Memorandum submitted by Professor Justin Fisher (PPE 02)


Thank you for the opportunity to present oral evidence on Thursday 6th November 2008. In advance of the session, I would like to outline my some of thoughts on the Bill.



1. Party Nominees as Commissioners


1.1 I have reservations about the inclusion of party nominees as Commissioners. Firstly, the easing of restrictions on prior political activity by Commission staff should address the complaint that the Commission was insufficiently aware of the workings of political parties.


1.2 Secondly, the appointment of party nominees may diminish the independence of the Commission, both literally and in the eyes of the electorate.


1.3 Thirdly the allocation of four appointments fails to take account of the national parties who are either in government or in coalition in Scotland and Wales. The allocation of the fourth appointment is based solely on representation at Westminster. This is problematic, since the Commission is also responsible for oversight of elections at other levels of government. In sum, the allocation of four appointments arguably fails to recognize the multi-party character of much of modern British politics.


1.4 Overall, I would suggest it would be better not to have party representatives on the Commission rather than have the problematic allocation of four appointments.



2. Candidate Election Expenses


2.1 I have significant reservations about the proposal to re-introduce 'triggering' for the purposes of determining candidate election expenses. Whilst it is the case that the current start-point for candidates' expenses (the point of dissolution) fails to capture significant candidate campaigning, 'triggering' represents a poor substitute on account of the considerable difficulties in implementation.



2.2 Firstly, 'triggering' barely worked prior to its reform following the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Parties were easily able to circumvent the law by simply not naming the candidate. The lack of legal clarity was such that there had been only one case in living memory that had come to court (in the constituency of Newark following the 1997 election), which was ultimately thrown out on appeal. In this respect, the 2000 Act repealed a system that was not functioning.


2.3 Secondly, under the existing Act, there is effectively one campaign start point for every candidate - the point of dissolution. Under the proposals in the Bill, there could be as many campaign start points as there are candidates. At the last election, there were 3,354 candidates.[1] Even if the analysis is restricted to the three largest Westminster parties who could field up to 632 candidates each at the next election in Great Britain, that is still potentially 1,896 different start points for candidates' campaigns.


2.4 The result is that a return to 'triggering' would be almost impossible to police and regulate. It would also present a potentially unreasonable burden on electoral agents (who are legally responsible for candidate expenses). Around 60% of agents in 2005 had not run an election under the pre-2001 regulations.[2] This figure will almost certainly be higher come the next general election. It is not a simple matter, therefore, of returning to a system with which most are familiar. Rather, only a minority of agents would have experience of such regulation. And, given that some 75% of agents are volunteers,[3] it is important that this proposed increased regulatory burden does not prove to be a disincentive to voluntary activity.


2.5 It would be better, in my view, to simply extend the uniform period under which candidate expenses are covered. Here, there is a balance to be struck given that three-quarters of electoral agents are volunteers. For that reason, the extension of the qualifying period for candidates' expenses should be extended to no more that four months, as originally proposed in the Electoral Administration Bill.


2.6 In sum, whilst recognising the problem of excessive pre-campaign spending by some candidates, the proposal in the Bill is a poor solution. It will not deal with the issue because it is unworkable, and an unworkable solution is far worse than a flawed one.



3. Other Measures


3.1 I welcome the proposals to strengthen the Electoral Commission, provide it with a greater range of sanctions, and increase the transparency of donations.


November 2008


[1] J. Fisher, E. Fieldhouse, D. Denver, A. Russell & D. Cutts, The General Election 2005: Campaign Analysis. Report produced for the Electoral Commission, 2005

[2] J. Fisher, E. Fieldhouse, D. Denver, A. Russell & D. Cutts, Survey of Election Agents, 2005. This figure represents agents from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru

[3] J. Fisher, E. Fieldhouse, D. Denver, A. Russell & D. Cutts, Survey of Election Agents, 2005. This figure represents agents from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru