Previous Section Index Home Page

That implies that the Government may now have set their face against bringing this provision into force. What the House needs today from the Minister is a clear commitment on whether the Government still support the commencement of section 59 and, if so, on what time scale. As he will know, the Standards and Privileges Committee is working towards creating a registration structure that is consistent with achieving that, and gave a commitment in our 13th report to the House before the summer recess that it would aim to make firm proposals shortly after the summer recess.

If the Minister gives a clear commitment to the commencement of section 59, I can tell the House that it should be possible, subject to the Government’s finding time, to complete the steps necessary to clear the way
20 Oct 2008 : Column 97
for commencement well before this Bill receives Royal Assent. There is widespread support across the House for an end to dual reporting of donations. Commencement of section 59, the inclusion of which in the 2006 Act all parties supported, as did the Electoral Commission, would achieve that for 99 per cent. of donations. I invite the Government today to confirm their commitment to taking that step.

If the Government are unwilling now to commence section 59, I hope that the Minister will tell the House why, and what alternative plans he has for ending the thoroughly unpopular requirement for dual reporting. If legislation is needed to deliver an alternative approach, the Bill provides the appropriate vehicle. On a more consensual note, I am happy to discuss these matters further with the Secretary of State and the Electoral Commission, but they will need to be taken forward urgently if the opportunity to change a system that many hon. Members find unacceptable is not to be lost.

8.9 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): It is both a pleasure and a problem to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). It is a pleasure because I substantially agree with many of the things he had to say and the thoughtful way in which he said them, and a problem because it is clear that I shall now have to exempt him from some of the remarks that I might make about the likeness to a certain mint sweet, sold in tins in the House of Commons shop, that appears to have pervaded certain parts of the debate this evening.

The word “consensus” has been used quite freely in the debate. It is true that the efforts of Sir Hayden Phillips, who had to deal with a problematic initial brief in his inquiry, and of the Constitutional Affairs Committee produced an output that moved substantially towards the possibility of consensus on the wider issue of what we are doing here, as far as our political practice is concerned, and how that needs to be validated in the public eye in the long term. It seems to me that that is what most of the debate is about.

People will have different versions of what is the most important part of that issue. One of the most important parts of validating what we are doing here starts with the Jeremy Bentham dictum that all should count for one and none should count for more than one. If someone is not registered to vote, for whatever reason, or has disappeared off the electoral register, they do not count for one. Alternatively, if large sums of money flood into a contest where everybody would otherwise count for one, distorting their ability to count for one, people will not count for one in the same way. Consensus would have to take account of the real world and what happened in elections.

The consensus achieved by, among other things, the report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee took account of the differences in political parties’ histories and how those differences come into the political system today. The recommendation on the subject of trade union affiliations and the relationship between trade unions and the Labour party, which we have already discussed this evening, stated:

20 Oct 2008 : Column 98

I felt that that was a good formulation of where parties have come from, as far as their political backgrounds are concerned. Our political system has never been perfect. We have never had a moment in our history when we could write the entire political system anew and hope that it would work according to the ideal principles that we proposed.

Any idea of how better to regulate the system has to come from where we are and where we are going, and any consensus must take that into account. I am concerned about the extent to which “consensus” has, in this evening’s debate, begun to be interpreted as “veto”. Those two words are very different. When engaging in a partisan debate, people will of course conclude that their position of expediency has more principle attached to it than an outside observer might accept was the case.

It is generally accepted that the difference between the near consensus in the discussion on party funding several years ago and the recent position relates, to some extent, to the fact that the Conservative party, in particular, when it was worrying about its position on funding, had a warmer view of consensus on including donations and a whole-term cap on party expenditure. I personally think that that would be an important part of the process of allowing the public to see that what we are doing makes full sense, as far as their participation in elections is concerned.

As the political funding atmosphere changed, a number of people in the Conservative party began to feel much more lukewarm about the idea that such a compromise might be a good thing in achieving consensus. This is where the mint sweets in the shop come in to it—that move towards a veto has been dressed up as high principle. The Conservative party withdrew from the talks because, in my view, in the end it felt that it was more to its advantage to be out of them than to be in them. In those circumstances, short-term consensus is very difficult to achieve.

What does one do in such circumstances? Do we simply say that because there is no consensus we should do nothing? Do we say, “Let’s do what it is possible for us to do in circumstances where there is no full consensus, but we can reasonably argue for a number of things without its being in a spirit of over-partisanship, although obviously all contributions will be seen as to some extent partisan. Let’s see what we can do to move towards a better version of how the system works”?

What disappoints me about the Liberal Democrats’ position is that they appear to be repudiating such an idea and saying that unless the full consensus and the ideal outcome can be achieved, nothing should be considered at the moment. I can understand how that position arises, but, bearing in mind the description I have given of how we have moved away from consensus in recent years, we are nowhere near reaching a perfect outcome. Should we therefore say that nothing will happen in the meantime, until such an outcome is achieved? I am afraid that that, for much less honourable reasons, appears to be the position of those on the Conservative Front Bench.

Sir Alan Beith: I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). The hon. Gentleman played a valuable and crucial role in achieving consensus. The point that my hon. Friend and I were
20 Oct 2008 : Column 99
trying to make to the Lord Chancellor was that there was consensus. A document was produced by members of three parties, which was then developed by an independent referee, and so the Lord Chancellor could not be faulted if he persisted in carrying the recommendation forward even though one party had since resiled from it.

Dr. Whitehead: The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong point in one sense, inasmuch as it would be technically possible for the Lord Chancellor to introduce such legislation, but I think he will understand that in those circumstances the chances of its getting anywhere at all in the House would be remote. We must continue to pay attention to what is practically possible right now. What we do in the current circumstances will be under the magnifying glass of whether partisan advantage is being obtained by one side or the other. That seems to be at the heart of this discussion.

Martin Linton: Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether he would have any sympathy for Liberal Democrat candidates who are blown out of the water at the next election by Ashcroft money as a result of their party’s refusal to support the Bill in this place or in the House of Lords?

Dr. Whitehead: As one of the longest failed key seat Labour candidates in the south of England, I have always had sympathy for people who are blown out by opponents, and I have particular sympathy for those blown out by opponents who appear to be able to spend their way to victory rather than winning entirely by the force of debate and discussion during the election. One of the things we need to consider is what might be done both in theory over a long period and practically over a much shorter period, so that elections are fought on the basis of better arrangements for what the public want, with debate between the candidates on the issues so that people can use their vote in the best way possible, rather than on more abstract principles about the overall fairness of the system in the longer term. Consequently, the Bill’s provisions largely pass the test of what it is reasonable to do in a not over-partisan way in existing circumstances.

The appointment of political commissioners to the Electoral Commission is important, and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire made the strong point that the Committee on Standards in Public Life had no problem with the presence on the commission of members who are active politicians, not just recent politicians. As we can see in the Committee on Standards and Privileges and other Select Committees, Members are not always partisan. The idea that we would always be partisan eventually betrays us to the argument of anti-politics—that we are all rogues in this House and that the parties contesting elections are rogues, so it is in the public interest to be protected against all of us. I do not accept that and I think the Electoral Commission would be immensely strengthened by the addition of political commissioners.

There has been substantial discussion of triggering. We appear to have had something of an Aquinean discussion on the extent to which the original debate on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill in
20 Oct 2008 : Column 100
the House of Lords was based on a mistake, consensus or withdrawn amendments. I prefer to put the question whether we have a perfect outcome in a slightly different mode. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred to an election in 1881—

Martin Linton: 1880.

Dr. Whitehead: I apologise; 1880 was the year of the general election. I was thinking of the by-election. In the 1895 election in Southampton—my city—the Conservative candidate, Sir Tankerville Chamberlayne, arranged for a horse and cart to be deposited outside the Cowherds public house, which is at the top of the city. The cart was unhorsed and six strong men pulled it down Above Bar to the party headquarters, with Sir Tankerville standing in the back throwing out sovereigns as they went. Quite reasonably, that behaviour was reported to an election commission and he was unseated.

The point of the story is that what appears, by suggestion, to be tolerated now is that the metaphorical throwing out of sovereigns in a modern context is okay until the day the election is called, but then it is not okay. Even the argument that candidates should spend money they have legitimately raised for themselves would stand objective examination only if one did not agree that there should be restraints on electoral expenditure during elections anyway.

As I understand it, we all agree that there should be constraints on election expenditure locally during elections. In terms of the real electoral arms race, we all know that, increasingly, certain people will try to squeeze in as much expenditure as possible in the three, four or five months before the period in which election expenditure is capped, to get around the rule. In the absence of a wholesale consensus on how we cap electoral expenditure between elections, we might consider a trigger mechanism. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) said, we should provide the best possible definition of that trigger, so that some of the vagaries that beset the legislation that was in place before 2000 are done away with. Nevertheless, we should have a mechanism that provides a much more straightforward and logical approach to electoral expenditure.

As for the Electoral Commission’s powers to invade one’s bedroom, suggested in proposed new schedule 19 to the 2000 Act, which follows clause 12, I hope that that issue will be considered carefully in Committee. There is indeed a logical disjunction between the Electoral Commission’s power to deliver a rap on the knuckles and its power to refer someone to the police. It is logical and clear that there should be a staging point in between. It is up to Members in Committee, to make sure that the staging point is reasonable, not unreasonable, and that it does not take us beyond the reality, which is that political parties are voluntary organisations that overwhelmingly have the best interests of the public at heart in their activities.

I now come to the regulation of unincorporated bodies and the reporting of donations over a certain size from those bodies. I find the opposition to that proposal rather comical. It is plain that in a properly transparent system, the idea that money could be funnelled into a local campaign through certain unincorporated bodies, whether outside or inside the country, offends against the argument on giving money in the period
20 Oct 2008 : Column 101
immediately outside the restricted period of an election. It also offends against the principle to which, as I understand it, we all signed up when we talked about the fact that campaign money should be transparent and its origins fairly straightforward.

Obviously, there is the issue of what the unincorporated body in question is doing. With an unincorporated body such as the Berkshire Supper Club, for example, one might think, “It’s in Berkshire, and people have suppers there and donate money as a result; that seems fairly straightforward.” If an organisation is called the East Surrey Business Club, I guess it would involve business people in Surrey making donations to bodies in Surrey. Similarly, a person might think that the Midlands Industrial Council was a body dealing with industrialists who work in the midlands. Well, they would be wrong. They would find that associations up and down the country, nowhere near the midlands, have benefited from donations from that organisation, and we do not know what the arrangements are. As to whether the body is industrial, we are not sure. If we are to deal with transparency, it is important that it should be proper transparency; there should not be transparency only for some.

Counter-arguments against some measures in the Bill were put forward: it was said that the communications allowance meant that incumbents effectively got a great addition to their campaigning power, whereas their opponents did not. A great deal of effort has been made by the House authorities—the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee among them—to ensure that the communications allowance is used for communications purposes and not party political purposes. Indeed, a corpus of case law, as we might call it, is being developed that, say, sets out the acceptable ways in which a Member of Parliament can deliver a newsletter, or what one can and cannot address one’s constituents about and so on. That ensures that the communications allowance is not used for political campaigning.

Adam Afriyie: It is surely undeniable that a communication sent directly to constituents from an incumbent MP, showing their smiling face and describing the work that they are doing in Parliament, must give some sort of advantage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that should be incorporated in the cap that he is talking about?

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman might have a point if no restrictions on the communications allowance existed. In the world of modern political communications there have been substantial differences in what the public expects from their MP and what they expect to receive from their MP. For example, a predecessor of mine many years ago in Southampton, Test remarked on one occasion that he received 29 or 30 letters a week and he could respond to all of them by hand. That is far from the case today, in a world of e-mails, letters and other forms of communication. It is important that we have them, but it is also important to delimit their content.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if the communication showing the smiley face of the MP is an attempt to get party political matter over by means of the communications allowance, that is a problem. That is why there have been rulings about smiley faces of
20 Oct 2008 : Column 102
MPs, political logos and various other things that have been sent out in communications. In any event, part of the truth that dare not speak its name is the fact that we already have considerable state funding of political parties, although no one mentions it. We have state funding of the Conservative party to a considerable extent, in the form of Short money. I do not object to that. It is a good leaven for the workings of political parties in this place and elsewhere.

As a rough calculation of the effect of the communications allowance, £10,500 per Member for the Labour party amounts to £3.66 million. For Conservative MPs the figure is £2.06 million, with a further £3.8 million a year in Short money for Conservative MPs. That equates to £19,600 per Conservative MP, rather more than the communications allowance, and of course Conservative MPs get the communications allowance anyway. So where is the inequality, I wonder? The total amounts of money are roughly the same per side.

I say that to try to bring the debate down to a rather less mint sweet-based level. Partisan points can be made on both sides, of course. Instead, we should judge the Bill by what it will do to ensure that the public have a better view of how we conduct our business, how elections are conducted, how valid the results of those elections are, and what confidence people can have about going to vote in the first place. That is the test that we should apply to the Bill.

Martin Linton: Before my hon. Friend runs away with the comparison between the communications allowance and Short money, is he aware that non-incumbent Labour candidates at the last election did 1.4 per cent. better than incumbent candidates? Among the Liberal Democrats, non-incumbent candidates did 2.3 per cent. better. Where does that leave the incumbency factor? It does not exist in this country.

Dr. Whitehead: I had always understood that what was realised after detailed examination of the incumbency factor was that incumbents tended to get a bounce first time around, but that after that the accretion of things that they had done which were not as good as they should have been tended to drag that factor away. The incumbency factor did not follow for elections after that, communications allowance or no communications allowance.

My point was that if we look at the overall picture of where money goes, from the vote of the House to what might conceivably be regarded as political advantage, we see that the figures are pretty even between the majority and minority parties. That should cause us to concentrate on what is in the Bill, which—although I would like to see some amendments in Committee—I think can overwhelmingly pass the test and make the public think that the processes in which we engage in this House and during elections can be more transparent, better conducted and lead to more confidence in the electoral system. I believe that that can happen, and that is why I support the Bill.

8.36 pm

Next Section Index Home Page