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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that he did not want to steal my thunder, but the appropriate meteorological definition for what I want to say is more a ray of sunshine than anything to do with thunder. I wish to speak briefly in favour of new clause 15.
In opening the debate on the previous group, the Minister said that many of the amendments and new clauses were not hers, and new clause 15 is one of them. Its parentage is the Electoral Commission and the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I hope that that is a good pedigree. We all favour deregulation and spend much time trying to deregulate business and individuals. The new clause gives us the opportunity to deregulate ourselves. I am sure that I am not alone in noticing that MPs have to fill in more and more forms as we go about our daily lives. New clause 15 would enable us to minimise, to a small extent, their number.
As the Minister and the two previous contributors have said, we have to report certain financial donations to two institutionsthe Register of Members' Interests and the Electoral Commission. That requirement can lead to confusion. New clause 15 paves the way for a uniform system of registration by MPs. To that extent, it is deregulatory and I welcome it.
I am also grateful to the Government for responding so swiftly to the report that was published this morning, which led to new clause 15. It paves the way for repealing the duplicatory registration requirements and, if it is approved, the Committee will carry out a general review of the House's rules on registering and declaring
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interests and report back. We have to adjust our rules to accommodate the current requirements of the Electoral Commission. The new clause is good news for the House and for the Select Committee system, because the Government have taken on board one of its recommendations. I hope that it will begin to make life a little simpler for Members of Parliament.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that the new clause was a ray of sunshine. I particularly welcome it, as I was the Member on whose conduct his Committee reported and whose inadvertent straying threw light on the possible duplication and confusion that Members were wont to experience.
Before the last general election, my constituency association received a donation that was duly reported to the Electoral Commission, but which I failed to report to the registrar of Members' interests. Subsequently, I found that Members on both sides of the House had been in the same confusion and ignorance as me; namely, that they had to make that double declaration. The registrar kindly offered to deal with the matter through a simple exchange of letters, as it was a minor infringement, but with my undying commitment to the interests of the House and all its Members, I declined and instead insisted that my right hon. Friend and his Committee look into the matter. It seemed to me that Members were ignorant about their obligations and, as my right hon. Friend said, there was considerable duplication. I am delighted that the Committee and, I think, the registrar agreed and, as a result, the Government have introduced the new clause.
Never has something that I advocated been responded to so rapidly by the Government of the dayand even by one whom I oppose. I wish that I could pull off the same trick in more important areas, but I am delighted that the Government have responded so quickly to the report of my right hon. Friend's Committee and to my views. I thoroughly commend the new clause to the House.
Mr. Redwood: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), whose recommendation I have pleasure in supporting, and also to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) who helped to instigate it. It is a modest deregulation that will in no way affect the honesty of reporting and will help all involved.
In an intervention, I raised one of the problems that I saw with putting a three-month control on expenditure before an election was called; namely, that there could be a local government by-election in the area. Would that mean that the MP or the leading challenging candidate in the subsequent general election would have to rule themselves out of active campaigning in the by-election, as otherwise all the expenses involved could be deemed part of the controlled expenditure?
I speak as someone who, perhaps contrary to my views on free enterprise and economics, believes in regulation and control of the amount that candidates can spend in a general election. That we have extremely modest expenditure limits on individual races in individual constituencies is welcome. It means two
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things. First, it is easier for the challengers and, in a democracy, there should be choice and a proper challenge and, secondly, a Member of Parliament does not have to spend many months, or the whole of their time in Parliament, worrying about raising money, as, for example, members of Congress do. That unwelcome feature of an otherwise rather good American democratic system is one that I am pleased that we do not have in our country. I speak as someone who is philosophically in favour of tight expenditure controls.
I also favour controls even tighter than those we have at present on the sums that parties can spend on the national race in a general election. Most of the money spent by national parties in a general election is wasted. The only problem is that they do not find that out until after the event. Looking at the voting figures for all three main parties in the last general election, it is clear that practically all the money was tipped down the drain because the number of people abstaining greatly exceeded the number voting for even the most popular partyin England, the Conservatives and in the United Kingdom as a whole, Labourlet alone any other conclusion one might draw from those numbers.
Difficult cases could arise if we tried to extend the controls to the three-month period before an election was called. Let us suppose that quite close to the general election in this Parliament the Labour party needs a leadership contest, which is not that ridiculous a supposition. From time to time, the Prime Minister has said that he would like to serve all or most of this Parliament before bowing out, so there could be such a contest. We have been told that there is much talent and several people might like to be Labour leader and Prime Minister for a week or two. They would obviously want to put their names forward and campaign actively to attract support from the membership of the Labour party and the trade union movement in their democratic process. Therefore, very close to an election in the three-month control period, three, four or five Labour Members could spend a lot of money on promoting themselves and their views not just to the national membership generally, but in their own constituencies. It would not be their intention that that would have a big influence on the forthcoming race in their constituencies, but a great deal of money would certainly be spent on promoting them, as individuals and candidates for Prime Minister, just before the election was called.
Anyone looking at such expenditure would say that it clearly influences voters in those constituencies during the subsequent parliamentary challenge, although it has a different purpose. We must take into account those very hard cases when trying to craft a regulation that could stop what we want to stopa party or individual spending disproportionately huge sums of money before an election is called with a view to influencing its outcomewithout stopping all the legitimate activities that go on, such as leadership contests, local government contests and the normal promotion of active party politics in communities, all of which takes money. We need a little bit of caution, however good the intentions may be.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con):
I pay tribute to Ministers, because we had a good Committee process and they have tried hard to listen and to take
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account of the points made by Opposition Members, and I thank them for that. If there is one issue where we should use all the talent of the House, it is electoral administration. I am delighted that that seems to be the Minister's view, and I am particularly appreciative.
I wish to deal with just two points, the first of which is agents. Many hon. Membersparticularly you, Mr. Deputy Speakerwill know that I was proud to be a professional agent some years ago, when professional agents were much more likely to be seen. Sadly, that has changed, and we now see many less experienced agents. When I talk about professional agents, I mean those people who were agents for 22 years, although they did not get paid for it, and by dint of experience, made themselves very professional indeed.
We had a cadre of professional agents in that respect whom we could rely on to aid the electoral process. My experience suggests that they took their duties seriously and that they worked together to ensure that the democratic process was in the main carried out as well and honestly as possible. That is less prevalent today. Indeed, many agents are thrown into the job at the last moment, simply because no one else will accept it. Therein comes the problem, because agents are vital to the good administration of elections and, if we make it more difficult for them to do the job, we will make the good administration of elections more difficult. That point concerns me seriously and I hope that the Government will rethink that.
The second point concerns limits, for the Bill seems schizophrenic in talking about the co-ordinated online register of electors. I welcome CORE, but it gives an opportunity for political parties to use direct mailing much more efficiently. On the one hand, CORE suggests that we ought to move to a more professional approach, yet on the other, the new clause seems to suggest that we ought to limit that ability. Frankly, that issue has not been thought through properly, so the Government should reconsider it to get a more consistent view.
Do we want direct marketing elections, or do we not? If we want such elections, we need limits. If we do not want them, we need to be more decisive on the issue. The new clause does not answer that question and the Minister is concerned that he has not quite hit the right note. I ask the Government to reconsider that proposal and, to return to agents, they should think again, because we are all involved, and if we make such things more difficult, we make the whole electoral process more difficult.
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