In a disappointing end to this bill’s process, yesterday the Lords and government did not accept the amendments put forward by Lord Harries of Pentregarth on behalf of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement.
These were small technical amendments aimed at addressing some of the greatest problems caused by the requirement to account for staff costs and the new rules on constituency spending limits.
The fact that both votes were very close (231 to 249 on constituency spending, and a tie – 245 to 245 – on staff costs) is a clear indication of how the bill has scraped through and remains a worrying piece of legislation.
But it is also important to highlight that over the course of the bill’s progress, very significant concessions have been made by government, thanks to the joint effort of NCVO and the huge number of organisations behind Lord Harries Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement.
These have gone some way towards improving the rules and reducing the impact particularly on smaller organisations.
Key changes achieved…
1. Controlled expenditure
A return to the PPERA definition of what counts towards ‘controlled expenditure’ which, while far from perfect, is a significant improvement on the definition originally contained in the bill.
Some costs (translation into Welsh, disability access, safety and security measures, Northern Ireland parades) have been excluded. There has also been an explicit clarification that volunteer costs are excluded.
A substantial raise of the registration thresholds for non-party organisations (to £20,000 for England, £10,000 for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), meaning that the majority of organisations that undertake small scale campaigning activity won’t have to deal.
3. Regulatory period
A shorter regulatory period for the 2015 General Election (from 1 year to 7.5 months).
4. A review of the rules
A commitment to undertake a review of non-party campaigning rules after the 2015 General Election.
5. Coalitions and small organisations
A change to the rules for organisations ‘working to a joint plan’ (coalitions) to exclude small-spending organisations.
6. Spending limits
An increase of the spending limit for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by £20,000 from the 70% cut initially proposed.
Post-dissolution spending caps have been withdrawn in constituencies so there is only one constituency limit.
7. Accounting and reporting
A number of changes to the accounting and reporting requirements, which have helped reduce the regulatory burden that registration would entail.
It is now up to the Electoral Commission to produce guidance that reflects the types of activities that non-party campaigners undertake and is tailored to their circumstances. What is particularly important is to ensure that the guidance is easy to understand and helpful, so organisations wanting to campaign on issues don’t feel as if they should restrict themselves. This is especially true for charities that are non-party political and will therefore be even more cautious about the possibility of coming within the scope of the rules.
So over the next couple of months we will be working with the Electoral Commission and partner organisations to help shape the guidance and ensure the experiences of charities are properly taken into account. Please do keep in touch and stay involved, so we can feed in your views.