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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Minister has just said something more significant than he may want to admit. By my calculation, the Government have not yet been in power for three years. If I recall correctly, the maximum statutory term of office is five years. For the Minister to reveal to a startled House that the next general election will be between 12 and 18 months away appears to limit the flexibility available to the Prime Minister in choosing the date of the election, which, by my calculation, could be held at any time within the next 25 months or so. Will the Minister clarify that?

Mr. Tipping: The right hon. Gentleman has a reputation as a vigorous street fighter. I said that we could make educated guesses; I have no insider knowledge. I refer him to the record if he wants to look at it. My educated guess is that the next election will be within the next 12 to 18 months. He will make his own educated guess as a seasoned street fighter who is determined to win elections. He will decide when and how to apply his efforts and financial resources. I suspect that he may not wait until 24 months from now, because he may then be too late.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead takes a great deal of interest in voluntary organisations, pressure groups and people who want to influence the political system. Third parties will be helped in a number of ways. They can ensure that they stay below the de minimis provisions. They can also use their political knowledge and guile to work out when a general election might come and contain their expenditure during the 365 days before that.

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I hope that I have given my right hon. Friend some reassurance and put the issues on the record for the benefit of the many third parties which the Government are keen to involve in the political system. We need to do more to bring more freshness and vigour to the process.

7 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I wish to comment on the reasons for the amendments and the arguments deployed by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary.

When I first looked at the Bill, I thought that the Government had tabled the schedule to see whether the House had the staying power to read the Bill to that point. It is difficult to understand why this part of the Bill has been drafted in this way. One reason may be that the Government are anxious that smaller groups should actively participate in any campaign--certainly big campaigns, such as a referendum on the euro--and that they should know their position and keep easily within the law. The proposal does not really deal with the big players who are interested in this debate and in the outcome of that referendum.

I wonder whether the Government are trying to get away with this part of the Bill because, above all else, they fear that the euro will spill over into the election campaign in a way that will be detrimental to the party colours that I have stood for proudly since 1966, when I fought Beaconsfield--as the Prime Minister did in his journey to the House of Commons--and in Birkenhead since 1979. I would not put much money on the Opposition winning the election on policy, but clearly if the euro becomes part of the campaign, the outcome is more open to doubt than it would otherwise be.

I tabled amendment No. 138 because I was anxious for the Government to act fairly and not find themselves before the European Court. I know that the Government want to be at the heart of Europe, but that has a different meaning if we are in the dock of the European Court to answer a case which we find difficult to answer.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has skills which lead him to be much admired in this House. He carries a lot of good will because of the way in which he conducts himself and the way in which he engages properly in argument. He does not get involved in slanging or in spin. However, even he finds it difficult to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. This part of the Bill will land the Government in difficulties.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) immediately spotted the difficulty that the Government are in, and the difficulty that all the big players will be in when they try to read the crystal ball as to whether the election timetable of 365 days has started. None of us knows when the clock will start until the Prime Minister announces the date of the election and tables the necessary resolutions to dissolve Parliament. It seems only proper that the clock should start ticking at that stage in terms of third-party expenditure. Otherwise, the Government will be charged with attempting deliberately to introduce legislation that will act retrospectively--not as this House has done previously, by overturning the established rights of people who thought that they were protected, but by saying that as

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nobody bar the Prime Minister knows the date of the next election, people will unwittingly find themselves breaking a law that they would not otherwise wish to break.

I appeal to Ministers because the Government will not get away with this. Retrospective legislation is a sign of the Government running scared of the euro tunnelling into the next election campaign. The Government can stop that in all sorts of ways, but one way in which they cannot stop it is to pass this schedule of this Bill in this form. People will not know whether they are breaking the law or not. They will be able to plead before the courts--and before the European Court, if necessary--that they acted in good faith, and that their expenditure was valid.

We all know that this part of the Bill will not continue to be part of the Bill when another place has had a chance to look at it. The debate will come back to us and the Government will be faced with trying to impose their will on the House, which will result in law-abiding citizens behaving unlawfully. It is unwise for Governments to push reform to the stage that people knowingly break the law; it is even worse if people unknowingly break the law and are retrospectively held to account for their actions.

No one in the country knows the date of the general election, and I plead with Ministers to think again on this matter. If they do not, the other place will think again for them. The matter will come back to this Chamber for a vote on a crazy proposal which does not command respect in this House and could not be carried on a free vote. It will not be carried in another place, so the Government put themselves at a disadvantage with voters by behaving in this fashion.

Mr. Grieve: The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made a compelling speech. Listening to the Parliamentary Secretary, my amazement grew by the minute. He confidently told us about being able to predict general elections and the normal span of Parliaments. Casting my mind back, I remember that the Government of Mr. Callaghan came to an end which was not dictated by his own decision as to when to go to the country, and that Government extended for nearly five years. Closer to home, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) would not have wished his Government to go the full five years, but circumstances compelled him into that. That is another example of the impossibility of making such a prognosis.

The amendments, albeit technical, are revealing in terms of the difficulties that the Government are having in plugging the loopholes and the differences between the different schedules. Also--the Minister half-answered this point--the amendments establish an even tighter regime by introducing new categories of election to be covered, which makes it even more difficult to make any sort of guess by an organisation as to when they may fall foul of the legislation.

The essential feature of the provision is that it has nothing to do with the Neill committee, which recommended spending limits for third parties in relation to elections to prevent political parties evading the limits--as happens in the United States of America--by having parallel campaigning organisations. The Neill committee's report talks of the prevention of large-scale propaganda that was clearly intended either to promote the election of one party or to discourage the election of another. In the immediate period of an election, that is

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sensible and enjoys the support of the Opposition, and--from what he said--the support of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead.

However, the Neill committee contained nothing about a specified time for which spending limits would apply. Indeed, the report stated:

Indeed there would. One could not imagine a greater fetter on the freedom of people or organisations to spend their money as they wished or to communicate with others. That right is enshrined in the European convention on human rights, which we have just taken into our law. I hope that the Minister will give me credit for supporting that, despite the difficulties when it came before the House.

The Government have gone well beyond what Neill recommended. With the 365-day principle, they have introduced a level of control that would apply not only to political parties but to groups of

The provision would affect a campaign that was run six months before an election advising people to vote Labour or Conservative, and it would also affect a campaign being run to persuade people to vote, for example, for candidates who were pro-life, or pro-abortion. That would fall foul of the 365-day period. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead pointed out, that is the entire year before the election.

We have co-operated a lot on this Bill, but this provision is either barmy or malevolent. I am still prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt that it has been inserted barmily, in a belief that the time limit needs to extend beyond the immediate election period, and then taken too far.

The schedule would introduce spending limits at all times on campaigning organisations. In those circumstances, what would be the practical consequences? Well, unless campaigning organisations will lie down, terrorised, and give up campaigning, they will go ahead and campaign. Many of them will hit an election having grossly exceeded the limits prescribed. However, the Government cannot stop the organisations spending in that time, so--as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead pointed out--when the election arrives, the organisations will have committed a criminal offence. I am not sure what a jury, still less the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords or the European Court of Human Rights, will make of that offence. The Government will end up with egg on their face, and so will the House, for having passed legislation that is manifestly absurd and unfair.

The Government should consider the matter sensibly. They should impose restrictions for the period of a general election, but they should simply live with the fact that they cannot prevent people, outside local or general election periods, from promoting a political viewpoint that may include support for a political party or for groups of MPs who may hold particular views.

The Bill was meant to tackle party spending. It was meant to prevent corruption. It was not, as I am sure the Minister would agree, supposed to impose draconian restrictions on campaigning organisations. Amendment No. 138 would not remove controls on third-party spending altogether, but it would go a long way towards

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remedying what is wrong with the Bill. It is greatly to the credit of the right hon. Gentleman that he has brought the matter before the House on Report.

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