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Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) rose--

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and then to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Wigley: As the Home Secretary is coming to the conclusion of his remarks, may I ask him about his comment that the Government have an open mind about the figures and that they are prepared to discuss them in our later consideration of the Bill? Does that statement relate to the provision in clause 122, which sets a limit for by-election expenditure of £100,000 for each candidate? That is a massive figure and could lead to money influencing votes. The clause is against most of the Bill's other provisions, which we support, and that figure should be moved downwards.

Mr. Straw: The question is open to argument. Although I cannot speak for Plaid Cymru, I can speak for the three main parties in England, and it has been suggested that the total spent by each party in some parliamentary by-elections looks as though it may have exceeded the amounts submitted by candidates' agents.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Surely not.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman obviously has information to which I am not privy about the Liberal Democrats' practices. I have merely communicated a suspicion to the House. However, if it is true, it is important that expenditure limits are realistic and reflect a reality that is common to all parties.

We are open to argument, but to set a limit of £7,000 or £8,000 for a parliamentary by-election is unrealistic. It would take no account of the fact that by-elections these days are very different from those of even 40 years ago. They are not only local events in a constituency, but events of considerable national significance.

Mr. Field: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. May I say how much everyone--not just in the House, but in the country--will welcome his remarks about opening consultation on the question to be put in a referendum? It is crucial for the legitimacy of the process for people to feel that the question has been set as fairly as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend clarify to the House the provisions in the Bill for expenditure limits on outside campaigning organisations? Do I understand correctly that two rules are proposed in the Bill? There is a rule on the limit of expenditure by outside pressure groups for the period after the Government introduce the Bill for the referendum. That is a set amount, specified in the Bill. The second expenditure limit is in the year before a general election. That is 5 per cent. of what parties can spend in an election campaign.

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My problem in understanding that is that, unless Parliament runs to the very end of its life, no one can know when the year preceding a general election begins. What advice would my right hon. Friend give to outside organisations on that point?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful--[Interruption.] No, I have loads of advice, and I ask the House to hold its breath while I offer it. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks in respect of the referendum question, and for his representations to me about that matter.

My right hon. Friend asked a question that I have often been asked, and that has also been posed to the Neill committee. We have a maximum limit on the life of a Parliament but no minimum limit and, as we know from our recent history, elections over the past 30 years have taken place at various stages in a Government's term of office, ranging from three and a half years in the case of the Heath Government in the early 1970s, to five years--right against the buffer--on two successive occasions, in 1992 and 1997. Given those facts, the question is how political parties can judge the date from which to run the clock.

The answer is that, for accounting purposes, the clock will run retrospectively from the date of the general election. That will not be onerous on the political parties, because, in practice, expenditure by parties is largely end-loaded. However, it will provide a check on parties against anticipating an election and spending huge sums in advance of the election.

Given our constitutional arrangements and the fact that we do not have fixed elections, I accept that there is no perfect way of achieving the regulation that we all seek. I believe that our proposals are the best way of achieving that end, and will not cause the problems that are sometimes anticipated, but we are open to argument if we have missed something.

Mr. Field: Again, I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. I applied my comments also to outside pressure groups. How can they judge when the clock has started, if the clock starts only when the Government call a general election? Is that not like saying that we encourage marriage, but we intend to introduce a Bill providing that, if people have not called a divorce within a certain period of time, they will be in serious trouble?

Mr. Straw: I shall not follow my right hon. Friend down the winding path of his metaphor, if that is all right. This is a debate about political parties, not family policy.

I do not accept my right hon. Friend's contention. In terms of the day-to-day non-campaigning part of their activity, third parties will not be caught by the provision but, if they seek to influence an election, which is the expenditure in question, our proposed arrangements are reasonable.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) rose--

Mr. Straw: I must make progress. The leader of Plaid Cymru, the right hon. Member for Caernarfon, was rather optimistic when he suggested that I was about to come to the end of my remarks. I should like to take the House quickly through the main parts of the Bill--after all, that is the purpose of the Minister's speech on Second Reading.

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Part I, which establishes the Electoral Commission, is the foundation for all that follows. To undertake its key role at the heart of our electoral arrangements, the commission must be as independent of the Government of the day as our constitutional arrangements allow, and it must be answerable directly to Parliament and not to Ministers. Much of the framework that we have put in place for the appointment of electoral commissioners and the funding of the Electoral Commission has been borrowed from the arrangements that apply, and have worked successfully, in the case of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office.

Part I confers a number of general functions on the commission. It will be responsible for keeping under review the law and conduct of elections and referendums. The Representation of the People Bill, which is before the House, makes a number of overdue reforms in the way in which we administer our elections. All too often in the past, our electoral law and practice have failed to keep up to date with changes in our political system, with changing life styles and with new technology. We need a better process for securing those changes, and the commission will provide that.

Clause 11 gives the commission an important education function. In that, we go beyond what Neill recommended, but I hope that the measure has the approval of the whole House. There is no easy answer to the problem of low turnout at elections. We cannot therefore expect miracles from the Electoral Commission. We have, however, been slow in this country to recognise the importance of preparing people to participate in civic life. There is considerably more to that than simply explaining the mechanics of voting.

People will turn out to vote only if they see the value of voting. That comes from an understanding of our institutions of government and from a realisation that politics and politicians make a difference to our daily lives. The new citizenship curriculum being introduced into schools in September is one important step. How we act and behave as politicians is another, and the civic education programmes of the Electoral Commission will be a third.

Part II, for the most part, simply re-enacts with modifications the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 except in one important respect.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I want to ask my right hon. Friend a question before he leaves the subject of the Electoral Commission, which is in some ways the most fundamental part of the Bill. Before every election, there is a charade about whether there will be a debate between the party leaders. Will the Bill regulate election broadcasting, as it will regulate the rest of political broadcasting, so that we can stop all those silly games? We would then know exactly what we would get, we could organise matters in a grown-up way and the commission would have the same authority over such broadcasting as it will have over the setting of referendum questions.

Mr. Straw: The Bill does not regulate party election broadcasts, and it is appropriate that the commission should not. Traditionally, that has been sorted out by discussion between the political parties and the broadcasting authorities. For all the defects concerning

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debates between party leaders, the arrangements work well, and the position in this country is certainly better than that in many countries where political parties have to purchase air time, with all the distortion that that produces. I doubt whether a commission that wants to be independent will want to take on such a task.

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