Political Parties, Electionsm and Referendums Bill

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Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I want only to ask a question, but I did not wish to try your patience, Mr. Maxton, by asking it as an intervention. My question is addressed to both the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and to my hon. Friend the Minister. As the clause that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield seeks to delete is worded, a registered treasurer could commit an offence if convicted

    ``of any other offence committed in connection with a relevant election.''

I am not clear whether that would relate to offences committed in other countries. The hon. Gentleman hoped that the clause would never apply to his or to our political party. It is conceivable that if the Opposition had a treasurer who gave money to political parties not only in this country but in another country he could fall foul of, for example, Belizan electoral law, for not registering a donation made to a Belizan party. That would be covered: the clause defines a relevant election as simply ``a parliamentary election''. I am sure that Belize holds parliamentary elections.

We therefore need to be clear that the amendment would not remove a clause that could affect the hon. Gentleman's party and to know whether the Minister believes that the wording of the clause might not also relate to offences. It is in the nature of electoral law, particularly disclosure law, for donations not to be disclosed or for some other minor infringement to occur that could, for example, disqualify Mr. Ashcroft as a treasurer of the Conservative party

Mr. Walker: In supporting the amendment, I highlight the way in which the provision to cover a party treasurer dying hangs with subsections (5) and (6). Subsection (7), which we seek to delete, states that:

    ``A person commits an offence if ... he is registered as treasurer of a registered party, and ... has been convicted''

of an offence. However, in subsection (5), if

    ``the person registered as a party's treasurer dies'',

the appropriate person to take over is the party's leader or such other person nominated, according to subsection (6). Although it would never happen in any of our parties, that means that if the treasurer died and the party's leader had been convicted of an offence, by taking the mantle of treasurer, the leader would immediately commit an offence for which he was not responsible—unless he had murdered the treasurer, and that is unlikely.

10.30 am

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is right. One could envisage a situation—we had it with the poll tax—in which a politician might say that he so disagreed with the legislation that it was a matter of civil rights. He might refuse to submit the returns because he wanted to see them all altered, and was therefore prepared to suffer the penalty. As a result, his party might be prevented from running in an election.

Mr. Walter: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which illustrates my point. I do not want to be pedantic, but we are dealing with the law. In so doing, we do not want to create a situation whereby people could be guilty of an offence simply by holding a post to which they were perfectly entitled. Due to an event over which they had no control, they might fall into a slot, however temporarily, in which they could be deemed to have committed an offence for which they could then be convicted.

Mr. Tipping: The hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that I would be surprised by the amendment, and let me freely confess that I am. The hon. Member for North Dorset said that were dealing with the law, but in fact we are dealing with the real world. I find it incomprehensible and inconceivable that under any circumstances whatever a political party could have a leader or treasurer who had been convicted of an electoral offence. If I heard the hon. Member for Beaconsfield correctly, he agreed with that and said that there was no chance of it happening. He has shown us something of which I was already aware: his impeccable liberal credentials and his desire for a light touch. However, I say to him in a friendly way that he is taking it a step too far.

It seems clear that political parties play an important public role, and they also have fiduciary duties, a phrase that I think that he used. They try to collect substantial sums of money from the public. Therefore, there must be an element of respectability. Someone who has deliberately committed an electoral offence must be disqualified—that is as clear as night follows day. I ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to reflect on his position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) is a great expert on these matters, and I have read a good deal of his work. He asked whether someone convicted of an electoral offence abroad could be disqualified under the terms of the Bill. Again, I do not think that that could happen, although he mentioned a certain gentleman about whom allegations are being made. Under the clause, only a person convicted of an offence at a parliamentary or other election in the United Kingdom would be disqualified. I might be tempted to reconsider the issue, but I hope that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield will let his credentials tarnish a little and admit that we live in the real world, not in that of lawyers and elaborate hypothetical constructions, and not press his amendment to a Division.

Mr. Grieve: I shall deal first with the comments of the hon. Member for Battersea. I was already aware that the Bill applies only to the United Kingdom, so I hope that he will accept my assurance that, in drafting the amendment, what my own party might do and the circumstances to which he alluded never crossed my mind. I did not table the amendment to be flippant and to take up time of the Committee.

The Minister summed up the matter neatly when he said that political parties may acquire substantial sums and therefore have fiduciary duties. I concur with that, but I must face the fact that in a democracy people are allowed, under the law of incitement, to put forward views and seek election and public support on matters that fill me with horror. Even at election time, that law would have to be used sparingly. People are allowed to do some odd things and, as the Minister knows, given some of the activities of members of his own party, when people feel sufficiently strongly about something as a matter of principle, they choose to break the law and accept the consequences.

If people break the law, they must accept the consequences, otherwise there would be anarchy. However, Parliament should be wary of punishing someone and then introducing devices to prevent that person from forming a political party for the purpose of winning elections. If such a statement gives me impeccable liberal credentials, I am deeply content. I am reassured by the point that, if such circumstances arose, the matter could probably be challenged under human rights legislation, when that comes into operation. It would be interesting to advance such a matter in the courts. Although the Minister has not fully persuaded me of his argument, 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: The clause specifies those office holders who, in respect of each registered party, must be included in the register. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of schedule 1 to the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 require that a party wishing to register must supply the names and addresses of its leader and nominating officer. The clause will impose a fresh requirement whereby the party's treasurer should also. That is an important provision because much of the responsibility for compliance with the Bill will devolve upon the registered treasurer of the political party.

Subsection (4) specifies that the person registered as the treasurer must have overall responsibility for the party's financial affairs and for ensuring compliance with parts III to V and part VII. Subsections (5) and (6) are designed to ensure that someone will always be deemed to be the party's treasurer, even after death—including murder.

Subsection (7) makes it an offence for a person who has been convicted to be registered as the treasurer of a registered party within five years of the date of registration of the offence. We discussed that matter at some length, and I note that some hon. Members still have anxieties about it, but I hope that they will accept the clause.

Mr. Walter: We rehearsed our arguments about the clause in considering the amendments. The Minister has responded accordingly, and in some cases sympathetically, to the points that have been made. As I hope and suspect that I shall continue to say as we proceed, we wholeheartedly support the basic thrust of the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Financial structure of registered party: adoption of scheme

Mr. Stunell: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 14, line 11, at end insert

    `, but such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14, in page 14, line 22, at end insert—

    `(6A) In exercising any powers under subsections (5) or (6) above the Electoral Commission shall have regard only to the requirement for compliance with the provisions of Parts III to V and VII.'.

Mr. Stunell: The amendments are designed to ensure that in providing a view about a party's structure, or approving a scheme, the Electoral Commission acts in a reasonable, fit and proper way. A theme of some of our debates so far, on which I hope the Minister will be able to provide a comprehensive overall view, is the need to ensure that we create a system that is practical in the real world, to use his words. It is comparatively simple to draft laws that make something illegal or prevent something from happening, but we are trying to draft a law that will not only prevent certain wicked things that we all want to prevent but will allow democracy to flourish. We must be careful, in applying weedkiller, not to kill the plant itself.

This is the first comprehensive and complete overhaul of our electoral arrangements since about 1883—117 years ago. The Bill may last another 117 years, during which many developments will take place in party structures. As I am sure the Minister will recognise, his party did not even exist in 1883. Who knows which party will be in existence in another 117 years? We must consider not only what this Government, this Electoral Commission and this Parliament may do, but what future manifestations of all three might do.

We therefore tabled two straightforward amendments to require the Electoral Commission not to withhold approval unreasonably, and to ensure that the compliance that it must secure relates purely to the specific financial and regulatory requirements of the Bill. Of course, we are all people of good will, and it would never occur to us to do so, but in some future manifestation the commission might be used as an instrument of oppression against a particular party, particular sorts of parties or all parties that do not have a majority of the votes. There are ways in which the commission might apply its regulatory functions that could be quite threatening. In a more authoritarian or totalitarian society, we would see the measure as possibly laying the foundations for an oppressive move.

10.45 am

The Minister will be rightly indignant if I impute such motives. Of course, the Government have no such ideas in mind, but will he consider carefully how to build in a safety net at the start, which would prevent that from happening in the future? Will he give serious consideration to our amendments? Can he reassure the Committee and perhaps come back with his views on how to build in safeguards? We want to be satisfied that we are producing legislation that is good for another 117 years.

 
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