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Mr. Stunell: I thank the Minister, and other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. The Minister is right to say that it took some time for us to formulate an appropriate response following the meeting. I am sorry if that caused increased difficulties for him and his officials. We now have, we hope, the basis of a good development of ideas and proposals for the Bill.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) referred to 1,000 village parties. I shall look carefully at my amendment, because it did not specifically mention them.

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate that that was not what the hon. Gentleman was proposing for his own party, and that the structures were likely to be based on the various national component parts of the United Kingdom or on regions. I simply made that point to illustrate how small the groups could be under his amendment.

Mr. Stunell: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. It is an interesting one, which further discussion and research could explore to the full.

Amendment No. 179 addresses the hon. Gentleman's point to some extent, and begins to address the Minister's point about what is an approved federal structure. It cannot be self-defining; it has to be approved. The wording of the amendment may be insufficient to specify what it should be. At its limit, it could affect an individual constituency party, although the practical difficulties of that would defy even the Liberal Democrats. The amendment attempts to address the point, and I hope that further discussion may move us forward.

9.30 pm

The Minister made the perfectly fair point that the Liberal Democrats have one person reporting on political party registration. That turned out not to be a terribly challenging point; the question was whether we could have a bird as a logo, a point not of the essence when it

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comes to whether we should have to report back on spending in future on elections or on political activity at any other time, which would entirely dismantle our federal structure. The Minister understands that point; a step designed to offer the minimum trouble for the approval of a bird as a logo is not quite the same thing.

I welcome the fact that the Minister said that he would take time to consider our proposals and that he wants meetings between officials and political meetings. One reason for delay is that our elected officials have changed, which has made the job more complex. However, we welcome what he said. I wanted to put on the record an issue important to us, but our hearts remain strongly with the Bill, with which we want full compliance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28

Party ceasing to be registered

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 17, line 27, leave out subsection (4) and insert--

'(4) However, until the end of the financial year of the party which follows that in which its entry is removed from the register--
(a) the Commission shall, when considering applications made by other parties under this Part, treat the entry as if it were still contained in the register, and
(b) the requirements of Parts III and IV shall continue to apply to the party as if it were still registered.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 127.

Mr. O'Brien: The purpose of amendment No. 11 is to deal with phoenix parties. As the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) pointed out in Standing Committee, it is possible that, when a party becomes defunct and ceases to be registered with the Electoral Commission, others--possibly supporters of the extinct party--may wish to use its name. In the long run, there is no reason why defunct parties should enjoy any protection. However, in the short term, the immediate assumption of a defunct party's name by a different political group--no matter how similar its views--is likely to mislead voters.

In addition, clause 28 already requires that, where a party's entry is removed from the register, it will be required to continue to comply with the requirements of parts III and IV until the end of the financial year following that in which its entry was removed. For as long as the party continues to be subject to the supervision of the commission, there should not be another party making use of its name.

Amendment No. 11 is intended to afford de-registered parties some continued protection against the use, or misuse, of their names. The amendment is consistent with an existing provision of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998: under section 8, the registrar must, in considering applications by other political parties for registration, treat a de-registered party as being registered for a specified period, which is set at three months from the date at which the party's entry is removed from the registers. The Bill proposes that the relevant period should

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be the period during which the de-registered party remains under a duty to continue to comply with the requirements of parts III and IV.

Amendment No. 127 amends the parliamentary election rules, which are set out in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. Its effect would be to require returning officers to send a copy of a statement to the persons nominated to the Electoral Commission. Returning officers would also need to forward to the commission a copy of any certificate issued by the nominating officer of a registered party authorising a candidate to stand in that party's name.

Under schedule 8(3) of the Bill, a party receives an expenditure allowance of £30,000 for each constituency contested. The overall expenditure limit for a party will therefore depend on the number of candidates it stands in an election. The amendment will ensure that the Electoral Commission has the information necessary to make that calculation. I commend both amendments to the House.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister for having taken on board the points made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter). I have one query on amendment No. 11. I realise that it prevents other political parties from making use of the name and identity of a party during the period in which the original party still has responsibilities. The Minister may be able to clarify easily the one point that is not clear to me: what would happen if a party had expressed a desire to de-register, part of that period had elapsed but, before it was completed, the party announced that it wanted to revive itself at the end of the period? At that point, if other individuals were competing with the party for registration in that name, would the party enjoy any preference?

I should be grateful if the Minister would consider that matter. One can foresee disputes in which a party that had previously allowed its registration to lapse would believe that it was grossly unfair that it could not revive itself, if its fortunes and circumstances had changed.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The commission will have to consider any applications. It is a material fact that the party that wanted to re-establish itself would be the same party that had previously been registered. That would seem to be an issue of which the commission would be entitled to take cognisance in reaching a decision. If that became a subject of controversy, the commission would have to determine how it wanted to proceed.

I shall consider the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and shall examine whether there might be a reason for tabling an amendment in another place. The amendment will probably cover the matter, but I shall consider it in greater detail and if we need to make a change, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 37

Annual statements of accounts

Mr. Tipping: I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 22, line 13, leave out "£1,000" and insert "£5,000".

Madam Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 13, 14 and 72 to 79.

Mr. Tipping: Clause 37 allows the Electoral Commission to prescribe different requirements, depending on the level of

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their income or expenditure, as to the form and content of the annual statement of accounts prepared by registered parties and their accounting units. Small parties should be subject to a light touch, whereas larger parties with a greater income should be dealt with more thoughtfully and effectively.

As originally drafted, the Bill set out three bands of income or expenditure: the first was up to £1,000; the second was £1,000 to £250,000; and the third was £250,000 or more. In Committee, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) argued that those bands were not appropriate and that, in effect, there should be four bands. After reflecting on the matter, we decided not to accept the solution offered by the hon. Gentleman. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 would introduce three bands that would pitch the cut-off point between the first and second band at £5,000 rather than £1,000. As a result, the intermediate band will be more clearly focused on parties and accounting units that enjoy relatively significant rates of income and expenditure, and will extend the scope for applying a lighter touch to organisations that do not.

Amendments Nos. 73 and 76 pick up on an issue that was discussed in Committee, and will make the Bill compliant with the electronic age. They will ensure that any information received by the Electoral Commission will be in an appropriate form. We have all had the experience of computers that do not talk to one another, or of e-mails that do not arrive in the proper form. The amendments give the commission powers to ask for computer records in a legible form.

Amendment No. 73, which inserts new subsection (3A) into clause 134, also enables a person appointed by the commission to check the operation of any computer as a guard against fraud. I may well be asked if there are precedents on this. There are similar precedents in regulations on the Gaming Board of Great Britain.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 72 are also on the theme of access to records. In both cases, they make self-explanatory changes to ensure consistency with like provisions elsewhere in the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 74, 75, 77 and 78 extend the Electoral Commission's supervisory powers in clause 134 to candidates at elections and the agents of such candidates. Clause 133 already provides that one of the functions of the Electoral Commission is to monitor compliance with the existing controls on candidates' election expenses. The commission cannot undertake that role effectively without appropriate powers to inspect candidates' financial records and to demand explanations relating to what the commission may find in those records. These amendments will confer such powers on the commission.

I remind the House that the Neill committee argued, in paragraph 11.23, that

It is important to point out that the Electoral Commission will investigate these matters, but if criminal proceedings are to be taken, that is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

That leads me to amendment No. 79, which merely tidies up the definition of a supervised organisation in clause 134(8) to make it clear that the supervisory powers in that clause are exercisable in respect of the central organisations of a party as well as its accounting units.

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As has so often been the case during the Bill's passage, these amendments were suggested in other forms in Committee, and I am delighted that the Government have been able to respond, I think appropriately.

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