Scotland may have been to big political story over the past few weeks, but there are signs that a general election is drawing closer. As a representative of West Norfolk CAMRA I occasionally contact local MPs about relevant issues and feedback varies.
Henry Bellingham has proved to be very keen and supportive on a number of issues, Elizabeth Truss has replied to my emails whilst George Freeman will not engage with me as I do not live in his constituency. However I now get regular emails from Elizabeth and George telling me about all the wonderful things they are doing. I even sat next to Mark Field, the MP for Westminster, in the Bury end at Luton recently, though I think he was there to appreciate good football rather than canvas for votes.
Normally an election would be a great opportunity to raise issues with candidates, but this time round there is a cloud on the horizon. Most people will not have noticed that a new law was passed earlier this year, the full title of which is Transparency of Lobbying, non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This act requires organisations who spend more than £24,000 on certain ‘regulated’ activity between September 19th and the next election to register with the Electoral Commission and is designed to regulate any activity that is both public in nature and be reasonably regarded as intended to encourage voters to vote for/against a particular party or group of MPs/candidates.
Now I am not going to spend that kind of money on electioneering, and in all probability neither is CAMRA, but we do have to be very careful about what we say and do. For example we are not allowed to invite candidates to open an event (such as a beer festival), make a keynote speech or make the presentation of an award. Neither can we in any way seek to influence how somebody votes.
There are lots of issues which I would like candidates to address, such as beer duty and change of use of public houses, and as a campaigning organisation I feel that is part of our role. Why are MPs scared of these issues being raised? Is it a heavy handed way of trying to neuter the Trade Unions? Are they worried that charities like Shelter are going to highlight awkward facts?
I am all for making sure that charitable donations are used for the purpose for which they were raised, but I can see that helping to eradicate the causes of homelessness is as valuable as dealing with the consequences, and calling politicians to account can be a valid way of achieving that. I also think that it is scandalous that people who willingly pay to join a Trade Union are told how their subscriptions may be spent.
Perhaps if the real agenda is to make charitable giving focus on the poor and needy, some though should be given to the charitable status of institutions like Eton College (see their website for details of how capital gains tax is calculated on your gift of shares).
Still, at least no such limitations apply when some of the money you spend on your beer is donated to a political party. Robinsons, for example, donated £5,000 to the Tatton branch of the Conservative party in May this year, as they did last year, and I am sure that George Osborne, the local MP was duly grateful. As Scotland shows, given the right issue, people can be engaged in the political process, but sometimes I wonder how much our leaders want that to happen.