Bishop of Derby urges caution over ‘sapping of political energy’ in civil society

“We need transparency for professional lobbying and for political parties but we need transparency, and that is openness, in political debate. We should rejoice that so many charities, faith groups and voluntary groups want to be involved. They are subject to regulation in the political sphere through our tradition of charity Acts. Politics needs this political energy for the common good and all the signals—as we can tell from our e-mail inboxes—are that this source of political energy is being closed down and discouraged at the very time we are wringing our hands because the great public are not interested in political parties, elections or the democratic process.”

On 22nd October 2013, the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, took part in the Second Reading debate of the Government’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. In his speech, he asked the Minister to comment on three of the major tests for regulating transparency: the test of influencing electoral outcomes; the test of levels of financial expenditure and the test regarding the constituency as a measure. He expressed concern that as a result of politics becoming professionalised and pragmatic, ordinary people with political instincts were being excluded and the Bill as it stood would further sap political energy. The bishop hoped that there would be a pause and that the Minister would be willing to meet representatives of charities, faith and voluntary groups to look at proper controls and accountability.

Bishop of DerbyThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, want to comment on Part 2 from the perspective of charities and faith groups and the scoping out of a framework in this debate for further work. I declare an interest as a trustee of Christian Aid and as chair of the governors of the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service, the secretariat service of which comprises Central Lobby consultants who will have to register under Part 1 of the Bill.

I recognise that the Government are trying hard to listen to concerns about Part 2. Like others, I have been in correspondence with the Leader of the Commons and his team. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and others have said, the Constitution Committee noted:

“The provisions of Part 2 directly affect the fundamental common law right to freedom of political expression”.

That is a very serious challenge to these proposals. As has been said, concern has been expressed by the Electoral Commission and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Therefore, this question is raised not just by people like me from the faith and charity sector but by some very weighty, much more expert people. I ask the Minister to comment on three of the major tests for regulating transparency: the test of influencing electoral outcomes; the test of levels of financial expenditure; and the test regarding the constituency as a measure—three of the key tests.

First, as regards the test of influencing electoral outcomes, what is at stake here is not the transparency of lobbying but the danger of trying to control politics and standardise political debate on the single model of political parties, which are only one part of the mix. The Bill is part of a process whereby politics has been professionalised. This House is part of that process as many Members are full-time professional politicians. That has led to high standards and enormously sophisticated legislation, but at the same time politics has taken an inward turn to the pragmatic and is less guided by the big visionary ideologies of the past. The result of politics becoming professionalised and pragmatic has been disastrous for democratic politics because the demos, the people, have just walked away. It has become so professional, detailed and dominated by experts and expert groups wanting smart outcomes, that the great public, as we know, have retreated into personal space to get on with life and cannot even be bothered to turn out at elections. Democracy is in crisis in our culture and we need to read these proposals within that framework.

Professional lobbying groups with sharp, smart outcomes are filling the space of working politics and ordinary people with political instincts are being excluded. What we lack in politics, it seems to me, is a space for the amateur, those with occasional engagement and people interested in particular issues. Very few people are members of political parties or of the professional lobbying groups that pursue political lobbying in a smart way, but millions of people are involved in charities and faith groups. The importance of all those millions of people is that we gather together in faith groups and charities to pursue goodness for ourselves and others, and that is a political energy. People want to do good for their neighbour, community and country. That is political energy. It is often concerned with big issues and principles and is often vague and unformed, but surely the task of a Government and their legislation should not be to close all that down and put it in a box that looks like another political party but to listen, interpret and help shape that energy so that it can create goodness appropriately and people can be encouraged to be part of a nation and its political culture.

We should be delighted that people from the charitable and faith sectors are making all this fuss. They are interested. They have political energy for goodness. My concern is that the proposals under the test of influencing electoral outcomes are predicated on a very narrow, party-political approach to how politics works. Under this test, will the Minister comment on free speech and freedom of assembly? Does the Minister accept that charities and faith groups bring a different kind of political energy? One that is vital and needs encouraging and cannot be bureaucratised into processes and ways of operating that have suited political parties—in the past at least—but do not suit this particular kind of energy.

Secondly, what does the Minister say about charities and faith groups convening hustings—meetings—to discuss political issues? The proposed regulatory framework might make this subject to registration, putting in accounts and all that kind of thing. There is a great aspiration from this Government for a big society, which I believe in. The danger of these proposals is that we are bringing into effect a Big Brother society where all the little details are imposed on people from a very narrow model sapping political energy and making it more difficult for people to contribute.

Thirdly, under the test of influencing electoral outcomes, will the Minister comment on the space that will be given to religious leaders to make statements and put things out on the web in an election period? Will there be controls on that kind of proactive engagement?

More rapidly, on the second test of levels of financial expenditure, can the Minister give a rationale for the level of financial controls that have been set for the charitable, voluntary and faiths sectors? Why is there a financial measure for energy that is so often less focused but equally vibrant? Charity law provides a well established regulatory framework for the political engagement of this sector. Why have we brought in these lower thresholds that bring a bureaucratic control and pressure on the free-flowing energy of political concern among the wider public? What is the rationale for extending the scope of controlled expenditure on third parties? Why has the financial tool been used when we could have explored current charity law and how to develop that in terms of responsible and transparent operating?

The third test is the use of constituency as the measure. This may just show my ignorance of how politics works. I can understand the need for a constituency to order voters in a particular mass so you can count them. However, in an age of social media how are you going to measure the geographical influence of anybody, even if they are in somebody’s constituency? How are you going to measure whether it affects people over the border or has come from somewhere else? Freedom of association has a very different meaning in the virtual age. I would have hoped that this legislation would have thought about that creatively but the test of a constituency and its effect is a rather crude and simplistic measure. Will the Minister give a rationale for the constituency test and the criteria that can really be used to make an informed judgment when all this stuff flies around the internet all the time?

We need transparency for professional lobbying and for political parties but we need transparency, and that is openness, in political debate. We should rejoice that so many charities, faith groups and voluntary groups want to be involved. They are subject to regulation in the political sphere through our tradition of charity Acts. Politics needs this political energy for the common good and all the signals—as we can tell from our e-mail inboxes—are that this source of political energy is being closed down and discouraged at the very time we are wringing our hands because the great public are not interested in political parties, elections or the democratic process. So I, too, hope that there will be a pause, and that the Minister will be willing to sit down with representatives of charities, faith and voluntary groups to look at proper controls and accountability. There must be accountability. How can it come out of the existing charity law, and how can we minimise bureaucratic, financial and geographic tests?

We must encourage and celebrate political debate and commitment. The task of politicians is to enable that and to listen to and interpret it, helping it in all its wild generality and off-beamness to find a way of contributing and helping the country to get a proper sense of direction and a proper buy-in from its citizens.

(via Parliament.uk)