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Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) is right in his criticism of the process that this Bill has gone through. Procedurally, it has been a shambles. I served on the Committee and vast rafts of amendments were not debated. I sat here through the entire Report stage and, again, rafts of amendments were not considered. I tried to speak on Third Reading, but we ran out of time. There have also been huge gaps between different stages of the Bill.
My concern about the carry-over motion is that it specifies 29 October. I know that the Minister, in response to my intervention, said that the Government's intention was to get the Bill on the statute book before the parliamentary recess. In that case, why does not the motion simply give the last day before the parliamentary recess-21 July? Why does it specify 29 October?
Clauses 14 and 15 introduce important new rules about election expenses that come into effect on 1 January 2010. Between Royal Assent and 1 January, the Electoral Commission has to conduct a consultation exercise and then issue guidance. The two months between 29 October and 1 January would not be long enough for that to happen. I would have been happy to vote for the motion had it specified 21 July, but as it says 29 October, I will oppose it.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con):
It is a pity that the Government wish to rush through what could turn out to be a bungled and unsatisfactory piece of legislation. Given the problems that candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour party got into under the law that the Government introduced before, one would have thought that the Government would have
seen the need for simpler and clearer legislation and for more time to prepare it so that everyone could buy into it, understand it and comply with it. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members wished to comply with the earlier legislation, but they got into difficulties because it was complicated and not fully understood. That legislation had not been thought through or debated sufficiently so that all could grapple with its complexities.
I have the same worry, only more so, about this Bill, because it has a troubled history. We now learn that consensus has broken down between the main parties on this issue, but the Bill requires consensus and agreement because it relates to the methods of election of people of all parties and none to this House. Surely it requires as much time as Parliament thinks it needs or deserves to try to reach sensible agreement. It is not satisfactory to have a whole set of new proposals put before the House at the last minute.
I cannot understand why we need 80 days off this summer, but that is the Government's wish. If they are sticking with their 80 days off, there clearly is not time to do this Bill properly. They have an easy answer-they could put on another couple of days next week and get this thing done properly. I do not see the Minister rising to offer to do that. I find it very difficult to explain to constituents why there is not enough time to make our case or to do our job when we are then forced to take an 80-day break when some of us would be happy to work longer to see things through properly.
If we must have this kind of legislation, the Government should let us have the time to debate it. Indeed, why cannot we go longer this week if colleagues already have holidays planned for next week? We could sit later on Wednesday or Thursday to accommodate the need to consider these measures carefully. I think that it is a great tragedy that the Minister will not rise from his seat and offer us that- [ Interruption. ] Does the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) want to intervene?
Mr. Redwood: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was keen to disagree-I am delighted that I have the agreement of the Labour Back Benchers. They do not wish to intervene and tell me that I am wrong to want more time to discuss these matters. Please will the Minister reconsider, will he see that this has broken any chance of consensus and will he grant us more time? There is plenty of time this week or next week.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient time to discuss the important issue of politically motivated leaders of local authorities who deliberately try to keep registration at a low level? The Minister will recall that I have given the example in previous debates of the Liberal leader of Islington local authority, who, when approached by the Labour group to have a registration drive before an election, was adamantly opposed to that idea because that was how Liberals won elections. Will there be sufficient time to discuss these important issues?
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am not at all surprised that the Conservative party opposes the Bill. I want to see it come on to the statute book as soon as possible so that we can get more transparency on the funding of political parties and of elections in particular. I know that this Bill will cause problems for the Conservative party because it currently abuses the system. It acts in a way that the public perceive as totally improper in funding campaigns with tens of thousands of pounds even before the starting point of the election is reached. That is an abuse of the system. I want to see that stopped, and that is why I will be supporting the Government.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Did the hon. Gentleman also think that it was an abuse when the incumbent Government decided to add £10,000 on top of already generous allowances so that Labour MPs in particular, who have the majority here- [ Interruption. ]
Bob Spink: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall abide by your wishes and not be distracted from the motion that we are discussing. I am astounded that the Conservative party, of all parties, should seek to raise today, in this debate, the question of the abuse of Members' allowances. What brass neck they have.
I want to see the Bill brought forward and that is why I will be supporting the carry-over motion, although I want to see levels of reporting reduced to lower sums so that we have even greater transparency. I also want to see even greater restrictions on spending on elections. I do not want to see this country going down the same route as America on election funding.
Mr. Wills: As always, we have had a very interesting little exchange on these matters, but the contributions from Opposition Members have been unusually baffling and illogical. Of course, I agree with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). He is quite right that we need to get this done as quickly as possible, but the contributions that we have heard from both Opposition Front Benchers demonstrate exactly why we need to allow a little bit of time for the Opposition to get their act together.
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman realise quite how offensive it is to suggest that the Opposition need time to get our act together, when the Government, on a matter of huge difficulty, which is the legislative equivalent of brain surgery, have produced six pages of amendments on the morning that these matters are to be debated in the House? To suggest that the Opposition need time suggests a lack of self-awareness that beggars belief.
Mr. Wills: With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I certainly would not want to cause any offence whatsoever, but if he had borne with me just a little, I would have explained precisely why the Opposition need to get their act together. I do not wish to cause him offence, but if he listens to me, I will explain exactly why I said that.
These amendments were debated at some length in the other place. I respectfully point out to Opposition Front Benchers that consensus is a matter not just of two Front-Bench teams reaching agreement, but of the whole House reaching agreement in so far as possible. We also need to take proper recognition of the sentiments in the other place.
In the other place, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, a very large number of Conservative peers take the Conservative Whip-200 or so. I wonder whether he can remember how many of them voted against the amendments that the other place passed. I will remind him: it was 40. He will be aware that a significant number of Cross Benchers also voted in favour of the amendments. We have to take account of the sentiment of the other place, and I am surprised that Opposition Front Benchers do not wish to do that. We believe that it is right and proper to do so. We are conscious of the time frame. These issues have been debated. We think that there is sufficient time to debate that.
I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that we will have time in later debates to discuss the matter that he has raised, and I will do so in relation to the appropriate clauses.
I am baffled by the contribution of the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). On the one hand, he seems to be calling for a strict deadline to be imposed on the Bill; on the other hand, he has been vituperative in his criticism of us for not allowing sufficient time to discuss the Bill. As so often, I am afraid, the Liberal Democrats are facing both ways.
David Howarth: The problem is that very short debates were followed by very long intervals without debates, and that happened in both Houses. Why did the Government take so long to get the Bill to Third Reading in the House of Lords?
Mr. Wills: With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have discussed all these issues at very great length. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] We have, and as hon. Members on both sides of the House want to get on to discuss the Bill's substance, I beg to hope that the House will now agree to the motion.
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