Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Tyrie: I have no questions. The point that I wanted to raise was answered by Ian McIsaac in response to a question put to him earlier.
The Chairman: Does any member of the Committee wish to ask further questions?
Q 47Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I have a brief question for all the witnesses. Others witnesses have commented on things that they believe should in the Bill. Given that you have all stressed the volunteerism of your parties—mine included—is there anything that you regard as a missed opportunity and that should be in the Bill that would encourage volunteerism, strengthen it or acknowledge it? Shall we start with Mr. McIsaac?
Ian McIsaac: I can answer that question in a slightly different way. Anything that seeks to impose, by regulatory sanction, complex and ill-understood rules on volunteers will kill it stone dead. That is a negative answer.
As for encouraging volunteerism, it will flourish on its own as long as it is not put down. By and large, people are interested in politics and they want to have the opportunity to engage. As for declarations, one of my concerns is that those who give money will consider there is something dodgy about supporting political parties. They will think that Oxfam is okay, but not this or that party, because they have to go through a special legal hoop for it. The negatives are the problem. Take the negatives away and it will flourish.
Hilary Stephenson: Clarity is the thing for me. Volunteers worry when they do not know whether they are breaking the law. The vast majority of them want to do the right thing. We need anything that is simple, clear and consistent. That brings me back to one of the good things in the previous legislation: the clarity concerned with the starting of expenses during an election. Unless we are moving into much broader areas, I strongly urge that simple clarity is very helpful.
Roy Kennedy: Clarity and certainty. We are all officials, but all the parties are basically volunteer armies. People have to be certain and have clarity about their responsibilities, what they have to do and what they do not have to do. That is what we need. We have all referred to raising the limits. I hope that you will consider it.
I have another point to make that is not about volunteerism. When we gave evidence to the Graham inquiry and supported the idea of commissioners, we also said, although the inquiry did not take it on board, that perhaps the others who should have a role in the commission were the administrators. They obviously run the election from the other side of the table, as it were. We put that forward. They certainly have a valid viewpoint that should be taken account of as well.
The Chairman: On behalf of the Committee, I ask our witnesses, who have been extremely helpful, whether they wish to express any views to us about the Bill that the Committee will be considering from next Tuesday morning—line by line, almost word by word?
Ian McIsaac: The only thing I would say is this. I have been involved with this party, or any political party, for less than three years, but I have noticed that innocent mistakes have a habit of being magnified in the press, on the blogs and the rest of it, as if they were some sort of scandal. People make mistakes, even in the best regulated organisations. To open up the possibility for mistakes, and thereby the whiff of scandal, could be very counter-productive.
Q 48Mr. Tyrie: What are you suggesting?
Ian McIsaac: That it would be absolutely inevitable. With the thousands of donations involved, the volunteers involved, the lack of training and compliance manuals, and all the rest of it, there will be mistakes. The Electoral Commission would have no choice but to act on those mistakes.
I am not talking about breaking down people’s doors, but even the commission putting it on its website that such and such a constituency association accepted some dodgy donation from someone would mean that the press were on to it and the whole thing would become a hoo-hah, when actually it was nothing—someone dropped the declaration down the back of the desk and found it a month later. That is the sort of problem that we have to be very careful not to exacerbate.
Hilary Stephenson: I want only to reiterate the point about clarity and enforceability of the rules—that has to be key. They are not going to be perfect; it is not possible to do something perfect here. However, something that people can understand and not accidentally fall foul of is what we need. To that end, I hope that the Committee will consider the possibility of a spending limit over a period of years in the electoral cycle.
Roy Kennedy: Just a point about volunteers—all parties are volunteer armies. Today, you have probably heard with surprise the amount of agreement on certain things between the three representatives. You can take that on board in your deliberations over the next few weeks. Thank you.
The Chairman: On behalf of the Committee, I thank our three witnesses from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties for the very helpful evidence that they have given, and for the frank and full way in which they dealt with every question put to them. Thank you very much indeed.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Ian Lucas.]
Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o’clock till Tuesday 11 November at half-past Ten o’clock.
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Prepared 7 November 2008