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MPs debate limits on pre-election campaigning

11 October 2013


Getting the message out: the human  rights campaigner Peter Tatchell hold a poster saying "'Don't Gag Right To Lobby", at a free-speech rally in Parliament Square, London on Tuesday 

Getting the message out: the human  rights campaigner Peter Tatchell hold a poster saying "'Don't Gag Right To Lobby", at a free-speech rally i...

BRANDED a "gagging law" by charities, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill was passed in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening.

MPs voted by 304 to 260 in favour of the Bill which. the Government maintains, will "bring greater transparency to our political system".

The Bill reduces the money that a third party (rather than a political party) may spend on campaigning in the year before an election, from £988,500 to £390,000 (News, 6 September). It also widens the definition of campaigning activities to include staff time, media appearances, leaflets, and blogs. Spending per constituency is limited to £9750.

As promised last month by the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Lansley, the Government tabled amendments to the Bill during the debate. One amendment stated that a third party will be subject to the restrictions only when its campaign can reasonably be regarded as intended to "promote or procure the electoral success" of a party of candidate.

The amendments also make it clear that events held solely for an organisation's supporters, and responses to ad hoc media questions on specific policy issues, will not be captured by the Bill. But public rallies and events, press conferences, and "market research or canvassing which promotes electoral success" will all be regulated.

The Deputy Leader of the House, Tom Brake, said during the debate: "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 long as it cannot reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party of candidate."

He referred to the Government's impact assessment of the Bill, which  estimated that only ten per cent of third-party organisations would see their expenditure affected by the reduced spending limits.

"We are seeking a level playing field for the different third parties that might oppose each other in the course of an election campaign," he said. "It is worth noting that only two organisations spent more than the new lowered limits proposed in the Bill: Unison and Vote for a Change. That demonstrates that the spending limit is so high as to be ineffectual in creating the level playing field that spending limits seek to provide."

He acknowledged that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) was only "partially happy" with the amendments.          

The NCVO said last Friday that there was "still too much uncertainty and ambiguity in relation to the definition of controlled expenditure". This was "unbearable, especially for small community groups".

The Electoral Commission said that the Government had "taken steps in the right direction", but that the amendments "need careful testing with campaigners". It warned that the provisions of the Bill would "inevitably affect organisations whose primary intentions are not clearly party political". The amendments did not address concerns about the spending limits, which, it warned, might lead to a "significant increase in regulatory burdens".

The Opposition has accused the Government of "hurrying" a "badly drafted" Bill through Parliament. A report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, published last month, was critical of both content and consultation.

On Wednesday, Angela Eagle, Shadow Leader of the House, said that the Bill "seeks to silence critics of the Government in the run-up to the general election, while letting vested interests operate out of sight".

Last Friday, 13 faith organisations, including Christian Aid and CAFOD, wrote to the Prime Minister to express concern that the Bill "may curtail our ability to express deeply held beliefs in the political arena".


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