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and that that can be done only through a case notes review. But a lot of figures are being bandied about regarding the potential number of deaths that may have occurred as a result of these poor standards, ranging from 400 to 1,200 and probably any number in between. Does she have any information about what those numbers probably are? In addition, can she confirm that we are talking about Mid-Staffordshire, not North Staffordshire?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I confirm that we are talking about Mid-Staffordshire. Sadly, there is no doubt that some patients will have suffered unnecessarily as a result of these shortcomings and failures. Regarding the numbers, the Healthcare Commission said—this was reinforced by Ian Kennedy at the press conference yesterday—that,

The new leadership of the trust, however, has promised to respond to every request from relatives and carry out an independent review of case notes to determine whether or not the care of their loved ones, or of themselves, was appropriate.

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Bill Main page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes

Second Reading

4.16 pm

Moved By Lord Bach

That the Bill be read a second time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the legislation before us forms part of a long-standing debate on the regulation of UK party funding, and this is the context in which it must be considered. I think it is therefore worth briefly reminding noble Lords of the recent history which has informed the Bill’s objectives and provisions, before turning to the detail of the Bill itself.

In 1998, the Government asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the CSPL—chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, who will, I am delighted to say, be speaking in this debate,

The Committee’s report recommended an overhaul of the system of party funding and expenditure based on tighter controls on spending; restrictions on who could make political donations in the United Kingdom; and greater transparency.

These principles—which I believe all parties continue to support today—formed the basis of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which established the Electoral Commission and required parties to record and report to the commission donations above certain thresholds. These reforms were enacted in the spirit of consensus across the political spectrum and support from the public.

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Notwithstanding this, and the indisputable fact that the 2000 Act represented a significant step towards a more transparent and better regulated political system, it is now clear that it has not fully addressed all of the concerns which exist about the financing and expenditure of political parties. Where there has been agreement on what change is necessary, the Government have sought to take this forward. It was in this vein that we incorporated provision in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to subject loans to parties and other donees to the same disclosure and permissibility rules as donations.

In 2006, the Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended further reform to the system; and in 2007 the CSPL recommended changes to the governance and powers of the Electoral Commission. The recommendations of both committees attracted widespread support.

In March 2006, Sir Hayden Phillips was appointed to carry out a general review of political party funding and expenditure in the United Kingdom. His final report, published in March 2007, found that there was significant pressure on parties to raise and to spend large amounts of money, and proposed a package of reforms designed to tackle its effects on the political system. His proposals had three main strands: first, tighter and more comprehensive spending controls; secondly, a cap on donations coupled with increased public funding to mitigate its effect on political parties; and, thirdly, a strengthening of the regulatory capacity of the Electoral Commission. However, subsequent inter-party talks designed to produce an agreement on the way forward were suspended in October 2007 on the basis that there was no prospect of a comprehensive agreement being reached.

The Government are clear that any reforms in the area of party funding must attract broad consensus. Without that, they would lack legitimacy, and we would risk making these matters the focus of partisan dispute, which would be to no one’s advantage. The Government regret that fundamental reform was not possible. We are also clear, however, that the absence of agreement on the model of long-term reform put forward by Sir Hayden should not prevent us taking what steps we can now—that is, where there is broad party political agreement on them—to make improvements to the system and, in the process, help to increase public confidence in politics and politicians.

The Government’s White Paper, Party finance and expenditure in the United Kingdom, published in June last year, therefore proposed some immediate steps in the areas where we believed that consensus existed. These measures formed the basis of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, as introduced last July in another place.

The Bill before us today has evolved significantly from the Bill which had its Second Reading in another place. It has benefited from constructive engagement and scrutiny and, in its amended form, reflects the Government’s commitment to moving forward on the basis of consensus and willingness to listen to representations from all those who place the health of

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British politics above partisan concerns. This is the spirit in which my right honourable friends guided the Bill through another place; I hope to do the same here.

I turn to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 clarifies the Electoral Commission’s regulatory role, in line with a recommendation of the CSPL. Clause 2 strengthens the commission’s powers to compel the disclosure of information. It was the subject of detailed discussion in another place, and has been extensively amended to take account of the concerns expressed there about the extent of the powers in the clause as introduced.

Clause 3 gives the commission access to a flexible range of civil sanctions, again following a CSPL recommendation. The range of sanctions and the safeguards to which they are subject very closely follow the scheme established by the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008. I should like it to be clear that none of the 93 offences and requirements currently in the 2000 Act will be removed from the criminal sphere by this Bill or by subsequent secondary legislation. This clause was also amended in another place to take account of concerns expressed there about how the commission might apply sanctions.

Clauses 4 to 7 reform the Electoral Commission’s governance arrangements so that it can benefit from commissioners and staff with more recent experience of politics. Here, again, we are implementing recommendations made by the CSPL.

Clauses 4 and 5 will allow the appointment of four commissioners with recent political experience. Each of the three largest parties represented in another place will be entitled to make nominations for appointment as a nominated commissioner. Clause 5 originally required the nomination of two or more people by each party, but was amended at the request of the Speaker’s Committee so that parties may nominate a single person. The remaining nominated commissioner will be selected by the Speaker’s Committee from among the nominees of all other qualifying parties represented at Westminster. The recruitment and selection process for the appointment of electoral commissioners is ultimately a matter for the Speaker’s Committee, and the Government have sought to ensure that the provisions in the Bill provide for a selection process which is acceptable to it.

Clauses 6 and 7 increase the overall number of commissioners to nine or 10 to ensure that the nominated commissioners will be in a minority, and relax the restrictions that apply to political activities for other commissioners and Electoral Commission staff.

Clauses 8 to 15 relate to political donations and expenditure. The House will be relieved that I do not intend to go through each of these in detail, but I shall touch briefly on those which have been amended significantly in another place.

Clause 8 is intended to increase the transparency surrounding the true source of donations. It places a new responsibility on donors giving over £7,500 to political parties and members’ associations, or over £1,500 to party accounting units and holders of elective office, to declare whether they have received money or benefits with a value in excess of these thresholds,

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the donation. The intention is to ensure that, when an individual or organisation may be making a donation as an agent for another, is made clear to the recipient of the donation, as the law already requires. The Government amended the thresholds at which donations must be accompanied by declarations in another place in response to concerns about the administrative burden which the new provision might place on parties.

Clause 10 allows MPs and other office holders to appoint compliance officers to help them to fulfil the requirements of the 2000 Act in relation to reporting donations. The Government added this provision to the Bill in another place in response to representations received there. I stress that holders of elective office will remain liable for breaches of the law. Clause 12 was added to the Bill in another place to address concerns that there is less transparency of donations from unincorporated associations than those from other types of donors. It requires unincorporated associations, giving donations to regulated donees in excess of the recordable thresholds in the 2000 Act, and which in total amount to more than £25,000 in a calendar year, to provide information about the source of significant gifts which have been made to them during a three-year period.

Clause 13 increases the threshold in the 2000 Act for recording donations from £200 to £500; the threshold at which individual donees and party accounting units must report donations to the Electoral Commission to £1,500; and the threshold at which national parties must report donations from £5,000 to £7,500.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does not the increase from £200 to £500 represent an increase way above the current rate of inflation? Why is that?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as I understand it, the Electoral Commission suggested that there should be an above-inflation or large increase in this figure. The problem with keeping it too low is that it adds huge bureaucracy for all the parties in having to deal with donations of those amounts. I agree that there is potentially some controversy about the figure that we suggest it is raised to, but in our view this was the appropriate thing to do at this time.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, would it not have been possible to have investigated the situation from year to year, rather than come to a figure now, which is very difficult to justify?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not think that it is difficult to justify, but I am sure that from now on it will be looked at on the basis of year to year. Perhaps we can come back to this issue at a later stage.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. He has cited the commission in support of what the Government propose, but the commission made a clear statement that, in its view,

I wonder whether he can reconcile his statement with the view expressed by the commission.

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Lord Bach: My Lords, as I understand it, the commission suggested that the figure of £200 was too low. Later today I shall come back to the noble Lord and, if I am wrong, I shall withdraw what I said about the commission. As I understand it, that is what it said. It may not approve of the actual figure but it wanted an increase, and it seems to us common sense that there should be an increase.

The Government brought forward these provisions as amendments in another place to address concerns shared across the House that the current thresholds imposed a high burden of compliance that was not proportionate to the benefits. As my right honourable friends made clear in another place, while we are committed to transparency, this must not be achieved at the cost of overburdening political parties; and we have agreed to consider whether the reporting threshold for individual donees and party accounting units should be further raised.

Clause 14 introduces more effective controls on candidate spending in certain parliamentary general elections. The Bill originally proposed a spending limit that would regulate all spending for the purposes of a candidate’s election, including that used before he or she is formally defined as a candidate. Debate on this provision during Public Bill Committee in another place was curtailed: but it was clear that the measure did not enjoy the support of opposition parties. I know that my honourable friends were disappointed that they had not been able to secure agreement to that proposal. Nevertheless, in the spirit of consensus, they listened to the views put forward by honourable Members and tabled the group of amendments which is now Clause 14.

Under current legislation, an individual generally becomes formally regarded as a candidate only at the point of dissolution of Parliament, with the result that expenditure by candidates on their expenses is currently regulated only from dissolution onwards. Having accepted that the earlier triggering proposal did not command consensus, Clause 14 introduces a second regulated period for candidate expenditure. This second limit would regulate candidate election expenditure during the period after 55 months of a Parliament have elapsed and before the date on which an individual formally becomes a candidate. At that point, the new limit would come to an end and the existing candidate expenditure limit would take over to regulate candidate spending from that point onwards. The Government are aware that Clause 14 does not represent an ideal solution—it may well be that no ideal exists. It will not tackle the problem of unregulated, pre-dissolution expenditure for shorter Parliaments. It will, however, improve the current system of regulation and does, we believe, command cross-party support.

The final group of clauses in the Bill, Clauses 16 to 23, relates to elections and electoral registration. With the exception of Clauses 22 and 23, these provisions are relatively straightforward and I will not go into detail now. Clauses 22 and 23 make provision for the piloting of data-matching schemes which will allow electoral registration officers to receive data from public authorities for the purposes of improving the comprehensiveness and accuracy of their registers.

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The pilots, which will be evaluated by the Electoral Commission, will help us to identify what data and what data-matching techniques are most useful for maintaining electoral registers.

As my right honourable friend Michael Wills made clear when he introduced these clauses in another place, the Government are entirely clear that any data matching must be carefully scrutinised and controlled. The clauses contain a number of safeguards: data must be relevant to electoral registration and can be used only for the purposes specified; public authorities providing data will be consulted on the release of information and proper safeguards will be put in place to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act; and any order putting in place a data-matching scheme must be debated and approved by this House and another place, and can be made only following consultation with the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner. We have sought the views of the Information Commissioner who has indicated that the measures seem proportionate and sensible in view of the strong public interest in ensuring that the register is as comprehensive as possible.

Noble Lords who followed the debate on these clauses in another place will know that they form only one part of a much wider package of reforms. My right honourable friend Michael Wills outlined the significant steps that the Government have already taken, and continue to take, to improve the electoral register; and announced that the Government would be bringing forward amendments in this House to facilitate the move to individual registration in Great Britain on a fixed timetable; but that timetable will have at its heart the twin principles of the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the register. These principles were welcomed and accepted by all sides in another place and I hope that they will be similarly supported here. As they will be a significant feature of the debates on the Bill in this House, I should like to say a little about the Government’s intentions now.

In summary, the Government will bring forward amendments to put in place a statutory timetable for the introduction of individual registration; to begin the rollout of measures to prepare both the public and the electoral system for that change; and to put in place a series of tests that will be independently assessed by the Electoral Commission to ensure that the shift is made only once the system is ready for it. We intend to bring forward amendments which will make provision for electoral registration officers to collect personal identifiers from electors on a voluntary basis alongside the existing process of household registration from August 2010 until August 2015. At this point, and subject to certain tests which I will come on to, the provision of identifiers would become compulsory and household registration would effectively end. The period of overlap between the two systems would allow the Electoral Commission to work with EROs to identify any issues that are likely to arise from the move to individual registration, including what identifiers are most appropriate and which groups may have difficulty providing them.

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From autumn 2015, all new registrations would have to provide the identifiers to be put on to the register. Anyone already on the register in autumn 2015 who did not provide their identifiers would be carried forward for two further years, to 2017. From that point, we would have full individual registration; that is, everyone on the register would have provided identifiers. However, we also intend to provide that that shift in 2015 would proceed only if two statutory tests, which would be assessed by the Electoral Commission no earlier than January 2014, were met.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House at what stage those amendments will surface? Will they surface in Committee or on Report?

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is our intention that they will surface in Committee—probably at a later stage in Committee but before Report.

The Commission would have to have a reasonable expectation that the move to compulsory provision of identifiers would, first, not compromise the accuracy or comprehensiveness of the register by the point of full individual registration in 2017; and, secondly, that the electoral register was both as comprehensive and as accurate as was reasonably practicable, and that the effectiveness of the registration system was improving across Great Britain, as supported by performance standards data and other measures.

If the commission concluded that the tests were met, it could recommend that the shift to full individual registration should proceed, subject only to a vote by Parliament on whether to accept its recommendation. If the commission recommended against, or Parliament did not endorse a positive recommendation, the shift to compulsory provision of identifiers would not proceed. I am sure that the House will agree that this represents an historic change, and one which is vital to the health of our democracy. Such a change should be not be undertaken lightly; I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to ensuring that the move to individual registration will take place at the right pace and subject to a number of safeguards and tests along the way.

Of course, the proof of the commitment will be in the detail of the amendments which we bring forward and, notwithstanding the time it will take to ensure that these necessarily difficult and complex amendments will be technically effective, I hope to be in a position to share and discuss them, and any other government amendments which we judge necessary, with noble Lords before the substantive debates. As in the other place, the Government’s key priority is that this legislation should reflect a broad consensus on the way forward. We are committed to taking this Bill through this House on the basis of agreement and I look forward to working with noble Lords to that end. I beg to move.

4.40 pm

Lord Bates: My Lords, in speaking to the Bill I place on record my interest as deputy chairman—and, as such, an officer—of the Conservative Party. My starting point is that the party political process in this country is something that we have nothing to be

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ashamed about. It is a system that has secured the orderly transition of power, determined by the people of this country. Political parties are the glue that holds the political system together. They are the means by which legislators communicate with the electors, and the means by which the electorate is given a choice of competing visions of Britain’s future and alternative teams of political leaders.

Moreover, political parties are made up of hundreds and thousands of dedicated volunteers, who canvass in all weathers, and leaflet and fundraise in all circumstances in, and very much for, their local communities. In many constituencies the political parties are the largest voluntary organisations outside of churches in membership and, certainly, in terms of work in the community. This is a tradition of which we can rightly be proud. It is also a vital part of the social capital of this country, which we wish to retain and develop.

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