Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
20. Are you looking at a cap on parties spending
on campaigns which would spread perhaps more in an annual way?
(Mr Younger) I have to say that I had not thought
of that. It would be difficult. After all the election period
in relation to a General Election and the legislation is already
365 days. Of course it did not work like that for last year's
General Election because the legislation only took effect on 16
February three months before the election. There is a year for
that and for devolved legislatures it is four months. So they
are quite substantial campaign periods. I would not at the moment
think of moving towards something which would in effect be an
overall cap on the spending of a political party, which if you
extended those periods much more is what you would be inclined
to be getting towards. There are already difficulties in having
a campaign period which is defined as a year before a General
Election because you do not know when the election is going to
be. It is easier with some other legislatures, but it does mean
parties have to be pretty careful a good deal of the time, any
time they think they might be within a year of an election.
21. A final knotty issue. Do you think there
should be a cap on individual donations to political parties?
(Mr Younger) I am hesitant about a personal view.
My view is that there is quite a strong case for looking at a
cap, but I am one commissioner, there are six of us, we have not
done the investigation yet, we have not taken the public evidence.
One thing I am sure of is that any move we make in that direction
is going to be intimately connected with all the other aspects
of party funding.
22. Basically you set a very high cap, did you
not, so that it got the principle established, but it did not
really bear down on the political parties at all, did it?
(Mr Younger) That is the evidence from this election.
23. Supposing it started to bear down on the
political parties, what would happen if a party won the General
Election narrowly and in your view had narrowly gone over the
limits? Is it really practicable to take some action which reverses
the decision of that election?
(Mr Younger) I do not think it is practicable and
I do not think there is any provision under the law to reverse
the result of the General Election. The issue would be whether
action would be worth taking against a party which had done that.
If I take the example we have already had at the last election,
which was not an issue of butting up against the limits, but there
were several issues there where more or less every party had either
done something it should not have done or failed to do something
it should have done in terms of its campaign spending, which is
not surprising with a new and complicated piece of legislation,
the view we are taking of it in the context of the last election
is to be relaxed about it and say we know there are these problems
as we get the thing to bed down. We would not consider something
worth pursuing which is a minor technical violation. It might
be, if we found a party which had won an election had gone fractionally
over the limit and could explain why, that we should not take
action but on any occasion where we had a sense that something
had been a deliberate flouting of the rules we would feel constrained
to take action. There is no provision for reversing the result
of the election.
24. There was a situation with by-elections
not that long ago when the perception of almost anybody who attended
the by-election was that somehow there was some miraculous accounting
in order to stay within the limits. If you have a tight cap, is
that not likely to be the consequence, that there is going to
be disregard by the political parties at least of the spirit of
(Mr Younger) In a sense others in the room would be
able to answer that better than I could. All I could say is that
the evidence we have had from the work we have done so far is
that the parties have wanted to stick both within the spirit and
the letter of the legislation even though there are occasions
on which the letter is difficult because it may be unclear. Clearly
whatever the rules are there are going to be those who will seek
ways round them. It is something we are going to need to keep
monitoring. The weapon we have in that is actually the exposure
of it rather than the legal redress.
25. You do think it is practical to bear down
on the cap so that it begins to limit the parties as opposed to
the limit really being the amount of money they can raise?
(Mr Younger) Yes, it is practical. The powers we have
to look at party accounts, to interrogate them and the discussions
we have had with parties about a lot of the detail of their accounts
from the last election would indicate thatI am not saying
it would not be possibleit would not be easy significantly
to overspend without it being detected.
(Mr Creedon) There is the time lag here of course
before we get the returns from parties. If they spent less than
£250,000 they come to us within three months of the election
date, if more than that they have six months to submit their spending
returns to us. The parties have a fair time to get their accounts
straight before we can start our compliance role.
26. Yes, but that would not necessarily affect
the accuracy of the returns, would it?
(Mr Creedon) We do work with the parties.
27. You are not suggesting there would be a
little creative accounting simply because they have the time to
(Mr Creedon) Certainly not.
Chairman: No; so long as that is clear.
28. How can you square the circle? You are spending
taxpayers' money encouraging people to vote and yet at the same
time you are trying to discourage people who want to spend money
encouraging people to vote. Could you also explain what your plans
are for considering state funding of political parties?
(Mr Younger) To be honest, I do not see a contradiction
in the sense that in terms of discouraging people from spending
what we have is legislation and we are there to invigilate; we
are not there to promote particular conditions. The overall rubric
we have is encouraging the openness and the credibility of trust
in and then participation in elections. As Parliament has decided
on the rules on donations and on campaign spending as a way of
improving that trust and openness, we are there to do that, that
is one facet of it.
29. You just told Mr Bennett you were thinking
about bringing the cap down.
(Mr Younger) That is taking it a bit too far. We may
come to that when we review it. There is a case for it. It is
not something prima facie which I would go for now. There
is going to be quite a lot of discussion of it. It is a question
of balancing these issues of trust against all the other considerations.
If I could for a moment leap on to the state funding issue, because
it is linked to it, it seems to me that is a debate which needs
to be a very wide public one and needs to see whether it can develop
a consensus. We do not have a view of our own on state funding.
We do recognise that it is an issue of major importance. We are
launching an investigation into the funding of political parties,
including very critically state funding towards the end of this
year. That is one of those but it is sufficiently significant
that it will include a number of public hearings as well as other
submissions. We will probably not report on that until the end
of next year, because it seems to me that the consultation process
seems to be long and needs to be long in order to bring out all
the arguments. There are many different issues coming into the
argument and a lot of people do not necessarily see that too clearly
and this is why the public debate is important because some people
would say in principle, yes, I like the idea of a cap on donations
in isolation, but if they recognise that the consequence of the
cap on donations is that there is going to need to be an extension
of public funding, then it looks different. Getting all those
issues in balance seems to me important and that is why we will
take a fair bit of time on it.
30. When you talk about public consultation
and getting all those issues in some kind of balance, how would
you expect to frame that kind of balance? You are into a very
delicate political area, are you not, and it is very important
that you should be seen to be outwith any kind of party politicking?
I do not think you would be, but how would you frame those issues
in a way which you could put to the general public? How would
you expect to attract the general public to respond if you were
using for example meetings throughout the country?
(Mr Younger) In terms of how we would frame it in
a way which does not pull us into a party-political argument,
I cannot answer now in terms of exactly how we are going to do
that. I am conscious of the fact that that is exactly what we
need to do. In a sense the very public nature of the consultation
is one of the ways of doing it because actually what you are doing
is pulling in views across the spectrum, which are not coming
forward as Electoral Commission views, but are coming forward
as the views of a range of people interested. That is why in particular
the public hearings are important and we would expect to do public
hearings of two sorts: one is formal public hearings of those
most interested, the political parties in particular, a little
bit as the Neil Committee did when it last looked at this issue
five years ago, but we would want to take the issue out around
the country and find ways of getting views in elsewhere. Those
sorts of sessions may not be ones we would run ourselves. They
may be ones which we would invite various groups to have their
own consultations on and feed in what their views are. Once we
get into this, we are not going to be lacking in input on this.
31. May I just follow the Chairman's question
about how it might be framed and ask for your views on whether
you would try to disaggregate the different aspects of party activity?
If I may quickly explain, there is state funding of course of
a certain degree of postal delivery of campaign material, for
example, there is state funding of opposition parties, there is
some state funding within the education system of public awareness
and the involvement of political parties. Would you think of identifying
aspects of party-political work, for example training, education,
citizen awareness, and saying perhaps that is something the public
would accept rather than simply building up membership or some
of the other aspects of party activity?
(Mr Younger) It is certainly an important element.
One of the things we will do in the initial consultation paper
which goes out is set out all of those areas in which there already
is a degree of public funding of political parties and their activities.
32. Including things like what: short money?
(Mr Younger) Short money, election broadcasts, the
free mail shots and now the policy development grants which came
in with the last legislation. There already is a fair bit. We
would certainly be setting out some of the areas in which the
case might be made and indeed several people, Charles Clarke among
them, have been making the case for particular areas where there
might be an extension of public funding, where there is clear
public good and public support for the party. At the same time,
it is terribly important that we look at the issue in two ways:
that it is not just a sense of having so much state funding now
in various forms that we might as well just add some bits down
the line. There also needs to be that debate of principle, about
whether the principle of the public purse paying for the activities
of political parties is right.
33. I want to pin you down on this. If people
are discussing the principle of state funding and the argument
is restricted to practicalities and the things you have mentioned
are all easily set out, they are identifiable sums of money, they
have to be used within particularly clear parameters and people
know exactly what is involved. You have to report to Parliament.
However, the whole question of state funding can have an implication
way beyond the simple organisation of elections and, for example,
political parties no longer relying on individual groups who have
a political view which is in concert with their stated aims, but
being able to obtain the taxpayers' money to run a campaign, does
have quite wide implications. If I decided, for example, I could
be funded by the state in order to run a campaign which said only
women five feet three and with 46-inch hips should be allowed
to be representatives of anyone in the North West, I would be
getting myself into a very interesting situation. When you say
you want to talk about the implications of state funding, how
are you going to express not just the practical side of it but
what it could mean in terms of changing from our existing system
to a completely different system? Have you looked for example
at what happens in Germany? Have you looked at what happens in
areas where state funding is fundamental and actually controls
the way they pick their candidates?
(Mr Younger) I absolutely take the points you make,
firstly in terms of comparisons elsewhere. The preliminary work
in this review is all going to be on the international comparisons
and publishing some information. Others are doing some of the
same work, but we want to make sure that we have learned whatever
lessons there are to be learned from elsewhere. I do think it
is important that there is a discussion about the principle and
the implications on both sides.
34. Who sets out those? Do you see what I am
trying to get at? We are all party politicians. We are all here
because we rightly or wrongly support particular political views.
How are you going to define for the electorate as a whole the
implication of a change from our existing funding to state funding?
(Mr Younger) What we can do is set out in as dispassionate
a way as we can what the whole range of issues is and then when
we get in the range of views we can make judgements. It is not
as though in making this review we are constrained to come up
with a radical new recommendation. We may conclude that there
is not sufficient consensus around this to merit making any recommendation.
That is just as possible as any other conclusion, but it may be
that a sufficient sense of consensus of acceptability and acceptance
of principles develops to go in a different direction. I certainly
would not exclude the possibility that we would not come to any
firm conclusion because there simply is not the consensus to back
35. May I come back to the issue of registration
which we touched on earlier? The law is less than clear in this
area at present. How do you want to see it clarified?
(Mr Younger) In terms of registration, our main focus
is encouraging registration in two ways. One is to recognise that
registration in the past has been administrator focused rather
than voter focused. I felt very ashamed a year ago in Canada to
find myself told that in Canada a voter can register up to close
of poll, whereas here one of the biggest complaints we got at
the General Election was people ringing up and saying by the time
the election was announced they wanted to register and found they
were already too late. There is that challenge in terms of registration
which seems to me critical. There is a second challenge in terms
of registration which is the technology and the interoperability,
for a number of reasons to be able to enable registration electronically
through the internet, to be able to get to a position where people
could vote at a polling station which was not their own one, for
example. That use of technology seems to me to be an important
element for the future. In terms of the law surrounding the register,
there are regulations which Government have set before Parliament
and we have argued to Government, unsuccessfully as it turns out,
that in terms of the electoral register, because it is compulsory,
information obtained compulsorily, it should be used only for
electoral and other very closely related statutory purposes. We
have opposed the provision which allows the sale of an unedited
register to credit reference agencies. We believe that should
not be so and, equally, in terms of an edited register our belief
is that it should not be an opt-out on the registration form as
is proposed so that your details will be sold if you do not opt
out. Our sense is that it should be an opt-in, that you can choose
to have your details so sold if you wish but that the default
position should be that your details are not sold on.
36. Returning to the first issue you raised
of how we go about registering people, clearly practices vary
enormously from one local authority area to another. Do you actually
want a national registration system where everybody adopts the
same practice in every local authority?
(Mr Younger) We do not necessarily want to get to
a system where everybody adopts the same practice in detail, though
I would hope that good practice is something which spreads so
that it is being done well everywhere. I do think there is a very
strong case and indeed there is a project which I hope will start
any minute now, for sufficient commonality across the systemsI
am thinking here of the IT systems which are used to gather and
record the registerso that it can all be pulled together
to give a register which can be integrally consulted. You might
have what is ultimatelyand I would say this is probably
the right aima UK-wide register but locally owned and administered
37. Would people go through the registration
process in the same way or are you simply going to issue a code
of good practice to people? I am thinking of one major difference
in the way registration officers operate in that some have a system
whereby if they do not get a return from a house they leave the
people in that house on who were on the previous register; others
take the household off if nobody fills in the form that year.
That makes enormous differences in the registration levels in
different authority areas.
(Mr Younger) Yes.
38. Are you going to sort those differences
(Mr Younger) Yes, that is very much a matter of the
development of good practice because it affects all sorts of areas,
not just registration. One of the things which is interesting
to me which came up in the course of the last election is an increasing
level of concern among the political parties about the inconsistency
of advice being given to candidates, for example about the operation
of electoral law from one constituency to another. That is something
which is a concern which is shared by the representatives of the
administrators and of the returning officers and one of the major
projects we are involved in is the issuing of much more standard
advice right the way across the system and codes of good practice.
We do not have the power to require compliance with that, but
we can push those good practices forward. The national register
is a slightly different thing. That is about technical standards
which is a very important element, but I am wary in all these
areas. We are an organisation which has been going for only 18
months. One of the implications of having a national register
with very clear rules which require everybody in every local authority
to do it in exactly the same way, one of the dangers there, is
that somebody needs to invigilate that and I am wary about seeking
to take on too much too soon as an Electoral Commission.
39. When are we going to see a code of practice
(Mr Younger) The code of good practice on registration
will be there as part of our codes.
(Mr Creedon) Part of the policy reviews we are doing
is looking at the registration process with the aim of producing
a report early in 2003.