Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Wills: I shall deal first with amendments Nos. 35, 36 and 37, which would impose a time limit for various stages in the process of imposing fixed monetary penalties—payment of the penalty, representations to the commission about the penalty and appeals against the imposition of the penalty. The amendments are unnecessary. The Bill already provides that the commission must specify the exact period for payment of the fixed monetary penalty when it imposes it, and that the period cannot exceed 28 days. Amendment No. 35 would ensure that the commission cannot require payment in a period that is less than 28 days. That additional constraint is unnecessary, given the requirement that the commission acts in a reasonable manner in its exercise of its civil sanctions power.
If a demand from the commission allows an unreasonable period, it may provide grounds for an appeal. It may be asked, quite reasonably, why the commission might need to have a shorter period than 28 days, which, after all, is not that long. There could be situations when sanctions had been imposed repeatedly so it might be necessary to have a shorter period to put the point to the person in question more forcefully. I am sure that the Electoral Commission will note our debate and reflect in its guidance some of the points that have been made.
Mr. Turner: Will the Minister remind me where amendments Nos. 35, 36 and 27 are set out?
Mr. Wills: Amendment No. 36 refers to page 20, line 20 of the Bill and would insert
“within the period specified under paragraph 3(2)(a)”
at the end of proposed new paragraph 2.
Mr. Turner: What I meant is: where do we find such a provision in the Bill now? I am not referring to what my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon put in our amendment. I am asking where it is now.
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Mr. Wills: As I was saying, the Bill already specifies—
Mr. Turner: Where?
Mr. Wills: I shall come on to that in just a moment. I shall make the argument and then direct the hon. Gentleman to where precisely we find it. I was just making the point that there may be occasions when the Electoral Commission will want to impose a shorter time period for the payment of these penalties, such as when someone repeatedly ignores the sanctions. Amendments Nos. 36 and 37 add in time limits of 28 days for the payment of the penalty, representations or appeals against it.
We believe that is unduly prescriptive. This sort of detailed provision is better suited to secondary legislation. Moreover, I do not believe that it is necessary or desirable for us to set statutory time limits of this nature. There is a requirement for all civil penalties to be reasonable and I believe that that is adequate protection. I direct the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 3(2)(a). I hope that I have said enough to persuade hon. Members not to press those amendments.
I turn now to amendments Nos. 67, 68, 69 and 70. Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 relate to the information that must be given by the commission when giving notice of an intention to impose a fixed monetary penalty on a person. I agree that the notices should include this information. However that is already required. Again I draw attention to paragraph 3(2)(a) of the schedule. I do not believe that this amendment is needed. I should like to talk about amendments Nos. 69 and 70 together as they both relate to information on the period for discharging liability that must be included in the notice that the commission intends to impose a fixed monetary penalty. I should stress that this is the notice of the intention to impose the penalty, rather than the final penalty itself.
This provision closely follows sanctions laid out in the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008. Again, we see no reason for changing the operational design of the sanctions regime or why it should be different for the areas regulated by the Electoral Commission compared with the areas regulated by other regulators. We also believe that this amendment may compromise the rights of the recipient of the penalty, for example if there were any delay in receipt, which is why the model in the Bill in which the relevant periods begin upon receipt is preferable.
Amendments Nos. 45 and 55 both relate to early payment discounts or late payment penalties for monetary penalties. Of course I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, but we do not believe that it diminishes the importance of the sanction. There are some cases in relation to stop notices where the size of the sanction is important. In many cases we have to strike a practical balance. What is important is that the sanction is imposed. We do not want to put the Electoral Commission to unnecessary effort to pursue the discharge of those sanctions if there can be put in place a relatively simple and straightforward encouragement for it not to do so. Parliament had a chance to debate all this during the passage of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act through both Houses. This is the approach that was taken there and we have imported it here. We think that it is proportionate.
Mr. Djanogly: I am trying to think of circumstances in which fixed penalty notices would be appropriate. I can see how they might be appropriate under the previous legislation, in which businesses can be fined set amounts for set things. Will the Minister give an example of a fixed penalty notice being appropriate in the context of this Bill, given the limited number of people whom it would presumably apply to?
Mr. Wills: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman refers to fixed monetary penalties. We are talking about encouragement for early payment, and that principle applies whether there is a small or a large number of people to whom the measure applies. In all circumstances, if we can find a simple and effective way of encouraging people to pay up quickly we should do so, otherwise the commission will have a lot of problems pursuing the debt. Where we can simply and easily avoid that difficulty, and provide some encouragement to pay up quickly, we have done so. We see no reason here not to bring across the requirements of the 2008 Act. If the hon. Gentleman can make a compelling case for why Members of Parliament and other people who would be subject to the sanctions should be excluded from that general provision, we will, as always, consider it.
Mr. Djanogly: I find it strange that any fine under the legislation could be subject to a discount for early payment. That seems bizarre.
Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman finds it bizarre. I have just invited him to give me a reason for that. We have given the reasons why the principle is appropriate. It has already been established in legislation. The 2008 Act was so consensual that it went, I think, through the House of Commons without a vote. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a good reason to except this form of regulation from the other forms that the House has already agreed should include this sort of provision, I am happy to hear it. Simply to say that he finds this bizarre, is not as compelling an argument as I would require. I am always happy to hear further representations on that point.
Mr. Djanogly: I note the Minister’s desire for flexibility with the timing of notices, and I will consider the amendments in that regard. The Minister also replied comprehensively on the timing of the period of service of the notices; I thank him for his response and I will go away and look at it. I still maintain that the concept of discounts for quick payment of fines is—
Mr. Wills: Bizarre?
Mr. Djanogly: Yes. It is bizarre, in the context of the Bill. The Minister mentioned the previous legislation, on which the Bill is based. That relates to the regulation of companies, and presumably where there are mass problems and lots of notices being handed out, discounts can be offered. That is not relevant to the Bill, and we will look again at the parts of the schedule that refer to discounts. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 64, in schedule 2, page 20, line 31, leave out sub-paragraph (5).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 40, in schedule 2, page 23, line 24, leave out sub-paragraph (4).
Mr. Djanogly: These are both probing amendments. They inquire of the Minister what the rationale was behind a second decision-making process. Amendment No. 64 seeks to leave out proposed new paragraph 2(5) and amendment No. 40 deletes proposed new paragraph 6(4). Both those sub-paragraphs permit the commission to review its actions in issuing notices for a second time. We query the need for the commission to have a separate review of its decision to issue the notice. That is an additional administrative step; the basis for issuing the notice should be under ongoing review. Furthermore, we are not convinced that the inevitable delay in the enforcement procedure is justified. Our only thought as to the rationale behind it, is that the Government anticipate that, under proposed new paragraph 2(1), the commission could be issuing fixed penalty intention notices without much forethought. To avoid embarrassing judicial scrutiny on appeal or the inevitable negative press coverage, they have placed a formal “second glance” mechanism in the Bill to protect the commission from embarrassing gaffes. The commission should ensure that when issuing such notices it is happy with the reasons that it is doing so—it should not be done as a matter of course. As such, we are reluctant to give it a get out of jail free card in the form of proposed new paragraphs 2(5) and 6(4). We fear the potential for abuse.
Mr. Wills: I am slightly surprised by the grounds on which the hon. Member for Huntingdon moved the amendment. I thought he was going to suggest something else, such as the view that a court rather than the commission should consider the representations. The hon. Gentleman seems to have constructed rather a complicated rationale, which I am frankly baffled by. Deleting proposed new paragraph 2 would simply mean that the commission would not be able to take into account any representations against the imposition of the sanction, effectively rendering the representations process meaningless. I had hoped that all members of the Committee would have welcomed the opportunity to make such representations to the commission.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is already an appeals process built into this sanction; should the commission reject representations, the recipient may appeal to a county court or, in Scotland, to the sheriff. That process is there not to protect the commission from having made a mistake, but because it is simply a matter of natural justice that people should be able to make representations against an imposition. That is set out in proposed new paragraph 6(7). I remind the hon. Gentleman that the additional representations stage was incorporated into the 2008 Act in the Lords, as it was felt that it would add an extra safeguard, not for the regulator but against wrongful imposition of the sanction. It does not replace the appeals process to the courts; it is meant to be an extra safeguard, which, I thought, the Committee were ardently seeking in every area. I hope we can all agree that the amendment should not proceed.
Mr. Djanogly: The amendment is probing to allow the Government to defend this “second bite at the cherry” procedure. As the Minister has done that, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 65, in schedule 2, page 20, line 38, leave out from ‘penalty’ to end of line 43 and insert
‘at any point within 28 days of receipt of the notice under paragraph 2(4).’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 66, in schedule 2, page 20, line 44, leave out ‘a county court’ and insert ‘the High Court’.
No. 107, in schedule 2, page 24, line 43, leave out from ‘notice’ to end of line 5 on page 25 and insert
‘at any point during a period of 28 days from receipt of that notice.’.
No. 50, in schedule 2, page 25, line 6, leave out ‘a county court’ and insert ‘the High Court’.
No. 78, in schedule 2, page 23, line 16, at end insert
‘at any point during the period specified in paragraph 7(2).’.
No. 43, in schedule 2, page 23, line 34, leave out from ‘requirement’ to end of line 43 and insert
‘at any point within 28 days of receipt of the notice under paragraph 6(5)’.
No. 44, in schedule 2, page 24, line 8, after ‘the’, insert ‘date of commencement of the’.
Mr. Djanogly: The amendment looks to insert a 28-day limit into paragraph 2(6) of proposed new schedule 19B to specify in what time frame an appeal must be made against a fixed penalty notice. Amendment No. 107 looks to insert the same time frame for appeal into paragraph 9(3) under the provisions that relate to an appeal against the imposition of non-compliance penalties. Amendment No. 43 inserts the same 28-day appeal limit into paragraph 6(6) in relation to appeals against penalties in the form of “discretionary requirements” that have been imposed pursuant to paragraph (5).
I do not wish to rehash the arguments that I made about amendments Nos. 35 to 37, but they would echo the arguments for these amendments. Suffice it to say that the aim is to add to the provisions a level of clarity that we do not believe currently exists. As they stand, the only clear indication of the time limits for responding to notices is tucked away at the end of a complicated set of provisions. Co-operation will be key to much of the enforcement action that the commission takes on, and we agree that the threat of sanctions will provide a useful incentive to co-operate. However, co-operation can only be founded on a strong base of understanding, and for that we need clarity in the legislation.
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Amendments Nos. 66 and 50 would amend proposed new paragraphs 2(6) and 9(3). The amendments seek to change the court to which individuals must go to appeal against sanctions under proposed new paragraph (1), fixed penalty notices, and proposed new paragraph (9), discretionary requirements. We question whether the level of expertise in the county court is sufficient to deal with what could possibly be a highly complicated case because of this Bill and the political background. For this reason, we suggest that the higher level of judicial scrutiny that would be afforded to the case in the High Court may be preferable.
Furthermore, an action in the High Court could serve as a check on the commission and make it think twice before opening itself up to public censure at the hands of the High Court because the basis for its action was too shaky. If that were the case, the amendment will have done its job.
Given the expectation that this power will be used in only a limited number of cases, I do not think that the requirement to appeal to the High Court places too great a burden on the individual or group involved, the commission or HM Courts Service. We would seek the Minister’s views on that.
Amendments Nos. 78 and 44 are consequential on each other in a way similar to many of the other amendments tabled. It shows the complexity of this Bill that so many detailed amendments have been made to its nuts and bolts.
Amendment No. 78 amends paragraph 6(2) by reference to a 28-day time period in paragraph 7(2), to specify in what time frame an appeal must be made against a discretionary requirement. Amendment No. 44 amends paragraph 7(2) so that it clearly specifies when the 28-day time period begins and how it is to be highlighted in the notice imposing the discretionary requirement.
I have already said much on the need for clarity in reference to amendments Nos. 65, 66, 107, 50 and 43. By adding specific time limits to the provisions of the schedule, we make compliance with the requirements easier. Our amendments, therefore, propose to put in place a 28-day time frame across the board. This would add a level of certainty to the provisions which we feel will be beneficial for all sides—certainty of time period for the individual and a clearly signposted procedure for the commission.
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