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Election Publications Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

10.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This short, one-purpose Bill has been introduced following representations by all three main political parties. The issue arose from discussions between the Conservative party and the Electoral Commission, which established that the Conservatives were concerned about the new legislation. The Conservative party discussed the issue with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, and all three then made representations. The Bill is in response to their concerns.

The Bill postpones the operation of the new requirements relating to the imprint on election publications, which were introduced by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I emphasise that we are not repealing those new requirements, but simply delaying their commencement to assist political parties. The Bill is not about correcting defects in the 2000 Act.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to set out what the Bill does, I shall happily give way to him.

The Bill reverses what, in hindsight, may have been an overly rapid implementation of two provisions in the 2000 Act, given that political parties were not yet in a position in which they were prepared or able to comply with them. In those circumstances it is right that we listen to representations. From the start, we have said that we wanted to make progress on the legislation on the basis of consensus and consultation with political parties, and we have tried to take that approach throughout.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) rose--

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps I may advance my arguments a little more, then I shall happily give way to Opposition Members.

It may assist the House if I briefly explain the background to the Bill. By definition, all right hon. and hon. Members have been candidates in one or more previous elections for Parliament. I trust, therefore, that we are all familiar with the long-standing requirement in section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 that our election leaflets and posters bear an imprint stating the name and address of the printer and publisher. In its old guise, section 110 applied only to material that sought to promote or disparage a particular candidate; it did not apply to national material promoting or disparaging a political party. Section 143 of the 2000 Act made good that omission. Paragraph 14 of schedule 18 to

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that Act substituted a new section 110 in the 1983 Act. The new section 110 sought to make the provenance of any election material clearer.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Not at the moment, but when I have set out what the Bill is about I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Mr. Fabricant: Do not forget me.

Mr. O'Brien: I will not forget the hon. Gentleman. How could I? He is a neighbour of mine and regularly appears in my local press. Indeed, I sometimes think that I cannot get away from his smiling face in the newspapers.

The new section 110 sought to make the provenance of election material clear to everyone, and did so by replacing the requirement to name the publisher with a requirement to identify the promoter and the person on behalf of whom the material is being published. The promoter is the person who calls for the material to be published and would normally be a candidate's election agent; the person on behalf of whom the material is being published would normally be the candidate himself. The new provisions relating to national electoral use deploy identical terminology.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall explain what the Bill is about and then happily give way. Following Royal Assent, we consulted the main parties on the timetable for commencement in relation to section 143 and the new section 110. We proposed that they should come into force along with much of the rest of the 2000 Act as quickly as possible--that is, on 16 February. Unfortunately, at that time, none of the parties dissented and the order was made accordingly.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman is very persistent, so I shall give way.

Mr. Grieve: One of my tasks was to take the 2000 Act through Committee on behalf of the Opposition. Will the Minister concede that one feature of discussion in Committee was that both the principle of various changes and the practicability of their implementation could be explored? Because he denied the House the opportunity to discuss section 143 when it came back from the House of Lords, there was no opportunity for Members to apply their practical experience to the difficulties that its implementation might cause. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the letter from the Government makes no reference to section 143 or the problems that might surround its implementation.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. He knows, as does everyone who watches

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proceedings in this place, that sometimes the Opposition--I suppose that it applies to almost any Opposition--seem to judge the quality of legislation by the length of their speeches, rather than by the quality of the drafting and the objective of making good law.

The part of the Bill under discussion was inserted in the legislation in July last year. There was plenty of time for consultation. We have always made sure that we were open to representations on the Bill from the Conservative party and any other political party. We have always emphasised our desire to move forward by way of consultation and consensus. The hon. Gentleman knows that there were opportunities for the Opposition to raise the issue in consultation or in other ways.

With regard to the letter, it is a matter for the political parties to examine the legislation and decide whether they have any points to raise. That is the purpose of the letter. We did not intend to set out the entire Bill in the letter that we sent to the political parties. We wanted to know whether they had any objection to our inserting particular provisions into the law.

Mr. Grieve rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I am conscious of the time. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once, and other hon. Members have also asked me to give way. I give way to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) for the last time.

Mr. Grieve: I thank the Minister. He says that the Opposition did not respond, but presumably his own party did not respond, either. I understand that at least some of its national literature and posters do not conform with the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Mr. O'Brien: That is not quite true. In the consultation period from December to January, the Labour party did not respond on the particular point. Although it did not object to the implementation of the provisions that we suggested, the Labour party did comment on them in July last year, in a telephone call, but that is all. There was no objection from the Labour party, the Conservatives or any of the political parties.

Subsequently, by 16 February, the parties and candidates throughout the country were already preparing for the county council elections. Many of us have experience of unpacking boxes of old leaflets and posters, and re-using them in later elections. Any such material would have borne the old "printer and publisher" imprint. In many cases, new material would have been commissioned without taking into account the new imprint requirements.

What is to be done in that situation? One option would have been for the parties and candidates to pulp the existing stocks of material and to arrange for new leaflets and posters to be printed. The political parties could have done that, at enormous cost and with some difficulty. However, the three main parties have made it clear to us that such an option was neither practical nor realistic. After due consideration, we accepted that, and in line with our wish

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to proceed by way of consensus and consultation, we agreed to accept the representations made by the three main parties.

Mr. Beith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), then to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and then to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

Mr. Fabricant: In his introduction, the Minister said that the Bill represented not a cancellation of legislation, but a postponement. It may be my lack of drafting skills, but I cannot find the date until which the legislation is to be postponed. Can the Minister clarify that?

Mr. O'Brien: The postponement is not until a particular date. We believe that the matter should be dealt with through consultation with the political parties. We want to enter into discussion not only with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, who in the past have been willing to discuss such matters, but with the Conservative party. I hope that, having learned its lesson that consultation is important, the Conservative party will engage seriously in discussions not only about this part of the political parties legislation, but in relation to other issues in the legislation that has already been passed but which has not yet come into force--where commencement provisions have not yet been enacted. I hope that the Conservative and other parties will engage in consultation about the effect on them and on the political process. We need to get it right. We are dealing with a new aspect of law and it is unsurprising that there are some teething troubles with a new area of regulation. The difficulty in question is one of those teething troubles. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that we commenced the new imprint requirements too soon. The best course is, therefore, to suspend the process and to re-establish the status quo ante.

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