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The point is that it is not unreasonable to ask the Labour party and the unions to be more transparent about what happens, in exchange for the unions being treated as bundlers—that is, as bundling together individual contributions—and not as making organisational donations,
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when they hand over what the Labour party is, quite reasonably within its own terms, entitled to treat as an affiliation.

Dr. Strang: One important point is the fundamentally democratic nature of trade unions. Unions decide their policies at their annual or bi-annual conferences. The leadership is then duty-bound to implement those policies and to argue for them in the Labour party and the wider community. At the end of the day, those leaders are elected. Indeed, thanks to previous legislation they must be elected; it used to be possible to be a general secretary for life. One therefore has to give some leeway to organisations to elect their leadership and to allow that leadership to make the case.

David Howarth: But there is an important distinction between the organisation deciding through its democratic processes to make a donation from the political fund to a political party and individual contributions being channelled through the political fund to a political party. The first is a donation; the second is bundling. The first, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, should be treated as a donation subject to the cap. However, if the unions want to be treated as bundling together individual contributions, which they should be allowed to do, they need to be more transparent about what they do.

That seems a perfectly adequate deal, and one that is far more favourable to the unions than the Canadian one, which the New Democrats have found not to be all that much of a problem. In fact, the New Democrats’ performance in the recent election was rather more impressive than our equivalent party’s performance.

I do not want to go into the detail of the Bill; I just want to say that the three proposals, from the Committee and from Sir Hayden Phillips, form the core of a workable compromise that would start to restore public confidence in the political system. The question with which we started the debate still remains: why does the Bill not incorporate those proposals? The Government say that there is no consensus on them, and that is true. They say that the Conservatives pulled out of the talks in disputed circumstances. Yes; so it is true that there is no consensus. It is also true, however, that the biggest gainer if nothing happened would be the Conservative party, although that might not remain the case after what has been happening in the City. Nevertheless, on the whole, that is where we are.

Even if that is all true, however, it still does not explain why the Government have effectively given the Conservative party a veto over major reform of party funding. The question that I asked the Lord Chancellor in an earlier intervention remains: why do the Government not propose Sir Hayden Phillips’s framework, which has public opinion behind it, even if the parties are not there—it is public opinion, and what is going on outside, rather than inside, the House that matters—and then challenge the rest of us to explain why we do not support it? That would be an act of statesmanship. Instead, we have this petty, inadequate pusillanimous Bill. I ask the House to reject it.

6.51 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): It seems to me that the Bill is about better regulation. We are looking at whether the Electoral Commission has been an effective
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regulator, and the consensus in the speeches that we have heard so far is that it could do better. I share that view. If we look at the principles of good regulation—proportionality, accountability, consistency, transparency and targeting—we see that some of the measures in the Bill will help in that regard. For example, the present burdens on voluntary treasurers in local political parties are such that I would never volunteer to be one. I bless the guy who is the treasurer of Slough Labour party, and I hope that he lives for ever, because if he does not, I do not know where we would find another.

I also fear that our regulation of donations has not been sufficiently proportionate. It has placed a very heavy burden on volunteers, and some of the proposals in the Bill—perhaps with some amendment—could ease some of those burdens and make them more proportionate. Some of the powers that make some of my hon. Friends anxious—my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) was one—are the ones that we expect of most regulators. They include the powers to investigate and to call for documents, and they are held by regulatory bodies from the General Medical Council and the Charity Commission to the Financial Services Authority. I do not think that we should fear them. However, most of those bodies have a duty to keep their investigations confidential in the early stages, and not to go running to journalists to say that they are investigating this or that politician. One weakness in the Bill is that such a duty will not be placed on the Electoral Commission, even though that is one of its present failures.

Another of the Electoral Commission’s present failures is the fact that it knows nothing of that which it regulates. That will be helped substantially by the proposal to add some commissioners with recent electoral experience. I am depressed by the commission’s lack of a sense of inquiry into the electoral process. In a way, it has followed an agenda that was, I am afraid, invented by journalists, rather than one that is determined by what is happening on the ground during elections. I am very concerned about what happens on the ground during elections.

I am also very concerned that, in some constituencies, the process of electoral registration is not picking up the people who should vote. The number of people in inner-city constituencies, for example, who are eligible and registered to vote is substantially lower than the number of people who are entitled to vote. Even in the small town that I represent, which is very diverse, I have seen people turning up at the ballot box wanting to vote but being unable to do so because they find, to their horror, that they are not on the electoral register. They did not know that they needed to fill in a form, or whatever.

I am depressed by the fact that the Electoral Commission has done so little to increase electoral registration. I was not really surprised that the Conservatives were concerned about registering people overseas and about individual voter registration. I believe that there are circumstances in which we should consider individual voter registration. I represent a town in which there has been substantial, sustained electoral fraud. Eight members of the Conservative party will shortly face criminal charges at Reading Crown court for roll-stuffing—that is, registering people who do not exist. Some 200 people who did not exist were registered in one ward in Slough. We discovered this, and our Labour party volunteers put huge human
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resources into collecting the evidence that was eventually presented in an electoral court to show that the person who had overthrown, by 120 votes, the first ever black woman mayor in Britain—she had been a long-serving councillor—had got there by cheating. A by-election followed, and Labour won the seat back.

In places where there is evidence of such corruption, there might be a case for individual voter registration. I would not support its introduction universally at the moment, because when it was introduced in Northern Ireland the number of people registered to vote went down by 10 per cent. That is not a tolerable consequence.

Dr. Lewis: The question that the hon. Lady must ask is whether the 10 per cent. of people who were lost from that list were real people or fictional people.

Fiona Mactaggart: As someone who has spent a lot of energy finding out about fictional people in one ward in Slough, I believe that, even where corruption has existed for a substantial period of time, it is beyond the bounds of possibility that any party could generate a quota of 10 per cent. of fraudulent registrations. I have seen how hard it was for the people who did this in Slough.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Lady is making a powerful case for individual voter registration, which we support. Even though the numbers in Northern Ireland fell, I am pleased to say that, after a period of time and now that the register has been cleared up, the numbers are increasing again. In other words, once the security is in place, there is a basis for growth.

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman makes it quite clear—in contrast to what the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said—that the fall in numbers in Northern Ireland involved real people who had not been registered, and that they are now coming back on to the register after efforts have been made as a consequence of the fall to register them. That is why I do not think that it would be a proportionate or targeted response to demand individual voter registration. But I do back individual voter registration in Slough, because I do not trust the Conservatives in Slough not to have done the same thing in other wards where we have not put in the same efforts.

I also believe that, in areas where there is evidence of the abuse of postal voting—there are some such constituencies—we should take powers in the Bill to tackle that abuse. It is among the most serious abuses of the electoral system. William Hogarth got it right in the 18th century. We need to regulate the real abuses. We have become obsessed with the details of individual donations, but we should be obsessed with the right of the voter to have their views counted, and with whether the democratic process is able to work. We do that by preventing the dead, the non-existent and the invented from voting—very visibly illustrated by Hogarth’s skeletons voting, although in Slough it was non-existent people in central ward—and by preventing abuse of the postal vote system, which is easier to abuse than the vote-in-person system. We also do it by preventing personation—another subject that the Electoral Commission has put no effort into dealing with, although we know that it occurs in some places.

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I am concerned that we have a weak regulator that runs to the media rather than tackling the abuse of democracy. I believe that that is what we face. Although there may not be a united view across the Chamber and although there may be individuals in many parties who have abused the system, as members of the Conservative party did in Slough, I do not believe that any of the parties wish that to be the case. I believe that the political parties are united in wanting democracy to prevail and real people to have real votes that should really count. I believe that they want a system of regulation—a system that is proportionate and targeted—that can guarantee that.

Mr. Djanogly: Does the hon. Lady appreciate that nothing in the Bill provides for countering electoral fraud?

Fiona Mactaggart: That is one of the reasons why I am making a bid to sit on the Public Bill Committee in order to be able to do something about it. What I am saying is that some aspects of the Bill strengthen the Electoral Commission, which could make it face up to its real job. I believe that, ever since it has existed, it has failed to do that job, so changing that is the first step towards dealing with some of these issues. I believe that the Electoral Commission is a weak regulator; it has been a self-indulgent regulator, doing the easy stuff and avoiding the hard stuff. Unless we turn it into a stronger, more effective regulator, nothing we agree about—whether it be how donations should be counted, how we should behave in the pre-election period or when election expenses should be triggered—will make any difference. A difference will be made only if we get a regulator that can do its job.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Lady’s words will be heard by the Peterborough Labour party, particularly three of its members. One, a former councillor for central ward and former Mayor of Peterborough, went to prison. It is not necessarily inappropriate to trade different experiences. I find myself agreeing in my many respects with the hon. Lady, but she is being slightly unfair on the Electoral Commission, which has consistently argued over the past few years for individual voter registration. More importantly, it has also argued for a review of the Representation of the People Act 1983, particularly with respect to gaining the ability to challenge those people who might be guilty of personation. The hon. Lady’s Government have done nothing about that.

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman, to be straightforward, did not listen to what I said. I expect that Eshaq Khan might visit the former Mayor of Peterborough in jail—with our present jail overcrowding, they might even share cells. However, I said that I did not believe that any party in this Chamber wanted that to occur within their own party. I actually believe in political parties. If the hon. Gentleman or any other Member wants to know what legislation I would introduce, they should read a pamphlet that I wrote some 18 months ago entitled “Parties for the Public Good”, in which I set out my proposals. They are not reflected in the Bill—quite usual with my record in the Labour party! Nevertheless, public opinion on political parties was dealt with in my pamphlet. When asked which two or
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three organisations or groups had the most impact on meeting the long-term needs of people in this country, political parties came as high as third after the Government and public services such as the NHS. In other words, political parties beat charities, trade unions, local councils and all sorts of other organisations as bodies in which people had faith in order to deliver for the future.

I also have faith in political parties, but the Electoral Commission clings to the standpoint of believing that political parties are rogues, which feeds an anti-party attitude. It would be better if the commission properly did its job, which is fundamentally to ensure that elections and democracy work. It should look into where the big abuses of democracy and elections lie and assess whether we are tackling them. I do not believe that the Electoral Commission is doing that. It has made demands about what others should do without itself taking action that it is in its power to take. I hope that the Bill will begin to encourage it to do what it should do.

7.5 pm

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): The Electoral Commission was created to be independent, but it has to be answerable to someone for pay and rations, as it were, and the body to whom it is responsible is the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, on which I sit. I am the Chairman of the informal sub-Committee of the Speaker’s Committee and I answer to the House on behalf of that Committee. I am Mr. Speaker’s nominated deputy as Chairman of that Committee. I thus thought it appropriate to make some comments on the Bill before us.

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission supports the principle of the recommendations in the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was the genesis of the Bill. The principle is that there should be representation of politics and the political process at the highest level. The Speaker’s Committee took the view that that would improve the overall effectiveness of the commission. On the CSPL report, the Committee noted that the individuals appointed

The Speaker’s Committee went on to say in its response that there would be difficulties in the representation of small parties and it took note that that problem would need to be addressed. I observe that the Speaker’s Committee has, in practice, been appointed and asked by the Speaker to advise on the appointment of the Chairman and members of the commission and that clause 4 effectively endorses the practice that has emerged from the Speaker’s Committee.

As I said earlier, I am not proposing to burden the House with the views of the hon. Member for Gosport this evening, but I want to put on record some comments by the Electoral Commission. I ask to be allowed to be a conduit for the point of view of that commission and to put on the record any points that it believes should be recognised. The first of those is that the commission welcomes the provision to amend its sanctions and investigative powers and, with some qualification, the proposed changes to the rules on recent political activity for its employees. However, the Electoral Commission has expressed concerns about the proposals to change the rules on the appointment of electoral commissioners.

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The Electoral Commission has for some time expressed the view that it should be given more tools to establish the facts in any case, and to take appropriate and proportionate enforcement action where necessary. The commission believes that the proposed changes to its investigation and sanctioning powers will achieve that end within a well recognised framework of good regulatory practice. The proposed sanctions are consistent with those provided by other regulators under the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 and are, quite rightly in the commission’s view, set within a framework of procedural safeguards, including new rights of appeal.

Several hon. Members, notably the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), have expressed concerns about the powers that the Electoral Commission already has. It would like to point out that under section 146 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it already has powers to enter premises and demand documents. In fact, the commission has only once served notice that it requires documents to be produced to it, and it has never used its powers to enter premises.

If hon. Members are concerned about the broad range of powers to enter premises and the other powers given to the Electoral Commission in the Bill, I suggest that it is entirely appropriate for those concerns to be raised in Committee, and I am sure that the commission will be happy to discuss the regulatory sanctions it has and the need for breadth.

The commission has set out its concerns to hon. Members about the proposed changes to the rules on the appointment of electoral commissioners. As has been well rehearsed, as things stand the commissioners must not have political experience. The commission said that it understands and agrees with the intention behind the provisions in the Bill. It must have a thorough and up-to-date understanding of the way political parties work, and it therefore welcomes the proposal to relax the restrictions on recent political activity for most employees, which it believes would go a long way towards meeting this need. It has stated, however, that it would like to extend the proposed new five-year rule to posts other than that of chief executive.

The commission notes that clause 5(3) states that commissioners appointed from a political background should not participate in boundary decisions, but it takes the view that there is a wider range of issues with which it becomes involved, and it believes it appropriate for the Committee to consider carefully a range of activity in which commissioners with a political background should not participate in discussions. It takes the view that the participation of commissioners with a political background in discussions involving exclusion, criminal sanctions against individuals and so on could give rise to legal challenges on procedural grounds of alleged bias. I am sure that the Committee will want to take account of that; indeed, I see the Minister acknowledging that there is a point to be considered.

The regulated period for candidate expenses has been commented on and criticised by many hon. Members. The Bill proposes that the regulated period should start when expenditure is incurred

The trigger would be activity on the part of the candidate, whether or not they were declared as a candidate at that time. As with any change to the rules, the commission
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has stated that it will produce guidance for parties and candidates on what they will need to do to finalise the process as soon as possible after Parliament has completed its consideration of the legislation. In the commission’s view, the more precisely Parliament defines the kind of behaviour that will trigger the regulated period, the more straightforward the commission’s guidance on how to comply with the legislation is likely to be.

The Bill proposes to require those donating or lending more than £200 to a party to provide a written declaration about the original source of the funds. The commission has said that although it generally supports any measures designed to underline the principle of transparency, it has concerns about the compliance burden those provisions would place on parties. The commission is not convinced that the benefits of the new rules would justify that, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made the point that we must not discourage voluntarism. It is important to ensure that people are prepared to work for political parties, and they should not be discouraged from doing so.

Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to make these contributions, which were put to me by the Electoral Commission. I am obliged to the House; I hope that the points will be considered by the Committee, and that the House will forgive me for referring more heavily to notes than usual because I wanted to make the points made to me by the commission.

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