willing to support it. The Bill does not prevent third parties from campaigning, but it does require that they be upfront about their spending, and not be allowed to overwhelm and outspend candidates and parties.

It remains the case that there remain some constituents that disagree with me, and I'm sorry about that, particularly bearing in mind the work I've put in. I do have to add that some of the tactics employed by an organisation named 38 Degrees have been extremely non transparent and have not been at all helpful to anyone. I sense that the Bill has now reached its final form, and will go as it is foward to Royal Assent.

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