Political Parties and Elections Bill

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The Chairman: I should draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that the hon. Gentleman made extensive reference in his contribution to various elements in schedule 1. I did not stop him, but that makes me less well disposed to the prospect of having a stand part debate on the schedule. If other members will bear that in mind, it will help me.
David Howarth: Thank you for those comments, Mr. Cook. It will take me much less time than the hon. Member for Huntingdon to say what I have to say about the clause. He is right to worry about powers of entry and other details that we will discuss when we debate schedule 1, but we politicians have to bear it in mind that Parliament has imposed lots of requirements on other people. When it comes to imposing similar requirements on politicians themselves, people who were not concerned before suddenly become concerned, and we must be aware of what that looks like to the outside world. The key is that we should not make arbitrary exemptions for ourselves. The principles that we apply when regulating politics are the same as those that we apply to the regulation of anything else. I hope that when hon. Members make points that might sound self-interested, they will at least have the grace to concede that similar points can be made about other people’s civil liberties, not just their own.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I should simply like an explanation of the measures on page 2. In the right-hand column, lines 5 and 8 mention summary convictions, and that is to be understood. Further down, however, there seems to be a rather peculiar situation in which the Northern Irish are entitled to six months off from what the English, Welsh and Scots have to pay as a penalty. Why are the Irish entitled to a lesser penalty than the English, Welsh and Scots?
Mr. Wills: I shall be relatively brief, because many of the important points of detail that the hon. Member for Huntingdon has raised will be covered in our discussions on amendments. I shall simply say a few general words about the clause.
The distinguished contributions of the hon. Members for Huntingdon and for Cambridge clearly illustrate the path that we have tried to tread with the clause and the schedule. Of course, we have to be sensitive, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon has said, to the voluntary nature of a huge amount of political activity. We must be sensitive to the need to sustain that activity and to the risk of that effort being damaged by any legislation giving the Electoral Commission new powers. He made the case very well about the potential risks of this clause and, indeed, any legislation that seeks to regulate.
The hon. Member for Cambridge rightly points out that we must be extremely careful of seeming to exempt ourselves arbitrarily from regulations and controls to which we rightly expect other participants in public life to be subject. The controls that we propose are not dissimilar to those relating to the Financial Services Authority, for example. We have to steer a careful course here. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and I made it clear on Second Reading that we are sensitive to the concerns that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed about this clause and about the powers in the schedule to which it is so closely linked. The amendments that the Government have tabled, which we will discuss in due course, show that we are trying to respond to those concerns.
However, in relation to the overall position, it is worth reminding the Committee that the commission already has extensive powers under section 146 of the 2000 Act, which requires the disclosure of documents and gives it the power to enter premises and take copies of information for the purposes of carrying out its functions. It is a criminal offence, under the provisions of that Act, to fail,
“without reasonable excuse, to comply with”
a request or to obstruct entry and search.
The powers that we are discussing already exist. They have, from memory, only been used once in the past eight years. They have not been used extensively, but they exist. As we discuss the matter, we will see that these powers are being restricted. We have tabled amendments and we will discuss the details as we go forward and I will, if I may, address many of the particular points that have been raised in the course of that discussion. It is important to bear it in mind that, so far, we have consensus on the importance of the Electoral Commission’s regulating the conduct of elections more effectively than it has done in the past—I think that all Committee members agree with that. If the commission is to do that, we have to give it the powers to be an effective regulator.
We have tabled a lot of amendments and I will bear in mind your strictures, Mr. Cook. However, if I may suggest it, there would be merit in, and the Committee would benefit from, a stand part debate on schedule 1, because it is important, there is a widespread degree of concern about it, and we should have such debates. However, I will restrict myself at this point.
We have to bear in mind that we must give this body the powers to be a credible regulator.
Mr. Djanogly: It is important that, at this stage, the Minister gives the Government’s rationale for needing the clause. He just said that there has been only one prosecution in this area in the last eight years. Does he think that there are things that would be prosecuted, but are not being prosecuted, because there is a lack of legislation, or does the commission need to pull its finger out and do more of what it should have been doing? Perhaps he can give the Government’s view on what needs to be done.
Mr. Wills: We are trying to give the commission new powers so that it can be more effective, as is necessary, in respect of the offences. As the hon. Gentleman has said, powers of entry are provided for under those new measures. The commission should be a credible regulator that can act as a deterrent as much as anything else. I ask the hon. Gentleman, as we discuss these matters further, to bear it in mind that the existence of these powers may act as a deterrent to the kind of behaviour that we do not want to see in the conduct of our elections. That is an important point. It is not that we think that these offences will necessarily be committed and that they will then have to be prosecuted under the relevant powers; we want to stop this behaviour happening. The existence of these powers could be a credible deterrent.
I want to address a lot of the detail, because it relates to the amendment, but first I want to correct a remark I made earlier and put the record straight. The commission has not used its powers of entry; it has only once used its power to request documents.
I hope that Committee members will support clause 2 and that we can discuss its detailed implementation as we go through schedule 1.
Mr. Turner: I was hoping that the Minister would respond to my question.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?
The Chairman: Order. Has the Minister given way to Mr. Turner? He cannot take two interventions at the same time.
Mr. Wills: I have given way.
Mr. Turner: I made my remark and sat down.
Mr. Kidney: On the question asked by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, might the answer relate to the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003? Might it be that that does not yet apply in Northern Ireland, which is why there is a distinction between a six-month sentence in Northern Ireland and a 12-month sentence in the rest of the UK? It was a new sentence introduced in the 2003 Act, under which I think half is meant to be served and half not. There is still a maximum of 26 weeks to be spent in a prison cell.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has summarised the situation perfectly.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Investigatory powers of Commission: Schedule to be inserted into the 2000 Act
6 pm
Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 102, in schedule 1, page 13, line 15, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (1)(d).
The part of the schedule to which the amendment refers deals with powers
“in relation to registered parties and others”,
and it is the “others” bit about which we have most concern. The amendment proposes the deletion of the term “regulated donee” from the list of people or groups to whom the commission’s new investigative powers will apply. This part of the schedule is effectively lifted from the PPERA, but with the important change of inserting that category.
The meaning of “regulated donee” is defined in paragraph 1(7) of schedule 7 to that Act as
“a member of a registered party...a members association; or...the holder of a relevant elective office, whether or not he is a member of a registered party.”
The amendment comes on the back of our concerns about the extension of the powers to individuals. Given that a person can fall under that provision and not be a member of a registered party, I fear that unless we are careful the effect will be to push people further away from the political process. The hon. Member for Cambridge said earlier that we have to examine politicians, but he will appreciate that what we are discussing here goes much further than politicians and deals with donors.
By broadening the scope of which people the powers of investigation cover, we are in danger of casting the net too wide. People may become fearful, or at least think twice about volunteering their time and energy to assist political parties, if the end result might be that they are investigated by the commission for an action that they have no direct involvement in. My understanding is that it was the Ministry of Justice, rather than the commission, that requested these extensions to the powers. Will the Minister please explain why, and why he believes that they will be required in practice?
In an era of political disfranchisement and unwillingness to get involved in the political process, the last thing that we wish to do is discourage donors. We must be careful to ensure that we do not introduce legislation so broad that it tars everyone with the same brush. We do not need another reason for members of the public to turn their backs on political parties.
The provision is also a disproportionately powerful tool to hand to the commission. How does the Minister see the balance between its enforcement role and the need to safeguard the public from arbitrary state interference working in the paragraph that I mentioned? Can he give hon. Members an idea of the number of people in the UK who would be considered regulated donees and therefore fall within its scope?
What evidence has the commission, or any other body, presented to the Government to support the need for such a broad definition of those who can be investigated? The impact of the change will clearly be to alter the limited scope of the powers and apply them to a hugely larger catchment group. Finally, what example can the Minister give of the powers having been required in practice?
David Howarth: The Electoral Commission’s view is that it requires regulatory power over at least some regulated donees. I notice that the provision is about donees rather than donors—the people receiving the money, not the people giving it.
Regulated donees are defined in the 2000 Act as members of a registered party, a members’ association or
“the holder of a relevant elective office”.
The particular group that the Electoral Commission believes it needs regulatory power over is the middle one, the members’ association. Under the current law, a members’ association is defined as
“any organisation whose membership consists wholly or mainly of members of a registered party, other than”
something that is a party itself.
There is a requirement to regulate registered donees and to have access to their papers because otherwise it would be easy for sub-groups within parties to be set up in such a way as to evade regulation. It is perfectly reasonable for the Bill to extend the basic way in which regulation happens to members’ associations. It was implied in the comments of the Electoral Commission that the Government must answer why it is also necessary to extend the same powers to individual members of parties or individuals who hold elected office.
In fact, those two cases might be different. There might be an argument for the third category: those of us in the House, for example, who are holders of elected office. I shall not refer to particular media items, but it might be possible for donations to parties to take a route to an individual hon. Member for help in his office or such matters. They might otherwise have gone to the party, so perhaps there is a case to answer in such instances. However, I am worried about the extension of the powers to individual party members, which was the strongest point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon.
Unfortunately, the amendment would go far too far. Under existing law, there is power to require documents from registered donees. The Bill adds powers of entry, which is what is worrying several people. The problem is that, under the existing law, powers to require documents and powers of entry are treated separately. The Bill puts them together.
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would not only prevent the extension of the law, but take the law away from where it is and reduce the power of the commission over requiring documents. We should not do that. It raises the matter that the commission mentioned, in that the issue should be approached not through entering people’s premises on a warrant or on the say so of the regulator, but by going instead down the route that it proposed of treating the whole thing as a civil matter, whereby the commission goes to the court and asks for an order requiring documents be produced.
It was proposed that if the requirement was not obeyed, at that point—as a remedy for the failure to comply—the court could either hold the object of the law in contempt or further authorise a search. There needs to be some regulation; there seems to be over-inclusiveness in the schedule’s drafting. I ask the Government to look at the matter again—not how the amendment proposes, but more subtly than that.
Mr. Wills: Independent review after independent review has recommended that the Electoral Commission’s powers should be overhauled. It cannot be right, for example, that when someone has used an agent to give money to a party, the Electoral Commission can require information not from the original secret donor, but only from the agent. The powers that we propose will allow the Electoral Commission to investigate effectively and request information from all those who have it.
There is a case to be made for allowing the investigatory powers to apply to regulated donees. However, of course I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed here today, and elsewhere, by hon. Members about the powers and their application to regulated donees. I am also aware that the Electoral Commission has perhaps been reconsidering its position—we have had some communications, and I intend to discuss the matter further with it and to reconsider carefully whether the extension provided by the Bill is defensible. Given that the commission has yet to use the power, the case for extending it may still have to be proven.
Colleagues and Members of Parliament have expressed concerns. We need to seek the advice of the regulatory body to see what it feels on the subject. When we have had those further consultations with the Electoral Commission, I shall respond to this point. However, I take up the invitation of the hon. Member for Cambridge to reconsider those points of view. As we are engaged in reconsidering the provision, I hope that the hon. Member for Huntingdon will withdraw his amendment.
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