Angela defends Charitable sector

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In a speach during the report stage of the lobbying and transparency bill Angela defended the role of the charitable sector

Angela Smith: May I start my comments on clause 27 by declaring a non-financial interest in organisations in the third sector? I am the chair of the conservation and wildlife all-party group, the secretariat for which is provided by the Wildlife Trusts, and I am a vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports. I am proud to be associated with both organisations.

Clause 27 depends for its validity on clause 26, which we have just discussed. In my opening remarks, therefore, I want to make it absolutely clear that if the Government’s intention is to rewrite clause 26 at some point—as they have indicated this afternoon that they will—the Opposition are justified in not supporting the subsequent clauses that depend on it. The Electoral Commission made this point in its latest briefing notes:

“We recommend that once the definition of controlled spending is confirmed, the Government and Parliament should consider again what spending limits will provide the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and controls on undue influence.”

In that context, the Opposition will find it difficult to support clause 27 as it stands. Indeed, we still fail to understand how the Government can support their own clause 26 when they considered in the previous debate that it needed rewriting, but there we are. We will listen carefully not only to the Minister but to the esteemed Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen).

We support taking the big money out of politics and we support sensible controls on the money spent by third parties. That is why we introduced the cap on third party spending, ensuring that we would never be like the United States, where unaccountable organisations can spend vast sums of money. We have no objection to a tough cap on third party spending.

Andrew Gwynne: Does my hon. Friend agree that the provisions in the Bill do not even attempt to tackle the very issues she is talking about? In the 2010 general election, the main political parties spent £31 million; third parties spent £3 million on campaigning activities in that year.

Angela Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point that I will come to in due course.

This Bill puts the cart before the horse. Our contention is that this is the wrong way to tackle the very serious issues at stake and that what we actually need is an approach that focuses, first, on taking the big money out of politics and then places changes to third sector funding in the context of this much more fundamental and necessary reform of election funding. Let us be clear: that is the right way to tackle the issue because, to put it quite simply, the big money is not in third party spending. Political parties nationally—as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) has said—spent £31 million in the 2010 election, compared with just £3 million by third party campaigners. The biggest third party spender spent just 4% of the £17 million spent by the Conservative party.

While the Government claim that this is an attempt to take the big money out of politics, they do not even mention the real source of the problem: the amounts spent on election campaigning by political parties. If the Government are serious about taking the big money out of politics, they would be looking at a reduction in the overall expenditure cap for political parties during election years. If the Conservative party, in particular, is serious about taking the big money out of politics, it will withdraw this mess of a Bill and commit to meaningful reform. This is a bad, and badly drafted, Bill and it is very unlikely that, however much it is amended, it will stand up to serious scrutiny as a fair and workable piece of legislation. It is a Bill found wanting, partly because of the lack of rigorous consultation and partly because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, as the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out.

Charlie Elphicke: On the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), is it the hon. Lady’s position that organisations in receipt of public funds should be allowed to spend the money on election campaigning or that they should not?

Angela Smith: I have noted the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this issue in the past. I point to the answers given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland earlier: funding agreements between the state, local government and charities tend to make it virtually impossible for charities spending public funds to spend them on any other purpose.

This is a dog’s dinner of a Bill and, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said a short while ago, even that description of the Bill is an insult to dog nutrition. So let us be clear: our invitation today to the Conservative partners in the coalition is to place reform of third party spending in elections clearly in the context of a cross-party consensus on political party funding and political party spending. We need to see a cap on donations to political parties—our leader has suggested a cap of £5,000 —and we need to see meaningful reductions in spending limits by political parties in general elections. We need to stop this spending race, which sees spiralling sums of money spent on successive elections. No more dodgy dinners in Downing street; no more bankrolling of the Conservative party by a tiny number of wealthy City donors. The Electoral Commission itself has made it clear that reform of third party spending is needed, but not like this. Clause 27 has caused huge consternation in the third sector, because if passed into law, it would play a major part—along with the other clauses in part 2—in effectively gagging the third sector in election periods. The changes will have a chilling effect on our national debate in the year before the election. That cannot be right for any modern, 21st-century democracy.

Mr Anderson: In an earlier debate, our hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) raised with the Deputy Leader of the House, who is no longer in his place, the scenario in which charities would not be allowed to campaign in his constituency, yet political parties could spend £250,000 there, as they did, trying to undermine him and make him lose his seat. Is that not the real scandal of this Bill? It does nothing to address that concern. It will affect charities, who have a genuine right to lobby, but do nothing about such abuses of power.

Angela Smith: Our hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) articulated clearly the feelings of parts of many organisations in the third sector, who feel aggrieved that they are being picked on, as it were, in this Bill while the big spending takes place elsewhere.

The sceptical among us could be forgiven for thinking that in part 2, and clause 27 in particular, the Government appear to be trying to insulate their record and policies from legitimate democratic criticism. For example, a number of recent high-profile third sector campaigns could well have been stymied if this Bill had been in place. They include campaigns such as Stonewall’s equal marriage campaign or the Royal British Legion’s military covenant campaign. Indeed, as has been made clear on a number of occasions this afternoon, the National Union of Students could find it difficult to hold Members to account in the forthcoming election period.

It is perfectly possible that the Bill could also prevent the coalition of charities campaigning for plain packaging for cigarettes from making its case in the forthcoming election period. That is how serious the effect of this Bill could be. Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation could suffer the dampening effect of this Bill, and thereby become reluctant to make their case, while at the same time Lynton Crosby—a lobbyist for the tobacco industry—is working from the heart of the Government machine in Downing street. At a time when trust in politics is at an all-time low, why do the Government want to restrict the one part of our politics that is doing a good job in engaging people from all backgrounds in our political process? Why do the Government want to risk lowering the reputation of our political culture even more?

Clause 27 also illustrates a worrying trend on the right in politics—the challenge to the role of charities in the Prime Minister’s big society. Let us take the recent speech by the Justice Secretary, who proposed in an article in the Daily Mail recently that we ought to curtail the use of judicial review because—in his words—“judicial reviews are launched in order to try to disrupt Government policies, such as those initiated by anti-HS2 campaigners or by those who believe it is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on subsidising people in social housing to keep spare rooms.”

More and more, we are seeing challenges to a vibrant civil society—challenges that, if acted on, would contribute to an insulation of Government from the crucial checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy.

Lady Hermon: I would like to draw the hon. Lady’s attention to a problem with how clause 27 will apply to Northern Ireland—I should have intervened on her a little earlier, but I am sure she will not mind my intervening now. She will have noticed that the limit on controlled expenditure will be reduced in Northern Ireland from £5,000 to £2,000—not £2,500, but £2,000. I would like her and her colleagues—and, of course, the Minister—to address the fact that charities like the National Trust are national, covering the United Kingdom as a whole. Will the National Trust’s national expenditure or its expenditure in Northern Ireland be caught by the limit?

Angela Smith: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. The reduced limits for the devolved Administrations relate not just to Northern Ireland but to Scotland and Wales. I do not think the Government have thought clearly about the fact that many third sector organisations in the UK are UK-wide, so I take her point.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think that there is even a modicum of reason behind the proposal to reduce thresholds based on the fear among those on the Government Benches that an individual might decide to campaign on a third party basis and put large amounts of money into such a campaign? The legislation might catch the organisations that she has described, but does she agree that it would be very easy for an individual to be vague about such arrangements, as has happened in America with third party political action committees and related individual-funded organisations? In such circumstances, the provisions would not work.

Angela Smith: I will comment on the reduction to the thresholds presently. Suffice it to say at this moment that the Electoral Commission itself has suggested that the thresholds might even need raising, rather than lowering.There is a real suspicion out there in the third sector that, unfortunately, many Conservatives would like to see charities pare down their role, shrink their campaigning brief and concentrate instead on welfare provision.

That fear has already been borne out in this debate. There is nothing wrong with charities providing help and support for the sick, the young and the old, or for animals in distress—indeed, there is everything right about it—but they also need the freedom to campaign for the legislation and funding that are necessary to make the world a better place.

We have heard the views of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on the campaigning role of charities and voluntary organisations. The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said recently that“many charities need to renew their sense of mission, spending less time at conferences and more time valuing their volunteers. They should concentrate resources on helping people rather than campaigns, lobbying and administration.”And the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel)—

Charlie Elphicke: Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

Angela Smith: Of course.

Charlie Elphicke: The hon. Lady will know that I was expressing my concern that the chief executive of Save the Children had had a pay rise of some 22% since 2010, while many of our constituents have been struggling to get by. It is right that we should ask the charities to refocus on their front-line mission and to help people rather than helping themselves.

Angela Smith: I believe that the issue of third sector chief executives’ pay is being used as a smokescreen to conceal a real attack on the sector’s legitimate role of holding elected representatives to account and campaigning for the changes in society that it believes need to take place.

Charlie Elphicke: There is a legitimate role for third sector organisations in making their case to elected representatives, as they have done, but some charities’ pay is out of control and their administrative expenses are too high. In those cases, not enough help is reaching the front line. I am concerned about the alleviation of poverty and about helping people in need on the front line, and it is really important that charities should have those values—

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Edward Leigh): Order. I think we are starting to stray from the matter before us.

Angela Smith: Thank you for your guidance, Sir Edward. All I would say is that many third sector organisations listening to this debate will have been very interested to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Dover. Some—not all—Members on the Government Benches are clearly intent on curtailing the third sector’s crucial work of shining a light on inequality where it exists, and of campaigning and highlighting the need for changes in public policy, based on their experience and expertise.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): One organisation that has made a great contribution, under the previous Government as well as this one, is the Royal British Legion. It has campaigned for the rights of veterans, and I was on the receiving end of some of that campaigning when I was a Minister in the previous Government. Its effective lobbying has changed the law under both Governments. Is it not ironic that Conservative Members who have signed up to its campaigns are now saying that such campaigning should no longer take place?

Angela Smith: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it would be interesting to trawl the websites of many Members to see the lists of charities that they support on a regular basis. I imagine that every Member of the House supports the Royal British Legion and its campaigning work, and would want that work to continue.

As I said earlier, clause 27 plays its own role in gagging the third sector by reducing the threshold for registration and reducing spending limits on controlled expenditure. Under amendment 66, tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), the threshold for registration would be returned to the status quo, thereby protecting smaller charities and community groups from being caught by this legislation, making it virtually impossible for them to participate in the democratic process.

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