Sir David Davis raises his concerns over the Lobbying Bill


Sir David Davis raises his concerns over the Lobbying Bill (10 September 2013). This is the full text of his speech in the House of Commons debate:

Mr Davis: “I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and new clause 4. However, before I speak briefly about that, I want to respond to the comments made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) at the beginning, because I am afraid to say that I largely agree with him.

I do not hold much of a brief for any of this Bill, but part 2 as it stands seems to be a very serious mistake. I am particularly concerned because it used to be a convention, at least when I came into the House, that we did not guillotine constitutional Bills, yet part 2 goes to the heart of our democracy and free speech, as demonstrated by the opponents to the Bill. I know of no previous Bill that had ranged against it Christian Aid and the British Humanist Association, Greenpeace and the Countryside Alliance, or the Royal British Legion and the Salvation Army. It is a Bill that has attracted opposition precisely because it goes to the heart of all that those organisations do—not what they stand for, but what they do and how they execute their duty in society.”

Mark Lazarowicz: “The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although it is not such a broad constitutional issue, is it not also the case that the points we have raised about the implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are genuine concerns, not just points we are making today, and that if we do not get them right, there is a danger that we will produce legislation that is, frankly, unworkable?”

Mr. Davis: “That is why I start from my concern about the guillotine, because this is a Bill that in past decades—not past years, sadly—would have spent hours, days and weeks on the Floor of the House. It would have been preceded by a proper consultation, a cross-party agreement, a Green Paper and a White Paper—there was a White Paper, but as far as I could tell, it did not refer to part 2 at all. The Bill has not gone through what in my view would be a proper constitutional process and so will of course be subject to unintended consequences all over the place.

I accept that the Government will not have intended many of the consequences—I will come to some that they do intend in a minute. I accept that the deleterious consequences of the Bill were not intentional, but they arise directly from how the Government started the process. We had a brilliant report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, as chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), which could have provided a basis. That Committee could have been the vehicle for the process. The hon. Gentleman is right: there will be deleterious consequences, most of them unintended, but most of them because of how we have addressed this Bill.”

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): “Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has made it clear that it has similar concerns outstanding, despite the apparent movement by the Government on clause 26? It says in its brief:
“’We remain concerned that…voluntary organisations…may still be subject to ambiguous and damaging legislation. NCVO believes in a society where freedom of speech, the freedom to associate and the right to free and fair elections are all similarly inviolable.””

Mr Davis: “Let me pick up that point and develop it a little—we are principally talking about clause 26, but it also relates to later clauses, which will be dealt with later in the day. It is in this context that the comments from the Electoral Commission—the primary executing agency of this Bill—come into play. It uses the words “significant regulatory uncertainty”, saying that parts of the Bill are “impossible to enforce” and pointing out “significant issues of workability”. What are we doing? We are transforming a bureaucratic organisation, with the powers to make rules on policy campaigning, as well as to relax those rules, tighten the rules, amend them retrospectively and then apply them retrospectively to freedom of speech—something that is, by definition, oppressive. By definition, that will chill freedom of speech. This Parliament has created a bureaucracy without the ability to alter, change or amend the rules before—it was known as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. What we are creating in this Bill is—if we want a precursor of how this will play out—an IPSA for elections.

Let me turn to new clause 4. When it comes to political campaigns—whether electoral campaigns or other campaigns—the world is changing. Twenty-five years ago, I think only 8% of the population did not feel an affinity to one or other party. That figure is now 25%. All the political parties are declining—there is no party point in this; we are all dying on the vine as organisations. It is the nature of society that people’s interest in something tends to be more piecemeal than it was 25 or 50 years ago. This Bill is trying to swim upstream. It is trying to defy the nature of modern politics and the fact that political decision making now is by web-based campaigners, web-based petitions or 38 Degrees.

I get as annoyed as everyone else when I get campaigners from 38 Degrees writing to me—they say that they sometimes get dusty replies—but as Voltaire would have put it, I may disagree with what they say, but I defend to the death their right to say it. What part 2 does—not intentionally, but by accident—is jeopardise that entire tradition of our country. This is the home of free speech and this Chamber is the original defender of free speech, so what are we doing making these changes by accident? That is why I am concerned.”

Stephen Doughty: “The right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely strong point. Does he agree that 38 Degrees is facilitating the ability of our constituents to make their voices heard? It is not campaigning itself, separately from society. The Bill would cut down the ability of our constituents to make their voices heard on many crucial issues.”

Mr Davis: “The hon. Gentleman invites me to commit political suicide by confessing that I have used 38 Degrees in some of my campaigns. Sometimes I am for, and sometimes I am against. The organisation is part of the modern mechanism, and it is not the only one. It was, after all, based on similar organisations in America and Australia. That is the way politics is going and, frankly, my constituents should judge me on whether I voted for the proposed Syrian war. They should judge me on whether I voted for tuition fees and on how I voted on this, that or the other measure.

If I may, I shall disagree with the author of new clause 4, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, on one point. He said that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was wrong to claim that it was an attempt to protect the Liberal party from the National Union of Students, but I was told by a member of the Liberal party that that is exactly what it was intended for. The raw truth is that, in our trade, we should be willing to stand by our principles and our aims, and by what we actually do. We should live or die by that, in political terms.

I want to make one more point, and I shall make it directly to the Minister on the Front Bench. As I have said, this section of the Bill deals with a constitutional matter and goes to the heart of free speech in our society. Undertakings have been given by those on the Front Bench—entirely in good faith, I imagine. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) has been teased about tabling a manuscript amendment, because that is not the way to do it. We should do it properly, with proper legal advice and taking a wide range of contributions from the very people who will be affected. What the Government should have done before the Bill was presented to the House should be done now. If it is not done now, and if what is presented on Report is unacceptable, it will probably still get through, although I shall vote against it.

Paul Flynn: “Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?”

Mr Davis: “I am on almost my last line, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not.
The Bill would probably still get through in those circumstances, but it is probable that the House of Lords, whose primary function is to act as a defender of our constitutional rights, would strip out the whole central section of the Bill. That is what it ought to do, and that is what it will do if the Government do not get the next stage right.”