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Political Parties and Elections Bill

Political Parties and Elections Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Peter Atkinson, Mr. Joe Benton, Frank Cook, †Sir Nicholas Winterton
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
Chris Shaw, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 20 November 2008


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Clause 8

Declaration as to source of donation
Amendment proposed [this day]: 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.’.—[Mr. Djanogly.]
1 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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’.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I welcome you, Sir Nicholas, and the rest of the Committee to our final sitting. I think that before the Committee adjourned I had completed my remarks about clause 8 stating clearly that a person commits an offence only if they knowingly or recklessly make a false declaration, but I want to say at the commencement of this afternoon’s proceedings that I recognise the concerns that have been expressed that an over-zealous approach to enforcement for minor technical breaches is in no one’s interest. It may result in major breaches going unpunished if the Electoral Commission focuses on minor technical breaches, so I asked the commission to write to the Committee, setting out its risk-based approach to regulation. I hope that members of the Committee have received that letter.
As part of the letter, the commission has described in a very helpful way its criteria for investigating breaches. I hope that that goes a significant way towards reassuring hon. Members. The commission has said that the criteria that it will apply in order for it to investigate a breach are, first, that there is evidence or information substantiating a potential breach of political party or election finance legislation, not merely an assertion of or a speculation about a breach, and secondly, that the commission considers that it is in the public interest for it to investigate, taking into account the potential impact of the breach on the integrity or transparency of party or election finance, the cost of investigating such a potential breach relative to the impact of the breach, and any other considerations that may be relevant. I hope that those criteria are helpful in reassuring the Committee that the commission is not interested in pursuing cases that are essentially groundless. Members of the Committee are understandably concerned about that.
Notwithstanding the considerable reassurance from the Electoral Commission, I am still willing to consider how that reassurance may be given more force in appropriate cases. However, in stressing my openness on the issue, I emphasise that offences that are formulated as false declarations through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, such as those subject to the amendment, quite properly have a degree of intent or negligent wrongdoing inherent in them. I do not think that there is a good case for revisiting that. Clause 8 already provides that a person is guilty of an offence only if they knowingly or recklessly make a false declaration. They commit an offence only if they are either conscious of the fact that it is substantially certain that they are making a false—
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Is the Minister saying that he will consider whether this should be an indictable or just a summary offence?
Mr. Wills: No, I was saying that I was prepared to consider the circumstances in which the commission might be able to give further reassurance to the Committee on the basis on which it will investigate potential breaches or breaches. It has already, in its letter, gone a long way towards reassuring the Committee, but if concerns remain, we are open to considering that.
Under the clause, someone is committing an offence only if they are conscious of the fact that it is substantially certain that they are making a false declaration or if they are being careless to the point of being heedless of the consequences. If neither of those conditions is satisfied, an offence is not committed.
I must oppose amendment No. 6 for similar reasons. We believe that the controls on permissible donations that were introduced in the 2000 Act are vital to uphold public confidence in the transparency and fairness of our democracy. A breach of those rules is a serious matter, and must result in a serious penalty. The amendment appears to downgrade the seriousness of failing to comply with the requirements in clause 8. I understand the motivation behind it, which is essentially the same as that discussed in the previous amendment. We are concerned that if the amendment were accepted, we would be sending a mixed message about the importance of the controls on donations. We believe that a fine of £1,000 would not be a sufficient deterrent.
On the basis of the reassurances that I give the Committee and on our willingness to continue considering the matter, I hope that hon. Members will agree to withdraw their amendments.
Mr. Djanogly: I thank the Minister for going over the matter in some detail, and for helpfully setting out the commission’s criteria, which I will go away and consider. I appreciated him saying that he was open to a further review, but the area that he is prepared to consider is quite narrow. We will look carefully at the matter again. We consider it important that an innocent mistake should not be caught. As to whether the package and the criteria that has been mentioned by the Minister are adequate, we will review that in due course. For the moment, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments made: No. 158, in clause 8, page 6, leave out lines 31 to 33.
No. 159, in clause 8, page 6, line 42, after ‘54(1)(aa)’, insert ‘(but not section 54(1)(b))’.—[Mr. Wills.]
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I beg to move amendment No. 106, in clause 8, page 8, line 12, at end insert—
‘(12) The registration by a Member of Parliament of receipt of a donation or other benefit within the terms of the 2000 Act in the Register of Members’ Interests shall be sufficient compliance with the requirement for registration of the same with the Commission and registration of such receipt with the Commission shall be sufficient to meet requirement for registration in the Register of Members’ Interests.
(13) The Registrar of Members’ Interests and the Commission shall put in place arrangements for the sharing of such information as enables them to give effect to subsection (12).’.
May I say, Sir Nicholas, what a pleasure it has been to witness the smack of firm leadership that you have given us whenever you have been in the Chair?
All hon. Members have an interest in the amendment, which is about the registration of donations and benefits received by Members of Parliament. Before the commission started work in 2001, we all knew that we had to register such benefits in the Register of Members’ Interests. Since the commission started work, we have had to register the same benefit twice, under two regimes with two formats and two different procedures. Since 2001 hon. Members have become increasingly frustrated about that and demanded action.
Eventually, Parliament amended the law in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 by inserting section 59, which says that in future, Members can go back to registering only in the Register of Members’ Interests. The provision was not brought into effect straight away because the commission and the House authorities said that they need time to align their procedures so that the commission could be satisfied that it could get from the registrar all the information that it currently collects. The registrar wanted to be clear that the law permitted the handing over of such information.
It is two years since then, and the provision still has not been brought into effect. That delay is reprehensible. When Mr. Wardle of the commission was giving evidence, I asked him whether the law was sufficient for us to get to the result for which we all thought we were waiting. He said that it was not. He thinks that there should be an amendment to the Bill, so I have tabled the amendment. My offering to the Committee is to say that, finally, we will get to the position that we thought we would get to in 2006.
The Chairman: Good gracious me, how succinct.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I thank you for calling me, Sir Nicholas, and I sincerely apologise to you, the Committee and the hon. Member for Stafford for not being present when the amendment was moved. I support, in principle, the direction of the amendment.
The 2000 Act introduced two parallel reporting regimes for hon. Members’ interests. First, we have to report—as is quite proper—our interests as Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. In addition, those matters have to be reported to the commission. It almost goes without saying that that creates confusion, and that that confusion is significant. That situation was recognised by the Government, and by all parties in the House, as being wrong, and therefore the Government rightly proposed section 59 of the 2006 Act, which was supported by both sides of the House. Its aim was to produce one route for registration, as my right hon. Friend put it on Second Reading when he referred to
“streamlining and simplifying the process without compromising on transparency.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 96.]
That is what we all want to see. However, section 59 requires commencement by an order laid by the Secretary of State, and that has not been forthcoming. Why is that taking so long? We understand, of course, that the Electoral Commission had reservations about the exact rules laid down by the House and that discussions have been ongoing between all parties involved, including the Government and senior Members of the House of Commons who represent us on such matters, but they have had three years to work it out. The confusion has continued and has caused embarrassment to some Members on both sides of the House, who have innocently and inadvertently made mistakes because of the far too complicated bureaucracy. That should not happen. Why have the Government not brought into force section 59 of the 2006 Act? They would have our support in that. In the meantime, we on the Conservative Benches support amendment No. 106, so eloquently introduced by the hon. Member for Stafford.
1.15 pm
Mr. Wills: I understand the frustration of Committee members, but I point out to the hon. Lady that we cannot commence section 59 of the 2006 Act until the Electoral Commission has notified the Secretary of State that it is satisfied that it has received, from the Register of Members’ Interests, all the information that it is required, under the 2000 Act, to collect in relation to holders of the relevant elected office. We agree that the need for MPs to provide different reports to different bodies is undesirable—it is inefficient, cumbersome and leads to the sorts of consequences that she mentioned.
Discussions continue between the parties concerned. I have held meetings with the House authorities and the Electoral Commission. All sides are coming closer together. They are not absolutely agreed on the best way forward, but I think they will be very soon. The solution might not have to be a legislative one; it might be—I say no more than that—an administrative one. However, we are diligently engaged in the task, and I hope very much that I can return with the outcome of those discussions, so that, if necessary, the House will have an opportunity to consider any necessary solutions. I stress, however, that we might not need a legislative solution.
On the basis of those reassurances, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will withdraw his amendment.
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Prepared 21 November 2008