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6 May 2009 : Column GC229

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 6 May 2009.

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes
6th Report from DPC
4th Report from JCHR

Committee (4th Day)

3.45 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): There will probably be Divisions in the Chamber, so the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 14 : Limitation of pre-candidacy election expenses for certain general elections

Debate on whether Clause 14 should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Rennard: We oppose the idea that Clause 14 should stand part of the Bill for exactly the same reasons that we put forward in a series of alternative amendments yesterday. I do not wish to repeat those arguments but simply note that the Electoral Commission briefing on whether Clause 14 should stand part says that,

The principle is “all Parliaments”. Currently, we have something that will work for only the last four months of a Parliament that goes its full five-year term. The commission suggests that we need something that will work for all Parliaments. For that reason, we oppose Clause 14 standing part of the Bill.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Perhaps I may speak to my Amendment 121, which is in the next group, but this would get it out of the way during this debate. I join the Liberal Democrat Benches in opposing this clause. To put it bluntly, it is a lot of old nonsense. It is extremely confusing. As I pointed out yesterday, if we have trouble over the rules in Westminster, there will also be a lot of problems over this proposal. A lot of constituency associations and parties will not even understand it. Now we have sanctions in the legislation, when we should be concentrating on producing simple legislation that people can easily understand.

My amendment, which some might recognise, is a direct lift of Clause 10 from the original Bill published for Second Reading in the House of Commons, which is why it is so beautifully written. My amendment was written by parliamentary counsel and is perfect in every way. I know that the Government cannot say that it will not work because it will. It is Clause 10 in its entirety without a word changed. On that basis, I hope that my noble friend will seriously consider it.

My amendment would bring to an end the ludicrous proposition that there should be a 55-month deregulated period during which some people would be able to spend an absolute fortune in their constituencies when others could spend very little. I want to speak at some

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length on this important matter. The amendment deals with what Martin Linton has called—I am sorry to have to refer to it in this way, but it is exactly what it is—the “Ashcroft loophole”. The noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, is a very clever, shrewd and able man. He has seen a loophole in the law, which he has fully exploited. The loophole has led to wholesale abuse of the system. Money talks in elections and it affects the results. In my view, what is going on in various parts of the country is an affront to democracy. It distorts election results.

It is not as if the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, denies this. In his book, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times—clearly I have not read it, because I do not read literature like that—he says:

“Of the 33 candidates who won seats from Labour or the Liberal Democrats, no fewer than 25 had received support from the fund that I had set up with”,

the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg, and the Midlands Industrial Council. There is the evidence of the effect of his money.

One person who has been most vocal in his objection to the use of the money of the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, in this way is Peter Bradley, who lost his seat, The Wrekin, in 2005. He submitted evidence to the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee in March 2006. I shall read a small part of that evidence, as he carried out research into the impact of Ashcroft money in marginal constituencies in various parts of the United Kingdom. He said:

“My findings show how expenditure on local campaigning prior to the regulated short campaign can decisively influence election results in favour of the party with the greatest resources. They illustrate how a targeted funding strategy was a key if not the determining factor in the results in a large number of marginal seats which changed hands at the 2005 general election ... My sample is drawn from those 93 constituencies in which, according to the Electoral Commission’s records, the local Conservative Association benefited from donations from a consortium which comprised Lord Ashcroft’s Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd, Lord Leonard Steinberg and an organisation known as the Midlands Industrial Council with which Mr Robert Edmiston is associated. The consortium had earlier made public its intention to target funding on what it considered to be key battleground seats. I have sought to establish whether its strategy proved effective and, if so, what conclusions should be drawn ... The consortium’s clear premise was that in marginal seats the party with the most money to spend on campaigning ought to have a decisive advantage at elections and its strategy was designed to ensure that they did ... 24 of the 36 Conservative gains had been targeted by the three donors, including 23 of 31 from Labour and one of five from the Liberal Democrats ... The Conservatives exceeded the national swing in 20 of those 24 gains ... The Wrekin: the Conservative candidate was able to outspend me”—

that is, Mr Bradley—

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The answer, according to Mr Bradley, following his long paper and his submission to the committee,

I agree with every single word of that, as do most Labour and Liberal Members of Parliament, who in many areas have been victims of this kind of campaigning based wholly on the largest pocket being able to buy the seat.

In response to these concerns, the Government originally said in their White Paper that they would consider returning to the principle in the regulations on candidate spending that existed before 2000, whereby the purpose for which expenditure was used would determine whether it counted against the spending limits. That is why in the original Bill they tabled Clause 10, which is my amendment. My amendment would need to be accompanied by a further amendment, setting out a different approach to the control of expenditure during the whole of a Parliament, which was the substance of the amendment moved yesterday from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Furthermore, I would argue that the appointment of a prospective candidate at whatever point during the period of a Parliament indicates the commencement of a campaign. Some form of further control should exist from that date onwards; during that period, there should be a clear indication of expenditure, defined in regulation to describe the maximum permissible cost of employing staff for the purpose of promoting candidates, the use of publicity and printing and the publishing costs of literature connected with the promotion of candidates for Parliament. In other words, we need ceilings on expenditure.

These proposals bring into question the running sore of the communications allowance, which I have always opposed personally. In my day, an MP was known from the effort that they made and not from the well spun material circulated to his or her constituents. I am sympathetic to proposals for its abolition. However, I had a long conversation the other day with Martin Linton, to whom I have referred on previous occasions and who knows a lot about these matters. He points to a recent development in the newspaper industry, whereby the fact that the local paper has disappeared makes it very difficult in some seats to get publicity. Multimedia, the internet, television and all kinds of new forms of media penetrating the market have left local newspapers in many areas running at a loss and they are closing down. He maintains that in parts of the country you need some kind of additional money to ensure that the work of Members of Parliament is adequately brought before their constituents for consideration.

I support what Angus Maude said in Hansard on 6 June 2008. He said that it would be,

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That is not a principle; it is a case. Equally, we have to take into account the fact that in some parts of the country it is very difficult to secure publicity, so there has to be some residual allowance. I believe that the current allowance is far too much; it is excessive and enables some Members of Parliament to do very little work and yet promote themselves through a lot of publicity in these leaflets.

In my amendment, which I am using this debate on the clause to discuss, I am saying that we should review the allowance system. We should tighten up on the regime and return to the principle of the trigger, which worked perfectly well in the old days when I was in the House of Commons. It was only when people started abusing the trigger with these trunks full of cash, which they could pour on individual marginal seats, that it all went wrong. We should concentrate on controlling that and go back to the principle of the trigger, which worked perfectly well.

Lord Marland: I do not think that we can allow this to go unresponded. First, on a point of order, I think that the noble Lord in referring to Angus Maude meant Francis Maude. But I am concerned with his obsession with the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, and I think that treatment needs to be given.

In his dialogue, the noble Lord shot his own fox to a certain extent. First, he implied that the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, was responsible for funding the campaign entirely, then he referred to the fact that he did it in consortium. I should like to add some factual evidence to that: in fact, it was a match funding plan with central office. When the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, raised money, central office raised money. So a very broad donor base applied.

The noble Lord said that the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, had exposed a loophole. I do not think that I need to answer to the Labour Party about exposing loopholes in election funding—and I am sure that we are ad idem that there are far bigger loopholes than this one that need closing.

Finally, the great merit of the money of the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, and others—I stress “others”—is that it counters the vast amount of union money going into these target seats, union activity in the form of individuals canvassing and leafleting and the substantial advantage that a sitting MP has with the expenses that are available to him to fight the seat. The obsession falls down completely because, unless my understanding is wrong, the Labour Party won the previous election with a very substantial majority.

4 pm

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I spoke on this issue briefly yesterday. I am undecided about what is in the legislation. I am not certain that it resolves the problem. I do not understand the 55 months, as most elections are over in 48 months. Therefore, that is a nonsense. That is what worries me. I want to know what happens next and I will try to find that out. However, to go back, the 2000 Act provided a loophole for expenditure, which was opposed at that time by the Conservative Front Bench. I say with

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great respect to my noble friend, as I do not want to embarrass him in any way, that at the very end of a very long session on the 2000 Bill he said that if it was at all possible he would come back to the points that had been made. It was not his fault that it was not possible to do so. Had that been possible, we might not be in this position today. Given the support of the Conservative Front Bench and the comments made at that time by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who was opposed to the relevant measures in the 2000 Bill, as I was, we could have made changes at that time. Unfortunately, that was not to be, which was no one’s fault.

Irrespective of whether you call it the Ashcroft loophole or any other loophole, there is a loophole that allows excessive expenditure prior to an election because of the related short campaign that the 2000 Act introduced. I am not interested in Ashcroft per se, or even how that money was raised; I am interested in the principle. A serious principle is involved. The 2000 Act removed a level playing field, which is what we ought to seek in any legislation. I ran the Hove by-election at the previous general election, which we won with a two-figure margin. In the year prior to that election, the Tory candidate spent £90,000 of his own money on posters, which were displayed all over the constituency. He obviously sent out the wrong message because he did not win, but it was wrong that he was able to spend that sum of money when neither our own, new candidate nor his party had those resources. We should try to correct such an imbalance. I suggest that the Bill does not do so. I shall need a lot of persuading to convince me that it does. I have talked to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because I am not absolutely certain that the measure that he produced yesterday is the answer. I need a clear explanation of the way forward.

I have always been in favour of a trigger. As a party official for 24 years, I used the trigger and never had a problem. I think that there were two court cases in the whole time that the trigger existed. One of them occurred in 2000 and I believe that it led to the changes being introduced at the last minute in the 2000 Bill. Prior to that, to my knowledge, there had been only one case in 30 years. If something is working as well as that, why does it need to be changed? It meant that huge amounts of money could not be spent in an election.

I cannot talk about what things are like today but, in my time, if we found someone starting up an election campaign by promoting themselves as a candidate, whether for the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats or whatever, the parties would communicate with each other. Conservative Central Office would call me and say, “Joyce, someone has just started a campaign as a Labour candidate”. I would ring the person and say, “Withdraw instantly. You have started a campaign and you must not do that”. That worked effectively, which is why I have a problem with this. I am not even certain that the trigger that was put into the Bill and then removed represents the right wording to get us back to where we were. There will have to be a long debate and discussion, and a lot more thought will have to be given to the issue, before we can come to a conclusion.

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I want to make one other point in relation to Clause 14. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, read out the first sentence of the Electoral Commission’s paper covering regulated periods and so on. However, the commission goes on to say:

“We therefore welcome the replacement of these proposals with the current Clause 14”.

I do not say that I agree with it, but it is important to put on the record that the Electoral Commission has agreed with Clause 14 rather than, as has been implied—I say this with great respect—that it does not. This is something to which we must come back in great detail when we reach the Report stage.

Lord Greaves: I apologise for missing the first part of this debate, but I understand very well what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, wants in his amendment. I regret that I have not so far been able to take part in the Committee stage due to commitments on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and my family. There may well be people here who are quite pleased that I have not been able to take part previously, but we are now coming to areas that I am really interested in. Since this is the first time that I have spoken in Committee, I declare my interests as a lifelong election campaigner on behalf of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats, as an elected local councillor in Lancashire and as a declared agent in five county council elections now taking place—or at least I hope so, if all the nomination papers have gone in properly, which was something that I was not able to do myself because I have been here.

I want to follow up on what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said by reporting to the Committee what is happening in relation to the next general election in the Pendle constituency, where I live. In doing so, I am not criticising the Conservatives for taking advantage of the existing law. I criticise the law as it stands because it allows them to do it. Equally, it is generally believed that the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, is behind everything. I have no detailed knowledge beyond the report that states that that is thought to be the case in one way or the other, and certainly our Member of Parliament, Mr Gordon Prentice, takes a close interest in the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, and his activities. As I say, I do not particularly want to criticise the Conservatives; I want merely to report what is happening, because it seems to go beyond what is reasonable if we are looking for a level playing field. Level playing fields may be hard to find in our hilly area, but nevertheless they ought to be there for electoral purposes.

Since the Conservatives adopted a new candidate around 18 months ago, every month the good people of Pendle have been receiving a regular tabloid-sized leaflet made up sometimes of four pages and sometimes of eight. It is delivered by Royal Mail, presumably because there are no local deliverers because nowadays political parties are short of such helpers. As I say, pretty well every month for the past 18 months, everyone has received through the Royal Mail a full-colour four or eight page tabloid leaflet, sometimes promoting Mr Cameron and the Conservative Party nationally, but usually promoting Mr Stephenson, the new Conservative candidate, and his views and activities locally.

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Far be it from me to object to political parties issuing leaflets telling people what they are doing and how they are doing it, but the scale of what is happening, which is clearly being targeted at the next general election, is extraordinary by any standards that I have known. It is not just the monthly newspaper-style leaflets; there are also targeted mailings to all sorts of people in the constituency, which are again coloured leaflets and letters from the Conservative candidate posted through the Royal Mail. Lots of other activity is going on; leaflets are being genuinely delivered by local people, but the leaflet delivery system for some of them is paid for—people are being paid to deliver the leaflet, rather than just being party workers.

Again, I do not complain about any of that in the normal course of events. I point out that it is being targeted very specifically at the election of a particular person at the next parliamentary election at a date that could still be 12 months away. If it is, it will have been two and a half years for which a level of activity normally associated with the four or five weeks, or even less, of an election campaign will have been sustained. It remains to be seen what effect that will have had on how people vote when the votes are finally cast and counted, but if we are looking for a level playing field, we certainly have not got one.

How much all that is costing I do not know. I did a rule-of-thumb calculation that the amount of money that appears to be being pumped into the local Conservative Party compared with what it had been spending previously within living memory, if this period lasts for two and a half years, might well be of the order of a quarter of a million pounds. That is my guess. I have no evidence for that; it is just based on what I know things cost. After costing the activity that is taking place—the use of central telephone polling organisations and everything else—that is my guess at the real value of what is being done.

Well, the rest of us have to take account of what is happening and try to do our best in the face of it. Again, I am not whingeing or complaining. If our opponents or anyone else’s are capable of intensive political activity, that is entirely legitimate and desirable, but it should be based on local resources and people power, not on a party’s ability to pump in large amounts of money to one constituency to try to win it. I am not suggesting that it is only the Conservatives who are doing that; I am suggesting that the system that allows it to happen is wrong.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I am sure that the noble Lord will confirm that, when it is suggested that that is being done in response to trade union effort, there is no great organised trade union effort in certain constituencies that are under attack in this way. Liberal candidates are under attack, but the relationship between the Liberals and the trade unions is not what it is between the Labour Party and trade unions, so it is unreasonable to suggest that Liberals are acting in that way.

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