Political Parties, Electionsm and Referendums Bill

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Mr. Stunell: Will the Parliamentary Secretary consider two points? The hon. Member for North Dorset said that the independent cache could be an advantage on the ballot paper without any further description. I pointed out that an independent could have no pull on the electorate except his or her cause.

Mr. Tipping: The hon. Gentleman may be right, but it is clearly in the nature of politics that people stand for a cause and a purpose. In the example that he described, I am not sure whether a campaign for or against the bypass would be an advantage—one can never win in such situations. The clause contains no provision to stop people standing as independents or pursuing campaign aims for or against roads and seeing how much support they get. We want to ensure that people do not have the advantages of being in a political party without declaring it. I understand the sensitivities involved and I am aware of the strong desire to ensure that independents and the independent sector continue to strive. We accept the spirit of the amendment, but it would undermine the primary purpose of the Bill and I ask hon. Members to resist it if it is pressed to a Division.

Mr. Walter: I am grateful for the contributions made by hon. Members who oppose the Government. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) put his finger on another aspect of the clause. The Bill's purpose is to ensure financial propriety in the management of political affairs. The amendments seek to protect people who stand in elections not as representatives of political parties, but as independents, even if they are championing particular issues.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove pointed out that people in Hazel Grove may wish to stand as candidates in favour of the bypass or against it. When the Conservatives were in government, we felt that the law should allow a candidate who is not standing as a representative of a political party to describe himself as being for or against even one issue. When electors are confronted with two or more candidates who describe themselves as independent, they may be confused about which one to vote for. That is why the Representation of the People Act 1983 allowed candidates to describe themselves as members of political parties.

I was intrigued by the Parliamentary Secretary's response to my intervention on when an independent group became a political party. If we accept his arguments against the amendment, I am concerned that an independent group could be a political party de facto. I referred in my opening remarks to the ``Wales on Sunday—Match Funding Now'' by-election candidate, who, according to this morning's Western Mail, does not propose to publish any literature or to campaign. None the less, the Bill would have ensured that merely putting his name on the ballot paper to make a political protest against the Government's inability to get match funding for west Wales and the valleys turned the Western Mail and Echo Ltd.—a newspaper publication company—into a political party. It would then be subject to the audit requirements of the Electoral Commission. That would be an entirely different ball game.

The proposal that the candidate could describe himself only as an independent would prevent that from happening, but it is a restriction on our political process. It would be a retrograde and disappointing step. I am sorry that the Minister is unwilling to accept our proposals. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Tipping: As has been established, the clause will require political parties to be registered if they are to field candidates at an election. Such a requirement is essential to the proposed controls on the income and expenditure of political parties. Under the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, there is already a scheme for their registration, to which the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has referred. However, the scheme is voluntary.

The Bill includes a compulsory registration scheme. The clause will make binding the scheme set out in the remainder of Part II, requiring political parties wishing to field candidates at a relevant election to be registered. A person may stand at a relevant election, other than as an independent, only if a certificate authorising his candidature, which must be issued by the nominating officer of a registered party, accompanies his nomination paper. The requirement is similar to that in the 1998 Act.

In elections involving the use of lists, a party may be nominated only if it is registered. A person will be regarded as standing as an independent candidate only if he or she uses the description ``Independent'' or else uses no description. The Committee has had an extensive discussion of the matter, which is the first central issue to have been considered.

Mr. Walter: In discussing the amendment, we have obviously rehearsed our concerns about descriptions. The general registration requirements are consistent with the spirit of the Bill and with the Neill report, the implementation of which the Opposition support. Therefore, we do not wish to divide the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

The register

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Tipping: Clause 20 provides for the maintenance of a register of political parties and for the transfer of that responsibility from the Registrar of Companies to the Electoral Commission. Such a register is central to the operation of the controls on political parties' income and expenditure. Without it, the Electoral Commission would not know whom it was expected to supervise. A register is currently maintained by Companies House under the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998. However, that register exists primarily to enable political parties that intend to put up candidates for election to protect the use of their name, a point that has been acknowledged. As the scheme confers only rights and no responsibilities on parties that are included on the register, it is entirely voluntary.

Subsection (1) provides for the continued maintenance of the register of political parties and its transfer from Companies House to the Electoral Commission. That gives effect to the Neill committee recommendation. It is the obvious course given that an Electoral Commission is to be established.

Under subsection (2), entries on the register that were made under the 1998 Act, prior to the transfer of the register to the commission, will continue to have effect. Subsections (3) and (4) will ensure that the transfer of responsibility does not require the commission to start from scratch in discharging that function. It will be able to make use of data that has been compiled by Companies House and to complete any outstanding work.

9.45 am

The Government intend to table amendments on the nature of federal parties. We hope to limit the number of amendments that we table and to give good notice of them. We want the Bill to be in good order. I apologise that it is not possible at this stage to table amendments on arrangements for maintaining the register.

On Second Reading, the Liberal Democrats made the point that the scheme does not take proper account of the federal nature of some parties. The Scottish Green party is wholly distinct from the Green party of England and Wales, but it has been disadvantaged by the scheme, which does not allow it to register in its own right. We propose to rectify that by allowing a party to confine its registration to one part of the United Kingdom so that it may be separately registered in England, Scotland and Wales. We will also provide for a separate register of Northern Ireland parties. That change will have an impact on other provisions in the Bill. As I said, amendments will be tabled on Report.

Mr. Walter: I am intrigued by the Parliamentary Secretary's comments on federal parties. When considering amendments, in particular those to part II, my colleagues and I went round the course to determine their implications for the Scottish Conservative party, which, although it is part of the Conservative family, is regarded as a separate party. We welcome the assurance that good notice will be given of Government amendments on federal parties. That will allow us to consider their implications for the Scottish Conservative party and the Welsh Conservative party, which has recently become more independent of the London party.

I have some questions on clause 20 with regard to information on the maintenance and transfer of the register from Companies House to the Electoral Commission, which has not been debated on the Floor of the House. Subsection (5) allows the Secretary of State to

    ``make provision for the transfer to the Commission of any property, rights and liabilities to which the registrar of companies is entitled or subject in connection with his functions under the 1998 Act''.

It goes on to deal with restriction of

    ``the transfer of property, rights or liabilities otherwise than by the order.''

Can the Minister quantify what subsection (5) deals with and tell us whether it will place a financial burden on the Electoral Commission? Will the registrar of companies present a bill for transferring the assets, even if they are on magnetic tape or computer disk? Does Companies House contain other forms of property—whether rights, rentals or whatever—that the Bill does not mention but which may be transferred and could become a liability to the Electoral Commission?

Mr. Stunell: We are content with the clause in its current form, although it was good to hear about the proposed amendments. I shall bring significant subsidiary points to the Committee's attention during debate on amendments to clause 21, so I shall reserve my remarks for that discussion.

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