Select Committee on Home Affairs Fourth Report



122. We received no calls for any major changes to the rules for eligibility to become a Member of Parliament. The main rules are that a candidate must be a British or Irish or Commonwealth citizen, must be over 21, and must not be a public official or officeholder, as set out in the schedule to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 (as amended from time to time). We did however receive representations on two points, from Professor Blackburn.

123. The first related to the minimum age requirement. Professor Blackburn suggested the minimum age should be reduced to 18 (the minimum voting age) since there was no sound reason to distinguish between the maturity required to have a vote and the maturity required to represent the electorate in the Commons.[265] This view was supported by the spokesmen for the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.[266]

124. Lord Parkinson, expressing a personal view, suggested that 18 was a "little too young to be taking decisions about the level of tax that people should pay and the sorts of services that people ought to have" and that the present arrangements worked quite well as they were. It does seem to us that there is a difference between the degree of understanding and experience of life and society required to exercise a vote sensibly and that required actually to act as a representative. We recognise the argument for reducing the age for candidates to 18, but on balance we do not recommend such a change.

125. The second issue drawn to our attention, the eligibility of Christian ministers of religion, is not one of major importance, either in terms of the principle involved or in practical terms. It is nevertheless a good example of the way in which British electoral laws have developed in a piecemeal fashion and are in need of bringing up to date.

126. Professor Blackburn has pointed out that finding the answer to the question 'Can a priest stand for Parliament?' involves reference to nine separate acts, dating back to the sixteenth century.[267] The results show a picture almost totally lacking in consistency or, in modern terms, any rational basis. Restrictions apply only to Christian ministers and not to those of any other faith. They differ between Anglican priests, Roman Catholic priests, and non-conformist clergy. And the position differs in England, Scotland and Wales. Furthermore, some such ministers who are otherwise barred from being MPs can resign their ministry in order to serve while others cannot.

127. These restrictions seem to us to be out of place in modern times. There should be no restriction on ministers of religion becoming Members of Parliament, and certainly no distinction between those of different faiths or of different Christian traditions. Whether such persons should serve as an elected representative should be a matter for the rules or customs of their own faiths or churches and for the electorate, and need not be restricted by law. We therefore recommend that, with one exception, all restrictions on ministers of religion standing for, and serving as, Members of Parliament be removed; the exception would be in respect of all serving bishops of the Church of England who, for so long as places are reserved for the senior bishops in the House of Lords, should remain ineligible to serve as Members of the Commons.

The number of candidates

128. One of the issues widely raised in the evidence we received was whether any steps needed to be taken to reduce the number of candidates standing at elections (particularly national elections rather than local elections). At present,[268] to stand as a parliamentary candidate a person has to pay a deposit of £500 (£1,000 in European elections), which is returned if the candidate secures 5% of validly cast votes, and the candidacy must be supported by 10 'assentors' who must sign the nomination paper and must be on the electoral roll for the same constituency. These requirements are not regarded as onerous, and do not prevent a large number of candidates standing—particularly at by-elections or in prominent seats—who have little or no chance or expectation even of getting their deposit back, let alone winning the seat.

129. There are a number of possible problems associated with the present situation.[269] First, it risks trivialising the electoral process if there are numerous 'joke' candidates who are making no attempt to raise any serious issues at all. Secondly, it allows candidates from allegedly extremist parties to stand. Thirdly, it involves the spending of public money, since there are some privileges—such as free mailings to all electors—open to all candidates; the free mailing entitlement can raise particular problems if it encourages a candidate to stand as a means of obtaining subsidised advertising for a commercial venture. Fourthly, it can hinder the broadcast media in their coverage of a particular constituency because of the way in which the present rules give certain rights to all the candidates at the constituency contest being covered.

130. A similar range of arguments can be cited against the proposition that it is desirable to seek to reduce the numbers of candidates. The basic argument of course is that everyone in a free society should in principle be able to put themselves forward as a candidate without undue obstacle. This applies even to those who are standing in order to put forward what many might regard as seriously offensive views; and it was anyway suggested to us for example that in the case of racist candidates it might be preferable to allow them to stand—and get heavily defeated—than to risk giving them a sense of grievance which might find an outlet in other, more dangerous, ways.[270] It is argued also that having large numbers of candidates does not in practice create significant problems for the election itself, and that if it is felt that it causes problems in relation to media coverage then the solution is to alter the rules relating to such coverage rather than to create barriers against candidates standing in the first place.[271]

131. Our view falls somewhere between these two positions. We agree that people who are putting forward genuine political views and policies should in a democratic society be able to stand as candidates without undue difficulty, even if their views are unlikely to secure the support of any more than a small minority of voters. At the same time, we do not believe the political process is enhanced or democracy well served by a proliferation of candidates who are standing purely for the sake of personal publicity, whether for the purposes of humour or of commerce. We therefore agree that it is right and proper for there to be some basic threshold candidates must pass if they are to be allowed to stand. The issue is how high this threshold should be and what form it should take. In practice, any such threshold is likely to consist, as at present, of a mix between some form of a financial deposit (returnable if the candidate achieves a certain measure of electoral support) and a requirement to establish a certain measure of support for the candidacy in the form of the backing of a number of valid nominators or 'assentors'.

132. Professor Blackburn argued that the emphasis should be heavily on tightening up the nomination requirements (to perhaps 200 assentors) rather than increasing the deposit; he noted that in the 1992 elections the Green Party, putting forward a serious—if electorally unsuccessful—set of policies, polled over 170,000 votes nationally but lost £126,500 in deposits. He argued that a serious candidate should not have undue difficulty in collecting 200 signatures of support for his candidacy, even if they did not all vote for him or her in the actual election.[272] Dr Butler took an opposing line, suggesting that 200 signatures would pose no real obstacle and arguing for a further increase in the deposit, whose level could be indexed in order to maintain its effect.[273]

133. The main parties also had different views on how the current threshold might be raised, though all broadly recognised that there was a case for raising it.[274] For the Conservatives, Lord Parkinson suggested that it would be appropriate to raise the deposit again—to perhaps even as high as £2,000—and accepted also that there could be a small increase in the number of assentors.[275] The Labour Party submission accepted the idea of an increase in the number of assentors to perhaps 50 or alternatively a limited rise in the deposit up to £1,000 at most, though in oral evidence Mr Gardner did not think that proliferation of candidates was a significant problem.[276] The Liberal Democrats placed a greater emphasis on tightening up the rules relating to assentors, suggesting an increase in the number required to perhaps 200. They proposed also that the person giving their assent should not be able to sign the form unless the proposed ballot paper description of the candidate was already clearly stated; they suggested there were cases where the signature had been obtained without the assentor being properly aware of the true party allegiance of the prospective candidate.[277] They added that if there were to be any increase in the deposit it should be accompanied by a further decrease in the recovery threshold. [278]

134. We do not favour a major increase in the threshold for becoming a parliamentary candidate but we do think some further rise would be appropriate in current circumstances. We recommend that:

    (a)  there should be a modest increase in the deposit to £700 for the next general election, and that the deposit should thereafter be indexed;

    (b)  the number of assentors required should be raised to 50, though returning officers should have a clear power of discretion to accept nomination forms containing only minor errors in the names and details of assentors; and

    (c)  before signatures of assentors are collected the nomination form must be authorised by the returning officer confirming that the candidate's name and description are accurate.

Misleading names of candidates

135. There have been a number of occasions in recent elections where candidates have been faced with opponents or potential opponents who have been nominated (or sought to be nominated) under a name which appeared to be deliberately designed to mislead the electorate. A prominent early example was the 1982 by-election in Glasgow, Hillhead, at which a candidate who had adopted the name Roy Harold Jenkins stood against the then leader of the Social Democratic Party, Roy Harris Jenkins. A number of other cases have arisen since then.

136. The Home Office memorandum explained that "Case law suggests that a person may give his or her 'acquired' surname when completing a nomination paper. Surnames may be acquired through deed poll, by constant usage, or as the result of marriage".[279] They added that powers existed for the courts to rule out the use of names which were intended to mislead the electorate, and that these had been successfully exercised at the 1997 General Election. An example was the case of a prospective candidate calling himself "Sir Nicholas Lyell" in order to stand against the Conservative candidate of that name, in which the High Court ruled that the claimed name was a "fraudulent device or contrivance ... [intended to] impede or prevent the free exercise of the franchise" contrary to section 115(2)(b) of the Representation of the People Act.[280]

137. However, other witnesses argued that in practice the position was not so straightforward. The remedies available might well be satisfactory to deal with clear abuses, but for other cases returning officers were faced with making difficult decisions open to challenge in the courts. The candidate whose position might be threatened by another candidate purporting to use an 'acquired' name could face a difficult decision over whether to instigate potentially costly proceedings. If the nomination arrives close to the end of the deadline for receiving nominations there will also be a problem of timeliness in dealing with any legal challenges. SOLACE[281] and the Association of Electoral Authorities,[282] together with the representatives of all three of the main parties[283] thought that the problem was not adequately addressed by the current law.

138. We accept that the position with respect to the prevention of the use of deliberately misleading names by candidates may be adequate in theory. In practice however there are still difficulties. We recommend that candidates should be nominated under a name by which they can show that they have been known for a given period before the election (such as the name by which they are listed in the electoral register).

Misleading descriptions of candidates

139. Similar issues about the use of misleading descriptions have arisen in recent years. Since the Ballot Act 1872, candidates have been able to place a description against their name, thereby allowing a means of distinguishing themselves—for example by their address or profession—from other candidates of a similar name. Under the Representation of the People Act 1948, it was specified that "The description shall not refer to the candidate's political activities", thereby preventing the inclusion of party affiliations. [284] However, this restriction was removed by the Representation of the People Act 1969, and it has now become standard practice for a candidate to be described by reference to the name of the party the candidate is representing. What has happened recently is a growing tendency for a candidate deliberately to choose a party name—whether by a small change in the spelling or by use of small variants in the words—which might confuse electors into voting for them by mistake in place of one of the mainstream parties. In at least one election it seems likely that the result was affected by such a candidate. On occasion attempts had been made in the courts to prevent this, but this route has proved ineffective.

140. The Registration of Political Parties Bill, introduced in May 1998 and intended to come into force in time to apply to elections in 1999, sets up a mechanism intended to address the problem. Under the Bill a register of party names will be established (with priority in the first wave of registrations being given to parties currently represented in the House of Commons). The registrar will not register a name which in his opinion "would be likely to result in the party's name being confused by voters with a party which is already registered".[285] At an election, the returning officer will not accept a proposed description of a candidate which "is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with a registered political party" unless the registered party has endorsed the nomination.[286] The Bill also introduces a procedure for allowing parties to register an emblem, which may appear on the ballot paper.[287]

141. The provisions of the Bill are intended to address not just the issue of misleading descriptions on ballot papers but also to make possible the introduction of electoral systems which involve stating a preference for a particular party rather than simply a particular candidate. The issue here however is whether the provisions will provide an effective solution to the problems facing candidates from mainstream parties at elections.

142. Local authority electoral administrators were not convinced that they would. Both the AEA and SOLACE had a number of detailed queries relating to the procedures and timetables applicable to the process, to which the Home Office have responded.[288] But they also saw difficulties on the key issue, that of how the returning officer was to decide on what was a description which was "likely to lead voters to associate" a candidate with a registered party. SOLACE, while emphasising that returning officers would not be averse to making difficult decisions thought that "what is quite bizarre here is that politically restricted officers ... are to make very significant political decisions as to whether or not a candidate's description ... should be allowed" and that while some such decisions might be relatively straightforward others would not be and would place additional burdens on returning officers at what was already a very busy period.[289] Both SOLACE and the AEA thought there was a danger of inconsistencies between the decisions of different returning officers.[290] Particular difficulties might arise in respect of nominations which involved limited variations on a registered party's name arising from a genuine intention on the part of a candidate to indicate that (s)he was standing on a platform representing a particular strand of opinion within a party, or where a party had split.[291] These witnesses drew attention to the fact that some of the people who tended to stand under descriptions which might be misleading were precisely the sort of people who would enjoy stretching the provisions of the Bill to the limit and would be prepared to go to court to challenge returning officers' rulings.

143. The main political parties shared some of these concerns, though they welcomed the Bill in principle.[292] For the Liberal Democrats, Mr Rennard saw a danger of "cumbersome and very difficult" court processes, and thought that the legislation needed to be "tightened up" with a need for stronger guidance to returning officers. For the Conservatives Lord Parkinson also saw a need for improvements. For Labour, Mr Gardner suggested that the Bill "does put an awful onus on the returning officers .... We think there will need to be very clear guidelines to ensure that we do not get continuous litigation at every election". Possibilities raised have included the suggestion that all the main parties should have the exclusive right (except perhaps where preceded by the word "Independent") to one particular word (such as 'Conservative', 'Labour' or 'Liberal'),[293] and that parties should be able to register a range of names (to cope with local variations for example).[294] Concerns were also expressed about the fact that campaign literature would not be subject to the same provisions.[295]

144. The Minister, in his evidence, did not deny that some parties might feel that the provisions did not provide adequate protection,[296] and that since the basic provision was that the decision rested with a returning officer there was always the possibility that a returning officer might take a view which did not accord with the wishes of all the candidates.[297] Nevertheless, he thought that returning officers would henceforth be working with clear legislation whereas, hitherto, the abuse of descriptions had not been unlawful.[298] He also took the view that the provision for party emblems to appear on the ballot paper would be a step forward in helping to ensure that voters were not misled.[299]

145. We welcome the provisions covering candidates' descriptions in the Registration of Political Parties Bill so far as they go. It remains to be seen how effective the provisions of the Bill will be in practice. We believe however that returning officers will need stronger guidance than is provided in the Bill as to whether particular descriptions should be allowed. There may also be a need to establish a mechanism to ensure consistency between different returning officers' decisions. We conclude that the Government, electoral administrators and political parties should monitor developments closely, and that the Government should be ready to introduce further proposals if necessary.

265  Appendix 2, section 6. Back

266  Appendix 7 (see also Plant Report p. 47) and Q 462. Back

267  Appendix 2, section 6. Back

268  See Appendix 1 section G. Back

269  See Dr Butler (King-Hall Paper No. 5), and QQ 102-113. Back

270  Appendix 2, section 7 and QQ 103-4 (Professor Blackburn). Back

271  As noted at paragraph 3 at the beginning of this Report, we have not examined these rules because they are one of a set of issues relating to the broadcasting guidelines and to publicly funded assistance to political parties which need to be examined in the light of proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Back

272  Appendix 2, section 9 and QQ 102-112; see also Memorandum by Mr D Radlett (see List of unprinted memoranda). Back

273  QQ 114-117. Back

274  QQ 458-461. Back

275  QQ 459-460. Back

276  Appendix 7, Q 459. Back

277  Appendix 9 and Q 461; the Board of Deputies of British Jews also expressed anxiety about the possible abuse of the present procedures noting reports that assentors may on occasion have been tricked into signing nomination papers or had their names forged (see List of unprinted memoranda). Back

278  The total number of candidates losing their deposits at the 1997 general election in the 641 seats in England, Scotland and Wales was 1537. If the threshold for recovery of the deposit had been reduced from 5% to 2½%, then a further 379 candidates would have retained their deposits. If the threshold had been reduced from 5% to 4%, then the figure would have been 84. These broke down as follows (main figures are on the basis of a reduction to 2½%, with figures on the basis of a reduction to 4% in brackets): 22 (7) from parties represented in the House of Commons, 309 (73) Referendum Party candidates, 34 (2) candidates representing other national movements, and 14 (2) independents of various kinds; none of the 379 candidates' descriptions suggested they were 'joke' or 'advertising' candidates (Source: research based on the election results as listed in DOD's Parliamentary Companion 1998).


279  Appendix 1 para 7.13. Back

280  Judgement by Longmore J., Queen's Bench Division, 16 April 1997. Back

281  Appendix 6. Back

282  QQ 330-332. Back

283  QQ 468-470. Back

284  RPA 1948, Schedule 3, Part II, paragraph 2(3). Back

285  Clause 3(1)(a). Back

286  Schedule 2 paragraph 2. Back

287  Clause 5, and Schedule 2 paragraph 4. Back

288  AEA and SOLACE papers on the Registration of Political Parties Bill, and Home Office comments-see List of unprinted memoranda. Back

289  SOLACE paper para 5. Back

290  Charter 88 had the same fear: Appendix ?. Back

291  QQ 333-340. Back

292  Q 471. Back

293  Appendix 9 and Q 472 (Liberal Democrats). Back

294  Appendix 8 (Conservative Party). Back

295  Q 472; see also AEA Q 335. Back

296  The Bill might not for example prevent Liberal Democrat candidates from facing candidates from the existing Liberal Party (QQ 541-543). Back

297  Q 530. Back

298  QQ 538-540. Back

299  Q 537. Back

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