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It is also true that the participation of those registered is low, but that is not a good thing and the Bill fails to try to take any steps to increase voter participation. To suggest that all those who live abroad have given up on this country is a gross misrepresentation of why people choose to live and work abroad. The expectation of the
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Electoral Commission is that the majority of expatriates are of working age and are living abroad for a spell. We have free movement within the EU now and many people are working in other countries around the world. It would be wrong for those people to lose their vote because of barriers that we place in the electoral system.

Many other Governments allow their diplomatic missions to be used to facilitate registration and in the election process itself. I would like the Bill to be amended in Committee to place a duty on our missions overseas, through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its consulates, to require them to seek out British expatriates and encourage them to register to vote. The missions should also be used as locations for posting ballots so that people do not have to return their ballot papers to the UK through the vagaries of international postal networks which, given tight election timetables, can mean that people do not bother to vote because they know that by the time they get their ballot papers they will not have time to return them to be counted. I urge the Minister to comment when he winds up on why the Bill contains no mention of expatriate voters and whether he will consider such amendments in Committee.

Has the Minister considered what obligations he is placing on the Electoral Commission to pursue potential donations from eligible voters that may breach the new donation guidelines? If the new investigatory powers outlined in clause 2 apply to eligible, non-resident voters, how will they be exercised when those voters—potentially 2.5 million of them—live in many different countries? Is there any territoriality to those investigatory powers? If not, is that not a glaring omission? If so, how will they work in practice? Those issues are not covered in the clause or proposed new schedule 19A and I would be grateful if the Minister gave us a clue about his thinking on that point.

9.29 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): We have had an interesting debate that has covered a large number of issues. The Conservative party believes that the debate should go far beyond the simple principle of party politics. Today, we have addressed our democratic system, and we need to, because an electoral system based on integrity and protected from an attack by those intent on defrauding it is a fundamental aspect of a proper democratic process. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), in a very strong speech, and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made that point. To fail to protect that integrity is to undermine the democratic mandate to represent and govern those who have elected us.

It is not good enough, in our view, for the Secretary of State to call British politics “fundamentally clean”. We believe that in the past decade the Government have permitted a gradual erosion of the trust that the electorate have in this House. By inaction in deed and misdirection in policy, the Government have failed to stop a collapse in public confidence in the ballot box. However, the almost exclusive concentration of the Justice Secretary and the Lib Dem spokesman on funding rather than on dealing with fraud in the electoral system is misdirected, in our view.

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Labour’s insistence on promoting turnout before the security of the poll, its repeated tinkering with the electoral system and its electoral gimmicks, such as the disastrous e-voting pilots, have served only to push more of the population into electoral apathy. The previously robust systems of electoral administration have reached breaking point, as new schemes, such as widespread postal voting, have been instituted without adequate verification systems.

We heard various speeches on the meaning of consensus, and, in the case of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), an evaluation of its relative worth. However, the Bill is half-hearted, and is characterised more by what is missing than by our wholesale objections to its content. The hon. Member for Cambridge called it “inadequate for the task”. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester called it “a tiny Bill”. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) called it “running repairs”. Labour is missing an opportunity to rectify the damage and to add legitimacy back to the system, certainly via consensus.

The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) noted that the Bill was not going as far as Labour Members wanted, but we are not the only ones to think along those lines. A key finding of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in its report this March was:

The damning judgment of Richard Mawrey, QC, when judging the cases of electoral fraud in Birmingham in 2005, is as relevant today as it was then. If the public have no confidence in an electoral system, the entire system is called into question, and ultimately the state will become nothing more than a banana republic.

An effective electoral system and its administration must be the foundation of our democracy. It is a logical process, but one that seems to elude the Government at every attempt they make to implement it. A democracy needs elections, but those elections cannot be free and fair unless the rules governing them are fair and coherent. Those rules must be administered properly and, if necessary, enforced actively. Party funding regulations are, of course, also important.

We believe that the regulatory framework needs strengthening. The principle set out in clause 1, which is that the Electoral Commission is now required both to monitor and regulate compliance, has long been supported by the Conservative party. We will need to tie down exactly what that means, and we also hope that it will result in the commission’s doing less of what it should not be doing, such as spending millions of pounds on increasing turnout. That is our job as politicians, not the job of the commission.

The Conservative party cautiously welcomes in principle the proposed additions to the investigatory and sanctioning powers of the Electoral Commission, although we will wish to look more closely at how they will work in practice, particularly in relation to powers of entry as elaborated so succinctly by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the hon. Members for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester, for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). The subject was elaborated
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on by many hon. Members. I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), which was that the commission is willing to engage on the subject of those powers. That was good to hear. We shall certainly be concerned to ensure that the provisions do not have the effect of destroying donors’ willingness to participate.

In a thoughtful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight voiced concerns about stop notices. We will look at that point.

The current system is unnecessarily complicated and could be seen as preventing the prosecution of cases or of representing too much of a nuclear option. We consider that the use of administrative powers to award penalties could prove a useful and proportionate tool in the fight against funding illegality. Not only could it speed up the process, but it might make it cheaper for all concerned.

We believe that the Bill does not go far enough, not least because it ignores the key actions that we, the Electoral Commission and even the Government have agreed need to be addressed. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life noted in 2007, for that to happen we must ensure that all those entitled to vote are included on the electoral roll before an election and that everyone who is registered can exercise their vote. The right to vote and the duty to register are of equal importance. The process needed to secure those fundamental issues should be as simple as possible and barriers should be kept to a minimum. However, the Government have failed to take the opportunity to implement a method that guarantees it—namely, that individual registration should be introduced to safeguard the secrecy and security of postal voting. That was supported by the hon. Member for Slough, although only selectively, which we would not accept, but it was powerfully promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, among other Members.

In Northern Ireland, legislation was introduced because of a perceived level of electoral fraud that was far lower than the amount of electoral fraud committed in Great Britain at present. It is unacceptable for the Government to apply one standard to one part of the UK and another standard for the rest of us. Justice Ministers have not been consistent on that issue and I am not wholly sure where the Lord Chancellor stood in that regard in a rather cryptic response earlier today. However, the issue is important to us.

The demography of our society has changed radically since household registration was introduced. Not to register is an offence, yet although the Electoral Commission estimates that 3.7 million people—8 per cent. of the population—are missing from the electoral register in England and Wales, not a single person has been prosecuted for non-registration. Indeed, the commission believes that there are between 1 million and 3 million further “ghost” voters. The lack of certainty about such figures, as described by the hon. Member for Slough, demonstrates how inadequate and flawed the current system is. If people are not even registered, what is the point of talking about anything else? My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) pointed out that overseas registration is much too difficult. We shall address that issue in Committee.

In this post-Phillips offering, Labour has undoubtedly set out an extremely watered-down version of his proposals, although with the introduction of new trigger rules, so
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that candidate election spending caps may kick in before the election period starts, the Government are trying to return us to the pre-2002 position, and possibly the old system of rules for prospective parliamentary candidates, considered by everyone—certainly on the Opposition Benches—as absolutely unworkable. However, that was not the view of the hon. Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Southampton, Test. We see those rules as archaic and almost farcical.

The ruling of the Court of Appeal in the case of ex-MP Fiona Jones was set out earlier. The judge said that misunderstanding of the rules was “rife”. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central thinks that the rules can be refined, but we do not know what the exact rules will be, because the Bill is being rushed through before the Electoral Commission can issue statutory guidance. Are we really to go back to the bad old days when a PPC’s photograph on political literature was okay if it was with a third party, but not if it was a portrait?

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester showed that in 2000 there was consensus against triggering. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge that the provisions will not work anyway and I think the hon. Member for Cannock Chase reached the same conclusion, although for different reasons.

We shall debate the issue fully in Committee, because we think that the system will be a huge step backwards in the clear running of elections. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) said, it will bring uncertainty to candidates and it is unfair, from a retrospective point of view, to institute it before the election—a point supported by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East. Setting practicalities apart, the Government are being grossly partisan and hope to tilt the playing field in their favour in an attempt to protect Labour marginal seats funded by parliamentary allowance. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was accurate in his criticism of the communications allowance.

On party funding, the Government propose in clause 8 yet another level of bureaucracy and red tape that would tie up even small donors of only £200, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester described. That is ridiculous; the administration of forms could cost more than the donation was worth. That aspect of the Bill has received no support from the Electoral Commission or the Conservative party. It is disappointing to see the Government insist on those petty measures being included, although I note that the Secretary of State said that he would discuss the matter further. However, as things stand, the result would not be much of an increase in transparency, but an increase in the administrative burden, particularly on donors. At a time when we should be encouraging individuals to give to political parties and to engage in the process, we seem to be making it harder for them to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made a strong case for including a home address secrecy clause, which we shall support.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire made a good case for a clear announcement on the commencement of section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to end dual reporting, and we look forward to seeing progress on that front.

Let me turn to the reform of the Electoral Commission and its commissioners. Almost all speakers, including my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and
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the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, agreed on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport put on record the commission’s view, which mainly tied in with ours, although it has concerns about political nominees becoming commissioners in certain circumstances, and we hope to take that on board. There is a wealth of knowledge and understanding sitting on the Benches of this place that is being under-utilised in the current make-up of the Electoral Commission. The two main aspects of reform, which we agree with in principle, are the introduction of four new politically appointed commissioners, and the reduction from 10 to five years of the restriction on involvement in political activity for other commissioners. Furthermore, in terms of the Commission’s day-to-day operation, we basically agree that the restriction limit for staff should be reduced to one year, although I note the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight in that regard.

We certainly consider that change is needed to improve the security of our electoral system and the funding of our political parties. Having debated the Bill today, I have to say that although we agree with certain aspects of it and will wish to use Committee to check its effectiveness and proportionality, we still have significant concerns about the fact that the Government consistently refuse to address the most vital failings of the electoral system—failings that have been enhanced by the ill-thought-through reforms of this Government to date. The integrity of our electoral system is essential to the credibility of our democratic system. The British electoral system is now in danger of losing that credibility. We need to appreciate that that loss would ultimately threaten the legitimacy of our actions and of the decisions made in this place. To that end, it is unacceptable, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Justice noted, that the Bill ignores electoral fraud. It is vital that we respond to fraud—by, for example, introducing individual registration backed up by viable individual identifiers. It is our intention to support that in Committee.

9.43 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): As the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said, this has been an interesting debate. There have been many distinguished contributions, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) might have predicted, not everybody has agreed on everything in the Bill. However, it is notable that much of the discussion has been about not what is in the Bill, but what is not in it. [Interruption.] Of course hon. Members will want to pursue the policies that they think are particularly appropriate to their needs. The hon. Member for Huntingdon suggests that, because the Bill focuses on transparency, the effectiveness of regulation and trying to bring in blocks on spending, the Government are insouciant about electoral fraud. He knows that that is nonsense, because every time he raises the issue, he is told of the measures that we are taking and have brought in—postal vote personal identifiers, witness signatures and so on—and every time he just ignores that and repeats the same old refrain.

Of course we take electoral fraud seriously. We are tackling it, and will continue to do so. We are very happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to tackle it
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more effectively. It is in the interests of everyone in the House to do so, but the Bill is not about that. The Bill is about matters on which I believe everyone in the House can agree. It is founded on three fundamental principles. First, our democracy depends on the public having trust in political parties. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made an eloquent case for that.

Secondly, there must be greater transparency in the funding of political parties, more effective powers for those scrutinising the conduct of elections, and an end to the arms race in party political spending. There has been much discussion today about whether there is such an arms race. I draw attention to the findings of the Hayden Phillips review. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) mentioned the papers. He will be aware that they are in the possession of Sir Hayden Phillips, who is deciding whether to release them. The hon. Gentleman knows, as do we, that the papers found that there was a significant increase in spending not only in general election compared with general election, but crucially within each electoral cycle. That is because spending at a local level is off the balance sheet. That is why we need more and better controls on candidate spending.

The third principle on which I hope the entire House can agree is that on an issue of such constitutional importance, it is vital that we move forward, as far as possible—notwithstanding the wisdom of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase—on the basis of consensus. Of course elections will always be vigorously disputed, but the foundations of the electoral system itself should not be the subject of dispute in so far as we can avoid that. Hon. Members have rightly been concerned with points of detail, which I shall deal with.

There has been much talk about the transparency of the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour party. Labour Members placed great emphasis on the historic links. Many of the Opposition’s obsessions were aired. The House should know that recently the affiliated trade unions wrote to the Labour party general secretary to confirm that they will voluntarily provide more information to members about the collection and use of political funds and the individual member’s right to opt out, and that the affiliates will introduce a common text for incorporation into membership materials, including application forms. In addition, the affiliates agreed that full affiliation of the levy-paying membership is the most transparent form of political membership, and moves will be made to that end. I hope that that indicates how we will move forward to introduce greater transparency into the process. I hope that the Opposition will reflect on that and think about how they can match those measures.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the triggering mechanism. We had detailed and forensic discussion of the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) called it Aquinean. I am not sure that any of us is much wiser about the degree of consensus that previously existed, but nobody could ever have wanted or endorsed a situation in which candidates were totally unregulated except in the last four weeks of the election. That is what we are trying to address.

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