Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Wills: I agree with my hon. Friend that we cannot be too careful, but such a scenario is extremely unlikely. As I have said, I have an open mind on this and I am perfectly happy to consult the commission. It would certainly not want to trivialise the power in the way that he suggests—why would it? There would of course be a test of seniority and experience, and I know that my hon. Friend uses the office junior as an extreme example to make his point, but the general point is valid. We want to ensure that there is sufficient seniority. I think that the hon. Member for Huntingdon was probing how we define that and ensure that it is at an appropriate level. Those are perfectly fair points. I would be very happy to explore them and we will do so with the Electoral Commission. With that, I hope that the Committee will be prepared to support our amendment.
Mr. Djanogly: The Minister has said that he will review the need for judicial oversight and the form of the warrant process. I am grateful for that. It is necessary given the current state of the clause. He also said that he would discuss with the Electoral Commission whether the US civil-type approach would be suitable. That would be helpful too. I am also pleased that he will be taking up my questions on his amendment with the Electoral Commission and I should be grateful if he would circulate its reply to the Committee. That would be important for our later deliberations. On that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 124, in schedule 1, page 15, line 38, at end insert—
‘Authorisation of application for warrant under paragraph 3
(1) An application for a warrant under paragraph 3 may not be made without the written authorisation of—
(a) the chief executive of the Commission, or
(b) where the office of chief executive is vacant or the chief executive is absent or unable to act, a member of the staff of the Commission who has previously been designated by the chief executive for the purposes of this paragraph and whose designation is still in force.
(2) A person may be designated under sub-paragraph (1)(b) only if the chief executive considers the person to be suitable having regard to the person’s experience and level of seniority as a member of the staff of the Commission.’.—[Mr. Wills.]
Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in schedule 1, page 15, line 41, leave out ‘three months’ and insert
‘42 days from the date on which they were seized.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 26, in schedule 1, page 15, line 45, leave out from ‘within’ to ‘proceedings’ and insert
‘42 days from the date on which they were seized.’.
No. 27, in schedule 1, page 16, line 2, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Commission may apply a magistrates court to extend this 42 day period by a further 14 days where they can prove on reasonable grounds that the continued retention of such documents is vital to the investigation into offences under this Act which involve in excess of £10,000.’.
Mr. Djanogly: We now move on to paragraph 4 which deals with the retention of documents. When read together, amendments Nos. 25 and 26 seek to insert a court-based safeguard into an otherwise possibly arbitrary power for the commission to withhold documents. The current entitlement as proposed in the Bill is three months or 90 calendar days. My amendment would reduce that initial time frame by half, but would add in the power to have that extended on application to a magistrate by a further 14 days.
This inserts an important judicial safeguard mechanism into the Bill to prevent the commission from holding documents for an unnecessarily long period of time and thereby potentially placing an individual or group in a very difficult position. The retention of documents can cause significant disruption to individuals, businesses and groups. We must ensure that we strike a balance between the desire to have an effective regulator in the commission and the ability of those under investigation to continue their lives as unhindered as possible. After all, we are all innocent until proven guilty but the way the current provision in the Bill is drafted seems, to my mind at least, to flip that principle on its head.
Mr. Wills: As the hon. Gentleman has explained, the amendments seek to alter paragraph 4 and the length of time for which any documents may be retained. I am curious about how he alighted on the figure of 42 days. [Laughter.]
James Duddridge: Is that wise?
Mr. Wills: I am interested that he seems to believe that it is a relatively short period of time.
As we have said, the amendments would impact significantly on the commission’s ability to give proper consideration to documents, which it requires for the purposes of investigating a suspected breach or contravention of the Act. It is open to the commission to return documents before the three-month period expires if there is no reason to retain them any longer. Furthermore, the commission can retain documents for more than three months only in specific circumstances covered in paragraph 4. Forty-two days is not a sufficient time limit within which to expect the commission to have considered documents or taken steps it considers appropriate to pursue an investigation into a suspected breach of the Act.
Indeed, it could require the commission to reach a decision about whether to take proceedings unnecessarily quickly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not have intended that to be a consequence of the amendment. That could lead to proceedings being abandoned, unnecessary stress and disruption, and everything else that goes with that, when a longer period might have shown that there was sufficient evidence to justify the proceedings or, equally seriously, to err on the side of taking proceedings where the evidence later turns out to be insufficient.
It is hard to see how an amendment that risks having either effect could be anything other than damaging to the regulatory regime that proposed new schedule 19A seeks to support. I do not think that the proposed extension period in amendment No. 27 properly addresses that point, not least because the sorts of offence or contravention to which the power to enter may relate will not always have a quantifiable monetary value. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that a proper balance is struck between the needs of the commission to have time to consider what evidence it has before it and the needs of the person whose documents have been taken to know what is to be done with them and to have them returned within a reasonable period, if proceedings are not to be taken.
Our proposal reflects the approach taken by Parliament towards other regulators and, therefore, is based on a workable precedent. I hope that the hon. Member for Huntingdon will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Djanogly: The Minister said that he was concerned that the impact of the amendments could be that the Electoral Commission would have to take a faster decision than it otherwise would, which could lead to a bad decision. I take his point, but I have tried to address that issue by saying that the commission would have the right to go back to the magistrate to request a further 14 days, and I would not have a problem with that being a recurrent right, on the basis that the commission would have to justify its wish to keep the documents. For the moment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Ian Lucas]
Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eight o’clock till Thursday 13 November at Nine o’clock.
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