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Archive for February, 2010

Donations to political parties by donor category – update

February 25, 2010 3 comments

The Electoral Commission published the donations to political parties for the fourth quarter of 2009 yesterday, so I have updated the tables of donations by donor category to include 2009.

The stats on the Labour Party show a decline in individual donations. A considerable proportion of the £3.6 million from individuals were in large donations from a single source: Nigel Doughty gave £1.26 million, Lord Sainsbury gave over £1 million and Ronald Cohen gave £500,000. The trade union funding remains relatively stable, and funds from companies and unincorporated associations remain low. Its largest company donations were £100k from Hillside (New Media) Limited and £78k (through advertising services) from Saatchi and Saatchi.

The Conservatives received over £18 million in 2009 from individual donors. Again some large individual donors. Stanley Fink gave more than £1.5 million over 2009. David Rowland gave just under £2 million in that year. Michael Farmer gave £928,000. Of the individual donations, £7.4 million came in the final quarter of the year – which is unsurprising given the pre-campaign fundraising drive. Of the companies IPGL Ltd gave £690,000. Over the year JCB Research gave £265k. And no summary of donations would be complete without a reference to Bearwood Corporate Services, which gave £329,858 in 2009.

The Liberal Democrats had a relatively good year for individual donations – this source of funds was nearly equal to the amount received in public money. Their biggest individual donor was Lord Alliance who gave £250k. Much of its company donations came from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

Hedging of bets taking place with some companies donating to more than one party. In October 2009, Selfridges donated £10k to Labour and £30k to the Conservatives. Over the year, Canary Wharf donated £35k to Labour and £15k to the Conservatives. Asda gave nearly £15k to Labour and £7k in sponsorship to the Conservatives. Bloomberg Tradebook Europe gave £28k to Labour and £25k to the Lib Dems. Tesco gave £17k to Labour in sponsorship and £6k to the Lib Dems.

Some new teeth for the Press Complaints Commission?

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

The House of Commons just published its report on Press Standards, Privacy and Libel. Much of the coverage has focused on the allegations about journalists hacking into people’s answer phone messages, but the report is more wide ranging looking at a range of issues relating to privacy, libel and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Unsurprisingly, the Committee supported the principle of press self-regulation and does not propose the statutory regulation of the press (Calcutt did propose this in 1993). Nor does it propose getting rid of the body or maintaining the status quo. As with previous reports, the Committee takes a mid-way approach and proposes to keep the PCC, but to strengthen it. This approach goes down a fairly well trodden path of incremental reforms. The PCC has made changes following criticism in previous years, but this does not seem to stop the frequent questions on its effectiveness. Will these proposals be enough to stop the criticisms?

Many of the Committee’s criticisms of the PCC are not new – the usual arguments about its lack of independence, limited sanctions, its failure to be proactive, etc. There was also the customary reference to the body being ‘toothless’. However, the Committee also provides a more focused study of the PCC’s role in relation to the McCann case and Bridgend suicides.

The Committee argues that the PCC should impose financial penalties where there has been a serious breach of its Code of Practice for newspapers. A similar suggestion was made by the same Committee in 2003 – but this time it adds:

In the most serious of cases, the PCC should have the ultimate power to order the suspension of printing of the offending publication for one issue. This would not only represent a major financial penalty, but would be a very visible demonstration of the severity of the transgression.

Geoffrey Robertson criticises this proposal in the Guardian, comparing it to the licensing of the press. Not sure I agree – Ofcom already has similar powers to this. The merits of the proposal would depend on the size of the fines and the types of breach they were applied to. Nonetheless, this would be a major departure from the existing practice and a big step for the PCC to take. But would this get the support of the newspapers that bankroll the PCC? Proposals for a financial penalty have not been taken up in the past, is there any reason to think this time will be different?

The Committee also suggests changing the PCC’s name to the Press Complaints and Standards Commission and appointing a new deputy director for standards. The former is to provide a reminder that the self-regulatory body does not just respond to complaints, but can be proactive in ensuring compliance with the Code – but it is a fairly cosmetic change. The role of a deputy director is not made clear in the report – but I assume that it is to provide some overall monitoring of standards.

The Committee rejected the calls for a legal requirement for newspapers to notify individuals before publishing private information (Max Mosely has been the chief campaigner for such a reform). I think they are right to reject this given the difficulties in determining when such a legal duty would apply and the potential chill on public interest stories. However, the Committee thought that a prior notification clause should be added into the in the PCC’s clause – this is probably a more appropriate way to deal with the issue, where it can be dealt with more flexibly and developed as a matter of good practice rather legal duty.

The House of Commons cannot compel the PCC to adopt these proposals (although there are political/strategic reasons why the PCC might want to act on them). The PCC is currently undergoing a review of its governance, so it remains to be seen how many of the proposals are introduced.

Categories: Media Tags: ,

The PCC, the Daily Mail and discrimination

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Once again, the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission is back in the news – a question that has recurred since the PPC was established. This time it is a response to the Commission’s rejection of complaints about a Daily Mail column following Stephen Gately’s death.

The Commission rejected the complaint that the article was inaccurate. The Code’s accuracy clause applies only to statements of fact, and the Commission found the column to be one of opinion – so that point is quite straightforward. The other two grounds of complaint rejected by the PCC were not so clear cut. These were: 1) that the newspaper did not handle the complainant’s personal grief with sensitivity and 2) that the article contained prejudicial and perjorative references to Gately’s sexual orientation. On the latter point, the Commission rejected the claim as it was ‘not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article’ and concluded:

There was a distinction between critical innuendo – which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society – and discriminatory description of individuals, and the Code was designed to constrain the latter rather than the former.

This interpretation suggests a limited reading of the Code, which only covers the most blatant discriminatory language (which is consistent with the PCC’s previous decisions). Whether the Code should be more demanding in its standards will depend on what roles we think the press should perform. Free speech and the discussion of public affairs are clearly a priority. Yet here the question is not whether such speech should be banned or even a fine imposed. Instead, the question is whether the newspaper should publish the PCC’s adjudication (the final sanction for breach of the PCC Code). So you can argue the merits either way.

In any event, the PCC’s decision in this case is of less consequence. The PCC received 25,000 complaints and the Daily Mail was greated with a considerable amount of negative publicity. This probably did more than a PCC ruling, as the ruling mentions:

there were a number of forums in which challenges could be made to the columnist’s opinion. Ultimately, this was evidence of a healthy system, in which an initial viewpoint could be so publicly analysed and countered. Both the newspaper and the columnist were confronted with the impact of what had been published. This published adjudication by the PCC is another means by which general discontent can be registered in the form of a public judgment, even though the Commission has not found a breach of the Code.

The difficulty arises when the subject of the article is not a celebrity and does not attract a level of public sympathy which mobilises a mass online protest.

Aside from this are all the broader questions about the PCC – whether it is sufficiently independent to be a regulator, whether it inspires public confidence, whether it has any effect on the behaviour of the press, and so on. These are likely to be in the news next week when the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee publishes their long awaited report on press standards, privacy and libel. That Committee looked at the PCC in 2003 and 2007. On the former occasion, the Committee proposed that the PCC consider introducing financial penalties and called for statutory privacy laws. The Committee moved away from that stance in 2007, arguing that introducing fines ‘would risk changing the nature of the organisation and might need statutory backing to make the power enforceable’ and finding that it would be impossible to draft a privacy law that is ‘both specific in its guidance but also flexible enough to apply fairly to each case.’

Let’s see what they have to say on Wednesday.

Categories: Media Tags: ,

New Zealand election controls and third parties

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The New Zealand government has announced new reforms to its election financing laws. Among the measures is a proposal for ‘parallel campaigners’ spending over $12,000 to register with the Electoral Commission – these are third parties campaigning to support or oppose a political party or candidate in an election.

At first sight this looks like the British controls on third party election spending. In UK law, third parties have to register if they are going to spend over £10,000 in England or £5,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on election campaigning. There are several major differences between the British approach and the New Zealand proposals. The British thresholds for third party spending apply in the 12 months before a general election, whereas the New Zealand proposals will apply in the 3 months prior to an election.

The New Zealand Justice Minister said the register would be ‘publicly available to ensure openness and transparency concerning the identities of parallel campaigners.’ Yet as some commentators on the proposal suggest, whether this is effective depends on what has to be registered. If no more than providing a name and address is required, then there is the potential for front organisations, with unknown sources of funding, to be used to avoid the transparency requirements.  Here lies the biggest difference between the New Zealand proposals and the British laws. Under the British rules, registered third parties have to report donations received of over £7,500, where that donation is to fund electoral spending. In addition, the British rules put a cap on the amount a third party can spend in the 12 months before a general election. By contrast, the New Zealand proposals require neither.

I would be interested to know just how much of a concern third party spending has been in New Zealand. In the UK, the number of registered third parties is relatively small. At the time of writing, there are only 19 third parties registered with the Electoral Commission.  Among these are several trade unions, but 38 Degrees – billed as the British equivalent to MoveOn – is also registered. The current register also includes one individual, Patrick Evershed, who spent £48k in the 2005 election and has donated money to the Conservative Party. Many of the third parties in recent elections have spent tens of thousands – although in the 2005 general election the Conservative Rural Action Group and the union Unison spent over half a million pounds each. Maybe a close election this year will stimulate more third party electoral activity.

The biggest concerns about money in politics in Britain have focused on donations rather than third parties. The million pound plus donations to parties dwarf the sums spent by third parties on electoral activities. This is understandable, given that there is no limit on donations and it is easier for a wealthy person or group to simply bankroll a party’s campaign, rather than establish their own campaign. Donations have also generated the biggest with transparency, for example where companies and unincorporated associations have acted as front organisations.

The New Zealand proposals did consider some additional restrictions on third parties, such as a cap on their electoral activities. However, this was rejected, given the strong opposition from some groups. Discussing this point, the Cabinet papers quote the Human Rights Commission about the impact of spending limits on free speech:

in an era in which social networking internet sites are playing an ever expanding role, the assertion that spending limits are a constraint on freedom of expression is becoming increasingly untenable.

The point is interesting as I often hear arguments that controls on election spending are less necessary given the opportunities to speak on the internet – the point being that there is less need for regulation since more people can disseminate expression to a wide audience. The Human Rights Commission seem to turn that conclusion on its head – namely that spending controls have less impact on speech because, even with a limit, people can still communicate using inexpensive means. Under this view, that people can disseminate their expression cheaply online breaks the link between money and speech.  Interesting point, but not sure I agree with either view and, as I argue in chapter 8 of Democracy Distorted, money remains important in getting heard online (just as it is in the offline world).

Costs of campaigning online

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

The use of the internet in the election campaign gained attention recently with political parties advertising on Mumsnet. Not sure how effective this was, and whether its desired goal was to get some mainstream media attention (just as poster campaigns are a way to get on TV news, rather than for many people to see the posters). I have also seen a number a sponsored links for the political parties and other campaigning organisations on various websites – potentially opening up a new front in election spending. Much of the cost of British campaigns has been kept down through the absence of TV ads. I will be interested to see how much gets spent on internet advertising, and whether it is becoming a substantial new cost in elections.

Yet direct ads are just one part of the cost of the online campaign. The various websites and content produced by partisan groups and people (both with and without a formal link to a party) play a role in the political ‘resources war.’ For example, Labour List published details of its sources of income – including donations, sponsorship and advertising – later commented on by Guido Fawkes. That a site receives such income raises the question of how much some of the online activities cost and who is paying for them. For most sites, these details are unknown.

The closer we get to the election, there is greater potential for these online speakers to come within the election spending controls. We are currently in the ‘long campaign’ for the general election, for the purposes of the party funding controls. During this time, a person or website spending in support of a particular party will need to register with the Electoral Commission only if it spends more than £10k on electoral advocacy. I can’t see many independent sites going above that threshold. In any event, there are also questions about how far an amount spent on a site is for electoral purposes (and subject to the limits) or for non-electoral purposes (and therefore outside of the controls).

However, in the ‘short campaign, ‘ which takes place once Parliament has been dissolved, a limit of £500 is imposed on those expenses incurred in ‘promoting or procuring the election of a candidate.’ The limit is lower still in relation to local election candidates. The use of websites seeking to support a particular candidate in an election will fall under those rules. Much of the content on the web, will be well within those rules and incur nowhere that amount. But some of the bigger sites and some web advertising could fall foul of this law. So far, I don’t think this has been much of an issue and not sure how far it is monitored. As the online stakes get higher, it could become a bigger question.

Cameron on lobbying and the revolving door

February 8, 2010 Leave a comment

In a speech on fixing ‘broken politics,’ David Cameron has spoken out on lobbying, which he described as ‘next big scandal waiting to happen.’ He added:

we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism.

He also spoke of the cynicism caused by suspicion that money secures influence:

I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.

I certainly share this concern and a promise to do something is welcome. Yet the focus of his speech is primarily on corruption type issues – namely whether politicians ‘use their contacts and knowledge – gained while being paid by the public to serve the public – for their own private gain.’ This is just one part of the problem. There may be instances where a politican does not gain personally, but where well funded lobby groups have a better chance to influence political decisions. This is a distinction I look at in the fourth chapter of Democracy Distorted. For example, hiring a well connected lobbying firm might bring some advantages, without any money going to a minister.

The remedy proposed is fairly limited, with Cameron focusing on ‘revolving door’ issues – namely employment secured by ministers once they leave office. Cameron states:

the guidelines state that former ministers shouldn’t lobby government for at least twelve months after leaving office. We will start by doubling that to two years

The guidelines provide that ministers must take advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments for employment taken up within 2 years of leaving office – so it is already within their power to impose limits in that time frame. According to the Public Administration Committee’s report, a two year ban on lobbying was imposed on David Blunkett. Cameron does make an important point about strengthening the sanctions for those in breach of rules, which has been a point of criticism of the arrangements.

The problems of lobbying, however, go beyond the revolving door. Cameron’s proposal might be a first step, but there are many other things that need to be done to address lobbying. There are questions about MPs having second jobs, for example. On issues of transparency, a register of lobbyists would be a bigger step – although one that raises many difficult questions of definition and comes with some administrative burdens. I will be interested to see the full reform proposals.

MPs’ expenses and recall

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

MP’s expenses are back in the headlines again, with Sir Thomas Legg’s report detailing the amounts to be repaid by MPs.

One striking point is that after Legg’s investigation (and after Sir Paul Kennedy’s appeals from individuals MPs) a total of £1.12 million worth of expenses claims are to be repaid by MPs. Yet the Legg investigation itself cost £1.16 million. That is likely to be a conservative estimate, as further costs were incurred by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in their work on expenses.

So, the investigations cost more than the amount over-claimed by MPs. There is still a point of principle, as it is worth preventing the abuse of public funds in any event. It might also save money in the long-term if MPs’ conduct changes in future.

The findings of the report have limits. Legg did not look at claims that were being investigated by the police or Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Legg also rejected the argument put forward by many MPs that they had done nothing wrong, because they had their claim approved by the House of Commons Fees Office:

In any event that would not follow, but it especially does not follow in these circumstances, where the rules were so vague, the Fees Office was so weakly placed to enforce them, and MPs were themselves the self-certifying and responsible guardians of those funds as well as their recipients. Of course the words and actions of the Fees Office might well constitute a defence against charges of deliberate abuse by the MPs concerned. But that is an issue separate from the validity or otherwise of the payments and not for this review.

Legg said that approval by the Fees Office is not relevant to the validity of the expense claims, but could be a factor when deciding if an MP deliberately breached ethical standards.

I can see his point, as in many cases the MPs genuinely did not think they were doing wrong. But as Legg says, the MP’s were the ‘guardians of those funds’ – which makes it harder to pass on all responsibility to the Fees Office.

Questions remain about whether any more needs to be done to restore confidence in Parliament. On Tuesday, Gordon Brown mentioned a possible new power to recall MPs that commit some financial impropriety. Brown told the IPPR:

in grave situations where financial impropriety has been proven, but where parliament itself has failed to act, we are proposing the ultimate power of recall by the people.

Brown first made the proposal in June 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal. Prior to that both Clegg and Cameron made calls for a similar move.

The proposal raises a number of questions, such as what constitutes such a ‘grave situation’ which prompts the power to recall an MP. An inadvertent failure to register an interest would not be sufficient. It would have to be something showing a deliberate abuse of funds. But that is where all the difficult questions emerge – the ones that Legg avoided, such as what the MP believed at the time.

Another question is who decides whether an MP is guilty of gross misconduct – if it is to be a threshold for a recall. One approach would be to allow citizens to petition for a recall, but require that they provide reasons and evidence of some abuse of office. The danger is that the recall process could be abused with spurious and ill-founded allegations being made by petitioners.

To combat that danger, an official body/adjudicator could decide whether there is sufficient evidence to support the petitioners’ allegations of serious misconduct. Alternatively, an adjudicator could be required to make a finding of misconduct before any recall petitions can be submitted.

Either of these approaches would give considerable power to the adjudicator, which would probably be IPSA. A finding of misconduct by that body would be likely to end a political career – an incumbent would find it difficult to fight an election with such a finding. If you are going to hand the power to an independent adjudicator to determine whether there is conclusive evidence of gross misconduct (casting doubt on fitness for office) – why leave it to a recall process and not simply expel the MP? Parliament has the power to do this – but it was last used over 50 years ago.

These questions could be avoided through a more general power of recall – in which citizens can petition for an MP to face election without any questions of misconduct. That takes us away from MPs’ expenses and to bigger questions about the proper channels of accountability.

The recall proposal seems to be one that is unveiled when the moment calls for a radical measure, but fades before these difficult details are discussed.