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It is a transparency amendment in that it provides the public with increased information on candidates. When Members of Parliament are first elected, they are immediately required to register their interests in the Register of Members Interests in the other place. In doing so, they are effectively signing up to a code of conduct which requires them to accept that their conduct will meet the seven general principles of conduct as identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life as applying to the holders of public office. They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
I believe that every candidate for election to Parliament should sign up to these principles prior to possible election. Practical application of these rules would require a candidate to submit a registration of interests
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This system would have a number of advantages: first, it would provide greater transparency in relation to those standing for public office; secondly, it would enable the electorate to establish whether MPs were using public office, if elected, to secure outside employment; thirdly, it would concentrate candidates minds on the standards required of those seeking public office; and, fourthly, it would enable the electorate to better understand the commitment of a Member of Parliament to public service, if elected.
Some argue that Members of Parliament should not have outside employment, but I do not. I argue only that the public are entitled to know what the position of a candidate is if he or she is elected. It was very interesting that last night on Newsnight Mr Tony Benn was interviewed, together with someone whom I cannot remember, and he mentioned this principle during his contribution to the programme. After a lifetime in the House of Commons, he obviously subscribes to the view that there should be registration of candidates interests. My view is very simple: we need to restore public confidence in the system and I believe that this amendment, if agreed, would do that. I beg to move.
Lord Tyler: Perhaps it would be appropriate to say a word about the context. I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has said about openness and transparency, for very obvious reasons. At Second Reading, some of us expressed considerable concern about what we might call the serious reputational crisis of Parliament and politics. Since this Grand Committee has met, that crisis has deepened and, in fact, is now dire. The warnings given during Second Readingnot just by my noble friend Lord Rennard and me but by the noble Lords, Lord Hodgson, Lord Marland and, indeed, Lord Campbell-Savourswere substantial. If the Minister is not fully aware of the crisis that we are facing and the extent to which this Bill might be able to meet it, then I do not think he ever will be. I do not believe that he is in denial but I think that some of his colleagues in the Government are still extraordinarily complacent. If we are always going to have to try to rely on the consensus of the lowest common denominator in order to move forward, I do not think that we will meet the crisis that is clearly there in terms of our reputation.
My problem with the noble Lords amendment is not the purpose, which I think is admirable, but the practice. He is right that the explosive mixture of money and politics, which is at the heart of so many of our current reputational problems, is appropriate in terms of candidates and their concerns. However, if we were to accept the noble Lords amendment, how exactly would it work? The Electoral Commission has already raised a number of concerns. It says, for example, that compiling and publishing these reports would place a significant new burden on both candidates and returning officers. At what point in the process would that have to happen? Would it take place following
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Lord Campbell-Savours: Perhaps I could answer that, although I have not seen the Electoral Commissions brief on any of these issues. The information would not be generally disseminated but it would be available. The press journalists would turn up, as they do on nomination day, look at the nomination papers and take from them whatever information they needed. It is not a question of widely disseminating the information.
Lord Tyler: That immediately takes me to the next point that the Electoral Commission raised. It is not clear what the consequences would be if a candidate failed to make an accurate report, or if a returning officer failed to publish the report. In what format would that report be made available? Nor is it clear who would be able to provide candidates with advice on complying with the full range of reporting requirements that would be involved, given that the requirements of the House of Commons are quite wide-ranging but are not definitive, and they do change.
There is a wider issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made oblique reference to. Are we to understand that candidates should seek to divest themselves of any interests before election that might in any way impede, constrict or constrain their role as a representative post-election? That would be a completely novel procedure. To take an examplewe all have personal examplesI never inherited a safe seat, so I was working flat out, trying to earn my living, right up to the date on which I was nominated, both in my original constituency and then, when the boundaries were redrawn, in my second constituency. From the point of view of the electorate, would the fact that I had a professional interest be held to stand against me compared with the full-time incumbent, who, presumably, having already signed up to the House of Commons rules, would be thought to be well above any such personal pecuniary interest?
This is a dangerous tendency. It is attractive at first sight, but it would discourage people from entering parliamentary politics. Goodness knows, at the moment a lot of people are going to be discouraged from doing so by all that is going on, but it would discourage them further if it were thought that only full-time politicians who did not have a business, professional or trade interest already or have experience in that field, but who had a lot of private money or money from some other source, would escape the scrutiny of the electorate. There is already the problemother noble Lords might agreethat too many people come to the House of Commons without direct experience of real life and without having a trade, profession or business that would give them good, substantial reasons for becoming a good representative of their local community. If this proposal were to be a further disincentive to those people, it would be a considerable step backwards.
It is attractive that we should be more open and transparent. In the end, the electorate are extremely effective at identifying whether the people who stand
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Lord Tyler: It is entirely a matter for the candidate whether to explain what their particular job or interest is, and very often they do. All I am saying is that there would be practical difficulties in doing this, and there could well be a further disincentive for candidates who were experienced and already had a business or trade, whatever it may be. It is all too attractive to support the incumbent against the challenger, and this is just another way in which the incumbent, who is given a great deal of support already, may be given an unfair advantage, if his or her opponent is going to be forced to try to look as if they are above any sort of interest.
I do not want to sound as if I am against the specific purpose of the amendment; I am not, as I hope I am indicating. But I believe that the way the noble Lord has framed his amendment is not going to advance open and transparent local politics; it might even do the reverse.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom: I support the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this issue. There is certainly a big reputational problem with the other place at this moment, which it has to meet, but the amendment is not the answer to that problem. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, this will ultimately discriminate against people who have business interests when they are standing against an incumbent who can say that he is a professional politician and does nothing but devote his time to looking after his constituents. Also, this is only a description of somebody at a moment in time: that of the election. If that candidate then loses the election, presumably he hopes but cannot guaranteebecause the sympathy of employers cannot necessarily be counted upon these daysto go back into the job that he was doing before the election. If, on the other hand, he wins the election and is part of the management of a large organisation, he may well cease to work for it anyway because he cannot devote the time to it upon becoming a Member of Parliament.
This has no relevance whatsoever. It is of interest to know what profession or part of working life a candidate comes from but, beyond that, it does not add to the situation in any way. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, says, it will discourage people who know about something other than just politics from coming into the other place, that is regrettable. We are moving towards more professional politicians. One sees on the government Benches in the other place a lot of people who have never really had any experience of professional life in terms of earning money or doing anything constructive of that sort. It has not been a very good Government, and I hope that we can move to having people who really do know how to run things if there is a change at the election next year.
Lord Bach: My noble friend is seeking to increase the information available to electors about candidates
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The practical implications of creating a register such as that proposed in the middle of an election campaign are considerable. This is particularly true given the short timetable for UK parliamentary elections. At present, the legislation requires that the returning officer collates the candidates particulars. To go beyond this and require the returning officer to collate all interests of the candidate would introduce unnecessary complexity into the electoral process, as well as introducing a further burden on a returning officer.
The question of whether an interest is subject to registration or not is likely to be complex and subjective and it is not clear who would adjudicate. Even if the returning officer were to take the information provided at face value, the ensuing debate is perhaps likely to distract a returning officer from the task of administering the election at a point in time when he or she might be under considerable pressure. There are also risks inherent in formalising the declaration of interests in the manner proposed, rather than, as now, relying on the campaign to bring information of genuine significance to the fore.
Another effect would be that the significance of an inadvertent error might be magnified and, in the short and feverish campaign period, this could unfairly compromise a candidate and may even affect the result. I remind the Committee that this might be made all the more likely given that candidates might have as little as six working days to prepare the information, which is perhaps unfair given that Members of Parliament have three months from the date of their election to complete their return. If no one were to police the register, we would, as now, essentially be dependent on the scrutiny of competing candidates to inform the elector of contested and controversial interests.
should be disclosed. This implies that it is up to the candidate to decide what influence certain interests might have. Introducing a layer of subjective judgment such as this might lead to inconsistent application of the rules and undermine the value of the exercise. In fact, it might make it more harmful than if there was no disclosure at all.
The Representation of the People Act already requires information about donations above certain thresholds received by candidates to be declared. Although that information might not be publicly available until after the election, it is none the less available. The advantage of the existing requirements is that they are long standing, well understood and clear. The Governments view is that that while the amendment is of truly noble
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Lord Campbell-Savours: I have listened to the protests of those who object to this amendment not in principle but to the detail of how I proposed it. The registration that I am asking for does not necessarily have to follow all the categories set out in the House of Commons registration form. It could be selective. It could show employment and directorships. It need not necessarily show major shareholdings, but it should certainly show employment and non-executive directorships.
As to whether it would be an onerous task on returning officers and those making the declarations, it is very simple to get advice from the regional office. In one phone call, the regional office could give sufficient information to fill in the minority of categories that I referred to during the course of my contribution. After spending 22 years in the Commons, it dawned on me that some people used that place to pick up outside jobs. They do not come in with them: they gain them when they are in there. They use the system of being a Member of Parliament to secure employment. It is perfectly reasonable for the electorate to know where it stands in advance of being elected as against what subsequently happens.
Lord Tyler: The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has just given the game away. Clearly, you only get the job once you get in. In 14 years of being in the House of Commons nobody ever offered me a job. I had to give up all my other earning because I found it a full-time job. He is now saying that those who get in are the problem, but his amendment deals with those who are seeking to get in and challenging those who are in there. He is already qualifying what he said. In his amendment, the noble Lord mentions any pecuniary interest. He is now backing off that and he must accept that we all understand his honourable intentions, but this will not work.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I am surprised that the noble Lord is so vigorous in his objections. Any pecuniary interest may well be in the amendment, but this is a debate. I am putting a proposition. I am standing on my feet and offering a compromise, but the Committee is not picking up my proposal. The reason why it is important to know both before and after is that it concentrates the mind of the person elected on what they originally told the electorate their activity would be when they got into Parliament and the electorate would be able to measure to what exact extent the MP has met any undertakings that might have been given. Members of Parliament might be less inclined to gather a list of 20 directorships once they are elected if they knew that their electorates might consider those matters as significant when they go to the polling booths. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Henley: I shall speak also to Amendments 129, 131 and 132. I will not be moving Amendment 132AB, which is in this group. Although there are a few more groups of amendments, we are moving towards the end of the Committee stage and this is the last one with which I shall be dealing. These are probing amendments to further explore some of the elements involved in fraud and postal votes, much of which was dealt with in the government amendments on IVR.
Amendment 128 seeks to insert a provision that personal identifiers verification must happen in 100 per cent of postal votes and not only 20 per cent as a minimum. Amendment 129 would do that for Scotland. Amendment 131 seeks to insert a provision which makes a fraudulent application for a postal vote an offence with a custodial sentence not exceeding six months. Amendment 132 seeks to impose a moratorium on all-postal ballots.
As has been made clear by a number of speakers, particularly during the debate on the large number of government amendments to which we devoted two hours, we are all concerned about the fraud contained in postal ballots and are very keen to see what we can do about it. The first two amendments are designed to ensure that all postal votes are properly checked and, given the amount of fraud within that system, it seems only sensible that that should be the case. I welcome the Governments comments on that in due course.
The amendment relating to bringing in a custodial sentence is designed to probe the Government as to whether they have any intention of doing this and to discover how seriously they are taking the complaints about the amount of fraud. We could go through all the cases we discussed earlier, quote from what Judge Mawrey said in the Birmingham case and so on, but the suggestion comes from the Electoral Commissions recommendation in its 2005 Securing the Vote report. The report stated:
There should be a new offence designed to prevent fraudulent applications for postal votes. The maximum penalty should be a custodial sentence in line with the penalties for personation. Voting fraudulently is already an offence, but there is no specific electoral offence of fraudulently applying for a postal vote, probably because the number of applicants was relatively insignificant until postal voting was made available on demand in Great Britain. A new offence, with appropriate publicity surrounding its availability and use, would have some deterrent value, and would also help to encourage greater public confidence.
All-postal voting should not be pursued for use at future statutory elections or referendums in the UK, and the option of sending out ballot papers automatically to every registered elector should not be pursued.
I should like assurances from the Government that they do not intend to go down this route given the current state we are in and because of the ease with which fraud can be pursued in postal votes in what I will call the pre-IVR era. After we have achieved individual voter registration it might be possible to have more postal voting. At this stage I do not think that is the case. I beg to move.
Lord Tyler: We have examined carefully the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and listened carefully to his explanation. We have sympathy with some of his points, but not universally.
We have been calling for a 100% verification since before the introduction of absent voter identifiers in 2006. Many Returning Officers already check 100% of identifiers but we believe that, in the interests of consistency and the integrity of the electoral system, this practice should be mandated.
It will be interesting to know, as I do not think that in the past either the commission or the Minister or the ministry has told us, whether significant concerns have been reported in previous elections when such a check has been carried out, whether it has been effective in identifying mistakes or, worse, frauds, or whether there is a major problem in completing the exercise in good order and time. We are very sympathetic to Amendments 128 and 129.
On Amendment 131, it is important to make it absolutely clear to all concerned that electoral fraud is totally unacceptable. Our anxiety on this point is whether we should simply use the threat of custodial sentence for that purpose, given that the prisons are pretty full of all sorts of characters already. As I understand it, the fine is currently set at its possible highestat level 5, at £5,000.
Lord Bach: I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord because I want to shorten this process, if I can, but what is on the statute book is there under the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It is a new offence relating to applications for a postal or proxy vote, in which the maximum sentence is two years imprisonment. That is already on the statute book, but I shall say a bit more on that in due course.
Lord Tyler: I was referring to paragraph 8 of Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000, where the reference was to someone being liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on a standard scale, but I have not been able to identify precisely how
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Amendment 132 is about all-postal voting. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, knows, we are sympathetic to the point that he makes. We believe that all-postal ballot elections are completely outwith anything that we should consider in the immediate future, until the whole process of personal identifiers and individual registration is completed. The Government have not been as explicit as that, but perhaps the Minister can be now. I would hope that he could give us an assurance that that is not contemplated at present. However, I am bound to say that I am not sure how the amendment would deal with the situation; it is rather peculiarly phrased at the moment, but the noble Lords purpose is quite clear. I was not entirely clear from his remarks whether he wants to refer to the new clause proposed in Amendment 132AB, which seemed to have some textual complexity that was beyond meor perhaps it was just not quite as intended. Although it referred to overseas postal communication in its heading, the amendment does not deal with that precisely at all. Effectively, it deals with communication outwith the constituency concerned.
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