Democratic Political Activity (Funding and Expenditure) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Democratic Political Activity (Funding and Expenditure) Bill [HL]

Lord Rennard Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 27th October 2017

(6 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Democratic Political Activity (Funding and Expenditure) 2017-19 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, today is another one of those debates that may feel like “Groundhog Day” for many of us and in which we may expect to go round the houses and fail to make progress. But the two-year parliamentary Session allows us time to make progress on a Private Member’s Bill, and the evidence of the last two general elections, the referendum, many media reports and what is before the courts strongly suggest that we should be adopting some of the measures proposed in the Bill

Indeed, the Minister himself in answer to a Question from me on 29 March about the ambiguity concerning what is local and what is national election spending accepted that the time will come when,

“we should stand back and look at the legislation to see whether we need greater clarity for all political parties in interpreting how that distinction should be made”.—[Official Report, 29/3/17; col. 590.]

Just because an issue is before the courts does not mean that Parliament cannot consider relevant legislation. If that were the case, Parliament would be able to consider very little legislation at all. It would make a mockery of democracy to leave the consideration of these issues until after another general election or referendum.

The House will be pleased to know that I will not repeat my arguments about these issues from the debate on a very similar Bill held on 10 March this year. They are of course available in Hansard at col. 1613 for all those interested in them. My noble friend Lord Tyler has already mentioned the excellent report published in full for the first time yesterday by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. It is an excellent piece of work by Chris Bowers which asks the crucial question: do the present UK election spending limits prevent parties buying elections? If they do not, and the evidence he cites shows that they do not, then we do not have a healthy democracy because one that can be bought cannot be considered to be based on fair and democratic principles. In the report, Chris Bowers expresses concern that, “There is an array of loopholes and omissions of enforcement that are allowing candidates, parties and third party actors to bypass spending constraints, thereby jeopardising both the principle of the level playing field and the previously limited role of money in UK elections”. His report should be required reading for everyone concerned with the health of our democracy and the crucial link between money and politics.

Chris Bowers points out how the laws that were framed to avoid rich candidates or parties effectively buying elections are no longer working. Spending that is targeted in support of individual candidates in individual seats is not classified as such if it omits the name of the candidate and could also be described as national spending. But rather absurdly, it can mention the name of the constituency at which it is targeted, and the purpose of such spending is clearly to affect the outcome in particular seats. This spending may take the form of printed leaflets or letters delivered to voters either by volunteers or commercially by the Royal Mail and others. It can be adverts appearing on Facebook targeted at voters in a particular constituency and using data collected in order to target that constituency. But the costs of such advertising and the costs of the collection and analysis of the data may not be counted as local spending, thereby evading local spending limits.

The relevant legislation governing election expenditure dates largely from 1883 and 2000. The legislation from Gladstone’s era worked for a long time, but that from Tony Blair’s for a much shorter period. The introduction of national spending limits without a proper definition of national campaigning to prevent it being targeted at particular constituencies has been entirely counterproductive to the purposes of that legislation in 2000, as I warned at the time. The world of social media has now completely overtaken the legislation, and its costs, methodology and vulnerability to anti-democratic forces from other countries all require the introduction of some form of accountability to try to protect basic democratic values. My noble friend Lord Tyler and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also drew attention to the excellent work by Carole Cadwalladr, looking at the role and funding of organisations like Cambridge Analytica. Her work states the following:

“A shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign … influenced the result of the EU referendum”.

These areas of campaign activity need to be properly examined if we are to ensure that our election laws are fit for purpose.

Finally, the scandals of all parties and referendum campaigns that depend on the donations of a few rich individuals will continue until we cap donations at a sensible level and consider redirecting some of the Government’s advertising budget to extend existing levels of state funding to support our democracy—something which does not come free.