Transparency of Lobbying Bill

Speaking during a Committee Stage debate on the Transparency of Lobbying Bill, Charles Walker highlights the need for charities and other organisations to engage with the main political parties in the run up to the election. He expresses his concerns that this valuable level of political engagement could be suppressed by this Bill.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I have listened carefully to a number of contributions, and genuine concerns have been expressed. I do a huge amount of work with Mind and Rethink on mental health, and with my 100% support and advice, in the run-up to the next general election they will be setting a number of challenges for the main political parties about how people with mental health problems are treated. They will be seeking positive responses to those challenges, and I need categorical assurance from the Minister and those on the Front Benches that such activities will not be caught by the Bill before us.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): To add to that point, does the hon. Gentleman think that MPs’ websites with links to charities might find themselves included in a charity’s costs if they are considered to be promoting a particular charity’s position in the run-up to an election?

Mr Walker: The hon. Lady makes a constructive intervention, and no doubt the Minister will want to respond. Political engagement at whatever level in almost every form is greatly to be encouraged. I hope that the Government listen to the real concerns expressed today, and that that level of engagement is not suppressed.

Tom Brake: I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee for his contribution to the debate, and I acknowledge the excellent work he does on behalf of mental health charities. I assure him that mental health charities that campaign on policy issues will not be affected by what we are debating today. I hope he will agree, however, that if during a general election campaign one of the charities he has referred to advocated support for a party or a number of candidates, that would, in effect, constitute electioneering and have to be accounted for.

Mr Walker: I hear what the Minister says, but I think it is acceptable for a mental health charity to advise its members to consider carefully the responses it has received from the candidates it has quizzed when it comes to deciding how to cast their vote.

Mr Allen: My Committee reported in order to inform debates such as this, and we took evidence on this very issue from the Electoral Commission. The definition of “election purposes” changes and it now includes “enhancing the standing” of candidates. The Electoral Commission said:

“The new definition has been framed in a way that leaves a great deal of scope for us to interpret the meaning of the legislation, subject to being over-ruled by the courts as the result of a challenge. This effectively gives the Electoral Commission a wide discretion in deciding what the new regime means in practice…we do not think it is appropriate for us to have the sort of wide discretion over the meaning and scope of the regulatory regime that the Bill as drafted appears to provide.”

That is not my view or that of any member of my Committee. That is the view of the impartial and objective Electoral Commission. If it does not know, no trustee or person active in a charity can know at this moment.

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Mr Walker: I intend to follow the Bill closely. I hope that any charity worth its salt would not direct its members towards the candidate of a particular political party. I hope charities simply ask their members to take into consideration the responses they have received from the various candidates.

Andrew Gwynne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Walker: I will give way for a final time before I conclude my speech.

Andrew Gwynne: The hon. Gentleman’s point is precisely right, as hon. Members would expect, but does he share the concerns outlined by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? The explanatory notes do not mention supporting candidates; they mention

“enhancing the standing of…candidates”,

which is open to interpretation.

Mr Walker: I share many of the concerns expressed in the Chamber this afternoon, which is why I, like all hon. Members, will listen closely to the Minister’s response.

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