Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 151, in clause 8, page 6, line 30, at end insert—
‘(5A) A person does not commit an offence if, in the opinion of the Commission, the person had no intention of making, or by innocent mistake made, a false declaration under this section.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 6, in clause 8, page 7, line 28, leave out the words in column 2 of the table and insert ‘A fine of £1000’.
Mr. Djanogly: Clause 8 creates a new responsibility for donors to political parties to clarify the source of their donations. Amendment No. 151 would insert a new sub-paragraph after proposed new section 54A(5) of PPERA, as set out in clause 8(2). The main purpose of the sub-paragraph is to provide a defence for those who have made an innocent mistake and have fallen foul of the regulation in PPERA only as a consequence of an administrative oversight or an honest mistake. We want to make it clear with this amendment that the commission is empowered to excuse those who have made an innocent mistake.
The drafting of section 54A(5), as proposed in clause 8(2), is not sufficiently prescriptive. The sub-section as drafted—
“knowingly or recklessly makes a false declaration”
—does not specify that innocence will be a defence. By articulating a protection for innocent mistakes, we would force the commission to have regard to the mental decision element of the crime, rather than simply allowing it to hand out criminal sanctions based solely on the action of giving a false declaration.
Section 167 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 contains that idea. It states that where a person has been charged with an offence under its provisions, they may apply to the High Court, an election court or other court as appropriate, for relief from liability on the grounds that
“the act or omission arose from inadvertence or from accidental miscalculation or from some other reasonable cause of a like nature, and in any case did not arise from any want of good faith”
The Minister might suggest that sub-section (5) is sufficient to protect those who make an innocent declaration because they would not fall into the definition of having
“knowingly or recklessly made a false declaration”,
but I would point him to the volumes of criminal case law that deal with the difficulty of those two concepts. If the protection was included in the Representation of the People Act 1983, I cannot see the basis on which it should not be included in the Bill. While we have the chance, we should aim for clarity, not only for donors and the commission, but to prevent the need for interpretation of our intentions by the judiciary at some later date when a sanction is challenged in a court of law.
Amendment No. 6, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Battersea, would remove the summary conviction and indictment penalty tariffs in relation to an offence under section 54(5)—making a false declaration about the source of a donation. In its place would be inserted a standard £1,000 fine. I do not support the imposition of one-size-fits-all penalties and I am concerned that the amendment, while well intentioned in that it would reduce the maximum penalty, would be an arbitrary and in some cases, a disproportionate penalty.
Much was made in the lead-up to the Bill of the role of better regulatory regimes and the use of flexible tariffs. My concern with the amendment is that we would take a step back from that flexibility. A range of sanctions will always require a top-end option. It may not be used often, or at all, but its existence acts as a deterrent. I am afraid that the amendment could remove that option and undermine the seriousness of the offence. I have more sympathy with the view that it should be an indictable crime. We will consider that element further.
David Howarth: The question is how serious a crime it is to make a false declaration about the source of a donation. As drafted, the Bill allows for a prison sentence, and the amendment would change that. To come back to my previous point, does the question not depend on what the purpose of clause 8 is, and whether it is to pave the way for a donation cap at a later date? The Minister has now put that off even further, but the issue depends on whether there is to be a donation cap. What is the hon. Gentleman’s attitude to a donation cap?
Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point.
The Chairman: Not at length.
Mr. Djanogly: I will not go on to donation caps, Sir Nicholas, but the hon. Gentleman made an interesting point with regard to the amount that would fit. Of course, if there is an offence with respect to the lack of declaration, there will probably be another offence caused in relation to a breach of PPERA, or whatever. There will probably be an underlying charge, which could relate to the seriousness of the underlying offence—simply for not putting in the right bit of paper. I have some sympathy for the views of Government Members on the seriousness of not filling in the bit of paper, which is why we should look again at whether the offence is summary or indictable.
David Howarth: That is my point. If the underlying offence were to be to exceed the donation cap, it would be a very serious offence. That changes the entire context, so I come back to my question. What is the hon. Gentleman’s attitude towards the donation cap?
Mr. Djanogly: No. The underlying offence could be in relation to a number of issues under PPERA, not necessarily the donation cap.
Martin Linton: I am confident that the Minister will, in the end, accede to my plea under an earlier amendment, that the relief system under the Representation of the People Act should be imported into PPERA. If my hon. Friend is unable to do that, I hope he will accept the amendment. No one in Committee would want the threat of a jail sentence to hang over someone for a simple mistake that was not made in bad faith and was not an attempt to deceive or withhold information. The amendment does not ask for special privileges for politicians, but it is unfair to have the potential of a jail sentence for an unintended error. The issue, central as it is to the Bill, would be better dealt with by the Minister tabling an amendment to introduce section 86 of the Representation of the People Act into the PPERA, so that hon. Members who find themselves in this difficult position can seek relief from the court to have the offence struck out, and we do not have all the unnecessary paraphernalia of investigation by the Electoral Commission or the police over an unintended error.
Mr. Wills: Throughout our consideration of the Bill, we have tried to tread the line between having an effective set of regulations and avoiding unduly onerous burdens on volunteers and, indeed, politicians, whose work is vital to our democratic processes. We have been striving to get the balance right, which is why clause 8 states that a person commits an offence only if he or she
“knowingly or recklessly makes a false declaration”.
I know that the hon. Member for Huntingdon is sceptical about the requirement, but it will catch those who intentionally make a false declaration, or who do not properly turn their minds to whether the declaration is accurate. It does not seek to punish innocent mistakes, where steps have been taken to ensure that a declaration is accurate or where there is no good reason to think that it might not be. We believe that our wording strikes the right balance. Importantly, it goes no further than the wording of other false declaration offences in the 2000 Act.
Hon. Members spoke about the 1983 Act, but that framework was replaced by the 2000 Act, and there is no reason why the particular offences are special cases requiring different treatment. We do not believe that the amendment is necessary, but of course we hear the concerns about the dangers of an overzealous approach to enforcement—of the minor, technical breaches. We are not talking about substantive breaches, but about the inadvertent, minor breaches, which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has mentioned on several occasions.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.
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