Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman might be coming to this. I have considerable sympathy with his proposal for a permanent cap over the life of a Parliament, but that is not on offer at the moment. Is he going to insist on the best at the price of the good?
David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman says that that proposal is not on offer, but technically it is, if we get enough time to discuss new clause 9. However, what we are going to do at this point? Not a lot, given the state of play on the arguments about consensus and not doing anything unless we all agree, which means that one party can veto any proposal.
My other point involves the difference between candidate spending and party spending. Campaigns now are not just about candidates. Candidate regulation involves proper 19th-century regulation of the extraordinary amounts that were spent by candidates in elections in the second half of that century. However, politics is not like that anymore. Candidate spending still occurs, and it ought to be regulated. If hon. Members want to see some candidate spending, they should go down to Richmond Park and see Mr. Goldsmith’s spending. Nevertheless, candidate spending is not the leading problem nationally. The leading problem nationally is party spending, directed at a particular constituency. That is how parties attempt to buy elections, and it needs to be regulated as well. It seems that the only way to do that is by separate, clear regulation of local party spending across the entire life of a Parliament.
Mr. Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that this is far more about national decisions on where money is spent than about the individual? What did we spend money on before the new system was introduced? The only difference is that my name is on the literature. Before, it had pictures of Conservatives, doing nice Conservative things, as well as lots of other people. Subsequently, my name is on it. What is the difference?
David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Triggering or fixed-month solutions that deal with candidate spending will result only in his name being taken back off the leaflets. Party spending will continue. I am not saying as a consequence that there should be no control on candidate spending—we must have that as well—but the solution to the problem is a local party spending cap.
I want to make one final point. One thing that we have not and perhaps ought to have discussed is how the spending of third-party people—not Liberal Democrats, but people who are not technically involved with a party—comes into play. The present problem is that spending by such people, who support parties’ campaigns but do not partake of official party spending, is regulated only in the national cap and as part of election expenses.
3.45 pm
We must be careful not to leave a gap there as well. Perhaps that is also the way that we need to go in order to regulate the spending of individuals who intend to become candidates later. We need to count them as regulated third parties and expand the definitions in the relevant part of PPERA, which would catch instances such as Mr. Goldsmith’s campaigns in west London.
Dr. Whitehead: At the moment, we have a platonic form of a possible all-encompassing solution to party funding, both national party funding and local party funding, including how national and local party funding might interact over the course of an entire electoral cycle. Indeed, in that platonic form I would agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that a whole-term regulation of local spending is probably the right way forward.
Also, whole-term regulation of local spending incorporates the idea that national spending may be applied for local purposes and therefore ought to be regulated as if it were local spending. Indeed, if one had overall regulation with a choice between a cap on local spending and a cap on national spending, that idea would automatically be implemented.
Mrs. Laing: Does the hon. Gentleman not perceive an unfairness if local spending by a candidate over the whole period that he is talking about is restricted while spending by the sitting Member of Parliament is not only unrestricted but backed by the taxpayer to the amount of £10,000 a year?
Dr. Whitehead: The spending by Members of Parliament is not unrestricted and it would not be unrestricted in the system that I have suggested might be encompassed by a whole-term spending restriction. Indeed, the idea of a whole-term spending restriction was set out in the Constitutional Affairs Committee report on party funding a little while ago.
As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, spending on items such as newsletters is carefully regulated by this House, particularly by the efforts of the Standards and Privileges Committee to define carefully what is regarded as promotion of a person and what is regarded as a report of parliamentary activities. Under those circumstances and under the circumstances that I am about to describe, if a Member of Parliament used the resources of the House to go beyond telling the electorate what they have been doing as an MP, which is quite reasonable, that expenditure could well come under the heading of local election expenditure to promote that person’s candidature. A penalty would then be levied on that person automatically for going beyond what is reasonable in terms of parliamentary expenditure.
At the moment, there are a number of debates about whether that expenditure is within the right terms. A number of hon. Members have either been required to repay what they have spent on putting out their newsletters or, in certain instances, have had to apologise to the House for what they have put in them.
An additional sanction could well be that, in circumstances where there is a clear date-based trigger point, expenditure after that date will not relate to whether or not a person is a candidate, or an avowed candidate. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has said, there were practices in previous years where people were hiding behind metaphorical bushes, as it were, prior to the point that they declared themselves a candidate. In a sense, with a clear date-based trigger point, which is what we potentially have on offer in the real world and not in the platonic world of a whole-term cap, the real issue would not be whether a person had declared themselves as a candidate but what they had done to promote that candidature, in terms of expenditure, within that period. It would be the same for everybody and it would be the same within each constituency on a rubric that we already have, in terms of how much money can be spent.
Mrs. Laing: I want the hon. Gentleman to clarify a point on which I am genuinely not certain. Does he believe that a candidate should not be able to spend any money before the trigger point in his amendment? The Member of Parliament would spend both taxpayers’ money and private money. To use taxpayers’ money, they would have to explain what they have done as a Member of Parliament without any party political advantage. None the less, it still gets the name of that person known in the locality as a Member of Parliament while, at the same time, the candidate would not be able to declare himself or herself as a candidate and would not be able to spend any money.
Dr. Whitehead: I fear that the hon. Lady has misunderstood the mechanism of the trigger point. There is a difference between a trigger mechanism and what is proposed in the amendments. The amendments work back, as it were, from a solid point in the river—or a post in the river—and that is the point at which one has to have a general election. After Dissolution, there is a period of restricted local expenditure, as is the case at present under PPERA. Before that, there is a pre-election period. Once that point has been reached, everybody—whether or not they have been a candidate previous to that—knows what the rules are on local expenditure. If they have been a candidate before that point, they can spend what they like. That is not regulated until that point has been reached. A sitting Member of Parliament is bound by exactly the same regulations except that they can put out a newsletter or similar, which is regulated by the House authorities, talking about what they have been doing in Parliament. If, after the period of pre-election regulation, that person goes beyond that, their expenditure could conceivably be counted as their candidate expenditure.
I suggest that that method overcomes the problem that was inherent—as the hon. Member for Cambridge said—in the Electoral Commission’s suggestion of the four-month period when one had to guess when the general election might be. In that case, one might get into problems of retrospection. In the present circumstances, if this were to become law before the next election, there would also be no issue of retrospection because a date would not have been reached by the time this went into law. Therefore, there is no question of anybody’s expenditure to date being caught within such an arrangement.
I was encouraged by what the hon. Lady said in her initial comments on the amendment, but she then did an Indiana Jones-like bound and said, “Therefore, we cannot accept it.” I thought that, in substance, her comments were rather supportive of the ideas in the amendment, and those potentially on offer in the real world of what we do now to regulate issues—we all know that there are problems, in our current electoral arrangements. That is the spirit in which the amendment is offered. Whether the issues work in the round depends, I hope, on the ability of parties to reach a consensus on how to operate such matters. The amendments provide a framework that reflects the consensus of a fair and level playing field for all concerned, clear points before and after which expenditure is regulated and a method for ensuring that the maximum that can be spent relates to a route that already exists and by which we can judge what happens constituency by constituency at local level.
Mr. Tyrie: I agree with everybody who has said that we have not had enough time to consider this area of triggering, which is the most important issue in the Bill. It is extremely important that we do everything we can to give it salience on Report, and the attention that it deserves. I fear, with the shutter coming down at 4 o’clock, that the Minister will not get long to respond to my remarks on the amendments.
My guess is that the clause—not the amendment—is so controversial and mistaken that the whole Bill will be delayed. I would be surprised if the great hurry, which has afflicted every aspect of the Bill’s consideration, continues—three cheers, or at least two cheers, for that. I may be wrong, and we may see the Bill on the Floor of the House before Christmas, but I have my doubts. It is not unreasonable to describe the main proposal in the clause as blatantly partisan. That is why I would certainly favour going down the road of the amendment, which, as a Back Bencher, I can say has considerable merit—although I am sure that, as I always or sometimes do, I shall vote slavishly should we find ourselves in a Division.
This issue seems to be the meat of the Bill and why we have it. We have had newspaper reports saying that there must be a move against Ashcroftism, as it is described, and that this is the essential measure to tackle it. We have had all sorts of reports of that type, which I shall not go through one by one. This was not a good way to proceed. We should have had a chance to consult on the sort of idea embodied by the amendment, but we had no consultation at all on the triggering issue. When I asked the Secretary of State in the evidence session whether there had been any consultation, he said that there was and there was not. It would have been more helpful and, frankly, more accurate to say that there was not.
As I mentioned, I was involved in the talks. All that happened—not in, but outside, the talks—was that Sir Hayden asked the parties individually whether they had any views and wanted to open up the issue. He spoke to the three parties, and they all said that they did not particularly like the current arrangements—they had suggestions for improving them, but they did not want the issue to form part of the talks. Sir Hayden made that point clear publicly. I do not see how anyone can reasonably call that consultation.
The amendment proposed is much better than going back to the old rules, which would risk retrospection for the forthcoming election. We have had overwhelming evidence—available for many years, not just in what we have heard—not just from academics but from others that the old rules would be a disaster. Lord Bingham made such remarks in a case, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life has given unequivocal advice that we should not go down the road of the old rules. I shall not read it out, because I do not have time, but it is absolutely clear.
In the remaining seconds, I would like to make a point about incumbency—
It being Four o’clock, The Chairman proceeded, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83D and the Order of the Committee [4 November], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.
Amendment negatived.
Motion made, and Question put, That clauses 10, 11, 14 and 15 stand part of the Bill.
The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 7.
Division No. 9]
Ainger, Nick
Grogan, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Kidney, Mr. David
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Lucas, Ian
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Duddridge, James
Howarth, David
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Reid, Mr. Alan
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clauses 10, 11, 14 and 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 21 November 2008