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Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is quite likely that a number of candidates, whether or not they use "Independent", may jointly campaign, or separately campaign and have a joint effect, on a particular issue. That is perfectly possible. It is perfectly possible at the moment.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This has not been a satisfactory debate. It is a contradiction for the Minister to say that he wants an informed democracy and yet have a closed mind so far as concerns the electorate being informed on the ballot paper. I chortled when he complained that perhaps the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was cumbersome and bureaucratic. The whole Bill is cumbersome and bureaucratic; another little bit will not make any great difference.
I remain unhappy about this. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth made a very good point. If the independents against Europe all decide to stand and put "Independent" on their ballot papers but "Independent against Europe" on their leaflets and so on, will they be caught by the provisions of the Bill or will they get away with it? That is what the Minister seemed to be saying was the defence against allowing independents to have five names. If independents do not put that on their ballot paper but put it on their literature, what will happen to them?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Obviously, within the bounds of legislation restricting what people can say in writing and going along with the usual formats and so on, when people enter into an election, whatever their party, they are entitled to campaign on the subjects they find most important to them or their particular party, or even if they are not a party at all.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If they are not a party at all and put "Independent" on the ballot paper but issue leaflets saying that they are independents against the euro, what is the difference between that and allowing them to put it on the ballot paper if they continue to be "not a party at all" and they are not caught by the legislation? I am now extraordinarily puzzled, a condition I find quite usual when it comes to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, explaining matters to me.
I am tempted to divide the Committee. I earnestly hope that the Government will listen to the suggestions from their allies on the Liberal Democrat Benches and give this matter a little more thought. Perhaps they will think about the trap they have sprung on themselves.
The noble Lord used the words "an informed democracy". Democracy is not for the sake of the political parties but for the sake of the electorate. One of the things the electorate can do if they wish--if they are daft enough to want to do it--is to stand as an independent for or against something or other. Even if they are disaffected with our great parties and want to stand as an Independent Liberal or an Independent Tory, why should they not do that? It is their right. If you begin to take away that right, you are starting down a very slippery road--a road I am not happy about.
We will return to this issue at Report stage. I hope that by then the Minister will have given some thought to the issues that have arisen, which he has been totally unable to answer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Government's definition of a party that needs registration is one that puts up candidates at a "relevant election", and relevant elections include local government elections. Local government elections include not only those for county and district councils and unitary authorities but also for town councils, parish councils and, in Wales, community councils.
The Government's proposals as they stood in the Bill when it originally came before this place were that any group of people who wished to put up a slate in any local election, including a parish election, should have to register as a political party in order to be able to do so. If they wished to stand only in parish or community elections, they would be considered a minor party and would be exempted from a number of the obligations of other registered parties. However, they would still have to register, and no doubt pay fees for registration; they would have to have a leader, a nominating officer, a treasurer and so on. That seemed quite unnecessary in the case of, let us say, a group who wished to stand in a parish election where the great issue was whether or not there should be a new village
This problem could be dealt with quite simply by restricting the definition of "relevant elections" to elections to principal local authorities--that is, district and county councils and unitary authorities or metropolitan boroughs--and by excluding parish councils and community councils, and, according to my amendment, town councils as well. I agree that town councils are perhaps a borderline case. Certainly, in the constituency that I fought in 1992, Oxford West and Abingdon, there is an Abingdon town council which is fought by political parties, but parish and community councils are by and large not.
It seemed to me that one could do this quite easily, simply by excluding parish and community councils from the definition so that they would not have to register. All that would be necessary would be to make regulations which would enable the returning officer to refuse to accept nominations of candidates from a slate who were proposing to give themselves a description which could be confusing in relation to another political party, or whose name was more than six words long, obscene, or whatever the problem might be.
I understand that the Government recognise that they have gone further than is necessary in this case. I am not entirely sure what their proposals are. When they are put down for consideration on Report, I shall examine them with great interest. I beg to move.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I agree with the noble Lord. I shall not make a long speech; I shall not read out all my briefing. I simply say that I was persuaded by the noble Lord's argument last time round, and we think that this is a real issue. If the noble Lord is happy to withdraw his amendment this evening, I shall undertake to bring forward our own amendments on Report so that we can disapply Clause 20 in relation to parish and community councils.
I do not think that we can do the same for town councils. The noble Lord explained the reason. But we think there is a very good point there and I am more than happy to make the concession and bring back a proposal which we can no doubt discuss and agree with the noble Lord through the usual channels.
Viscount Astor: I had intended to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, but I had a feeling that the Minister might be sympathetic towards the amendment so I listened to his response. We sympathise with the noble Lord and agree with much of what he said. However, if the Minister was sympathetic and agreed to this on 11th May of this year, I am rather surprised that he did not use the summer months to add one small amendment to the 96 pages of amendments that he has tabled this evening.