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Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill

8.31 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 80 [Controlled expenditure by third parties]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 208X:

("(2) "Controlled expenditure", in relation to a third party, means (subject to section 82) expenses incurred by or on behalf of the third party in connection with the production or publication of election material which is made available to the public at large or any section of the public (in whatever form and by whatever means).
(2A) "Election material" is material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to--
(a) promote or procure 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, or
(b) otherwise enhance the standing--
(i) of any such party or parties, or
(ii) of any such candidates,
with the electorate in connection with future relevant elections (whether imminent or otherwise);
and any such material is election material even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well.
(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A)--
(a) the reference to electoral success at any relevant election is a reference--
(i) in relation to a registered party, to the return at any such election of candidates standing in the name of the party or included in a list of candidates submitted by the party in connection with the election, and
(ii) in relation to candidates, to their return at any such election; and
(b) the reference to doing any of the things mentioned in paragraph (a) or (as the case may be) paragraph (b) of that subsection includes doing so by prejudicing the

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electoral prospects at the election of other parties or candidates or (as the case may be) by prejudicing the standing with the electorate of other parties or candidates;
and, for the purpose of determining whether any material is election material, it is immaterial that it does not expressly mention the name of any party or candidate.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 208X, which is grouped with Amendments Nos. 208YA, 208YB and 208YG. I have already spoken to this group of amendments.

Viscount Astor: The noble Lord said that he has spoken to these amendments. He did not; he alluded to them in an earlier debate. We very purposely de-coupled them and, if the noble Lord bothers to look at the Marshalled List, he will see that they are de-coupled and are entirely separate. Frankly, it is not good enough for the Minister to skate over the issues that are raised on Clause 80. It is an important clause and some extremely important issues are part of it. We also referred to it to some extent during debate on an amendment to which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, replied on the subject of third parties. I have a number of questions relating to these amendments and the Minister will have to give a proper answer to the Committee this evening.

The government amendment which, as I said, was referred to in passing at an earlier stage effectively will rewrite in Clause 80 the definition of a "third party" for the purposes of elections. Amendment No. 208X is possibly the most important in the group. The definition of a third party in Clause 80 will affect dozens, and probably hundreds, of organisations. The definition of "controlled expenditure" in Clause 80 is crucial because it is by the very fact that organisations incur controlled expenditure that they are defined as third parties. The definition of a "registered political party" depends on whether or not it stands candidates at elections. That is quite straightforward.

However, the attempt to define third parties by reference to the type of item on which they spend money means that the situation is more complicated. Indeed, perhaps I should suggest to the Committee that this is something of a grey area.

Under Clause 83 an organisation is obliged to register with the electoral commission as a recognised third party if it spends more than £10,000 a year on controlled expenditure; otherwise, criminal sanctions kick in. The effect of registration as a recognised third party is to limit the amount of controlled expenditure that the organisation or individual can incur in a single year to £988,500 in the whole of the United Kingdom.

The definition of controlled expenditure is, as I said, crucial. The amendment broadens the definition considerably. Controlled expenditure is the money spent on what is termed as "election material". The amendment makes clear that election material is that which can "reasonably be regarded" as promoting or, indeed, prejudicing the electoral fortunes of a particular party or candidate. That includes the publication of material that may be related to issues on

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which candidates or parties have particular policies or opinions, even if the material does not mention the candidate or party by name.

The net is cast even wider by the words at the end of new subsection (2A) in Amendment No. 208X, which states,

    "any such material is election material even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well".

That definition is very wide. The definition,

    "reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve",

is one that I feel is bound to end up in the courts. I do not understand how anyone can reasonably be expected to define that under the Government's thinking. I believe that as soon as the Bill becomes an Act, as night follows day we shall end up in the courts for definition. That is unsatisfactory.

As I said, both Amendment No. 208X and the Bill as drafted will cast the net very wide. I am thinking not only of organisations such as Britain in Europe and Business for Sterling which campaign for or against United Kingdom entry into the single currency. That was referred to by the Minister earlier during the Committee stage. Given that the euro is a hot political topic--certainly, one might say, a hot potato--for the Government and, indeed, probably for all political parties, the material issued by such organisations will mean that they must register as recognised third parties.

Earlier my noble friend Lord Cope talked about the example of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He raised various issues and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, kindly said that he would write to my noble friend. However, he raised issues on a rather narrow point and I believe that it is important that we expand on them because it is not only that one organisation which will be caught.

However, the RSPCA provides a good example. It runs campaigns on many issues. Earlier I looked at its website, which stated:

    "The RSPCA is strongly opposed to the hunting of foxes, deer, mink and hares with dogs, believing that these activities are both cruel and unnecessary as control measures".

It gives a range of information in relation to hunting and urges visitors to the site to write to their MP in support of a complete ban on hunting. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, said earlier that that issue would come under, I believe, Part VI of the Bill but he was not sure to what extent it was covered.

Wider issues arise here. The RSPCA deals not only with single issues such as hunting; it lists campaigns on topics such as live animal transport, the welfare of pigs, cosmetic testing and, indeed, fur farming. That is the subject of a Bill which is before your Lordships' House at present; it is going through its Committee stage.

We need to know the Government's thinking on this matter, but the only view that we have heard so far is that the Government are not sure. However, when they tabled the amendment they must have had a view on whether the material produced by this type of

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organisation would fall within the scope of the definition of election material, whether on a website or not. All politicians who stand for election have opinions, and that is the term used in the government amendment on such controversial issues as, for example, fur farming. Therefore, as I understand it, campaigns on those issues by groups such as the RSPCA clearly would fall within the definition in new subsection (2A) in Amendment No. 208X, even if their primary purpose was not electoral, although we know, of course, that they may influence the result of an election.

If my analysis is correct, the result would be that the RSPCA would be forced to register as a recognised third party with the electoral commission and restrict its spending on such material to just under £1 million per year. I do not know how much that organisation spends and it probably spends a great deal more than that. Personally, I am entirely on the other side of the argument, so for my part the less it is allowed to spend the better. However, I have no idea whether it spends £1 million or more than £1 million. I do not have a clue. But that is not the point. I have just used the RSPCA as an illustration of what I am talking about.

Certainly, if such an organisation spent more than £10,000 in the year before an election, Schedule 19 tells us that its financial officers would be liable to a criminal conviction and, on indictment, to an unlimited fine.

I used that example because it was an example used earlier. But, indeed, there are many other groups dealing with a whole range of issues which are affected; for example, the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Road Haulage Association, the Refugee Council, the British Medical Association, the Confederation of British Industry and even the Electoral Reform Society might be caught by the Bill's provisions. All those bodies issue material on political issues which could fall within the definition provided by Amendment No. 208X.

Therefore, the Government are seeking to limit the spending of those organisations. That might be the purpose of the amendment. If so, the Government must come clean and say whether it is; whether or not it is meant to include those organisations. We do not know and the Government have not made it clear. The Minister did not make it clear when he alluded earlier to those amendments. Therefore, I shall press him to do so now.

One of the important effects of making those organisations part of that is that they then fall into the limits which relate to 365 days before an election. Those organisations may have less of an idea as to when an election is to be called than some of the political parties. Therefore, we need to have clearly on the record the Government's view on this matter as to what they believe will be caught by the provisions of this amendment.

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There is one other issue which I should mention. It seems to me that there are clear implications here relating to the Human Rights Act and freedom of speech. I should like to know whether the Government and the Minister have taken that into consideration and whether they are sure that the amendments do not fall foul of any of that legislation. I am sure that they have considered that matter but it would be useful to know from the Government that they have indeed considered it and they do not perceive that it is a problem.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I may deal with the last matter first. I would not have signed the front of the Bill if I thought that the legislation which we were putting forward to your Lordships' House in any way contravened the Human Rights Act.

The noble Viscount has sought to see complexity and perhaps something more sinister about these amendments than pertains in reality. Amendments Nos. 208X and 208YB to Clause 80 merely seek to bring the definition of "controlled expenditure" into line with the revised definition of "campaign expenditure".

If an organisation runs a campaign urging people to vote for a party which favours retaining the pound or banning fox hunting, it is right that such an organisation should be subject to the controls contained in Part VI. If that means that, for example, the RSPCA has to register, then so be it. That seems to me to be entirely right. It should do so and should be regulated accordingly. If expenditure went unregulated, it would undermine the system of controls that we have put in place.

Material aimed at achieving, for example, a ban on hunting by inviting the electorate to vote for candidates of a party which supports a ban would fall within the closing words of the proposed Clause 80(2A). Although aimed at achieving a ban, it would also influence the election itself. Therefore, it must be right that that material would be caught by the provisions of the amendment.

The noble Viscount took exception to the final lines of the proposed subsection (2A). He seemed to be upset by the words,

    "any such material is election material even though it can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve any other purpose as well".

My guess is that that is designed to cover something which during an election period might promote the party, even though it did not promote an individual candidate. For example, it might promote a surgery that a candidate is running in the constituency. Although that in itself is not necessarily in the business of securing extra votes for the particular candidate, it would obviously be designed in part to offer a full range of services and enhance the attractiveness of that particular political party.

But in overall terms it is right that that should fall within the terms of incurring expenditure which should be attributed towards election expenditure. I

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hope that that answers the points which the noble Viscount raised. I ran through the issues perhaps not in the depth which the noble Viscount would have liked. But I believe that I have dealt with the issues which he raised and I trust that with those explanations he will feel contented with our amendments.

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