Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, are they gnomes or elves?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, did the noble Earl say, "name them"?

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I said, "Gnomes or elves".

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: Oh, my Lords, but not fairies! I beg your pardon. That is politically incorrect and I hope that Hansard will remove it from the record. We have fellow representatives of the Green Party in Europe and I believe that it would be ethically and morally reasonable for there to be a right for parties to donate to each other. They have more representatives because they have in place a fairer electoral system. We have more votes, but fewer representatives. Such discrepancies occur across national boundaries and I look forward to a detailed discussion of this point in Committee. I am far from clear on which way to make a decision, but it is certainly a point that needs to be looked at carefully.

With those exceptions, I look forward to devoting the immense amount of time that will be required to improve the Bill in Committee. It is a good Bill and we are in favour of it, but undoubtedly it is far too complicated and needs amending in various ways. I hope that we shall be able to do so.

7.10 p.m.

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, I was deeply impressed by the exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on the work of his committee. He set out the five key points with admirable clarity and simplicity. However, I wish that they had been more fully reflected in the Bill before us today, because there are certain policies which have not been adopted by the Government. Furthermore, the Government have put such detail and over-elaboration into the Bill that I fear that it may fail in its purpose, or at least not succeed to the extent that we would all wish for it.

For a politician, my noble and learned friend Lord Howe was extraordinarily frank in his contribution. He said that over-elaboration in some legislation for which he had been responsible, or at least partially responsible, had led to a certain amount of failure in the Acts concerned. I think he was absolutely right to make that point. From my own experience I can remember some of the Bills that he mentioned.

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1152

We have a more recent example in the working of the Child Support Agency. No one could quarrel with the principle; namely, that absent parents should contribute to the upbringing of their children. However, in the end, over-elaboration of the requirements led to a bureaucratic nightmare. We saw chronic delays in the system and fathers wriggling out of their responsibilities. A simpler scheme might have dealt with the matter far better, even if it had been a little rough and ready. That is the kind of situation that I fear for this Bill.

I am appalled at the number of offences that are to be created, as well as the number of penalties that could be imposed. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, was absolutely right to point out that the average voluntary worker going into a committee room in an ordinary constituency will take fright and rush out again if he or she sees such rules and regulations. Instead of encouraging participation in the political process through political parties and enhancing democracy, I fear that the Bill will in fact have the opposite effect. This point worries me very much.

I think that many people will agree that the Bill attempts to tackle too many subjects all at once. In my view it would have been better to have addressed only the key matters such as the origin of donations and the amounts concerned. It could then have been left to the electoral commission--which I believe to be a good idea--to work out in easy stages what matters it felt were appropriate for further legislation. Indeed, that is provided for under Clause 5, where the commission is asked to keep under review a number of matters and to make reports to the Government. After that, presumably, further legislation could be enacted. In my view it would have been far more sensible to pay greater attention to that rather than attempt to deal with the whole gamut of subjects that are contained in this extremely long Bill.

Many noble Lords have discussed the matter of referenda this evening. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for using the old-fashioned term--I cannot get used to saying "referendums", any more than we might say, "agendums". Because the hour is late and others have dealt adequately with the matter, I shall not go into any detail, save to say that, like several other noble Lords, I dislike the system intensely. I believe that it is virtually impossible to formulate neutral questions that can be answered properly with a simple "yes" or "no". Even if it is possible to do that, I am distinctly disconcerted by the detailed administrative arrangements set out in the Bill. The situation seems to me to be far from satisfactory, especially as regards the issues of whether there should or should not be a limit on expenditure, the role of the Government in promoting their own case, and time limits. As I have said, others have dealt with these matters in some detail and I agree strongly with the points that have been made. I hope that we shall think long and hard before these provisions are allowed to go through unamended.

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1153

I should like to make one final point which I believe may be the only one that has not already been touched upon in the debate today. Oddly enough, it relates to what is not in the Bill. I refer to a section in the Representation of the People Act 1983 which, in effect, allows a single candidate in an election to veto an appearance in a broadcast. All the candidates have to agree to the broadcast. I personally came across this as a candidate on more than one occasion. It irritated local broadcasters no end, with good reason. Even if a minor fringe candidate--only one candidate--said, "No, I do not wish to take part", lo and behold, the entire broadcast was cancelled. I cannot think that that is a democratic way of proceeding. Since almost everything else has been touched on in the Bill, I was surprised to see that this relatively simple suggestion was not taken up and dealt with. I hope that, in Committee, we shall be able to look at this point.

In common with others, I believe that we shall need a long Committee stage because there is a great deal in the Bill that must be discussed. No one could object to the general spirit and principle of the Bill, but certain provisions go far beyond that and I believe that there are significant weaknesses that we shall need to address. However, given the lateness of the hour, I shall forbear to say more.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am a little sorry and indeed a little worried that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, has adopted such a pessimistic attitude towards the Bill. I wish to welcome it as a Bill that deals with some anomalies that have long been overdue for correction. However, now I am anxious about whether I have read the Bill correctly because I believe that it will help to increase public confidence in our political institutions, rather than the reverse.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and others have pointed out, in many respects the Bill departs from the Neill report. One of those departures is the proposal to establish a Speaker's committee. This was certainly not envisaged by the report of the Neill Committee. I have some doubt about the desirability of establishing a committee of Parliament to oversee the work of what is meant to be an independent commission. On the one hand, it is stated that the electoral commission must be independent and that no politicians may serve on it--apparently politicians are pariahs these days, although it is they who engage in the rough and tumble of politics--but on the other hand, a committee is to be established that will provide for politicians to supervise the commission. That is quite ridiculous. We shall need to examine this provision, especially when it appears that, as envisaged, the Speaker's committee will be weighted in favour of the government of the day. I doubt whether any Member of this House would welcome such a move, except perhaps those on the government Front Bench.

I have a number of other questions that I shall raise later in my speech. One provision which I welcome limits expenditure by political parties on a national

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1154

basis. That is something which I very much welcome, because expenditure at national level really is getting out of hand. I believe this provision will help to reverse this trend at general elections and indeed at some other elections to prevent them becoming just another media show which is played out by elite broadcasters and elite politicians.

There really is a need to get back to real electioneering at constituency level, face to face with the electors. That is what politicians should be doing, getting down to constituency levels--at public meetings, door-to-door canvassing, open air meetings--and we must get back to making MPs attend meetings at which they can tell their constituents what their policies are about and what they are going to do so that people can see what kind of persons they are. That will enable them to be questioned by those whom they are asking to represent. I believe it is about time that Members of Parliament became responsible once again and answerable to the electorate, rather than to the leader of their party.

Before passing on to referendums, I should like to ask for an assurance from my noble friend the Minister that the new arrangements for the registration of political parties cannot lead--I repeat, "cannot lead", not "may not lead"--to draconian conditions of legislation that would prevent new entrants coming into the political field. I really do hope that we can get that assurance.

I should now like to turn my attention to referendums, and I am particularly concerned that they should be made absolutely fair to the contenders in any referendum there may be. There certainly has been no fairness in many referendums that we have had so far, notably in the 1975 referendum as to whether Britain should remain in the Common Market. It was estimated in The Times that at least 20 times the money available to the Opposition, to the No vote, was available to be spent by the Pro campaign. That really cannot be right. I hope this Bill will prevent that sort of thing happening again. Furthermore, at that time the Government engaged themselves on one side of the argument--the Pro side that is--and used taxpayers' money to promote that argument. They also issued an official pamphlet supporting continued membership, which went out together with another pro-Common Market pamphlet, and only one "anti" pamphlet. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, remembers it well. Thus the Yes case was financed by millions from private sources and from the taxpayer's pocket. The media were one-sidedly "yes" and the government machine was also on the side of the pro-Common Market lobby.

Under this weight of one-sided advocacy it really was quite remarkable that 33 per cent of the British population still voted to come out. That is a lesson which some of us remember well and have learned well. It seems indeed that even the Government might have learned something from it as well: and so they should, because this sort of one-sided government intervention has occurred very recently, in the case of the Northern Ireland referendum on the Good Friday Agreement,

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1155

where the civil servants certainly became involved and the Government became highly involved. They got the result they wanted.

They also got the result they wanted in the Welsh Assembly elections, where public money was used ad lib on the Yes side, whereas one individual had to finance the No campaign. It was quite outrageous: and even after all that the Welsh decided by only 6,000 votes that they wanted this awful assembly which they are now saddled with. If there had been a fair referendum there is no question that the Welsh, quite rightly, would have discarded the idea of an assembly which does them no good and which costs them a lot more. So the Yes case was financed by millions from public sources and the No campaign got nothing.

I hope that the provisions of this Bill will at least help to remedy the situation I have just described, but there are still some worries that must be addressed. The Government machine is to be partly restricted for only 28 days before the date of the referendum. That, as has already been pointed out, is too short a period. Even then, as I understand the Bill, they will be able to issue factual information--I put that in inverted commas: "factual information"--because if some of the "factual information" on the European Union being issued at the present time by the Government is anything to go by, then "factual" has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Then there is the question of spending during the period of the referendum campaign. Why did the Government ignore Neill's view that there should be no undue restriction? Another question is indeed the question itself, as has already been raised from the Benches opposite. Who is to decide the question and say whether it is a fair and balanced one which voters can understand and answer properly?

Finally, should all referendums be decided by simple majority or should constitutional matters have to be decided by, say, a 60 per cent majority or, as in the case of the 1979 Scottish referendum, by a 40 per cent vote of the total electorate rather than those who voted? There are some serious questions to be answered, and among them is the matter of whether Parliament should take a decision before a referendum rather than afterwards.

This is an important point, since a decision by Parliament in advance could, first of all, sway the result in many ways and not least by causing a feeling among the people who might be engaged in the election and could engender in them the view that "they up there--them, the parliamentarians--have decided the question anyway and so it really does not matter what we say". As I have said, there are still many matters to be discussed and resolved at Committee stage.

There is one final issue that I should like to raise, which is the question of television and radio coverage. Although equal broadcasting time will be given directly to the contenders in any national referendum to get over their message, outside that the broadcasters will be able to engage in the issues and the arguments at

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1156

will. They are of course supposed to be impartial, but doubt is bound to arise in the light of some recent disclosures. First, there was the BBC radio programme on 3rd February this year which dealt with the turn-round of opinion about the Common Market in the early 1970s. I do not know whether any of your Lordships heard it, but there were a series of regular breakfasts and the sort of thing that went on there was quite amazing. I really must read one or two of the extracts from the summary of the broadcasts. The speaker was a Mr Tucker, who was the head of the Foreign Office Information Research Department. He said:

    "We decided to pinpoint the "Today" programme on radio... So round the table came people like Marshall Stewart, who was the brilliant editor of the "Today" programme, which was a key programme, and they sat down with people who were actually negotiating in Brussels. During that time we achieved a thing we couldn't have achieved today, which is we got an extra five minutes on the ITN news in the evening added on which was purely informative."

The interviewer said:

    "And that five minutes came out of a direct negotiation with Nigel Ryan who was the editor of ITN across one of those breakfast tables".

The answer from Mr Tucker came,

    "Yes across one of those breakfast tables. It was a wonderful, wonderful news opportunity. Even Alistair Campbell could not have done better I feel".

That is what was happening at that time. Then we come to this gem:

    "Tucker: Jack De Manio was a presenter who was terribly anti European and we protested privately about this and he was moved ... Ian Trethowan listened and De Manio was replaced".

It was also disclosed that not only were the British Government involved, but also the CIA. Dr Richard Aldrich, who teaches in the Department of Politics at Nottingham University, was astonished to discover that,

    "the [Washington] library had the entire archive of a CIA front organisation which documents from start to finish funnelling millions of dollars into Europe, into Britain, with all its accounts, with all its receipts with correspondence for example from British Labour MPs to individuals in American intelligence organisations".

We must ensure that that sort of thing does not happen at future referendums. The BBC and ITV are supposed to be impartial. But I understand that those breakfasts are still going on at the present time. We need to ask whether James Naughtie and John Humphreys attend those breakfasts. And we are entitled to an answer.

My last point concerns the behaviour of broadcasters during the recent European elections. Global Britain, of which I am chairman, commissioned a report from the Minotaur Monitoring organisation. It discovered that the broadcasters failed adequately to cover the Euro elections, and indeed played them down, which was certainly the policy of one political party. They gave inadequate coverage to parties of the sceptical tendency. They were boosting the campaign of the breakaway Tory candidates and emphasising the split in the Tory Party while at the same time ignoring the Euro-realists in the Labour Party.

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1157

There ought to be a full inquiry into the role and behaviour of the BBC and ITN. If that is unlikely, perhaps when the freedom of information provisions come into force they will enable us to ask questions as to what is going on and how we can have much fairer coverage not only of the European Union issue, but also of other issues in the broadcast media.

As I said in the beginning, the Bill will be helpful and I shall certainly follow it closely through Committee.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I shall be mercifully brief and limit my remarks to that part of the Bill involving referendums, in particular the proposal to regulate third-party campaigning bodies and their spending limits.

Under Clause 111 and Schedule 13 the Bill will impose limits on what a designated campaign group may spend. That is currently set at £5 million. Schedule 9 specifies that the spending limits will apply for the year before an election. As noble Lords have said, those proposals are not entirely consistent with the Neill report recommendations, which specifically ruled out any time period and recognised the difficulties of imposing a spending cap. The proposals in the Bill, far from being fair, appear to be designed with the express purpose of tilting the balance in a referendum in favour of the euro.

We have been promised a referendum on the euro and, under the Bill as it now stands, any anti-euro campaign groups would be limited to spending £5 million in the year before a general election is announced. As my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said, that would be perfectly all right if Parliament had a fixed term; then everyone would know where they were. But Parliament does not have a fixed term. So how do third-party campaigners know when the button has been pressed and the year-clock starts ticking? The answer is that they will not know until the Government call an election.

In other words, the 365-day period during which expenditure will be controlled, as set out in the Bill, will be known retrospectively. That seems very unfair. Any organisation which spends more than £5 million during the year preceding an election will be liable to criminal proceedings under the proposals in the Bill when it could have no certainty as to when the period started during which it was spending money. That is retrospective legislation at work.

The noble Lord, Lord Shore--ever the optimist--said that that provision would be knocked out at Committee stage. I trust he is right and I hope to be here to help knock it out. But the Government's answers in another place when this matter was raised were not wildly encouraging. Members of the other place were told that campaign groups could avoid committing an offence by operating to expenditure limits during any 365-day period. That effectively limits them to any 365-period whether it is one, two or three years before the election; in other words, they will have to limit their spending to £5 million during each 365-day period.

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1158

Even less helpfully, the government spokesman in the other place at Report stage suggested that third party campaigners might like to make what he called an "educated guess" as to when a general election might be called. What is an "educated guess" as opposed to an uneducated guess? We do not know. But those who make educated guesses are probably the same people who suggested that the euro would be a stable and hard currency. They have not been awfully clever so far.

The third-party campaigners are being asked by the Government to guess whether or not they will be committing a criminal offence, for that is what the Bill will charge them with if they spend more than £5 million in any 365-day unspecified period. That is not good enough. I hope that amendments will be tabled to make this part of the Bill much fairer.

Another area of concern, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, mentioned, is the ban on central and local governments campaigning during the 28-day period prior to an election. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, mentioned that in his report, saying that the 28-day period did not go quite the whole way. From that I infer that he would have preferred a longer period of abstinence from government campaigning so close to a general election. But, as the Bill stands, the Government will be able to push the case for the euro virtually up to the election, while other organisations will be regulated for up to six months before an election.

All this looks as though the Government are trying to rig the rules governing a referendum in their favour. They have already spent some £29 million on the euro preparation programme. As my noble friend Lord Lamont pointed out, they can issue discussion papers and pro-European propaganda disguised as information; they can issue documents such as the national hand-over plan. If the Bill remains unamended, the Government will be allowed to spend whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to push the case for the euro while organisations which campaign against the euro will be subject to legal spending limits, time limits, retrospective legislation and even imprisonment.

Many speakers have said how keenly they are looking forward to the Committee stage in spite of the threats of my noble friend Lord Mackay to read out numerous schedules. I hope that I shall be able to join the party. Although the Bill has its good parts, the part dealing with referendums needs to be improved radically before the measure is returned to another place.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, this has been a good debate about the health of our democracy. The measures proposed in this Bill are a prescription from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They arise from a generally shared diagnosis that something is rotten in the state of our politics when it can be seriously suggested that money can buy undue influence in an otherwise democratic system.

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1159

There appears to be widespread consensus that the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, prescribed the right kind of medicine. I refer to national limits on party spending; transparency and openness about where the money comes from to finance political parties; and an independent electoral commission to take much of the responsibility for initiating and overseeing changes to our electoral machinery out of the hands of the governing party and the parties themselves. There may, however, be some disagreement about the dosage of the medicine. Some of us may believe that a few extra drugs should be prescribed in addition.

It was the issue of funding, the constant scandals which surrounded the previous government and the addition of the word "sleaze" to our common political vocabulary which led to the formation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life--initially under the guidance of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan.

I do not believe, however, that the problem in this country is as bad as it is in, for example, the United States of America, to which many noble Lords have referred in this afternoon's debate. In America the huge costs of modern campaigning, especially through TV advertising, force candidates and legislators to devote more of their time to chasing money than to campaigning for the votes of the ordinary citizen or to doing their job of legislating. Indeed, it is estimated that a US Congressman will need to raise 12,000 dollars each day he is in office simply to stay in office. The need to raise such huge sums has a corrupting influence.

Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, argued in his report, and this afternoon, the time has come to call a halt to our own party political "arms race" before we all fall further into the trap into which politicians in the United States have already fallen, and where there is considerable disquiet but little action on the subject of campaign finance reform.

In this country, our laws to prevent the widespread buying of the ballot date back to 1883 when campaign expenditure was almost wholly at the constituency level with virtually no national expenditure by national party organisations. There were many scandals at the time with the purchase of constituencies. Some of your Lordships may remember the famous episode of "Blackadder" in which the late and much missed Vincent Hanna reported from the by-election in "Dunny on the Wold" where Lord Blackadder had bought the seat by purchasing the vote of the only person entitled to participate.

The political corruption scandals of the 18th and 19th centuries were largely ended--as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, pointed out earlier--with legislation against bribery, the introduction of the secret ballot and the introduction of constituency expenditure limits. But our electoral laws have scarcely changed in many ways since 1883, while the way in which elections are fought has

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1160

changed considerably. For many years the constituency limit, together with rules making it illegal to hire canvassers or vehicles to convey voters to the poll, helped to prevent a rich candidate or party from effectively buying a seat.

However, elections are no longer fought primarily at the constituency level. If we look at the increase in spending at national level by the Conservative Party over the past 25 years, we see how things have changed and we can look ahead to the problems we may face in future unless we act now.

In each of the 1974 elections the Conservative Party was calculated to have spent less than £100,000 on its national campaigns. By 1979, with the services for the first time of the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, in charge of advertising, the Conservative Party is estimated to have spent £2 million nationally. By 1983 the sum was £4 million; by 1987 it was £9 million; by 1992 it was £11 million; and by 1997 it was a staggering £28 million.

Of course, I have heard some politicians argue that this money simply does not buy votes. But why then would the parties seek to raise and spend such huge sums of money? I can tell your Lordships that it is not simply for fun. The requirement for political parties to raise funds on this scale encourages a most unhealthy syndrome of dependency on a few very wealthy individuals. It strikes at the core of the democratic principle of one person, one vote, if we reach the point at which £1 million brings about a change in policy which millions of votes have failed to achieve.

The dependency, for example, of the Conservative Party on the tobacco industry to provide advertising sites during the 1992 general election cannot have encouraged that government to tackle the problem of the 300 people who die every day from tobacco-related illnesses, or the burden which that habit places on the NHS. It was not without reason that the Labour Party was advised to return the £1 million donation from Mr Bernie Ecclestone, following its delay in banning tobacco advertising from Formula 1 events.

Parties should be free from pressures to seek contributions of this kind. Therefore, the core proposal of a maximum expenditure limit in general elections is a welcome one. However, the precise limit needs to be considered carefully.

The current proposal for a national limit is calculated on the basis that for every seat fought there should be £30,000 of allowable national expenditure. Therefore, for a party fighting virtually every constituency, the limit will be nearly £20 million. But the limit for constituency-based campaigning will remain at about £8,000 per seat or an aggregate for all constituencies across the country of about £5 million.

It seems to me that the balance is wrong when four times as much money can be spent on national campaigns as on the constituency campaigns. It cannot be fair that a candidate is effectively prohibited because of electoral expense limits from placing an advert in his local paper explaining why people should vote for him while candidates from richer parties are able to benefit from huge national advertising

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1161

campaigns, full-page advertisements in national newspapers, and expensive bill-board advertising. Ideally, I should like to see a national limit which matches the aggregate of the constituency limits. I believe that there is a strong case for lowering the proposed national limits and for increasing the amounts which can legally be spent in constituencies.

Many of the reasons for which it is proposed to increase spending limits for parliamentary by-elections also apply to constituency campaigns in a general election. The same innovations in campaigning methods and technologies apply. It seems to me that the disparity between the constituency limit of about £8,000 and the proposed by-election limit of £100,000 is simply too great.

Too much emphasis is put on the national campaign if £20 million is the national limit and only £5 million is the aggregate constituency total. I ask the Minister to look carefully at these totals and at arguments advanced in another place. Both Mr Martin Linton and Mr Andrew Stunell argued that £75,000 should be the limit for parliamentary by-elections; I agree. Furthermore, I agree with them that a notional national limit based upon £30,000 per constituency fought is too high. I think that the figure of £22,500 which they suggested is quite high enough. But I would reduce this further and increase the constituency limits to, say, an average of between £12,000 and £16,000.

However, there is more to ensuring a level playing field in elections than introducing national expenditure limits. A system in which two parties can raise and spend £20 million each and their nearest rival--with more than half the support of one of them, and almost half the support of the other--can raise and spend only £3 million hardly seems like a fair fight. My noble friend Lord McNally earlier made an eloquent case, as ever, for state funding.

I should perhaps declare an interest in this subject as the director of campaigns and elections for the Liberal Democrats. The noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, referred earlier to the previous Labour government's attempts to implement the Houghton commission report. I regret that they failed on that occasion.

I also remind the House that it was not long ago--in 1994--that the Labour Party, in opposition, argued in its evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs that there should be an element of state funding for political parties and that the public were prepared to pay for this. But even if, as I accept, the public are not delirious about the prospect of paying a small contribution to make democracy work, I believe that they would consider that more attractive than the alternative proposition of having our democracy depend on the favours of a few millionaires.

In evidence to the Neill committee, my party argued that £50,000 was quite enough for any one individual to donate to a political party. Maximum limits for donations apply in many countries. If they applied here, I believe that a number of noble Lords to my left would have been spared their blushes last Friday morning. Only a sensible limit on donations will prevent the suspicion of money buying undue

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1162

influence in the political process and thwarting the democratic principle that each vote has equal value. But sensible levels of campaigning will take place thereafter only if that funding is replaced to some extent by a modest element of state funding.

So far, I have addressed my remarks to the issues of fairness, democracy and a more level playing field between the political parties. But there is, I believe, a greater danger in the Bill that, despite the best of intentions, the Government may unwittingly permit the proverbial coach and horses to be driven through their intention to make the rules on election spending somewhat fairer. The proposals for expenditure by so-called "third parties"--I do not mean the Liberal Democrats--intend to allow those who are not standing in an election to express their views on issues, for and against particular candidates. That is right and proper; to prevent them doing so would be in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but they should not be able to exercise disproportionate influence on a campaign through massive financial advantage over those who are standing for election.

The attempt to subvert the democratic choice of voters in the recent Scottish parliamentary by-election through massive and misleading advertising highlights the dangers we face if people with more money than sense are allowed to spend disproportionate sums of money on trying to influence electoral outcomes. I therefore welcome the Minister's statement today that there will be a £500 limit proposed for such constituency expenditure. But there must also be a much smaller national limit than that currently proposed for third party expenditure in national elections. This will also help to prevent the so-called "cheating" to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred.

There are a number of other issues in the Bill which will require further examination. I refer in particular to the practicalities for the parties of implementing the detailed requirements for disclosure of financial information. I think that all parties accept the principles in the Bill, but as largely voluntary organisations, with significantly fewer staff than many civil servants may believe, it will not be as easy as they think to fulfil the very detailed requirements. In particular, there needs to be more understanding of the different ways in which parties organise. My own party has a federal structure, which is quite distinctive. I thank the Minister for confirming in his opening remarks that he is considering how this can be taken into account.

As the Minister also indicated, we need to consider the genuine differences between sponsorship and advertising at conference events, and unconditional donations--up to a certain level of course. We need to define more carefully the differences between local and national expenditure so that it is clear who is responsible for what.

In relation to the difficulties faced by all parties, I concur entirely with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, on this

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1163

subject, and with some of the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. I hope that in future the electoral commission will address some of these issues, but it may not have time to address them before the parties have to gear up for their new legal and financial responsibilities.

I hope that the electoral commission will be a great success. Indeed, I look forward to the day when it will be able to go further than its initial remit and ensure that in future general elections we will have proper televised debates between the three main party leaders and between the four main party leaders in Scotland and Wales.

The electoral commission will, I hope, ensure that our electoral laws never get so out of date again as lifestyles and technology move on. Civic education will be an important part of its remit. Impartial explanation of the political process is an essential prerequisite to encouraging participation and sustaining the health of our democracy.

Taken as a whole, this Bill will help to cure some of the ills in our failing democracy. Let us make sure that the treatment provided is as effective as possible.

7.54 p.m.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, said that this was a Bill derived from the chattering classes and spin doctors. That may be the case, but it is a Bill from his Government's Front Bench. I do not wish to draw analogies as to who on the Government Front Bench is the spin doctor and who is a member of the chattering classes. I shall leave that to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks.

While we agree with many of the principles in the Bill, it is long, badly-drafted and will no doubt be subject to a whole raft of government amendments even before we get to the Committee stage and before we on this side of the House have tabled any of our own amendments. Almost every noble Lord followed my noble and learned friend Lord Howe in complaining about the complication and over-elaboration of the Bill. My noble friend Lady Fookes showed how the Bill could discourage rather than encourage local involvement in politics.

I am sure that there will be government amendments. We shall want to see them in good time. Perhaps I may plead with the Minister that the Committee stage will be after the Easter Recess so that there is ample time for debate. I hope that the Government will table the amendments in good time in order that we may consider them carefully. Indeed, that may give the Minister time to understand the complications of his own Bill. The number of days in Committee will be purely relative to the complication of the Bill brought forward by the Government.

The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Goodhart, want state funding. I thought it was rather interesting how much they spent at the previous election. I think that they said they spent £3 million.

3 Apr 2000 : Column 1164

Compared with the percentage of the vote that the Liberal Democrats received, that was rather good. They did better than we did; they got more bangs for their bucks. They probably did rather better than the Government. I am not sure that they made out a case at all for state funding; they should carry on as they are. We have always been against state funding.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said we should not get too bogged down in detail but should stick to the principles. We are not going to get bogged down in detail today, but I am afraid we shall get terribly bogged down in Committee and at Report stage. But that is why we are here; that is what this House is for.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page