Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Q 81Nick Ainger: Thank you. I believe that draft guidance should be presented to Public Bill Committees so that it can be examined during the scrutiny process. Do you agree that in both this area and the area covering the triggering mechanism, draft guidance should be produced by the Electoral Commission as quickly as possible so that this Committee can look at it?
Sir Hayden Phillips: I heard what the Secretary of State said earlier. It depends how long the Electoral Commission takes. In this sort of area, how and when something is done—talking about triggering, for example—is very important. Having looked at it, I think that although one is, in a sense, going back to a previous regime, no one should assume that because that is the case, all these people out here who might be potential candidates will understand what that means. It is important that Electoral Commission guidance on how that would work in relation to triggering is available as soon as possible. Whether that can be done during the course of your deliberations is another question. The relevant people are appearing before you, so you can ask them directly. I think it is very important that that guidance is in place and has been consulted on well before provisions are brought into effect.
Q 82Pete Wishart: I am sure that you, Sir Hayden, will agree fully that public confidence about party political donations has been shaken to its core in the past couple of years by what have been seen as abuses. The cash for honours matter, for example, has raised public concern about how public money is spent. Do you believe that the Bill addresses the big public concern about party political donations?
Sir Hayden Phillips: I think that the Bill addresses two issues that ought to be of concern to the public, the first of which is the need for a more vigorous regulator with more flexible powers. That is important in any circumstance. The second is that if we can find a mechanism for dampening down expenditure that is better—or, rather, longer—than the current one, that is worth having. I do not think that the Government have suggested or pretended that the Bill goes to the heart of the anxieties that you and I have expressed, which are the basis of the work that I did for that period. That can be done only if there is a comprehensive new mechanism for controlling party funding in this country.
Q 83Pete Wishart: Part of that new mechanism could be suggested in the Bill. There is a proposal that four commissioners from the political parties should be added to the Electoral Commission. There is a difficulty with deciding who should be the fourth commissioner, who is supposed to come from the smaller parties. I have not got a clue how that could be decided, and I used to be a joint Whip for all the minority parties in the House. Do you believe that having political party representatives on the Electoral Commission would be a good thing and would help to deal with outstanding issues about which the public are concerned?
Sir Hayden Phillips: Yes, I do. I must be consistent. I was a party to making recommendations, and I agree with that proposal. I think that it is important, and I do not agree that if you want to have party representatives or senior party figures involved that will somehow make the Electoral Commission a non-independent or partisan body. That is way over the top. A regulator has to have the confidence of those whom it regulates. It is not just a question of public confidence; it is also a question of party political confidence. The successful regulators in this country always have the confidence of those whom they regulate and have an open dialogue with them. I think that this will help the Electoral Commission, and will help political parties to feel more comfortable with the Electoral Commission. Those four people will be in a minority, and will never be a majority. Presumably, they will have to be appointed through a mechanism, such as the Speaker’s Conference, in the same way as everybody else.
As for how the minority party representative would be chosen, I bow to your wisdom. I rather cavalierly felt that an agreement could be reached. Men and women of good will could sit down and hammer out an agreement on how that could be done. I think that that is what will happen.
Q 84Mr. Djanogly: Sir Christopher, what, in your view, are the main steps that need to be taken to ensure the integrity of the electoral system?
Sir Christopher Kelly: My Committee, under my predecessor, issued a report, of which I am sure you are aware, that said clearly that there were two important steps. One was to make the Electoral Commission a focused regulator with an appropriate range of sanctions, and the other was to move to individual registration.
Q 85Mr. Djanogly: Are you concerned that the Bill ignores electoral fraud?
Sir Christopher Kelly: I am extremely disappointed, as are other members of my committee, that the Bill does not include measures to deal with individual registration, but I cannot say that I am surprised.
Q 86Mr. Djanogly: Are you able to put into perspective the relevance of electoral fraud and party funding crimes?
Sir Christopher Kelly: I heard the same statistics that you did earlier when you were questioning the Secretary of State.
Q 87Mr. Djanogly: Do you have any concerns in that regard?
Sir Christopher Kelly: Concerns of what kind?
Mr. Djanogly: As to the fact that a lot more priority is being given to party funding.
Sir Christopher Kelly: As I have said, I am disappointed, as are the other members of my committee, that individual registration was not included in this matter.
Mr. Djanogly: Thank you.
Q 88Martin Linton: Sir Hayden, I am reluctant to raise issues that are not in the Bill yet, but since they have been raised, I will seek clarification on a couple of points. First, I understand that the terms of reference of your committee include the word “funding”. I have been interested in party funding for a long time and I understand that it includes both income and expenditure of political parties. It has been put to us by the other side that you were asked to look at only income and not at expenditure. Is that how you understood your terms of reference?
Sir Hayden Phillips: Well, no, because I proceeded differently. I agree with the broad interpretation that you take. You can look at the terms of reference and ask where the words “expenditure control” are, and you would find that they are not there. It seems to me that if I was being asked, with the understanding of all the three main party leaders, to try to tackle the subject in a comprehensive way, I would be quite wrong to avoid looking at spending. So we behaved as though that was in the terms of reference.
Martin Linton: I am glad that you did.
Sir Hayden Phillips: I think that it is a matter of common sense, and I do not want to enter into that debate.
Q 89Martin Linton: Thank you. On another point, on trade union affiliation, you speak as though trade unions have the opportunity to affiliate only with one party. As a matter of historical record, there were trade unions that were affiliated to the Conservative party. Opposition Members may look surprised, but I spoke to the national secretary of the National Union of Small Shopkeepers when the legislation came into force and the union was affiliated to the Conservative party. Therefore, is it right to expect an independent, non-state organisation such as a trade union that has made a decision to affiliate to a particular party also to act as the collecting agent for another party? Given that all its members are free to contribute to any party they wish, why should it be a trade union’s obligation to collect money for a party with which it does not agree?
Sir Hayden Phillips: You have illustrated one of the stumbling blocks in trying to create an agreed position. On the one hand, one position says, “In the modern world, this should all be much clearer and we should not have this relationship. People should have freedom of choice.” On the other, we wanted to try to respect the historic traditions of the different parties. I am referring not just to the Labour party, but to the structure of the Conservative party in which some of the proposals presented some internal constitutional problems. Trying to get the balance right between respecting the way in which parties have developed and grown and what their traditions are with greater clarity and freedom of choice got me to the position that I was in a year ago when I published my proposals. I did not believe that at that stage the Labour party could go any further in making changes along the lines preferred by the Conservative party without creating severe difficulties for itself. I respect that—it is a pity, but there we are. That is my general answer.
Q 90Martin Linton: Thank you. I have a quick question for Sir Christopher. You express disappointment but not surprise about the fact that registration is not in the Bill. You are aware that an estimated 3.5 million people in this country are not registered, and that the experiment in individual registration in Northern Ireland led to a 10 per cent. reduction. A simple back of the envelope calculation shows that if we had the same experience in this country, we would lose 350,000 people from the electoral register. When you say that you are not surprised that people are opposed to individual registration, is that what you mean?
Sir Christopher Kelly: No, it is not what I mean. My committee made its report some time ago. I have seen the reaction to it and we have continued to make the argument for individual registration. We usually get that response. At the time my committee made that recommendation, under my predecessor, it was well aware of the situation in Northern Ireland and of what has happened since the measure was introduced. That includes the much greater confidence that now exists in the integrity of the electoral system there. My committee made that report—although of course I took no part in its production—but if something is fundamentally flawed, as we now believe the electoral system in the country to be with the combination of household registration and postal voting on demand, we should not keep it because of concern about some other issue. One should address that other issue directly and that is what is happening in Northern Ireland.
Q 91Mrs. Laing: Sir Christopher has just about answered the question that I was going to put to him. It might interest our guests to know that I have tabled a new clause to amend the Bill and introduce individual voter registration. If the Government are persuaded by the deliberations of Sir Christopher’s committee, this Committee and the two Houses of Parliament, it is possible that they might also accept that individual voter registration should go ahead. Let me take you further on this, Sir Christopher. In your committee’s deliberations—I appreciate that this is before it was your committee—was a distinction made between the particular problems that occurred in Northern Ireland, which were correctly put right by the introduction of individual voter registration, and the completely different situation in the rest of the United Kingdom? That different situation would be likely to lead not to a similar reduction in those who are registered—as Mr. Linton suggested—but rather to a fairer system where those who ought to be registered are, and those who ought not to be registered are not.
Sir Christopher Kelly: As you say, I was not there. I believe everybody is conscious of the very different circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland. It would be rash to assume that if such a system was introduced here, there would not be a fall-off in registration. There are a number of reasons for that. When the system was introduced into Northern Ireland, the issue was not only about individual registration but also, as I understand, the fact that in the past, even if someone did not reply to the annual canvass, their name remained on the register for a further 12 months. When individual registration was introduced, that 12 months’ leeway was also abolished, and I am told that much of the fall-off in registration may have been down to that as well. Northern Ireland also demonstrates that if you have an energetic administrator who is charged with the maintenance of the register and prepared to look at different ways of maintaining it, they could begin to make use of the powers that are available to them. In Northern Ireland, although this may not receive universal acclaim, I believe that the administrator even started writing to people saying, “I believe you should be on the register and if you’re not, you should realise that I have the ability to cause a fine of £1,000 to be levied on you.” Clearly, that would not be a good thing all over the place or in many circumstances, but the fact is that an energetic person is beginning to make use of the powers available to him, presumably in a way that is visible to people who have not put their names on the register. I suggest that that model could be followed in England if we had a system of electoral administration that was administered rather more robustly than the present one.
Q 92Mrs. Laing: That is very helpful, Sir Christopher. You expressed no surprise that the Government have not taken the opportunity to introduce individual voter registration in the Bill. Has anyone on your committee come forward with a good reason why the system should remain as it is, and why there should be one person in a household who effectively has the power to disfranchise others in the household?
Sir Christopher Kelly: The committee’s report was unanimous.
Q 93Mr. Wills: Sir Christopher, may I ask two brief questions? I note that you say that, in your view, the current system is fundamentally flawed—I think that I am quoting you correctly. Will you share with the Committee the evidential basis for that? How many prosecutions are there and how geographically widespread are they?
Sir Christopher Kelly: As you will recall, that information was given earlier in the sitting. I do not think that my belief is based so much on the number of prosecutions as on the principle of combining household registration with postal voting on demand without the requirement to produce personal identifiers.
Mr. Wills: Thank you, Sir Christopher. I am quite sure that we will come back in the process of the Bill to the particular measures that we have taken to protect the integrity of postal votes—I will not trouble the Committee with that at this stage. May I ask a more fundamental question that picks up on your point about principles? Are you aware that the Government actually share your view that, in principle, individual registration is a good thing?
Sir Christopher Kelly: I am.
Sir Christopher Kelly: There can be no answer to that other than yes, of course.
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