Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Tyrie: I do not mean any disrespect, but I have Hansard, column 61, of 20 October 2008, in front of me, and so far the hon. Gentleman has read out his speech as it appears there. He made those points on Second Reading. If he carries on like this, we will end up having to make all the obvious replies—that he tabled a probing amendment, that he made that clear, and that the decision was taken without even a Division, which hardly suggests that there was opposition on our part. There is no merit in his persisting.
The Chairman: Order. I know that was an intervention from the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that what he said has been noted, but the hon. Member for Battersea is entirely in order in what he is saying.
Martin Linton: Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Chichester is making, but without the context we would not get to a meaningful discussion. I shall not dwell on what has happened since that loophole was opened up. I do not blame Lord Ashcroft for making use of it in the 2005 election and I cannot blame him for seeking to make use of it now in his new position in the Conservative party. After all, I would not deny that my party tries to match spending by the other party, so both parties are using the loophole.
Parenthetically, I do not accept the argument that parliamentary newsletters invalidate the issue. Hon. Members are welcome to look at my parliamentary newsletters. I do not think that they bear on the point of candidate spending at all. It is perfectly right that Members should be allowed to communicate with their electors and tell them what they have done in Parliament. If they have done things that are good for the constituency, it is right that they should get whatever credit the electors feel that they deserve, but that does not invalidate the need for a return to candidate spending limits.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I agree absolutely that there is a problem that must be tackled, but I am concerned that the clause is not the right way to tackle it. The hon. Gentleman referred to newsletters, but what if an Opposition candidate put out a newsletter saying what a wonderful job he was doing, how he had got the roads fixed and so on? It is totally unclear whether that would be counted as election expenses. That is our concern about the clause.
Martin Linton: The hon. Gentleman is right that there are difficulties with triggering. That is the reason for the amendment. I do not deny that the difficulty with triggering is that there is a certain element of uncertainty about it. It is like a sword of Damocles hanging over a candidate. They never know when they might accidentally overstep a mark and trigger election expenses.
I am trying to act in a spirit of cross-party consensus. I am not insisting that there should be a consensus, but I believe we can find a degree of it. The Bill reinstates the legislation of 1983, which was Conservative legislation, so the Bill cannot be accused of being partisan. I would prefer us to stick with what the Bill says because that is the system that worked for 117 years, and that is the system that we know has some effect. If a better system can be found, we should all try to move towards it.
In the amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and I suggest a different version of triggering that is meant to achieve the objective in a better way. The idea first came up in evidence from my hon. Friend to the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Instead of candidate limits that apply from the point when somebody becomes or declares themselves a candidate or appeals for votes, they should apply from a specific point in the parliamentary cycle. The first suggestion was 42 months. Three and a half years into a Parliament, candidate limits should automatically come into effect.
The wording of the amendment takes into account the fact that we are already well past the 42nd month of this Parliament. As 42 months is not relevant to the present situation, the amendment refers to the 50th month, which means that the candidate limits would come into force in July next year—that is, 11 months before the last possible date on which an election can be held. There would essentially be one period from the beginning of July until dissolution during which candidates could spend up to their candidate limit—those limits vary from constituency to constituency, but they fall roughly within the range of £10,000 to £12,000—and another regulated period during the campaign itself.
So there would be two regulated periods, which would double the amount that candidates could spend to £20,000 to £25,000. That is a reasonable proposition. I do not make it out of self-interest—my self-interest would best be served by what is in the Bill—but because I recognise that there are many legal difficulties associated with triggering and that, in the past eight years, parties have got used to having no restrictions on candidates. It might be a bit difficult for us to turn the clock back to a situation where triggering operates all the time.
Mr. Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point, for my benefit? If the period is instituted as he described, are the candidates allowed to spend before that?
Martin Linton: Before the first regulated period starts, candidates, as now, can spend as much as they like. Once a regulated period has started they can spend only up to the constituency limit in that regulated period. The reason for two regulated periods is because if we merely increase the candidate limit over a longer period, some candidates who were adopted only towards the election would have twice as much to spend during the election campaign as a candidate who had been adopted earlier. That would introduce an element of unfairness. The concept is that there should be two regulated periods. It could be three regulated periods, so that candidates are not completely precluded from spending any money before the election, but they are not allowed to save all that money up and have a spending spree during the election itself.
Mr. Turner: I am grateful for that answer. Could the hon. Gentleman help me with a second point? What are the conditions as far as Members of Parliament are concerned?
Martin Linton: Members of Parliament who have been adopted as candidates would be caught by the same provisions. To the extent that they wanted to promote themselves as candidates, they would have to work within the limits, as they do during the election period. It would not stop them putting out parliamentary newsletters, provided that those conformed not only with Parliament’s definition of a parliamentary newsletter, but with the electoral returning officer’s definition. Those should, in principle, be the same, but there is no guarantee of that.
The simple principle that I am putting before the Committee as a possible way forward, if one is needed, is that we can proceed on the basis of a fixed triggering point, where every candidate is triggered and that that should be at a fixed point in the parliamentary cycle. In the normal course of events I would propose 42 months—three and a half years—which means that in a four-year Parliament, the last half year would be covered by limits. In the occasional five-year Parliament—they are still a minority—it would be the last 18 months. That would remove the doubt as to when triggering started. It would remove the need for all the long titles like parliamentary spokesperson and prospective parliamentary candidate, which the public find rather laughable. It would mean that the starting gun was fired at the same point for everybody and that the rules were the same for everybody.
I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that the test is not whether there is consensus between the parties, because the history going back to the 1970s is that one party can see that it has an advantage in consensus and uses the consensus as a veto. That is why we had the 20 or 30 years of scraping the bottom of the barrel for party funds in this country, whereas other countries all found consensus around party spending limits, party donation limits and state spending. We were the only country that left it until 2000 before we even began to consider comprehensive party funding legislation. Where there is consensus, that is desirable, but it is important that we do something that is seen by the public to be fair. A fixed triggering time for everybody would be the right principle.
Mr. Tyrie: Will the hon. Gentleman indicate, on a scale of one to 10, to what extent the Electoral Commission’s proposal would be second best? The commission has come forward with a four-month proposal.
3.30 pm
Martin Linton: The Electoral Commission agrees in its note that this proposal could provide greater certainty for parties and candidates—Members can read it themselves. The commission basically supports the proposal. It sees one or two possible disadvantages, but it prefers it to triggering. I have no personal interest here; as a Member with a majority of 163, anything that reduces the spending of my potential opponents is welcome. Triggering might be more effective, but this is probably a fairer system—it is certainly a clearer one. It is more likely to be the basis of cross-party agreement, and above all, it is more likely to appear fair to the public.
Mrs. Laing: The proposals made by the hon. Gentleman in amendments Nos. 201 and 202 are interesting. I am glad that he has now explained just what they mean and why he has proposed them, and I sympathise with his attempt to produce a clearer and more certain Bill. I hope that we will have time to debate the whole of clause 10, because it is one of the most important in the Bill. To ensure that we have as much time as possible for that debate, I will be brief in my remarks on the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman and others have used the phrase “going back to”—going back to triggering, going back to what happened before 2000. We should not look to go back to the confusion that we had then; we should look to go forward. [Interruption.] Of course I will give way. I am sorry; I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to intervene.
Dr. Whitehead: I was simply gesturing that that is what the amendment attempts to do: to go forward to a more satisfactory version of what might misleadingly be called triggering but which ought to have a new name—a pre-election period that is clear to everybody and does not relate to whether somebody has called themselves a candidate.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that apparent clarification. It is difficult to have a pre-election period when it is not known when the election will take place, but I entirely concede that the wording of the two amendments is much clearer on that, because it refers to the previous election. The amendments, therefore, make sense from that point of view. While I am referring to the initial remarks of the hon. Member for Battersea, I also pay tribute to the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who noticed this problem, brought it up and was sadly ignored. He was a great parliamentarian and a very clever politician, who is much missed in both Houses and in the political firmament generally.
The lack of clarity worries me considerably. In considering triggering, before 2000, I have had reason to look at the literature of each of the three main political parties that advises candidates when it is that they become candidates and when election expenses begin. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that it is necessary to be precise about when election expenses begin. That is why triggering, as set out in clause 10, is so worrying. Due to lack of time, I will not quote what I might have quoted, but I will reserve, I hope, the duty of Her Majesty’s Opposition to bring the matter forward again on Report.
We are in danger this afternoon of not being able to consider important matters. However, I draw the Committee’s attention to the guidance produced by the Labour party in a document called, “The Way to Win—Labour’s Campaign Handbook for the 1990s”, which is when triggering was in effect. There is a paragraph in the document called, “The dangers of election law”. I always thought that we made laws to protect people, not to endanger them, but the way in which the then Opposition saw electoral law at that time was as dangerous. In the advice to candidates, the document says:
“Keeping on the right side of election law is vital. But it’s not an excuse to keep out of sight. Use your imagination to avoid the constraints imposed by election law on the candidate’s activity.”
That is what the Labour party told its candidates in the run-up to the 1997 general election.
My argument is that it is essential to have a law that does not leave itself open to the imagination of Labour candidates or of any other player on the political field during a general election and that it must be certain. Sadly, I do not consider that the hon. Gentleman’s amendments would improve clause 10, and we therefore cannot support them.
David Howarth: The Committee has only 24 minutes left, and I feel not only that will we not have a chance to discuss the matters later in the list, but that we do not have enough time to discuss this matter in the depth that it requires. I am sure that the Committee will agree that this is a matter to which we ought to return, in detail, on Report.
The hon. Member for Battersea has moved an amendment that assumes that triggering is not the right thing to do. I will not to spend the Committee’s time explaining why I think that he is right to make that assumption. That leaves only two other solutions to the problem of when local spending limits should kick in. One is the fixed-month solution that he suggested; the other is to say that permanent local spending limits should be there all the time.
I think that the permanent local spending limit should be the solution. The problem with the fixed-month solution that the hon. Gentleman has proposed is that we do not have fixed-term Parliaments. His proposal is certainly better than the suggestion made by the Electoral Commission, which said that the limit should apply a certain number of months before the election. One would have to be a mind reader to work out when that would apply.
Nevertheless, there is a different problem with the hon. Gentleman’s solution, which would apply a certain number of months after the previous one. It is obviously clearer, but it still gives an advantage to the incumbent party, because the leaders of the incumbent party—not necessarily the people who are standing for Parliament for that party—will have a much better idea about when the election will happen than the Opposition parties, and they can give signals to their candidates to spend. [Interruption.] We know what happened last year. Those were unusual circumstances, where the signals got confused on all sides.
The advantages of incumbency are great, and they include, on the whole, being in a better position to predict or understand the timing of elections than the Opposition. Therefore, Government candidates will be in a position to spend more earlier; they will not have to delay their spending to get it into the first regulated period. That would not be the case if the regulated period started so soon after the previous election that no one would plausibly call an election at that point. The trouble is that even the hon. Gentleman’s permanent suggestion—not the one that would apply to the five-year part—will not really achieve that end. As we have seen, it is still quite possible for Prime Ministers to think that they should call an election after two and a half years.
The only way to solve the problem properly is to ignore a fixed starting point and go to a third solution. Admittedly, it is one that the Electoral Commission says is difficult to administer and everyone says would raise problems with enforcement, but it is nevertheless clearer. It is to have a permanent local cap on spending. There are various ways to do that—some are proposed on today’s amendment paper—but the principle is clear.
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Prepared 21 November 2008