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29 Jan 2008 : Column 147

House of Commons

Tuesday 29 January 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker i n the Chair]

Private Business

Canterbury City Council Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.

Leeds City Council Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.


Northern Bank Bill

Read a Second time, and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.

Nottingham City Council Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.

St Austell Market Bill

Read a Second time, and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.


Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords](By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.


Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.


29 Jan 2008 : Column 148

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Powers of Attorney

1. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): How many applications in relation to enduring powers of attorney have been lodged with the Office of the Public Guardian since 1 October 2007. [182466]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): From 1 October 2007 to 18 January 2008, the Office of the Public Guardian received 6,318 applications to register enduring powers of attorney and 2,746 applications to register the new lasting powers of attorney, which replaced enduring powers of attorney when the Mental Capacity Act 2005 came into force on 1 October.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Sir Mark Potter, the president of the family division, states that since opening for business on 1 October 2007, the Office of the Public Guardian has been all but overwhelmed by the unexpectedly high level of business, particularly in relation to enduring powers of attorney. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the OPG has the resources it needs to carry out the tasks that Parliament set it in the 2005 Act, particularly in relation to enduring powers of attorney, which are very important for many people?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. These are people who are at their most vulnerable, so it is vital that we get the service right. It is true that the OPG received far more applications than it had initially expected and that there was a small backlog in some areas, but I have investigated thoroughly and I can assure him, and the rest of the House, that it has been rectified. For example, more than 85 per cent. of calls to the contact centre are being answered within the 60-second target. Things are moving in the right direction.

Electoral Systems

2. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the Government’s review of electoral systems. [182467]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I made a written ministerial statement on 24 January, announcing the publication of the review of voting systems. Copies of the review have been placed in the Library.

Richard Burden: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. In responding to the review, Ministers have said that it is an important contribution to the debate about the strengths and weaknesses of different voting systems, and the options for electoral reform. As the review is essentially desk research, it raises the question
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of where that debate will take place. Is there not now a case for asking voters—engaging the public in the debate—what kinds of different electoral systems can best contribute to different forms of politics and what they want from their political system in this country?

Mr. Wills: It was precisely for that reason—to inform the kind of debate that my hon. Friend wants—that we published the review. This is an important issue, and we look forward to hearing the results of that debate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whatever changes may be made to the voting system—this paper is clearly an important one—it also matters how the system of voting works? Does he also agree that the changes that his Government have initiated in the past have not been an outstanding success, and that one of the things that dignified our democracy in the past was the absolute integrity and assurance of our voting system? Will he please put it back to what it was?

Mr. Wills: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman on the first part of his question, because of course such matters are fundamentally important. However, I do not agree with the second part. We have always taken the integrity of the voting system seriously. The legislation that we have passed has had that absolutely at its heart, but we have a problem—as I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise—with the disengagement of significant parts of the electorate from the political system. All of us owe it to our electorate to do whatever we can to increase participation. That is what has driven our reforms, and it will continue to drive our approach, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the integrity of the system remains fundamental.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): But did we not set up the Electoral Commission to consider these ideas? Since its creation, we have seen voting turnout decline, confidence in politicians fall, and the Council of Europe has criticised our postal voting. We give that outfit £27 million a year. Why?

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his contribution, although I am not sure that it is fair to suggest, as he seems to do, that all those phenomena are the fault of the Electoral Commission. We are reforming the commission. We want it to improve its performance and we are confident that it will do so.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Has the Minister noted that Signor Prodi has recently pointed out that proportional representation has made it almost impossible to govern Italy?

Mr. Wills: As always, the hon. Gentleman makes an invaluable contribution to the debate.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend take evidence from Scottish councillors who are now enjoying—if that is the correct word—the single transferable vote electoral system? It means that we have more than one councillor a ward, and as a consequence, instead of one councillor being directly accountable to his or her constituents and visiting the community council, two or three have to turn up at gala day committees and such like. That has a very detrimental effect on their health.


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Mr. Wills: That is another valuable contribution to the debate and I am delighted that the review of voting systems has already produced such an interesting collection of views.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Is it not the case that this so-called review of electoral systems is actually little more than a cover for the Government’s abject failure to address existing electoral issues, such as the need to counter rampant electoral malpractice, poor voter registration levels, hopeless electronic voting projects and the dire need for sensible party funding proposals?

Mr. Wills: Up until this moment, we have heard an interesting collection of views on the review of voting systems. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not feel able to address the issue at point. The answer to his question is, in short, no.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I do not know what latitude the Minister has to look into the way in which European Union elections are operated. We have a problem with parliamentary elections for Westminster, but the turnout in European elections is much lower. Can he look into that so that we could perhaps return to the old system and, instead of the discredited proportional representation list system, we could have proper European constituencies, with one MEP representing one set of people?

Mr. Wills: Of course we will look into that. The whole point of the review of voting systems is to invite contributions to the debate about something that is fundamentally important to the health of our democracy.

Parliamentary Candidates (Expenditure)

3. Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to limit spending by parliamentary candidates between elections. [182468]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The issue of expenditure limits has, as my hon. Friend knows, recently been considered by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, by Sir Hayden Phillips’s review and during inter-party talks. The Government were committed, under the Queen’s Speech, to bring forward proposals on party finance and expenditure, and work on that is in hand.

Tom Levitt: My right hon. Friend will know that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 removed the triggering of election expenses from electoral law. That has led to a situation in which tens of thousands of pounds are already being spent by some candidates in marginal seats as though an election had already been called. That is being done on the basis, presumably, that they hope that the candidate with the most money, rather than the best policies, will win the next election. Although the issue of triggering was not covered by the Hayden Phillips inquiry, will my right hon. Friend consider reinstating the 1983 legislation on the triggering of election expenses?

Mr. Straw: It is a moot point whether the legislation or its subsequent interpretation has made it more difficult to enforce limits locally, but it is clear that a combination perhaps of the detailed drafting of the Act and its subsequent enforcement has had a consequence that no
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one on either side of each House ever intended—indeed, the opposite was the case, as the then Conservative spokesman in the Lords, the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish put on record in Committee in the other place at the time. All of us at the time believed on very good evidence that that part of what became the 2000 Act was faithfully implementing Lord Neill’s conclusions—shared by all the parties, as he said, who gave evidence to his Committee—not just to maintain the existing controls, but in his words, to buttress them.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does not the Lord Chancellor except that, after the events of the past few weeks, we need not only rules that work, but rules that everyone stick to? On that basis, will he now bring forward as a matter of urgency the proposals set out by Sir Hayden Phillips—not just the bits that suit any one party, but the whole package—fundamentally to reform the system of party funding before irreparable harm is done to our democratic systems?

Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman in particular knows, the all-party talks were operating on a good consensual basis until earlier in the summer last year, and I am very reluctant to proceed without a consensus, because the system of party funding should not advantage or disadvantage in a partisan way one party or another. He will also know that the recommendations in the report of Sir Hayden Phillips were “welcomed”—that was the phrase used—by the then Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), and it is a matter of concern to us that the Conservative Opposition have moved far away from what was proposed. But it is also clear that there was, and I believe there remains, a complete consensus. Anyone who reads the record going back to the recommendations of Neill, back into the 1980s, and back to the debates on the 1999 draft Bill, which became the 2000 Act, will see that everyone in every part of both Houses believed—indeed, the Conservative Opposition in the other place proposed an amendment to clarify the law to make this clear, although at the time Ministers thought that was not needed—that the 1983 controls would continue to operate and be completed by the national controls that Neill proposed.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for what I took to be a clear statement of an intention to close the loophole, whether by legislation or by guidelines. If legislation is used, what is the earliest date by which he would hope to close that loophole, given the clear statement in an article in The Times earlier this month that the deputy chairman of the Conservative party is already pouring money into constituencies?

Mr. Straw: I do not know which deputy chairman my hon. Friend is talking about, but if it is the one that I have in mind, that person is on record, as he was in the other place in a speech that he made in November 2006, saying that there should be no controls whatever on expenditure by parties.

As for any proposals, as the Queen’s Speech said, we are committed to introducing proposals in respect of party finance and expenditure. The Government have yet to make the final decisions, but they will be made shortly.


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Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Lord Chancellor recall that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs produced its unanimous report on the basis that both spending between elections and trade union funding for the Labour party needed to be addressed? It was therefore a balanced package. If he were to proceed on those lines, he could hardly be accused of being partisan for doing so.

Mr. Straw: I do indeed recall that, and the proposals in Hayden Phillips’s report cause difficulties, albeit not symmetrically, certainly for both the main parties and to some extent for the Liberal Democrat party as well, but those proposals were, and are, a package—not some kind of la carte menu—and they need to be proceeded with on that basis. That is my profound concern. Meanwhile, as I say, I have now looked with great care at something that was not directly considered—I am not seeking to make any point—either by Hayden Phillips or, indeed, in the Select Committee report, which I have not only read, but have with me today, for the purposes of greater accuracy. It is absolutely clear, as I have remembered and is now confirmed, that Neill wanted to build on the 1983 controls and absolutely no one on either side of the House thought otherwise, so much so, as I have said, that the late John Mackay—Lord Mackay, who was the Conservative spokesman in the other place and who was well known in this House—moved amendments to address concerns about local controls being dissolved. He was reassured—as it turned out, in error, but in good faith—by Ministers that those controls would not be undermined in any way.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Does the Lord Chancellor accept that it will not be easy to impose spending caps of the type advocated, and that fraud and avoidance will be relatively easy? Given that, will he work hard to bring forward a package of proposals supported throughout the House that recognises the historical link between trade unions and the Labour party?

Mr. Straw: The truth is that controls of any kind can be evaded, which is a criminal offence, or avoided, which may be just within the law but is not within the spirit of the law. It is incumbent on all parties to ensure that we do not go down the same route that some taxpayers—one fully understands why—go down. It is equally important, as the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs pointed out, that account is taken of the different parties’ different circumstances. That used to be the Conservatives’ approach, but I regret to say that they have abandoned it.

It also needs to be put on record yet again that the Conservative party made major changes and tightened controls on trade unions’ political funds throughout the 1980s. Although we did not like those changes, we came to accept them in the mid-1990s. When Neill reported in 1998, he not only said that he had no proposals to change them but quoted the Conservative party’s official evidence to him:

Moreover—


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Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say gently to the Secretary of State that I have an Order Paper to get through.


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