Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1224

Mr. Maude: That is the bit that I did not hear clearly. I heard the commitment not to commence the provision without a resolution of the House, but I did not hear what the Minister proposed to put before the House as a constraint on the use of allowances. It is crucial—the Minister must understand that. I believe that he does understand it, and I know that the Justice Secretary understands how unfettered—or any—use of taxpayers’ money to promote a Member of Parliament’s activities when statutory constraints, with criminal penalties, were placed on candidates’ ability to promote themselves would be unfair, and would be seen to be unfair. Symmetry is essential.

We are not remotely convinced that the new clause is necessary. However, we believe that it is acceptable and we happily acquiesce in it, but there must be symmetry in its introduction. We want an election whereby challenging candidates can contest with incumbents on the same footing.

I assume that amendment 41 applies to the late selection of a candidate simply to prevent previously incurred expenses from escaping the net. If the Minister has a chance to reply—he probably will not—I would be grateful if he confirmed that the expenses that the new, earlier period of 56 months plus catches will be defined in the same way as expenses in the election period. It would be hugely complicated if there were any difference in the definition of expenses for those purposes.

With those observations, we support the amendments.

Martin Linton: I shall not take up much of the House’s time because I do not want to stand in the way of amendments being moved. However, I have campaigned for the past seven years to close the Ashcroft loophole. I appreciate that Lord Ashcroft did not invent it, but he has made more use of it than anybody. It was an unintended consequence of earlier legislation, and the House agreed that it was undesirable. During that time we have had one attempt to close that loophole.

Mr. Maude: Could the hon. Gentleman just explain why it is a loophole for a legitimate donor of any sort to be willing to support a candidate in his constituency? What is that a loophole in, for heaven’s sake?

Martin Linton: It is a loophole in the controls on candidates’ spending that have existed for 128 years in this country, which are supported by all parties. It was only as an unintended consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that that loophole was created.

The original Bill proposed a return to triggering. We never regarded that as an ideal solution, but it would have brought back the controls that existed before 2000, for which there were a lot of legal precedents, and it would have worked. In its place, the Government have proposed a 55-month period, which in theory would come into force on 10 December. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister said that he would commence it on 1 January, which will restrain candidates’ spending in the three months before the last possible date for a dissolution.

It is certainly true, as shown by the evidence from Lord Ashcroft and from Peter Bradley, the former Member for The Wrekin, that most spending happens
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1225
in the pre-campaign period between January and March and is done both by candidates locally—that was the evidence from the 2005 election—and by the national parties. The 55-month period that my right hon. Friend proposes would have the salutary effect of restraining spending during that pre-campaign period. I would regard that as far better than the status quo, which is to have no controls at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and I suggested a 50-month period in Committee, because the key period is not just the January-to-March period, but from September onwards. The last six months before the last possible date for dissolution is when it is most important to have controls on candidates’ spending. I stick by the view that that would be the best control that we could introduce at this stage.

In fact, we would have preferred a 36-month period, which would automatically introduce candidate controls after three and a half years of any Parliament, so that whether an election was held after four or five years, there would be controls on candidates’ spending in the last six months. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend said that what we have now is not the end of the story. New legislation will have to be introduced in the next Parliament, and I hope that it will propose a 36-month period.

I end by reminding hon. Members that controls on candidates’ spending were introduced in 1880, as a result of outrageously high spending in the election of that year, when candidates spent a total of £2 million. In today’s terms, that would be £171 million. Indeed, if we use the earnings index, which is a fairer measure, we realise that the amount would be £2.2 billion. That is even more than the $2 billion spent by all the candidates in the recent US election, which was the most expensive election in recent history. Britain was even worse than that before we had controls on candidates’ spending. If we want to return to having candidates being able to buy their way into Parliament, all we have to do is to have no laws on candidates’ spending at all. I welcome new clause 17, but I hope that hon. Members are with me in preferring spending to be controlled from the start of the 36-month period or, at the very least, for the last six months of a Parliament.

David Howarth: I am very glad to welcome the demise of clause 11, as it did not produce the answers, which many hon. Members were looking for, to a number of problems. Basically, there are two problems, although they are different. One is the Lord Ashcroft problem, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) mentioned. It arises when money is thrown at constituencies from a centrally raised fund. The second problem is what might be called the Zac Goldsmith problem, which is where a very wealthy candidate spends money on promoting himself. These two separate problems cannot be solved using the same provision. All through this debate, we have been dogged by the problem of trying to achieve two different things with one suggested mechanism.

The mechanism now being proposed in place of triggering is certainly better than triggering, which never really worked. It simply resulted in a lot of angry letters being exchanged between agents, with one accusing another of having started election expenses and then getting a letter back— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1226
for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) says that it did work. It worked in one sense, in that it represented a kind of background threat, but people who were brazen just got away with it anyway.

The triggering mechanism also led to a number of straightforward evasions, such as calling oneself a prospective parliamentary candidate, a parliamentary spokesperson or the editor of the newsletter—[Hon. Members: “Who would do that?”] I have no idea who would do that kind of thing, but those were all well-known evasions. The process became a laughing stock. The attempt to bring it back was an attempt to solve both the problems that I have just mentioned but, in the end, it was not going to work. A number of meetings took place between experts and the Electoral Commission, and the commission tried to put forward draft guidance, but it became very clear that, as a practical matter, this was not going to work.

We have now come back to the suggestion, which I think was originally made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), of having a fixed date from which there would be a period of pre-election control on candidates’ spending, and having a second period of controlled candidates’ spending following the Dissolution of Parliament. That is workable. I do not think that it causes the problem that triggering has—namely, that it cannot be made to work in practice—but it has serious flaws that will have to be thought about as the Bill goes through the House of Lords.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman supports Government new clause 17, but does he agree that it should be even tougher, and that it should involve a 50-month period rather than a 55-month period? If so, will he allow me a moment to speak to my amendments (a) to (d)?

David Howarth: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but those amendments are technically deficient in an important way, and would not achieve what he wants, because he has not changed the start date. Unfortunately, they would keep the start date of 1 January in the Bill. Although there is a lot of merit in what his amendments say about spreading out the period, and about making things smoother in regard to the number of months, they would not work as a practical suggestion— [ Interruption. ] Does the Secretary of State want to intervene?

I want briefly to go through the defects in the existing proposal. It deals only with individual spending and not with party spending, and it gives the governing party, which knows the date of the general election, an unfair advantage. That really needs to be sorted out. The percentages in the Bill sort of deal with that point, but they do not go far enough.

Finally, and most importantly, the proposal does not deal at all with third-party expenditure. It deals only with expenditure by candidates and agents, and not with third-party spending on behalf of candidates. I hope that the Minister will at least have time to deal with that last point.

Mr. Wills: In the few remaining seconds, I want to pick up on some of the points that have been raised in this important discussion. Regulated matters will be treated in exactly the same way in the pre-Dissolution and post-Dissolution periods. We considered the 50-month
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1227
period that has been proposed by various Members, but we rejected it because we believe that it would increase uncertainty for candidates to an unacceptable extent. Interestingly, the Electoral Commission has clearly stated its support for a start point of 55 months. It does not support amendments proposing a start point of 50 months because it, too, believes that that would increase uncertainty to an intolerably high level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has made important contributions today and in Committee. He said that he assumed that new legislation would come forward in the next Parliament, but he would be rash to make such an assumption. It is absolutely fundamental that any action at all in this area should proceed on the basis of cross-party consensus. We believe that this Bill has now reached that point, and we hope that hon. Members will support the new clause.

10 pm

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the clause be read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

New clause 17 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

The Speaker then put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

Clause 11

Election expenses incurred for person not yet a candidate

Amendment made: 38, page 9, line 15, leave out Clause 11.— (Mr. Wills.)

Bill to be further considered tomorrow.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1228

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.




Mr. Speaker: With the leave of the House, we will take motions 6 to 8 together.

Finance and Services


Public Accounts


Members’ Allowances


9 Feb 2009 : Column 1229

Neighbourhood Renewal Funding (Peterborough)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Blizzard.)

10.1 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate on neighbourhood renewal funding in the Millfield and New England areas of Peterborough. These older city residential areas existed before Peterborough was designated as a new town and before the Peterborough development corporation was established in 1968, and they have a proud working class heritage, having been home to many families working on the railways or at Perkins Engines—skilled craftsmen, artisans, practical people and their kith and kin.

It was the 1850 opening of the Great Northern railway’s main line from London to York that transformed Peterborough from a market town to an industrial centre. Relatively little urban development took place to the west of the railway, but the marshalling yards and other installations were labour-intensive and housing for railway workers and their families spread from the vicinity of the North station almost to Walton. The Great Northern built an entire community here, which provided much of the labour for the enormous marshalling yard and associated engine sheds close by.

For almost 55 years the North ward on Peterborough city council has been represented by the indefatigable Charles Swift, OBE, who lives in Scotney street in New England and was once the Labour leader of the city council, but is now robustly independent, and his colleague, Councillor Keith Sharp. Only two weeks ago, Charles featured in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph bemoaning the state of his home area, under the headline “Peterborough is decaying in front of our eyes.”

My constituents living in the Millfield and New England areas of Peterborough have been witness to the steady decline of their neighbourhood for a number of years, but the increased pressures of the current economic climate—in particular, the recent spate of job losses in the city, business closures, crime and, among other things, the increased pressures of immigration—have highlighted the very real difficulties these communities are facing. In particular, the huge and unprecedented influx of EU migrants into the city since May 2004, estimated by the East of England regional assembly two years ago at more than 16,000 individuals, most of whom have congregated in this area, has put significant strain on the delivery of public services.

Next Section Index Home Page