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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Greater London Authority Elections (Expenses) Order 2000

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 13 March 2000

[Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody in the Chair]

Draft Greater London Authority Elections (Expenses) Order 2000

4.30 pm

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

    That the Committee has considered the draft Greater London Authority Elections (Expenses) Order 2000.

I am delighted, Mrs. Dunwoody, to serve for the first time as a Minister under your expert and benign chairmanship, which I have experienced many times as a Back Bencher. You have been much in my thoughts today during my visit to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, but that is a subject to be debated another time.

The draft order prescribes the maximum amounts of election expenses of candidates, 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.

The draft order sets out three separate limits: for mayoral candidates, for assembly constituency candidates and for parties and independent candidates contesting the Londonwide list. That reflects the Greater London assembly's unique voting system. The 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.

We consulted political parties about our proposals in December 1999 and we listened carefully to the points that they raised about the limits. We significantly reduced the mayoral and Londonwide list limits from the figures that we originally proposed—£990,000 and £495,000 respectively—because those consulted considered them too high, believing that they were likely significantly to disadvantage smaller parties. The revised limits provide a more level playing field for candidates, while allowing them and parties freedom to put their message across to the electorate.

The limits can be broadly compared to expenses limits in other relevant regimes. The expenses limits for mayoral candidates and parties and independent candidates contesting the Londonwide list are broadly derived from the figure of £30,000 per parliamentary constituency that was used in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill as the building block for calculating the national spending limits for political parties. We have calculated the £420,000 mayoral limit by multiplying the figure of £30,000 by the 14 assembly constituencies, and the £330,000 Londonwide list limit by multiplying £30,000 by the 11 list members who are to be returned. 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 at either the Londonwide or constituency level, while not allowing their spending to become unacceptably high.

When the order comes into force, GLA candidates and parties contesting the Londonwide list will not be permitted to spend more than the relevant prescribed limit in respect of their election expenses. Election expenses are defined in the Representation of the People Act 1983, as those incurred

    whether before, during or after an election, on account of or in respect of the conduct management of the election.

Spending before 14 December 1999—the date when the relevant provisions in the GLA act commenced—is not caught by the provisions of the 1983 Act; hence it would not, in our view, count toward the limit. I take this opportunity to make it clear that a mayoral candidate's contribution of up to £10,000 towards the cost of printing the booklet containing election addresses, provision for which is set out in the Representation of the People Act 2000, will count as an election expense by that candidate. Hon. Members might wonder whether, in the light of cross-party agreement to produce the booklet, we should adjust downward the election expenses for mayoral candidates—after all, they will be sending their literature to every elector at a cheap rate. On balance, however, we think that it would be unfair to do so, because, as people say, we are where we are.

For some time, candidates have known about our proposed expenses levels and that their spending since 14 December—when the relevant sections of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 came into force—would count against those limits. If we altered them now we could, with some justice, be accused of moving the goalposts. Therefore, the right thing to do is to leave them for this election and re-examine the issue before the next one.

Regulation 2 prescribes the maximum expenditure that may be incurred at such elections by a third party, who is a person other than the candidate, his agent or persons authorised by the agent. The limits are: £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 derived from the formula that we intend to introduce by amending the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill to limit third-party spending in local elections. I accept that many hon. Members are anxious that the limits are much higher than the current £5 limit set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. However, they are necessary to comply with Bowman ruling, in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the £5 limit on third-party expenditure was equivalent to a total ban and constituted an unjustifiable restriction of freedom of expression. The Neill committee considered that judgment and recommended a third-party spending limit of £500 in relation to a candidate at a general election, which would give a limit of £37,000 if applied across London. We have opted for slightly lower Londonwide limits of £25,000 for mayoral and Londonwide list candidates, which complies with the Bowman ruling and is in line with the Neill committee's recommendations. We intended to table amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill to make third-party limits at general elections compatible with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.

Finally, I wish to make it clear that, unless the order is approved, no limits will apply will candidates or third parties during the first Greater London authority election. I commend the order to the House.

4.37 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): It is a pleasure to serve under your able chairmanship once again, Mrs. Dunwoody.

We should not be here. The House has already debated the order, which was defeated in the other place during an unnecessary and protracted party-political dispute about freepost mailings for mayoral candidates. However, it would be wrong to say that everything in the garden is rosy, even though we achieved a crushing victory over the Government's erstwhile principle that there should be no freepost mailings in the London elections.

How the mailings will be conducted is an unholy mess, and the election expenses originally introduced by the Government in the belief that there would be no freepost mailings are now subject to an untidy compromise. The Government amended their original position to suggest that, although there should still be no freepost mailings, expenses should be reduced. They now ask us to believe that the expense limits set out in the draft order are consistent with their volte-face on such mailings, even though, now, expenses limits are to be the same as they would have been had there been no freepost mailing for mayoral candidates. Clearly, that cannot be right. I would have great sympathy with the Under-Secretary if he agreed with me and said that the Government wish that they were not starting from here, as the Irish saying goes.

The question that the Opposition parties are left with is whether the expense limits are ones that we can support in principle. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's response to the debate. We have specific questions about the limit for assembly constituency candidates, which the draft order sets at £35,000, and the assembly party list limit, is set at £330,000. In our submission and in various negotiations with the Government over the freepost issue, we insisted that those limits were too high. However, given that neither the assembly candidates nor the constituency candidates will get access to or even any endorsement from the mayoral freepost mailings, I share the Minister's view that it is too late in the day to carry on negotiations: the candidates themselves need certainty as the elections approach—they are now less than two months away.

The Government are entirely justified in using their majority in this House to force the draft order through, but whether we should support the limits is another matter. I do not know whether we will vote against them or abstain; I am open to persuasion. You should be concerned, Mrs. Dunwoody, that the subject is properly debated.

The Chairman: Order. If I were the least bit concerned about the quality of the debate, I would intervene, but the hon. Gentleman is perfectly in order.

Mr. Jenkin: Of course, but I must have strayed to make that point or you would not have intervened, Mrs. Dunwoody. I apologise. I was thinking ahead about the questions I want to ask.

The Under-Secretary has already answered one of my questions, about the additional sum that he has put in for the candidates' campaign as a result of the freepost booklet compromise. If I understand him correctly, that will comprise part of the expenses in the limit, so that matter has been cleared up. He has also alluded to the question of the third-party expenses. I note that those provisions result from the Neill committee's effort, as he put it, to square compliance with the European Court of Human Rights judgment with our previous electoral practice.

What sort of organisations does the Under-Secretary expect to take part in third-party endorsement? We know that trade unions are likely to play a large role and, without wishing to stray from the main subject of debate, we know that some prominent trade unions will be supporting the independent Labour candidate in the mayoral election. What sort of independent organisations does the Under-Secretary think will support other parties? If we are to state in regulations that third-party organisations can spend up to £25,000 on a mayoral candidate's campaign, we are entitled to know what sort of organisations he has in mind. Would any organisation not be permitted to be described as a ``third-party organisation'' for the purposes of the order? How is a third party to be held to account for the quantity of money that is spent? The £5 limit used to be a de minimis exclusion in respect of people using their cars to run voters to polling station, or making a few telephone calls from their homes. It was not intended to be a major source of finance for campaigning.

The draft order represents a major shift in the way in which we supervise election expenses in this country. Consequences extending beyond the London elections may skew the pitch in favour of the Labour party and against the interests of other parties which do not have powerful political groups such as trade unions supporting them. It is becoming unfashionable for major companies to use money on behalf of their shareholders for political purposes, and that opens up the whole question whether it should be permissible for trade unions to take part overtly in political campaigns. The expenses are excessive and would be excessive even if proper provision had been made for freepost mailings. We remain unhappy about the situation and we shall not endorse it by voting for the draft order. After the next general election, we shall return to the subject to sort out the mess that the Government have created.

4.45 pm

 
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