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Standing Committee Debates
Political Parties, Electionsm and Referendums Bill

Political Parties, Electionsm and Referendums Bill

Standing Committee G

Thursday 20 January 2000

(Morning)

[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill

Clause 19

Parties to be registered in order to field candidates at elections

9 am

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 11, line 36, at end insert—

    `or

    (c) the description of the candidate given in his nomination paper includes the word ``Independent'' and no more than five other words which do not contravene the restrictions laid down in Section 24(2)(a), (c), (d), (e) and (f).'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 2, in clause 33, page 20, line 17, after `Independent', insert—

    `and not more than five other words'.

I should inform the Committee that amendment No. 1 applies to line 37 on page 11 and not to line 36, as the amendment paper suggests.

Mr. Walter: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Maxton. I hope that this and future sittings will be constructive. The Opposition have made clear our intention to table constructive amendments, and the Government have suggested that they will be interested to hear about our amendments and to listen to suggestions on how the Bill can be improved.

The clause precludes election candidates from describing themselves in the traditional manner. Although that change is primarily related to the registration of political parties, it would have other important effects. I refer the Committee to nominations for the Ceredigion by-election, which closed yesterday. One candidate in that election used six words to describe his candidacy, calling himself the ``Wales on Sunday—Match Funding Now'' candidate. The clause would ensure that if that person had not described himself as an independent or had not described himself at all, ``Wales on Sunday—Match Funding Now'' would be a political party. I do not think that the Government intend Western Mail and Echo Ltd. or its parent company, Trinity Mirror Newspapers, to be political parties.

Another candidate in the Ceredigion by-election, which is tomorrow, describes himself as the ``Independent Green: Save the World Climate'' candidate. His description would fall in line with the terms of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I. The candidate uses the word ``independent'' and goes on to describe himself with the words ``green'' and ``save the world climate''. That is a reasonable compromise that works in line with suggestions made in the Bill as originally drafted.

Many candidates, especially in local elections but also in by-elections, are not members of political parties and often describe themselves as independent. Last May, a candidate in my ward who was standing for elections to my north Dorset district council described himself as an ``Independent Conservative''. That description was perfectly legitimate. The candidate was previously a true independent, but he went on to describe himself in that way. Subsequently, he became an official Conservative member of the council and is now chairman of the planning committee. His election was sufficient for us to secure an overall majority and take control of the council.

None the less, the point of the amendment—l>and obviously there will be consequences with respect to subsequent clauses—is that someone who does not simply describe himself as an independent or leave the relevant section on the nomination paper blank, cannot therefore be deemed to have created a political party. The electorate should not be misled in those cases as to whether the candidate represents a political party and the word ``independent'' should perhaps be included in the description on the nomination paper, and therefore on the ballot paper, to avoid confusion. However, we want five more words to be allowed on the nomination and ballot papers, to come into line with the current legal status of local authority, parliamentary and European Parliament election candidates.

The restriction to five additional words has been suggested because, while we want such a description to be permitted, we think it should be modest. Nominations closed yesterday in the Ceredigion by-election and it is clear that a maximum of six words, as provided for by the Representation of the People Act 1983, is sufficient.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I support the amendment and want to consider other aspects of it that may be relevant. The Official Opposition are concerned about categorisation, which, as a result of the implementation of the report, gives an edge to recognised political parties.

Independents have an honoured place in our political system. Their resources are usually extremely limited and their ability to communicate with the electorate is therefore a matter of particular importance. One way of doing that is by showing on the ballot paper what they stand for. To force them into a category in which all they can show is their name, or their name and the fact that they are independent, does not do justice to the various and varied causes that they are likely to be championing. At the general election, because of previous events in my constituency, quite a few independent candidates stood, but they chose a wide variety of platforms. In such circumstances, it is important to be able to identify from the ballot paper the cause that is represented.

If the Minister will not accept the amendment, will he explain what the problem is, with respect to forcing independents to use that one-word definition? While we were drafting the amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and I spent some time thinking about the reverse arguments. A problem that colours the entire provision is the extent to which people will try to slip round the registration rules for political parties by stating that they are independent, whereas they are really operating in a coalition with each other. However, there will be little to prevent them from doing that, even if they merely put themselves down as an independent on the ballot paper. If two or more candidates who are standing on the same platform, which could be for a district council election, are forced to define what they are standing for, their status as independents may be called into question.

I accept that this is a difficult matter, but that does not remove our responsibility to ensure that independent candidates have a means of communicating with the electorate. Political parties go into an election with a manifesto. It is clear on the ballot paper who the candidates are and which party they represent. Most of us have anecdotal evidence that it is useful for an individual candidate to be identified as the representative of a party. Although we may try to communicate with a wide swathe of the electorate, many people go into the polling station without the slightest idea of the name of the candidate of the party for which they wish to vote.

We must accept that identification is a great advantage. To deprive independents of the ability briefly to inform the electorate what platform they are standing on, which may have received publicity, would be a retrograde step. Democracy is diverse. If we want to encourage participation in it and respect the views of independents and minorities—as that is what they will often be—it behoves us to do what we can to ensure that they are able to communicate with the electorate.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment and I am interested to hear the Parliamentary Secretary's views on it. What does the clause aim to regulate? The Bill has two purposes. First, it ensures that we avoid financial abuse, fraud and some of the shadier events that have featured in high-profile press reports. Secondly, it incorporates legislation that requires parties to be properly named and identified. That is aimed at preventing passing off by a candidate who represents himself or herself as standing on behalf of another candidate or party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was the most spectacular victim of that. In the European elections before last, another candidate purported to be standing in the name of my party, the Liberal Democrats, and deprived him of election. I have every reason to support the implementation of that provision and I do not want it weakened. However, we appear to be tying two ideas together which, perhaps accidentally and certainly incidentally, produce an unwanted side effect.

By requiring the name to be included in the Bill, we are giving people who want to stand for election two stark choices: either they can go into the election unidentified on the ballot paper or they can register as a political party. Other provisions in the Bill make it clear that that cannot to be done by three people around a coffee table one Saturday afternoon; it is a major enterprise. Is the Parliamentary Secretary sure that by linking perfectly sound legislation, which is not connected with political funding and registration, with the Bill, we are not being hostile to democracy?

The Bill's purpose is not to reduce competition or to restrict the choice open to the electorate. There is a clear risk that, with the present wording, that might happen.

A broader point arises concerning the way in which the Bill will deal with what I regard as de minimis political activity. Do the Government intend that every candidate who plans seriously to be elected to public office must be a member of a political party, which, in turn, must be registered? Do they accept, instead, that people of en want to stand for election to put a case to the public but not to form or to join a political party?

9.15 am

I give a hypothetical example, which I hope will never arise. A proposal for a bypass in my constituency is widely supported Candidates might feasibly wish to stand in favour of the bypass in local government elections or even in a parliamentary election. However, it seems that they will not be able to identify themselves as being from, for instance, the Hazel Grove bypass action now group, without registering as a political party, with all that that involves. They could stand only with the word ``Independent'' on the ballot paper, and rely on other activities to promote their name and to get themselves before the public.

The Bill might be a secondary effect. Independent candidates not registered as a political party would be committed to extra expenditure and might be challenged to spend much more than they had planned simply to ensure that they were identified in the public mind with the cause for which they were standing.

It is important for us, as political parties, to have careful regard not to pass self-serving legislation. I do not want to see a Hazel Grove action now candidate standing against my councillors in Hazel Grove.

 
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