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15 Feb 2000 : Column 900

London Government

11.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I beg to move,

The draft Greater London Authority (Election Expenses) order prescribes the maximum amount of election expenses of candidates and their agents, and third parties, in elections for the mayor of London and the London assembly. In my opinion, the draft order is compatible with the European convention on human rights.

There are separate limits for mayoral candidates, assembly constituency candidates, and parties and independent candidates contesting the Londonwide list, reflecting the Greater London Authority's unique structure and voting systems.

We need to prescribe limits to the spending of GLA election candidates and parties to ensure that the election is contested on as level a playing field as possible, and to prevent extravagant spending. We consulted political parties on our proposals in December 1999, and listened carefully to the points that they raised. The limits that we propose take account of the points made in the responses to the consultation.

The candidates' expenditure limits are £420,000 per mayoral candidate; £35,000 per candidate contesting an assembly constituency; and £330,000 per party or independent candidate contesting the Londonwide list.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) rose--

Mr. Hill: It is a little premature in the proceedings, but as I have rejected the hon. Gentleman in the past, let me embrace him now.

Mr. Hughes: The Minister properly received representations, as he said, and we are grateful that on the mayoral expense limit, he accepted in broad terms what my colleagues and I proposed. Can he tell us how many representations he received in favour of not having a freepost?

Mr. Hill: We received no representations in favour of not having a freepost, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. He was gracious enough to recognise that we listened carefully to the representations made, and we reduced the level of election expenses precisely to the level suggested by the Liberal Democrats. The Government listen and respond to reasonable representations. It seems, however, that on this occasion the Liberal Democrats are the party of no compromise and no surrender, which is not a good precedent.

I emphasise that we have significantly reduced the mayoral and Londonwide list limits from the levels that we originally proposed, which were £990,000 and £495,000 respectively, because parties considered them too high, and likely to put smaller parties at a significant disadvantage.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Why did the Minister think that £990,000 was initially the correct

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figure, and then accept representations from the Liberal Democrats and us to reduce it substantially on the basis that there should be a free mailing instead? Why did he accept that there should be a reduction in the spending limit, but not provide for the free mailing? Is there not some inconsistency in accepting only one half of the representation? What is the point of that?

Mr. Hill: I do not know how many more times I have to explain this matter to the hon. Gentleman, or in how many more ways I can put it--there are no powers in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to secure the free mailshot on which he and other hon. Members dwelt at such length during our earlier proceedings.

We have calculated the limits using the most appropriate comparator from other expense limit regimes. The mayoral and Londonwide list limits are broadly derived from the amount of £30,000 per parliamentary constituency used in the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Bill as the building block for calculating the national spending limits for political parties. The assembly constituency limit is broadly equivalent to the sum of parliamentary constituency limits within an assembly constituency area. The limits are enough to enable candidates and parties to fight effective campaigns either London wide or at constituency level, while not allowing their spending to become unacceptably high.

When the order comes into force, GLA candidates and parties will not be permitted to spend in excess of the limits on their election expenses. Election expenses are defined in the Representation of the People Act 1983 as expenses incurred

Spending by GLA candidates or their agents before 14 December 1999--the date when the relevant provisions in the Greater London Authority Act were commenced--will not, in our view, count towards the limit.

Article 2 of the order prescribes the maximum expenditure that a person other than a candidate, his agent or persons authorised in writing by the agent--that, is a third party--may incur at such elections. The limits are set at £25,000 per third party supporting or opposing mayoral candidates; £25,000 per third party supporting or opposing Londonwide list candidates, including independents; and £1,800 per third party supporting or opposing an assembly constituency candidate.

Those limits are calculated using the same formula that we intend to introduce, as an amendment to the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Bill, to limit third-party spending in local elections. I realise that the limits are high compared with the current £5 limit set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. However, I believe that they are justified in the light of the Bowman judgment in the European Court of Human Rights--where the court ruled that the £5 limit constituted an unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression--and because they ensure that third parties can adequately put across their case to the electorate.

The GLA Act does not entitle candidates in GLA elections to have an election address delivered free by the Post Office, and election mailshots are not, therefore, a matter for the order. GLA elections are classed as local

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elections in section 17 of the GLA Act; that approach puts GLA election candidates on the same footing as local election candidates generally.

There is nothing new about Londonwide elections without free mailshots.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Will the Minister name one other local authority election in which deposits are required?

Mr. Hill: That is not relevant. The provisions in the order and in the Act are commensurate with elections in London.

Every four years, elections are held for each London borough council at the same time across the whole of London--exactly the same area and same electorate as the GLA--without free mailshots. During those elections, parties mount campaigns, without free mailshots, across the whole of London, exactly as they will for GLA elections.

In the White Paper, we made clear our concern to ensure that the election did not become a platform for frivolous candidates or publicity seekers, who could gain unfair access to public funds simply in an attempt to promote either themselves or obscure causes. [Interruption.] Do I detect a note of envy in hon. Members' response? We have considered carefully whether there should be free mailshots for GLA elections. We decided against, for three reasons.

The first reason was the cost. The total cost to the public purse of a free mailshot would be very significant. The total could be well over £10 million and possibly as much as £20 million, depending on the number of candidates.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) rose--

Mr. Hill: Such costs would be disproportionate to the GLA's proposed budget of some £35 million and would be equivalent to more than £3 for every council tax payer in London--almost twice as much as London council tax payers will contribute to the costs of the mayor and assembly.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) rose--

Sir Robert Smith rose--

Mr. Hill: The public would, rightly, be extremely critical if large sums of public money were spent on free mailshots--especially if that encouraged frivolous candidates--instead of on the vital issues that concern Londoners.

Mrs. Lait: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has left me extremely confused because, although he said that there were no powers in the Act in respect of mailshots, he has just explained that the Government considered carefully whether there should be mailshots within the Act. Will he please at least make it clear at what point the Government decided that mailshots were not appropriate because this was a local government election?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Lady will be aware that there are other routes to achieving the objective that she evidently

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seeks, but it is absolutely the case that there are no powers within the 1999 Act, and to that extent all the representations about free mailshots, especially in connection with these orders, are entirely otiose.

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