Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Nick Ainger: Amendment No. 1 might seem to be a complete contradiction of the argument that I was advocating earlier when we were trying to prevent a move towards criminal sanctions rather than civil sanctions. However, it seems that the process under schedule 2 means that an individual who believes himself to be innocent of a charge brought by the Electoral Commission has to go through a long and drawn-out process, and that no alternative to that process is set out in the schedule.
My amendment suggests that an individual can make a representation to the Electoral Commission and may
“by notice require the Commission to withdraw the notice and pursue the matter as a criminal offence under the relevant provisions.”
Having an alternative provision to the procedures under the schedule could deal with one of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Huntingdon. Many people are concerned about the fact that someone might be accused of an offence and, that a long time will be taken to resolve such matters during which time the individual is under an extremely dark cloud. In such circumstances, a penalty might have been imposed on an individual who may not be guilty of an offence.
Let us suppose that an individual could say to the commission, “I believe that I am innocent and I want my chance to prove it as quickly as possible. If you believe that I am guilty of such offences, let us argue them out in court where the provision of proof is beyond reasonable doubt rather than proceedings taking place on the balance of probabilities that the commission will use.” That option would be fairer on the individual and possibly address the speed with which an accusation is properly addressed and ultimately resolved.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): On a point of accuracy, although the commission would not be a court of law, it would have to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt about the civil breach, just as much as if it thought that an offence had occurred.
Nick Ainger: I accept my hon. Friend’s point.
The purpose of the amendment is to deal with delay. We know of examples of hon. Members still awaiting resolution of serious issues, and whose careers have been blighted as a result of a significant delay. This is not the place to discuss that, but it is clear that, because of a long, drawn-out process, justice might not have been done in certain cases. I am suggesting a way in which to address that problem, but I should be interested in what the Minister has to say about the length of time that the processes take. In all circumstances, it is far better to have such matters aired as quickly as possible, and resolutions found as quickly as possible.
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David Howarth: I shall deal first with amendment No. 1. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire is right that a delay in the proceedings is a problem. It certainly is for people who are innocent and find it difficult to establish that. However, although the particular mechanism proposed is interesting, it has a number of difficulties. The main problem is that it allows someone to raise the stakes and go through procedure that the Electoral Commission would find more expensive. One can imagine that very well-off people who are accused of breaching the legislation in particular ways would use that method to, in effect, intimidate the commission and say, “You’ve not got enough resources to pursue me in the criminal courts.” That would therefore be a way for them to get the accusations against them dropped. There has to be a way to speed up the process because the legislation should not give an unfair advantage to well-off people who are accused over people who are not well off. However, I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that speed in the proceedings is important.
Mr. Kidney: Can the hon. Gentleman suggest a mechanism that would do just that?
David Howarth: No, I cannot. That is why the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire is right to raise the issue and ask the Government to think through these matters.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Huntingdon said that his amendments were tabled on a probing basis. That means I need not spend the time that I was going to spend dismantling them. However, I shall put a couple of points on the record. The schedule allows for civil sanctions not only to be used where the commission thinks a criminal offence has been committed, but where there has been some contravention of other requirements. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to say, as he did, that there is a question about the clarity of that and where it would apply. However, there is no doubt that there are some instances in which that would apply and where it would be useful for the commission to have such a power.
The example the commission gives in its latest briefing is worth putting on the record. It talks about the regulations on accounts and reports of donations. There is a requirement on parties to give full and accurate quarterly reports of donations and loans. It is a criminal offence to make those reports late, but it is not a criminal offence to make them inaccurately. The question is what to do about that situation. One possibility is to make that a criminal offence as well, which I think the hon. Gentleman might have been suggesting. However, that would simply increase the number of criminal offences created by the statute. The other possibility is simply to say that this is a regulatory requirement and there needs to be some sanction for missing it. What should the sanction be? The sanction that the schedule allows is not just monetary; it relates to more appropriate things, such as requiring the party concerned to submit accurate accounts. That should be the first port of a call.
I was going to spend a lot of time arguing against the second set of amendments, but I now think that they can be disposed of quicker. Those amendments would basically remove the safe harbour created by being subject to the civil sanction regime. The way in which the schedule works means that if a person or organisation is subject to the sanctions in the schedule, criminal proceedings cannot be taken against them. That seems to be a wholly useful provision that adds to legal certainty—it is generally a good idea to avoid uncertainty. The measure also fulfils a principle that is important to me and my party—although perhaps less to others who voted for other legislation some years ago—that there be no double jeopardy.
I do not really understand why the hon. Gentleman has proposed what seems to be a backwards step, but if his point is merely to ask the Government to be clearer about the circumstances in which the measure will apply, that is fair. That goes back to the point we tried to make earlier in the week about the need for clear guidance. I am still entirely unconvinced by the Government’s position, which seems to be that the commission should be given the power to give guidance, but that it should not be required to give guidance.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that these are complex provisions and difficult for lay people to follow. It therefore seems right to require the commission to give guidance. That guidance should be not only about what is necessary for compliance, but also about what is sufficient. That would help to enforce the law and allow a greater degree of public confidence in the way that the law works.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I would like to say a word in response to the proposal by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire on amendment No. 1. The issue goes to the root of the behaviour of organisations such as the Electoral Commission and the Standards Board for England. The example I will give comes from the Standards Board, but it applies equally to any other organisation that requires a response and which, with a long effort, gets people to change their needs. In other words, the action can last not just for a year, but beyond. The example comes from my constituency, and if hon. Members wish to read about it in more detail, they can do so in the debate from Westminster Hall last Tuesday.
Six of my constituents were referred to the Standards Board. They told it that they understood that their case needed to be examined, and that that would take some time. The Standards Board says that in general, 90 per cent. of cases will be looked at within six months, but after 13 months, it was still working on this one. That is the problem. Cases go on far too long, the board discusses things for too long and, in this instance, that made it impossible for my constituents to continue. One of my constituents has spent £14,000, which was hard to come by. The Standards Board is still working on the case. Four of my constituents need to find sums of up to £8,000. One of them is dead.
I now find these provisions being proposed for organisations such as the commission—I am aware that the Standards Board is not the same as the Electoral Commission, but the performance is exactly the same. The rights and remedies of the Standards Board are the same as those of the Electoral Commission.
I suggest that after x months, or even x years, the right to raise an issue would collapse and should be withdrawn. If the problem has not been sorted out after a year, the case should stop. That is the only way in which we can force organisations such as this either to act or to withdraw the case.
Mr. Wills: These are important matters, and I am glad to see that the Opposition have taken the issues seriously enough to have tabled so many amendments. I am grateful for the opportunity that that gives me to address them. I shall respond at some length, partly in the hope that we can avoid a lengthy stand part debate covering much of the same territory.
Several points have been raised and I shall address those before I come to the detail of the amendments. They are general points of principle. The problem of delay has been mentioned several times and we all recognise that that can be an issue. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight has given some graphic examples, of another regulator, but he is right that the principles can apply to all regulators. Everyone shares an interest in a speedy—not hasty—resolution of the issues.
We must seek the Electoral Commission’s reassurance on the matter, and are doing so. We hope that the commission will recognise that in its guidance and in how it approaches the case. The hon. Member for Huntingdon mentioned guidance, but I should stress that the commission is already producing guidance—in fact, the commission is required to produce guidance on the operation of civil sanction powers. That is a requirement. What we are not doing is to introduce a blanket requirement to produce guidance on every single aspect of the 2000 Act, as that would make the guidance extremely unwieldy.
David Howarth: The irony in what the Minister has just said is that, if there is to be comprehensive guidance on the use of civil sanctions, it must include guidance on the rest of the 2000 Act, because the schedule applies to any requirement in the Act and, therefore, to understand those requirements, one must have had guidance on them.
One other point, which has come up a couple of times, concerns complexity. We have all experienced the complexity of the Bill—inevitably so, as it is a complex and sensitive area. However, it is worth pointing out that most people will not need to understand the intricacies of the sanctions regime. The requirements on regulated people have remained largely the same since the 2000 Act. As far as we are aware, they are generally well understood. Notices imposing a sanction will, of course, set out—I am sorry, I have lost my place.
Mr. Kidney rose—
Mr. Wills: I shall give way, because I have become completely distracted.
Mr. Kidney: If it helps, my right hon. Friend was in the middle of something about complexity.
While the Minister is gathering his thoughts on that point, I shall go back to his first point, which was the general issue of delay. I was concerned on Tuesday, when the Minister resisted an Opposition proposal that the Electoral Commission should not go back further than five years in finding faults with people’s behaviour in the past. We are now being asked to pass a law that says the Electoral Commission can go as far back in time as it wishes to raise something, and can take as long as it likes into the future to investigate. The period that could be encompassed by an Electoral Commission investigation, which involves a person being accused of something, could be many years.
In this country’s court system, there are limitation periods in both criminal and civil cases, occasionally there are time limits within which courts must deal with a case and, generally, there is a power to get a case kicked out if it does not seem to have been prosecuted with sufficient vigour. As the Bill passes through Parliament, will my right hon. Friend consider whether there should be some kind of limitations in the statute on how far the commission can go back and on how long it can take to finish an investigation?
Mr. Wills: We have to retain some flexibility. I understand the concerns—real concerns—and, after this Committee, we shall talk to the Electoral Commission and see what its view is and what reassurance it can give. However, we have to be careful in trying too rigorously to prescribe time limits, backwards and forwards. I am aware of the limits in the law and so on, but it cuts both ways. If we give the Electoral Commission flexibility, we could be allowing it too much time, and the statutory limitations may be too long and not encourage a speedy resolution of the issues. We have to be careful. Equally, if we set too short a time limit of weeks or months rather than years—the period that most hon. Members who have spoken so far would like—we might in some serious cases be prescribing the ability of the Electoral Commission to act as an effective regulator. There is a balance to be struck, and we must be careful how we do it.
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Mr. Turner: The Minister says that we may be setting a limit that is too long, so it is better to have no limit at all. That does not add up.
Mr. Wills: With respect, that was not what I was saying. I was saying that we need reassurance from the Electoral Commission that it will act in a timely and speedy—not hasty—fashion. That is not a precise limit set in terms of months and years, but most people would accept that it is a limit. For example, 12 years would not, by any stretch of the term, be regarded as speedy.
The problem is that, if we go to the sort of limitations that exist in other areas of the law, most members of the Committee would be horrified to think that investigations could continue for, say, six years. If we start specifying a limit, we would almost certainly get the balance wrong in some cases. Although, as always, we are willing to consider the matter again, we believe that it is better to allow some discretion—but discretion that is constrained by reasonable expectation of what timely would mean. General prescriptions of such matters probably go back to the Human Rights Act 1998, but we need to consider what reassurance the Electoral Commission can give the Committee, after which we might be prepared to revisit the matter. However, my firm instinct at present is to avoid setting fixed time scales. We would get ourselves into more trouble than we would want.
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Prepared 14 November 2008