Publications on the internet
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 601-iii
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
POLITICAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM COMMITTEE
THE GOVERNMENT'S LOBBYING BILL
THURSDAY 29 AUGUST 2013
RT HON MR KEVIN BARRON MP
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 184 - 237
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.
Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 29 August 2013
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witness
Witness: Nigel Stanley, Head of Campaigns and Communications, Trades Union Congress, gave evidence.
Q184 Chair: Welcome. I do not know whether you want to say anything to begin with, but if not, we will jump straight into questions.
Nigel Stanley: I know you are under pressure for time, so why don’t you start the questioning?
Q185 Paul Flynn: Can you envisage any circumstances in the present Bill, as it is drafted, for trade unions to register as consultant lobbyists? Can you see any circumstances in which trade unions would have to register as consultant lobbyists under the Bill as presently drafted?
Nigel Stanley: No, because we are not lobbyists for hire.
Q186 Paul Flynn: Should trade unions be on a lobbying register?
Nigel Stanley: We are generally in favour of lobbying transparency. If there was an agreement about how that should be declared, encompassing organisations that do in-house lobbying and consultant lobbying as well, we would be happy to be part of that. We object to being singled out, as we were in the Government’s initial consultation paper, where we would have to register, but the CBI would not. If everyone has to register, then we are happy to play our part in that.
Q187 Paul Flynn: What definition would you like to see of the words "consultant lobbyist"?
Nigel Stanley: The problem is that the words are "consultant lobbyist", because the definition needs to cover everybody. The Bill as it is currently drafted covers only those people who really wish to be seen as consultant lobbyists. Companies can set themselves up and say, "Our main business is not lobbying", and therefore will not have to register the people doing it as consultant lobbyists, and companies, causes or organisations that want to remain anonymous will then choose those companies to do their lobbying for them. It effectively makes no difference to what is happening at the moment, where the consultant lobbyists that I mainly know declare their clients and are open about it, and one suspects there are other things going on as well that one does not know about. As far as I can work out, those things will still be allowed to go on below the radar without people knowing about them. If you want me to be blunt, I think part 1 is somewhere on the spectrum between useless and worse than useless. I will be generous and say it is nearer the useless end.
Q188 Paul Flynn: Indeed. We are full of praise for the Bill, as you mentioned this morning. What do you think the Government are trying to do with part 2 of the Bill? There is no need to be generous.
Nigel Stanley: The real problem with part 2 is no one quite knows actually what the Government are trying to do with it. One can often have conversations in which one says to Government, "Well, you haven’t quite thought through how to do this," or "There are unintended consequences," but it is very hard to discover exactly what the Government are seeking to do with part 2 in its current drafting. Some people have said that it is an attempt simply to regulate what trade unions affiliated to the Labour party do during elections, but it has not been drafted in that way. It has broad definitions of almost everything, and it certainly captures unions that are not affiliated to the Labour party and do not even have a political fund and so are banned by law from campaigning in elections. It includes charities and voluntary organisations, companies, local pressure groups and anyone who produces any kind of campaigning on any policy or initiative that might affect someone’s vote. That is a very broad definition.
Q189 Paul Flynn: Can you see some practical ways of beneficially improving part 2 of the Bill?
Nigel Stanley: The best thing to do would be to withdraw it, start again and see what process of consultation and consensus-building can help build workable rules. I do not think that anyone is against or should be against regulation of money in elections. That is a perfectly legitimate thing in a democracy and a good thing to have, and we would be happy to do that, but at the moment the Bill is so badly drafted that you cannot say a minor tweak to a clause will help.
This is not a normal discussion. You were promised pre-legislative scrutiny of the lobbying Bill. There was the promise of a draft Bill, yet you have a Bill that was published just as Parliament went down and is being rushed through as soon as Parliament returns. I do not want to say that MPs do not do any work over the recess, because I know how busy you all are, but there has not exactly been much public discussion about this, or any debate, yet it is a constitutional Bill. Normally, you would expect there to be at least an attempt to build consensus, at least a good and thorough consultation and at least a very clear statement of what the Government are trying to achieve through that. Those three ingredients are missing. Perhaps it is a radical and rather extreme response at this late stage, but I think that the Bill should be withdrawn and the process restarted with consultation and consensus-building. Select Committee debates and discussions are very helpful in doing that.
Q190 Paul Flynn: You have also got objections to part 3 of the Bill. What are those objections and how can the Bill be improved to remove those problems?
Nigel Stanley: Part 3 is a bit like part 2, because we cannot quite work out what exactly the problem is that it is meant to solve. We have asked BIS, the certification officer and ACAS through freedom of information requests whether they have received or made representations that we need to amend current powers to regulate union membership, which are there with a very strong duty in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. We cannot find any demand for part 3.
Again, there is a suggestion that the Bill is about Labour party internal union affiliation and the fact that a recent selection conference was all over the newspapers. Well, fair enough, but only 15 trade unions affiliate to the Labour party. There are 166 unions that make returns to the certification officer. I am sure that the Association of Somerset Inseminators, to take one name at random from that rather wonderful list, are completely perplexed as to why they now have to go through this legal process.
It is a legal process in which three new groups gain access to individual membership details, which we think should be confidential. The three bodies who will have access to union personal membership details are the certification officer, anyone appointed by the certification officer as an investigator and the assurer that unions have to appoint from a list published by the Government. It is not to say that the certification officer would have any intention of doing anything wrong with that data, but people are still concerned.
I am sure that members of the Committee will be aware that there have been recent debates about blacklisting, where employers have not wanted to employ people because of their union record. That has been widely condemned across the political spectrum and is not just a concern for unions. It is not surprising that unions are very worried about the implications of this section of the Bill, especially when they cannot find any reason why it is there. When you do not know what the problem is, it is very hard to come up with an alternative response to it. I am sure unions would be prepared to do that, if it was felt that there was a genuine public policy issue that required some kind of response, but we cannot see an issue.
The other theory is that it is about industrial action ballots, but I can tell you one thing: anyone who knows anything about the law surrounding industrial action ballots knows that they are most often challenged in the courts by employers who dispute the union’s membership records for the members who are being balloted. There is an idea that there is some problem with that. Unions have very many strong incentives to keep their membership records accurate-it is how they get their income, for a start-but if they are one of those unions that engages in industrial action, they know that they have to have absolutely cast-iron membership lists in order to do that. Again, there is no suggestion that there is a problem here, but unions worry about privacy, and they worry about the fact that third parties will now be able to complain to the certification officer, which may result in all kinds of spurious and trivial complaints. As I say, they do not know what the problem is.
Paul Flynn: Thank you very much. We look forward to the evidence from the Somerset inseminators union.
Q191 Chair: One thing from me, Nigel. As I have raised with the witnesses this morning, I think there is a need for a lobbying Bill. Our democracy needs a lobbying Bill, but there seems to be an unfortunate consensus that the draft Bill probably is not the best we can do. One thing I asked witnesses this morning was whether they would be up for helping us, as a Parliament, to work together, perhaps through the mechanisms of a Special Standing Committee, to try to gain some sort of consensus. It was amazing this morning that we appeared to get consensus between Spinwatch, at one end, and the public lobbying bodies and association, at the other end, on some of the basics that would help to create consensus. Would the TUC and the organisations that you know of be willing to participate in that strictly time-limited exercise to get a better Bill before the House in a matter of months?
Nigel Stanley: Absolutely. That would be an extremely sensible proposal, and I think that goes for part 2, too. Do we need more regulation of third parties? Possibly, but there needs to be discussion and consensus building. We are always ready for that. Given the discussions that have taken place, I think that for part 1 it would be an extremely useful service that the Committee could provide to conserve democracy in its widest sense.
Q192 Chair: Is there anything that we have missed, or anything else that you would like to get on the record while you have this opportunity?
Nigel Stanley: You have given me an opportunity to express my views on all three parts of this badly drafted, ill-thought-out Bill, which is going to do nothing but cause problems without having any solutions to which it will make any difference.
Chair: Nigel, thank you very much for your time today.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy, National Council for Voluntary Organisations, gave evidence.
Q193 Chair: Karl, welcome. Do you want to say anything to start us off, or shall we jump straight into questions?
Karl Wilding: I would like to start off by saying that I think campaigning and lobbying by charities is something of which we should be proud; it is integral to what we do. I could point to many campaigns that have improved public life. There is already robust regulation put in place by the Charity Commission on charity campaigning and lobbying, and it seems to us that this Bill is trying to address a problem that we do not think exists. The Bill is changing from a system that Lord Hodgson’s recent review suggests is working quite well. Part 1 seems to be almost too narrow. It is at one end of the spectrum, and it seems to have lots of holes in it, but, conversely, part 2 is far too wide and potentially takes in a range of activities and organisations that really do not need any additional regulation.
Q194 Mr Chope: What impact do you think part 2 would have on voluntary organisations?
Karl Wilding: We think it is already the case that charities and voluntary organisations self-police when it comes to campaigning and lobbying. They do not want to fall foul of the law. We think that part 2 will have a chilling effect on charities and voluntary organisations. The fear of breaking the rules, and particularly the fear of imprisonment. will deter them from campaigning. It will place a substantial additional overhead on charities in terms of complying with the regulations and reporting on their activities at a time when the public are telling us that they want charities to spend much less on administration. It will also stop charities from working together: there is a particularly onerous point in the Bill as proposed that suggests that individual charities and voluntary organisations will be responsible for the expenditure of an entire coalition. This is essentially going to stop charities from working together-again, at a time when the public are telling us that they would like to see more collaboration.
Q195 Chair: You span a lot of organisations, Karl, so may I just ask which organisations are concerned about this? Is it just your own, or are there people connected with you who have also expressed concern? I see that a number have submitted evidence, but is this concern widespread? Can you name a few voluntary and charity organisations that are concerned?
Karl Wilding: I have worked in the charity sector for 15 years, and in those 15 years I have seen two, possibly three, occasions where members and the wider sector have come together and united in rage about a proposal. This is one of those occasions. What is striking is that it is bringing together the broadest constituency, in terms of what you might call the spectrum of interests that our members represent. Whether it be activities in the countryside, whether it be child poverty, organisations at both ends of the spectrum on issues are coming together to tell us that they are angry about these changes, and are actually quite concerned about their impact.
Q196 Chair: Can you name names?
Karl Wilding: Yes, I can. If you think about housing issues, you have organisations such as Shelter. If you think about countryside issues, we have the Countryside Alliance involved. We have very small organisations involved that are not household name charities, because they have now realised that the thresholds for expenditure for individual constituencies, which have been newly introduced by this Bill, will stop even the smallest community groups campaigning against the introduction of a bypass in their area. So the concern is deep and broad.
Q197 Chair: I see Action for Children has submitted evidence.
Karl Wilding: I could probably spend a long time telling you the number of names that have signed up.
Q198 Chair: We have only had evidence from Action for Children and yourself so far. You are saying that this concern is far and wide, but we have not been exactly inundated yet. I appreciate that the Committee has been in recess and Parliament has been in recess, but are you saying there is a welter of people out there, and, if so, are they going to talk to us before next week, when we produce our report?
Karl Wilding: I am saying that there is a welter of concerned people out there. I think it is fair to say that many of those people have been on holiday during this period. Two thirds of the people who work in the voluntary sector are women, and it is the school holidays.
Q199 Chair: So when school is back, we can expect quite a bit more.
Karl Wilding: We would expect quite a bit more, and we can encourage much more engagement with the Bill.
Q200 Mr Chope: What do you think the Government is trying to achieve in part 2 of the Bill?
Karl Wilding: That is a difficult question for me to answer, because I am trying to think about what the problem is that part 2 is trying to address. I have said already that Lord Hodgson’s review of the Charities Act has shown that regulation in this area is working quite well. The Cabinet Office, in their response to Lord Hodgson’s review, said that the regulations were working quite well. The Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activities is very clear. I think you may need to ask the Minister.
Q201 Mr Chope: But the Electoral Commission themselves seemed to argue that they thought there should be more controls over third-party expenditure in political campaigns.
Karl Wilding: We think the existing expenditure controls are actually working quite well. These proposals represent a significant reduction in the expenditure controls at a national level. The introduction of expenditure controls on a constituency-by-constituency basis strikes us as very onerous. Lowering the threshold to register from £10,000 to £5,000 is going to capture a significantly wider spectrum of organisations. We think that this does not strike the right balance between, on the one hand, transparency and accountability, and, on the other, regulatory burden.
Q202 Mr Chope: Do you know the basis upon which those new limits have been proposed by the Government?
Karl Wilding: We do not know this. One may suggest that they are arbitrary.
Q203 Mr Chope: Are there any elements of part 2 of the Bill that you welcome?
Karl Wilding: I would suggest that we felt that the regulations were working quite well. The proposed changes are unwelcome, because they go in the opposite direction from where one might want to be. Where before we had clarity, we now have uncertainty. Whereas before we had thresholds that we thought were reasonable and workable, we consider the new thresholds unreasonable.
Q204 Mr Chope: Do I get the right impression that the Government have not discussed with or consulted you about this at all before producing their legislation?
Karl Wilding: I think there has been an absence of both pre-legislative scrutiny and discussion. Certainly in relation to part 2, we found ourselves very surprised by the proposed changes.
Q205 Chair: Are there any other things, Karl, that you would like to tell us in general about the Bill?
Karl Wilding: We have a number of suggestions that would improve it. I would echo Nigel’s evidence. This really is a damaging Bill as far as we are concerned. We need, first of all, a much clearer definition of what is considered as activity for election purposes. This is so unclear at the moment that it will, we think, de facto stop organisations from doing much of their day-to-day awareness-raising and campaigning, because they will fear falling foul of the legislation. I have already said that I think current levels of expenditure should be maintained.
The Bill proposes that staff costs should be taken into consideration when calculating those limits. This is new. That obligation would be an extremely difficult exercise for many organisations to fulfil because their staff tend to work on multiple functions and issues. It would be quite difficult to calculate staff costs. I have already suggested that the idea of aggregating costs to members of coalitions is extremely onerous and damaging, and I think that proposal should be removed.
Finally, when it comes to reporting donations received during election periods, first of all, it is not entirely clear whether it is simply donations that are just about election purposes-even if you don’t receive donations, you still have to report to the Electoral Commission. Again, that strikes us as onerous and does not achieve the right balance between regulatory burden and transparency and accountability.
Q206 Mr Turner: I used to have the misapprehension that politics did not get involved in charities. How was I wrong?
Karl Wilding: That is not a misapprehension. Charities are explicitly prohibited from supporting any particular party, but in pursuing their charitable purpose, such as the reduction of poverty, they are allowed to engage in political activities. That is quite different from party political activities. An ideal situation for a charity would be that all political parties support the issue on which they are campaigning.
Q207 Mr Turner: So the RSPCA, for example, can fight against hunting. I am correct, aren’t I?
Karl Wilding: I presume that the RSPCA’s charitable purposes are the protection of animals and the environment, so in pursuance of that charitable purpose, the RSPCA is permitted to campaign and lobby for changing legislation or policy in order to meet its charitable purpose, yes.
Q208 Mr Turner: They spent a lot of money on court cases, for example.
Karl Wilding: In reaching decisions about what to campaign and lobby on, and around political activities, the trustees have to weigh up the costs and benefits of courses of action. They have to judge that that course of action is in pursuit of a charitable purpose.
Q209 Mr Turner: I am sure you would agree that they can spend a lot of money on some issues, perhaps in one or two constituencies, and they could spend far more money than any candidate, or indeed all candidates.
Karl Wilding: I am not quite sure how much they spend overall in terms of campaigning and how that would break down in terms of individual constituencies. Again, I am not aware of what a candidate would particularly spend. If they are compliant with CC9, the Charity Commission’s guidance, they should not be aligning themselves with any of those individual candidates. They should hope that all the candidates support their position, and they should always strive to maintain their independence from those candidates.
Q210 Mr Turner: So, you are saying that if I were in favour of hunting but all the other candidates were against hunting, they could not take a position.
Karl Wilding: They should be striving to get all the candidates to support their position on hunting.
Paul Flynn: That applies to the Countryside Alliance as well, which campaigned in favour of an illegal activity.
Q211 Mr Turner: I am trying to establish, not what my position is, but generally. I am concerned about somebody finding that a large amount of money was spent by a charity in their constituency, perhaps more money than they are able to spend themselves. For information, that is between £20,000 and £25,000.
Karl Wilding: There is a relatively small number of charities that could spend that amount of money.
Q212 Mr Turner: Ah, good. So, there are some, but not others.
Karl Wilding: I would guess that it is a relatively small number of charities. Those charities will have an area of operation and area of benefits that I would presume would most likely be national. I am not aware of evidence whereby they would concentrate that level of spending in one constituency.
Q213 Mr Turner: But you would accept there are some.
Karl Wilding: I would accept that there are charities that spend that volume of money, but I am not aware, I just don’t know, whether they spend that money in a particular constituency.
Chair: Paul, you were going to follow up that question.
Q214 Paul Flynn: We know there are groups that become involved in particular elections. Lord Ashcroft campaigns and spends vast sums of money-a completely unlimited amount of money-in targeted constituencies, which it has been claimed has changed the result of the vote. A former Member of this House wrote a book listing the activities of the Countryside Alliance in shifting votes in certain constituencies and unseating Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. Do you think all these matters should be controlled and the spending limited in the same way that spending by political parties is limited?
Karl Wilding: I don’t think it is my role today to comment on the activities of an individual. I am here to talk about what charities and voluntary organisations should do. I think they should comply with the current guidance, which I would again stress we think is working very well and is clear and concise. In my experience, the biggest problem most of the time is that charities are already frightened of campaigning and that they self-police too much.
Q215 Paul Flynn: Do you think it is a possibility that the Government, who are not enthusiastic to control corporate lobbying-it has taken them three and half years to move-have deliberately sabotaged their own Bill by extending so widely the numbers involved by it that they are going to have a constituency of opposition that is so big and clamorous that the Bill will fail? But that will mean that they get what they want, which is no lobbying Bill.
Karl Wilding: I have no evidence or knowledge about their intent. I am merely interested in the effect of the legislation on charities. Again, I would maintain that the effect of the Bill, as currently drafted, would be very damaging.
Q216 Mrs Laing: Given the strict rules that already apply to the activities of charities, particularly in political engagement, is it not the case that if charities continue to do what they currently do, any expenditure they might incur on a wider range of activities would not be treated as controlled expenditure under the Bill? In other words, if charities adhere to the rules that are applied to them as charities, they will not fall foul of this Bill.
Karl Wilding: On the Bill as drafted at the moment, the advice that we have taken is that the new definition of activity "for electoral purposes" is so broad as to be inoperable. A significant part of the problem for charities is the confusion about what would or would not be included, so we would almost need to deal with individual organisations on a case by case basis. It strikes me that this would very quickly become a car crash in terms of the operational viability of the Bill.
Q217 Mrs Laing: I do not quite understand what you are getting at with that. Is it not the case that any activity by a charity would be captured only if it was actually promoting the electoral success or, as the Bill says, "otherwise enhancing the standing" of a party or a candidate, which is the same as under current charity legislation?
Karl Wilding: At the moment, PPERA highlights that spending is about election materials. We can clearly define at the moment what controlled spending relates to. It is about materials. The new definition of activity is about electoral purposes. It covers a much broader range of activities that, as I have said already, includes staff and working with the media. It potentially includes undertaking research to support a campaign. When you combine that with the change in the wording away from the intended purpose of an activity to a wording that is more about the effect of an activity, we think that this creates a much broader definition and a foggier test in relation to that definition. There is such an absence of clarity that we think it would be almost impossible to implement.
Q218 Mrs Laing: So it is just a matter of clarity. If you got a good definition of it, it might be all right.
Karl Wilding: It is not just a matter of clarity; it is also the fact that what is included in controlled expenditure is too broad. We need greater clarity and to go back to the thresholds that we had before.
Q219 Chair: Thank you, Karl. I do not know whether you were here when I was speaking to the previous witnesses, but we were attempting, quite successfully so far today, to get a consensus around improving the Bill, which we believe Parliament can possibly do. Would you be willing to participate in those efforts if we were able, for example, to have a Special Standing Committee looking at this over a time-limited period of four or five months? Would you be willing, with all those organisations that you represent and that look to you, to put your efforts into trying to get a consensus on developing an effective lobbying Bill?
Karl Wilding: Absolutely. We believe that charities should be held to the highest standards in terms of transparency and accountability. We think that we have to get the balance right between rights and responsibilities when it comes to campaigning and lobbying, and a workable Bill clearly is in that pursuit.
Q220 Chair: Just to follow up Eleanor Laing’s last point, I think Members need to be convinced of the impact of this. I apologise for raising this at a moment when certainly Members of Parliament are very busy, let alone members of the voluntary and community sector, but our timetable is very short and I think Members would be more impressed with the arguments if there were lots more bodies that feel the way you say they feel. I am sure you are right, but, given the time constraints, we are trying to get a report before Parliament very quickly-unnecessarily quickly, as you probably know. None the less, we are operating to a strict time scale, so if those affiliates to your own organisation want to put material our way, we will add it to the body of evidence going before Members of Parliament next week.
Karl Wilding: We have 200 organisations that have now signed a letter to Chloe Smith. On top of the names I mentioned before, it includes the British Legion, the National Trust and the Salvation Army. They are responsible organisations, and I am sure they will help us to produce evidence that will explain the impact.
Chair: That will help us to create a better Bill, as it wends its way through both Houses of Parliament. Mr Wilding, if there is nothing else we will call the next witness. Thank you very much indeed for your time.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Rt Hon Mr Kevin Barron MP gave evidence.
Q221 Chair: Kevin Barron, Chair of the Standards Committee, if you could join us. My thanks to you and the other witnesses for working around the Prime Minister’s statement, which we expect at about 2.30 pm. I am most grateful that colleagues on both sides of the table have put themselves out to join us.
Mr Barron: That is fine.
Q222 Chair: It is good to see you, Kevin. We are a little annoyed. We thought we could be very pious about being the only MPs working today.
Mr Barron: I realise that. It has taken the thrill out of it for you. Such is life.
Q223 Chair: Kevin, do you want to say anything to start us off?
Mr Barron: I would like to say one very slight thing, given that Mr Christopher Chope is also a member of your Committee. The Standards Committee has not had discussions about the proposed Bill at this stage because of the timetable-it has been, effectively, thrown at Parliament. I will give my personal views about the Bill. The only other thing I would like to say at this stage is that it would be inappropriate for me to be asked to pass judgment on any current cases that are being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
Q224 Mr Turner: The House of Commons code of conduct already bans paid advocacy by MPs in most circumstances. Is a restriction on consultant lobbying necessary, and, if so, is it necessary to legislate on this issue?
Mr Barron: My instinct is that this potential piece of legislation could compromise what Parliament does at the moment. We have a very comprehensive code of conduct; indeed, some of you will know that there is a report waiting on the Floor of the House for a decision that would make the code even more comprehensive, in terms of the activities of Members of Parliament. It seems to me, having had discussions with the Clerk and having read through this, that we are bringing something in and, by saying that we are exempting politicians in some ways, I am not sure that we are not drawing Members of Parliament into a place that we had better not, in my view. As you rightly point out, Andrew, we have our own code of conduct, and if people are in breach of it, there is an independent investigation and an adjudication taken, eventually, on the Floor of the House. I think most of us are quite happy with that.
Q225 Mr Turner: Will the Bill enhance public confidence in Parliament?
Mr Barron: That is a wider question. I would have to say this. I have had eight years on the Standards Committee, and I was appointed Chair just after the last general election. We do not have many complaints from people who are upset with us and what we do-on occasion we have upset Members of Parliament on whom we adjudicate.
In terms of the public test, I think the public are reasonably happy with where we are now. If you look at past reports by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, most of their recommendations-not all-have been accepted in the House, and the authorities from outside have been happy with the way in which we operate around the activities of Members of Parliament. My greatest fear is that this brings us in somewhat by effectively saying what would not be covered, in terms of my activity as a Member of Parliament, and I am somewhat confused.
Q226 Mr Turner: I was going to ask you about schedule 1(2), which allows for the exclusion of constituency work. That is agreed, but will it, for instance, cover work not in one’s own constituency? I know one is never supposed to work in other constituencies. I may be an exception to this because I do not have important things such as hospitals just over the border, but quite a lot of MPs seem to have a hospital just over the border, which they can confer on and talk about quite a lot. Would that be included in the exceptions or would it not be included in the exceptions?
Mr Barron: Well, that is for somebody else to decide. The way I read this as first drafted, there is the potential that I could not talk. I certainly could not talk about the events in Rotherham hospital, which is not in my constituency, if I was getting paid for doing so, and our code of conduct covers that.
What this throws up for me is whether there are other circumstances in which I could not talk about issues that are not directly related through a constituent to me, and that opens up a whole area. You will know my activity-not on the Standards Committee, but in Parliament-against the tobacco industry and bringing forward legislation against the ill health that tobacco causes. When I first started doing that in the early 1990s, it was done at the request of a national charity effectively, not as a request from somebody from the Rother Valley constituency who wanted me to promote some legislation. I did not promote it for money, so we were covered, but that brings this debate into an area that I think we could do without.
Q227 Mr Turner: Does the combination of the definition of consultant lobbying in clause 2(2) and the specific exclusions for MPs in relation to their constituency work in schedule 1 create a clear, unambiguous rule for Members?
Mr Barron: No, I don’t think it does, because it then refers to the issue about your constituents who are registered as electors. Without boring you to death in reading it through, quite a lot of my constituents are not registered as electors. Some of them I see quite regularly, such as schoolchildren who might write to me about the issue of seal culling in Canada and so on, and I have written to Ministers in the past about that. They are not registered as electors. Some asylum seekers are not. Some of my casework is to do with people who are not registered as electors. Whoever has drawn up this Bill ought to have thought it through a little bit. They are wider issues, I have to say, but I am looking at it from the point of view of how I would operate as a Member of Parliament.
Q228 Mr Turner: Has your Committee been consulted by the Government on this issue?
Mr Barron: None whatsoever. We have not been consulted, and I understand that the Commissioner has also not been consulted. As you know, the Commissioner operates independently of the Standards Committee and of the House, basically. If there is going to be any conflict between what may happen through this piece of legislation, if enacted, and what currently happens under the code of conduct, I would have thought that the Commissioner at least ought to have had some discussions with Government about the implications of the Bill-from her perspective, not from the Standards Committee’s perspective.
Q229 Mr Turner: Has your Committee been provided with adequate time? Perhaps not.
Mr Barron: The answer to that is no, it has not, in my personal view. I am looking at my Clerk. I have a draft report that Mr Chope and others might be getting before Tuesday. We may want to issue that report, but that will be entirely a matter for the Committee. That will be on the day of the Second Reading of the Bill. Of course, if we thought it needed amending, we could not put down amendments until afterwards, but that will be a matter for the Committee on Tuesday morning. It is all done in haste in my view, and it is a great shame. We should have looked at some of the wider implications of some of the issues in the Bill.
Q230 Chair: One of the things that we have been talking about, Kevin, is the fact that the Bill appeared very close to the last day before the House rose, and we will consider it on Second Reading on the second day that the House is back, while the whole Committee stage will be complete within eight days of the Bill coming to the House. You have just said that your Committee has not been involved in this and you do not feel you have had time to scrutinise it effectively. That is a view that our Committee shares with you, if I may say that.
I have made this offer to every witness today, and you may be the first one to say no: do you think that the Bill would benefit from a Special Standing Committee that could look at it over a period of months-time-limited-not to delay, but to produce the sort of lobbying Bill that I actually think there is quite a broad consensus behind? Would you be willing to help and co-operate if we were trying to get that through the House?
Mr Barron: Again, speaking as an individual, my instinct is that yes I would, because it seems to me that we have to get this right. There are some areas that I am concerned about: how it may impact on what we do in terms of the code of conduct and on what I do as an individual Member of Parliament. Some of these areas need clearing up. I accept entirely that it could be the case that when this goes through this quick stage, in terms of the Committee and everything else, Ministers are going to turn round and say, "Well, it is the intention that this wouldn’t happen to an MP" or "that wouldn’t happen to an MP." Frankly, this is legislation; this is statutorily bringing somebody into being-the registrar-that could say whether that could happen. Will any payment to me through IPSA be deemed to be any part of any sort of businesses that I am involved in? Could we not say in the Bill that any moneys from IPSA are nothing to do with and cannot in any way be interpreted as payment for a business as defined under the Act? There are areas like that that I, as a Member of Parliament-not necessarily as Chair of the Standards Committee-think ought to be clear. We cannot have a situation where we end up in a court of law in a few years’ time with people are looking at the debates in Hansard to see what Ministers said or did not say and whether the intention was to restrict what a Member of Parliament can or cannot do as a Member of Parliament, not just as a constituency Member of Parliament.
Q231 Mrs Laing: On that point, so we can clear up the points that are rather absurd, rather than those that really need to be addressed in the short time we have, does not the Bill make it clear that registration under the Bill is to occur "in the course of a business"? You just mentioned that phrase. It could not possibly be construed that a payment from IPSA to a Member of Parliament is "in the course of a business".
Mr Barron: That would be a matter for the registrar, who has been given independent powers to judge on that-not our registrar, but the registrar under this legislation.
Q232 Mrs Laing: I entirely see that the phrase "Trust in IPSA" is an oxymoron. Of course, we should not rely on that. Some of the interpretations that have recently been put on things done by MPs are absurd, but is it not possible to agree that, as far as this Bill is concerned, it is not the intention to require Members of Parliament acting as Members of Parliament to register as lobbyists?
Mr Barron: I accept that it would be a nonsense, but it would depend on how the Bill is interpreted by somebody who will be given statutory power under the Bill. That is a bit wider than my brief as Chair of the Standards Committee. We have to look at how it will be interpreted. Consultant lobbying is defined in clause 2 as occurring when "in the course of a business and in return for payment, the person makes
communications within subsection (3)". Subsection (3), as you know, goes down to a Minister and crown or permanent secretaries. It then goes further to development or modification of policy, contracts or other financial measures or "the exercise of any other function of the government." We need clarification on that. This individual or statutory body that is going to be set up will have to interpret what the Bill says. Saying, "As an MP, it won’t stop you in that area" is probably not helpful.
Q233 Mr Chope: But surely, Kevin, MPs are excluded by paragraph 3 of schedule 1. Paragraph 3 says that the Bill does not cover anybody whose main business is not lobbying, and the main business of an MP is not lobbying. As the main business of an MP is not lobbying, any reference to a Member of Parliament adds complication, because it implies that the drafters of the Bill think that it might be the main business of some MPs to engage in lobbying.
Mr Barron: It is a very interesting debate and I am sure that we will have this on Tuesday morning at the Standards Committee. I think that for the past 30 years, I have been doing lobbying on behalf of individuals and some organisations-for 30 years or more. Would that fall within the ambit of the Bill? As common sense interprets it, no, but the Bill does not say that it could not.
Q234 Mr Chope: But it has not been your main business, has it? Or maybe it has.
Mr Barron: Maybe it has. Maybe my casework dealing with individual cases in the Rother Valley constituency is my main business. That is what keeps me sane, and it is my main business. If I am lobbying the Department for Work and Pensions, local government or something else on behalf of individuals, maybe someone could interpret that as absolutely being lobbying. Now that is an absurd interpretation of the intent of the Bill. What we need to do is get this Bill into some sort of shape to ensure that that interpretation cannot be given to it. As a lay person looking at this proposed legislation, I think there is a danger there. What we need to do, whether or not it takes time to do it in the way that your Chairman suggests in terms of a formal Standing Committee or through amendment in three days, I do not know, but I think we ought to make an effort. We also ought to make an effort to ensure that the Bill cannot be interpreted in a way that is not intended. As I suggested earlier, we do not want lawyers in years to come to sift through Hansard to see what the Minister said about the particular case when this came along. There is potential-perhaps very much on the outside of that, but there is potential-that my lobbying on behalf of individuals or organisations could be interpreted as lobbying.
Q235 Mr Chope: Would you be in favour of MPs being specifically exempted from this Bill? Would that be the easiest way forward?
Mr Barron: Yes, on the basis that MPs would not be exempted from anything to do with lobbying: if they were lobbying, they would have to do so within the rules of the code of conduct. As you know, lobbying for money is outwith our code of conduct and action would be taken against people for doing so. I do not want to disturb that. I think the public have some confidence in that. I know they don’t have confidence in MPs per se, but I think they have some confidence in the machinery that we have put together. What I have been doing for the past eight years is trying to build up that public confidence in our code of conduct and how we operate as individuals, and quite frankly I do not want that to be disturbed,
Q236 Chair: Kevin, I do not know whether you have received correspondence from Mr Joe Egerton, who has put together a rather frightening list of potential things that Members of Parliament could fall foul of: an MP writing to Mr Pickles urging him to take a permissive approach to fracking who does not have a constituency interest, for example; an MP who writes to the Foreign Secretary expressing concern about the persecution of Christians in Egypt, or whatever, who are not resident in his constituency; or an MP who discovered a company located outside the constituency that is contemplating investing in his or her area and who then writes to Mr Cable suggesting that that should be supported. I do not know whether those things are true, but I will say that such things are the bread and butter of most of us who pride ourselves on being good Members of Parliament. Have you had a chance to examine the truth of some of those examples?
Mr Barron: It is something that I will be discussing further with the Committee on Tuesday next week. I not only received Joe Egerton’s e-mail myself but it was also sent to me by a parliamentary colleague who sits on the opposite side of the Chamber and who was deeply worried about its implications. A junior Minister has answered some of my concerns in the past 24 hours, but I have not been able to sit down and look at that in great detail.
By implication, there is a worry that the Bill may restrict what we do. You talked in your examples about people who are resident in their constituency. My understanding is that they not only have to be resident, but registered to vote as well, which would disenfranchise people whom I represent. That needs to be addressed and pretty quickly. It may be the case that saying what an MP can do is wrong, and we should just say that the Bill does not affect MPs. Nobody can then misinterpret what our job is as part of a representative democracy. That job sometimes goes a bit wider than our own individual constituencies.
Q237 Chair: Without putting words in your mouth, do you feel that the Bill could benefit from further consideration before being put to Committee and full parliamentary process?
Mr Barron: That is a proposition that I will be putting in front of the Standards and Privileges Committee on Tuesday. I will let you know if they say yes to that.
Chair: Kevin, thank you very much for coming. Thank you to colleagues on the Committee for coming back during the recess to try to get some information on the record. We are getting lots of written evidence, too, which we will append to a report that we intend to get to every Member of Parliament in less than one week’s time. In other words, that will be in time for the Committee stage debate on the Floor of the House, if that is possible. We intend to get that to people next Wednesday night or Thursday morning, which will allow Members to table amendments to the lobbying Bill on the Floor.
I also thank you, Kevin, for coming along at short notice, and coming early at short notice because of the new developments today. All colleagues want to get to the Chamber to hear the very serious statement and reply on the question of Syria and chemical weapons. I hope no one will infer a lack of interest from this Committee if we wind up now so that colleagues can hear that very serious statement from the Prime Minister.
We will be taking further evidence next Tuesday. We will meet on Wednesday to agree a report, and I hope we will inform the debate on the issue of lobbying. Kevin, thank you so much for helping us out today.