Indeed. My view is that if we have to have the allowance, it should seriously conform to certain standards with some sort of objective evaluation of what a Member of Parliament has been doing. It might
even contain outrageous details such as whether the Member in question ever did not vote with the party Whip. Those are the kind of things that our constituents would probably like to know.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Surely it has to be possible to separate the perfectly proper wish to communicate with constituents about the range of work that is done and the advertising of advice sessions from the subliminal Vote for me messages to which my hon. Friend refers. Perhaps these things should be vetted more vigorously.
Dr. Wright: I agree; if we are going to have such an arrangement, it has to conform to standards that are more rigorous than the existing ones. That is part of the quid pro quo, and my hon. Friend is right about that.
However, the essential issue is the reason for wanting to control local financial spending. We have a permanent election campaign now, which has direct implications for spending at a local level, and it is right that we want to control that, just as we want to control national spending. I was interested in the speech of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) because, as I understood it, he said that although he did not like the return to the trigger mechanismI had some sympathy with him on that because none of us found it satisfactoryhe accepted that there was a case for some sort of control on local spending. That was confusing; he said he was not persuaded that there was a need for any kind of cap on spending, but went on to describe the kind of cap that he might support, referring to the number of months for which it might apply. In the spirit of the consensus that we do not usually do here, there is room for movement there, because in a sense there is a shared objective. There is an agreement about the need to constrain spending at a local level if we can agree on the mechanism. If I can agree that there are deficiencies in the operation of the trigger mechanism as it used to be, perhaps he could agree on finding a more effective mechanism to achieve the same objective.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I have been following my hon. Friends speech closely, and I agree with a great deal of it, but does he not risk becoming diverted on the issue of the communications allowance? He says that it amounts to £50,000 or £60,000 in a full Parliament. A rich donora very rich donorto a political party could contribute £1 million over that period and think nothing of it. Has my hon. Friend taken account of a more serious threat to our democracy? An individual as rich as the one whom he has named could change the whole nature of one of our great political parties by being in charge of the selection process, and being able to pick and choose between pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans and between the right wing and the left wing of the party. Such an individual could end a whole traditionthe tradition of Members speaking on behalf of the Conservative party. Is that not more dangerous and undermining of our democracy than anything involved in the communications allowance?
I think that it would be extremely dangerous for rich individuals to dictate our political life, and wherever that appears, it ought to be dealt with. It must, however, be dealt with in the context of a broad approach.
We cannot single out individuals whom we do not like; we can take action only if we have found a principle on which we can base it. I believe that the principle in favour of constraining spending is that we do not want our politics to be driven by money. We want broad comparability between parties when they fight elections. That, after all, is why the regulations on campaign spending were introduced at the end of the 19th century. It is a consistent and traditional principle.
What worries me is the disproportionality of the arrangements for the Electoral Commission if we get it wrong. I think everyone agrees that the commission has been in a sort of limbothat it is, in a sense, both too weak and too powerful. It must be given a clear focus and clear enforcement powers, and at least the Bill will do that. The worry is that it may not pass the test of proportionality that we apply to regulators. Locally, we are dealing essentially with volunteers, who are liable to make mistakes but who are not criminals.
Let us think for a moment about the series of so-called funding scandals that devour so much media attention nowadays. No doubt some of them are examples of not keeping the books properly or not being on top of the game, or of some kind of mismanagement of companies offices or affairs. While all those failings are reprehensible, it is simply not true that they are examples of serial corruption in our public life. My worry is that if we establish a regime that makes it much more likely that ordinary party workers around the country will be fingered in a serious way because they have slipped up in some accounting arrangement which, in turn, will feed all kinds of media hysteria about yet another funding scandal, far from helping our political life, which is what the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) was talking about, we will do huge damage to it.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I rise only to support the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. We all know that the hardest position to fill on the constituency party executive is that of treasurer, because people are apprehensive about taking responsibility for the money. By and large, they are well-meaning people dealing with quite small sums. We must be very careful not to frame rules, driven by a media agenda, which deter the very few people who are willing to put their names forward in the first place from assuming such responsibilities.
Dr. Wright: I agree, and I would go further. This relates to what I was saying earlier. In many respects we are in a much better position than in the 1990s, when there was no openness of a formal kind, no transparency and no regulation of political parties. Ten years on, we have vastly more compulsory transparency along with intricate regulation of political parties, yet the reputation of politics, far from being enhanced, has been diminished.
I am still on the side of those who want to ensure that we get this right. I simply sound a warning, as have others. We must constantly bear in mind the problem that we are trying to deal with, and ensure that any solution addresses that problem rather than seeking, for its own sake, to refine ever more the regulations that we have put in place. Otherwise the only effect will be that more peoplelittle people, volunteer peoplewill inadvertently be caught, with the effect that the reputation of our public life, relayed through the newspapers, will
diminish even further. The argument is, therefore, for as much simplicity and proportionality as we can get while remembering to match solution to problem.
Dr. Wright: That is a fair question. The Bill has two essential elements. One is to give far more focus to the Electoral Commission. That is the right thing to do; everyone has rightly said that that is needed. I am inserting in the margin, as it were, the point that in doing that we should not forget the principle of proportionality, and that we will need to attend to it as the Bill progresses. However, the points about the need for more focus and better powers and enforcement are essentially correct.
The Bill is also essentially correct in wanting to put people with recent political experience on the Electoral Commission. That would be an outrageous suggestion if anybody thought that the politicians were going to run the thing, but they are not. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, the arrangement works perfectly well in many other bodies. It works in the Committee on Standards in Public Life, in our own Committees in this place and in the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and the idea of a regulatory body not including in its membership representatives of the world that is represented would be seen as bizarre and eccentric in any other regulatory realm. Therefore, I think the Electoral Commission is quite wrong to object to this proposition. It would help to remedy in part the problem that the commission has been seen to have by those engaged in politics: that it does not understand this world. It is a very good idea to put people with political experience, although not direct, active and contemporary political experience, on to the commission. That element of the Bill is to be welcomed, and the Electoral Commission is wrong on this matter.
The Bill also addresses the control of local party spending, on which I have made my views clear. There is a case in principle for seeking to exert a continuous control on local political spending for the reasons I have described, which are the same reasons we now apply to national spending. My reservation is simply about which is the best technical way to do that. I am not sure whether the suggestion that we should reintroduce the trigger mechanism is right, because we all know that that came with difficultiesit was a source of much confusion. I was quite heartened by the comment of right hon. Member for Horsham on behalf of the Opposition that he thought he could get around to agreeing to a proposal that would achieve the same objective. I hope that he can do so, and despite what I said about consensus earlier, I hope we might even reach some consensus.
The Bill is clearly not the last word on this issue. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire talked about it as running repairs. I think that is the case, but I also think we can justify each element of those repairs, and it is our job to make sure that we get these measures into as good a shape as possible.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am quite happy to have had to wait rather a long time to make what is rather a short speech, because otherwise I might have missed the contributions of some of the late entrants, such as that of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) who has just put on a bravura 24-minute performance. That was particularly striking given that I do not think he had intended to make a speech at all until he was spoken to by his Whip. I realise how much I yet have to learn about the workings of this place, but I congratulate him on that effort.
There have been a considerable number of noises about consensus, followed up by a considerable number of highly partisan speeches. In contrast, throughout the debate I have been making a considerable number of highly partisan heckles and interventions, but I shall now make what I hope will be a highly consensual speech. It is about nothing that anyone else has discussed, because it is not about something that is in the Bill but about something that I hope might be put into it. It follows on from discussions that I have had with various Ministers, shadow Ministers and the Electoral Commission, and from a campaign earlier this year.
As we are all aware, on 16 May three judges, in their wisdom, ruled that the private home addresses of hon. Members should be published in response to freedom of information requests. That led to a great deal of heart-searching, anguish and concern on the part of Members, 256 of whom signed an early-day motion stating that their home addresses should be kept secret and not revealed in response to such requests. They included 98 Members from my party, 31 Liberal Democrat Membersabout half of each of those parliamentary partiesand 111 Labour Members. That number would have been much higher but for the fact that many Ministers and Government appointees were not able to sign an early-day motion.
One of the strongest supporters of the move to change the rules and ensure that such addresses were not revealed was the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who spoke earlier in this debate. Other supporters were the Leader of the House and her then deputy. A very strong supporter was a Minister who is now in the Ministry of Justice, who gave a seriously worrying account of something that had happened when the revealing of an address had led to an encounter on that Ministers doorstep. It could easily have had a very nasty result.
The outcome of all that was that on 17 July, through a statutory instrument, the rules were changed. Hon. Members will no longer be put at risk in that way as a result of the decision by three judges, each of whom, most revealingly, declined to give me his home address. However, a point directly relevant to the Bill is the reason the information tribunal in February, and the three judges in May, said that they thought it appropriate for hon. Members home addresses to be revealed. They said, although not quite in these words, that the cat was already out of the bag because candidates had to reveal their home addresses in certain documents at election time. We all know what those documents are, but I do not propose to spell it out. I do not want to make it any easier for people who wish to cause trouble to go into the matter, because I hope that we will get the law changed.
I contacted the Electoral Commission and had a conversation on 22 July with Mr. Peter Wardle, the chief executive. I wrote to him on 30 July and pointed out that, as I have said, the primary reason for the decision was that the cat was already out of the bag. My argument was, and is, that the cat had been let only partly out of the bag. Just because something is revealed locally from time to time, that is no reason to have to reveal it en masse, all the time, on the internet. That would have been the effect of the freedom of information ruling.
should be altered from disclosure of a home address
to disclosure of any valid address via which the candidate can receive communications.
the candidate need not disclose any address at all.
only the first three letters/digits of the postcode of the candidates genuine home address should be disclosed,
a genuine home address should be disclosed to the Electoral Returning Officer only, who would have to be satisfied by documentary or other means that it was valid but who would not disclose it to third parties.
In your letter of 30 July, you set out four possibilities. For the reasons I expand on below, I think the Commission would be likely to prefer your option (3)that only the first 3 digits of the postcode of the candidates genuine home address should be disclosed. In brief, the reason for my view is that the Commission is likely to take the view that electors and candidates should have the opportunity to establish for themselves what connection a candidate has with the area they are seeking to represent.
He pointed out that the requirement for a home address to be disclosed went back to the Ballot Act 1872 and had been carried forward, most recently in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Mr. Wardle said that his
understanding is that the arguments for maintaining these arrangements
where there are rules on residency (e.g. in relation to eligibility to stand at a local election), they had been followed; or, where there are no residency rules, to ensure that candidates and electors can identify which candidates are local to the area.
In our report, we did not recommend the complete removal of candidates addresses from ballot papersbut we did suggest that addresses on ballot papers
could be abridged. Giving the first three digits of a postcode would, for example, be one way of achieving that.
The House has made its position overwhelmingly clear on this issue. The House has spoken: it does not wish hon. Members home addresses to be revealed. The only reason this came about in the first place was through people pointing out that the home addresses of
candidates are revealed at election time, albeit in a restricted way locally. The Bill gives us the opportunity to close that loophole, which nearly led to a very dangerous result. I do not expect an answer from the Minister tonight, but I hope that he will consider tabling an amendment in Committee. I am sure that such an amendment would meet with a great deal of genuine, consensual support. My Front-Bench colleagues informed me today that they would be happy to table such an amendment, but I hope that that will not be necessary.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), I would like to focus on an omission from the Bill, although perhaps not with the forensic detail with which he made his particular point. I wish to address a disgraceful aspect of elections, because the Bill fails to take any steps to address the scandal of our disfranchised citizens living abroad. A year or two ago, considerable emphasis was placed on the difficulties our service personnel faced in getting registered because of their role and the frequency of their postings. Our annual registration makes it difficult to track them down and for them to participate.
A similar thing applies to non-resident British peoplethose who are living abroad. It is difficult to tell how large the resident population is in this countryhon. Members know all too well that we do not have a proper, accurate count of the populationso it is even more difficult to work out how many expatriate Britons are outside these shores. The Departments estimates of expatriates living abroad range from more than 13 million topossiblymore reliable estimates of somewhere between 5 million and 6 million.
David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that substantial sums have been devoted to encouraging expatriate registration, but very few register? Of those few who register, only a tiny proportion even uses their vote. Why should someone who has been out of the country for 12, 15 or 20 years with no residual links to it still be entitled to vote? We should put that money into ensuring high levels of registration in the towns, cities, estates and villages of this country where under-registration is a problem.
Mr. Dunne: The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We do not spend large amounts of money on trying to identify expatriate voters. Indeed, I intend to go on to make a plea for our overseas missions to be placed under a duty to seek out expatriate voters. Many other countries have much higher participation rates than we do and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that participation rates are low. At the last election, some 18,000 expatriate voters actually exercised their vote. The last figure available from the Electoral Commission for December last year suggests that only 15,000 expatriate Britons are currently registered to vote, although one would expect that figure to rise in anticipation of a general election.