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Lord Rennard: I thank the Minister for his reply and in particular for his comment that the Government may have been happier if the Neill committee had been in favour of the Labour Party's proposal of £15 million. Is that perhaps because fresh consensus was required in order to have the lower limit? There is no consensus for the £20 million limit. Indeed, since the Labour Party want it so strongly, and people like Mr Martin Linton in another place argued it so eloquently, the only way in which one could establish perhaps a fresh consensus might be if members of the Government had the courage to stand by their own party's submission on this issue and support a £15 million limit.

Earlier today noble Lords opposite argued that various items of electoral expenditure are being removed from the total; items such as utility bills, legal services, headquarters' costs and so. Since these factors have been taken out of the equation of total expenditure, it still seems to me appropriate that we should be reducing the £20 million limit more towards the expenditure on previous elections and not the perhaps wholly exceptional 1997 election expenditure. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 203A and 203B:

    Page 128, line 16, leave out from beginning to ("party") in line 17 and insert ("Where a registered party contests one or more constituencies in Northern Ireland, the limit applying to campaign expenditure which is incurred by or on behalf of the").

The noble Lord said: These amendments have already been spoken to. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 204 not moved.]

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Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 204A:

    Page 128, line 18, at end insert--

("(4A) Sub-paragraph (4B) applies to a registered party in a case where at the election a candidate stands for election in any constituency in the name of that party and one or more other registered parties.
(4B) In such a case, the amount applying to the party in respect of the constituency under sub-paragraph (2)(a) or (4) (as the case may be) shall, instead of being the amount specified in that provision, be that amount divided by the number of registered parties in whose name the candidate stands for election as mentioned in sub-paragraph (4A).").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

Viscount Astor: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a simple question. In an earlier debate on this issue the noble Lord assured me that the idea of having someone standing for one or more other registered parties was not a sinister precursor of a Lib-Lab pact, or indeed a pact with anyone else. He explained that it included the Co-operative Party. I thought that party was part of the Labour Party but the noble Lord pointed out that it was a separate party which is allied to the Labour Party. We are all grateful for that. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that when it comes to national and local campaigning limits the Co-operative Party and the Labour Party are taken as one entity. I presume that is the case, but I should be grateful for his confirmation.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Perhaps from my own history I may reply to the noble Viscount. There is an agreement between the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party that candidates stand as Labour and Co-operative candidates. The Co-operative Party in itself does not put up candidates.

Viscount Astor: I am grateful for that explanation. However, it still does not cover the point about campaign expenditure limits. I should be grateful if the Minister would reply to that point. What I do not know is whether the Co-operative Party spends any money separately. If it did, would that be covered?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The answer to the noble Viscount is, yes, it would. I have an imaginary example. If the Referendum Party could form an alliance with the Save the Pound Party, if such a party exists--I cannot recall--and field joint candidates, in such circumstances each party would enjoy an expenditure limit of, say, £19.230 million. That would undermine the whole system of controls. That is why Amendment No. 204A provides that where there are two or more parties fielding a joint slate of candidates the expenditure allowance for each seat is divided equally between them. I hope that clarifies the point and puts it beyond doubt.

Lord Renton: Can the noble Lord tell us whether, historically, that has ever happened? Has any candidate ever been nominated for more than one party?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I gave the example earlier of Plaid Cymru and Green Party candidates in Wales. It apparently happened in the 1992 general election.

Viscount Astor: We are all grateful for the Minister's explanation.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 205:

    Page 128, line 19, leave out from ("period") to end of line 27 and insert ("means the general election period, as defined in section 58(6)").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 206 to 208. Although these amendments should not be taken too literally, they give us the opportunity to raise the question of the period during which spending restrictions on political parties and others will apply. The Bill as drafted provides for spending limits to apply to political parties and third parties during theperiod of 365 days ending with the date of the poll. That is easy enough in the case of a European election or another election in which the date of the election is known a year in advance but it is much more difficult in the case of a general election where the date is not known in advance and where, therefore, parties cannot plan ahead.

On an earlier amendment I remarked that we are probably already in the 365-day period for the next general election. I am not asking the Minister to reveal the Prime Minister's thinking on this matter. I just put it forward as a possibility that the election may turn out to be in either May or October next year. In those circumstances it could be quite difficult to apply the limits, the necessary accounting systems and so on.

There is also the point that the limit as expressed in the Bill gives an advantage to the government of the day. The government of the day know, or at least the Prime Minister of the day knows, or has an idea--a better idea than anyone else--when the election is likely to be and can plan on that basis. The other parties do not have that advantage. If the election turned out to be delayed longer than they anticipated, they could be placed in a difficult situation.

Amendment No. 208 seeks to highlight the complexity of the Bill in relation to overlapping elections. The paragraphs are extremely complex, in particular because they apply to elections of which we do not know the date as well as elections of which we do. It is difficult to understand exactly how the provisions are going to work. For quite a lot of the time we shall be in a pre-election situation for one election or another--potentially at any rate--and for quite a lot of the time for more than one election. Therefore, these are not theoretical provisions. They are provisions that will apply quite substantially. I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: In responding to these four amendments, I willingly confess and put up my hand to the fact that Schedule 8 to the Bill is hardly

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Enid Blyton standard bedtime reading. It is difficult and complex but it is a serious piece of lawmaking which is a vital part of the structure of campaign expenditure controls set out in Part V. These amendments would seriously weaken that structure. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Amendment No. 205 would undermine its very foundations.

Amendment No. 205 would reduce the period during which the controls on campaign expenditure would apply in relation to a parliamentary general election. As paragraph 3 of Schedule 8 stands, the relevant period for such an election is the period of 365 days prior to the date of the poll. The amendment cuts the relevant period to a period of just some 30 days beginning on the day an election is called. If adopted, the amendment would lead to a new "arms race" in election spending. Instead of being limited to a budget of some £20 million in the year before an election, the two main parties would be free to spend up to that amount in the final six weeks of the campaign and, on top of that, spend a further £10 million, £20 million or perhaps even £30 million or more in the weeks and months that proceeded a formal announcement of the date of the poll. Is this slide into American-style political campaigning really what the noble Lord wants?

Amendments Nos. 206 and 207 appear to have much the same objectives, but it is not clear from these amendments when the noble Lord intends the relevant period for Scottish parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections to commence. The noble Lord asked why paragraph 3 of Schedule 8 specifies 365 days. As with so much of the detail in the Bill, the answer can be found in the Neill committee report. The Labour and Conservative Parties each supplied figures to the Neill committee setting out their campaign expenditure in the run-up to the 1997 election. The Conservative Party indicated that in the 13-month period from April 1996 to May 1997 it spent some £28 million. The Labour Party's figure of some £26 million covered the 16 months from January 1996 to May 1997. It was on the basis of those figures that the Neill committee recommended a cap on election spending of £20 million. At paragraph 10.42 of its report the committee made it clear that in its judgment,

    "the new national spending limits should be set substantially below the total amounts spent by those [Labour and Conservative] parties in 1997".

It is clear from the Neill committee's analysis that the objective of ending the "arms race" of election expenditure would not be achieved if the cap of £20 million was applied only in the immediate run-up to a general election.

It is perfectly true that the committee came down against specifying a particular time period during which the expenditure controls should apply. The committee instead preferred to rely on the precedent established by the 1983 Act, which refers to election expenses incurred,

    "before, during or after the election".

As we indicated in the White Paper, we are not persuaded that this approach will work. The Neill committee itself acknowledged that the absence of a

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clear time period in the 1983 Act had undoubtedly caused uncertainty. Without a clear set of rules, including a clear timetable, the two main parties might be tempted to engage in creative accounting, if only to ensure that the other side did not gain an advantage. Specifying the period of 365 days will ensure the necessary certainty and provide a clear level playing field between the two major parties.

The fact that the precise date of a general election is not known well in advance is no hindrance to the operation of the scheme set out in the Bill. In practice, a political party can ensure that its campaign expenditure remains within the prescribed limits by adhering to those limits during any 365-day period. Parties will, in any event, wish to keep in reserve a significant proportion of their expenditure "allowance" for the formal campaign period following the announcement of the date of the poll.

The noble Lord asked whether we are within the 365-day period for the next general election. Indeed, he suggested that that was the case. I fully admit to not knowing the answer to that question; indeed, it would be wrong if I did. However, at this stage of a Parliament, I would expect a prudent party treasurer to be operating on the basis that we are already inside the relevant period and to be planning the party's campaign expenditure accordingly. Of course, in the case of the next general election, the controls on campaign expenditure cannot apply until Part V comes into force. On the basis of our current plans, this will not be until February 2001. In the event that the next general election is held within 365 days of the commencement date--there must be a high probability of that unless Parliament goes the full term--Clause 151 enables lower limits to be applied to the reduced period. Consultation will of course take place with the main political parties as regards the appropriate level of the limits in those circumstances.

Amendment No. 208 seeks to delete paragraphs 8 to 11 of Schedule 8. The noble Lord opposite clearly has a difficulty with these provisions, but we do not believe that simply striking them from the Bill would be the answer. I shall endeavour to guide the Committee through these paragraphs to explain how they fit in within the overall scheme. However, I also commend to noble Lords the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. These set out a number of worked examples to explain the circumstances in which these provisions would apply.

Schedule 8 places limits on campaign expenditure not by reference to particular elections, but by reference to particular periods of time in which the elections will be held. The Government have opted for this approach because, in our view, it is unrealistic to expect expenditure in connection with one election to be perfectly and precisely delineated from expenditure in connection with another election which is going on at around the same time. If more than one election is imminent, advertising and other campaigning activities by a political party at the national level are likely to be devoted to achieving success at both elections. Any attribution of a share of the cost of this

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or that election would be likely to be artificial and unconvincing, as well as placing an additional administrative burden on party treasurers.

Paragraphs 3 to 7 of Schedule 8 set the limits for parliamentary elections, European parliamentary elections and elections to the devolved legislatures, where there is no overlap in the relevant periods for those elections. Paragraphs 8 to 11 come into play where relevant periods do overlap. In essence, what these paragraphs set out to do is to define the combined relevant period where elections overlap and set a higher aggregate limit that is to operate during such combined periods.

These paragraphs may appear complex, but that is because they need to cover all possible combinations of elections. In practice, the relevant periods for the various parliamentary and assembly elections are unlikely to overlap very often. As a consequence, for most of the time, paragraphs 8 to 11 can be disregarded.

Paragraph 8 of Schedule 8 deals with a combination of elections to the European Parliament and to a devolved legislature. The date of these elections is generally fixed. Consequently, barring any extraordinary elections to the Scottish Parliament or to the Northern Ireland Assembly, we know that this paragraph will not apply until 2019. If the treasurer of the Conservative Party has any anxiety about what the relevant period and limits will be, say, in Scotland in 19 years' time, I can tell him. The relevant period will run from 3rd January 2019--that is, four months before the date of the Scottish parliamentary elections--until 9th June 2019; namely, the date of the European parliamentary elections. Assuming that the Conservatives will be fighting every available seat, the party will have an aggregate limit at today's prices of £1,876,000. What could be more straightforward than that? A noble Lord has asked whether that sum will be in euros. Even though I am tempted to make the conversion, that is a question to be reserved for a later debate!

Paragraph 9 of Schedule 8 determines the campaign expenditure limits that apply during the period when a parliamentary general election is pending and overlaps with the relevant period for a European parliamentary election or for an election to a devolved legislature. For the purposes of this paragraph, a parliamentary general election is pending during the period between the date that the election is announced and the date of the poll. Political parties will certainly not need to worry about such a possibility in the case of the next general election, which must take place before May 2002; that is, nine months before the relevant period starts for the elections to the devolved legislatures in May 2003.

Paragraph 9(4) of Schedule 8 will only ever apply if two parliamentary general elections are held within four months of each other. I think we can all agree that that is a most unlikely scenario.

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Paragraphs 10 and 11 deal with other possible permutations of combined election periods. As will be seen from the worked examples in the Explanatory Notes, the circumstances in which either of these two paragraphs would come into play are likely to be very exceptional indeed. Quite simply, no registered treasurer needs to lose too much sleep over these provisions. They have their place in the Bill and their underlying objective is straightforward. They should stand part of Schedule 8.

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