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I will not go through the amendments one by one. The noble Lord did not do so either. We recognise the broad shape of the amendments from Grand Committee. We are grateful that some rectification has been made of some of the problems and deficiencies that were identified in the previous versions of these amendments, but we have some concerns. For example, Amendment 67 would impose a five-year limit on a partys spending but still fails to anticipate the problem of parties saving up the majority of their permitted spend until shortly before an election. In Amendment 68, we are concerned that smaller parties would face great difficulty in accurately calculating the level of their permitted spend, given that it cannot be known how many months will elapse between elections. These are small points, but I make them in case the noble Lord wants to deal with them.
The transitional arrangements proposed in Amendment 70 appear to suggest that a party could spend 75 per cent of the permitted £61 million between July 2009 and the next election. That is probably a drafting error, but prescribing any figure in the manner of the amendment would be risky, given that we cannot know exactly when the election will be. Amendment 72 would require registered political parties to report annually on their qualifying expenditure under the proposed new system of spending limits, although it defines expenditure as that found in Schedule 4A to the 1983 Act. However, that schedule lists the regulated matters for the candidates spending limit, not the partys campaign spending limit. That list of regulated matters is to be found in Schedule 8 to the 2000 Act.
Amendment 71and here I come to more major issueswould make two crucial changes to the list of regulated matters for candidates spending, as set out in Schedule 4A to the 1983 Act. First, it seeks to add spending on newsletters or similar publications, which is by the central party but relates to candidates. Secondly, it would add market research or canvassing activity to the list of regulated matters. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, raised concerns about the current list of regulated matters for the candidate and campaign spending limits in Grand Committee. Election spending is, of course, regulated by separate limits, according to whether it is by or on behalf of a party, or by or on behalf of a candidate. This is clearly an important distinction. The noble Lords concern is that spending by a central party organisation, which might be specifically aimed to enhance the electoral prospects of an individual candidate, would not be recorded against that candidates spending limit.
So we understand the point and the noble Lords concern, but we fear that the proposals would introduce further complexity into what is already a complex area of legislation. We are concerned that they could be
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In the White Paper that preceded this Bill, the Government stated that they would assess whether there is clarity over which expenses count towards the party campaign and candidate spending limits. We stated that we would bring forward proposals to update the lists of regulated matters. However, such changes would be made via secondary legislation rather than in this Bill.
The Government will consult fully with all the major political parties and the Electoral Commission before bringing forward proposals for change. Any proposals would then be subject to full scrutiny by both Houses. The concerns that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, raises and the changes that he proposes to make to Schedule 4A would best be addressed during the course of that consultation and those discussions. I understand that there is due to be a meeting of party administrators and officials from my department, the Ministry of Justice. This could be a productive issue to be considered at that meeting, which I believe is due to be held later this summer.
This is a complex area of legislation and any proposal for change would have to be considered very carefully if we are to avoid the unintended consequences that are always a danger of introducing changes that have not been sufficiently considered. I can give no guarantee that it will be possible to address fully the noble Lords concern, not least as his proposal would be a significant change and we have concerns about the practical effect of such a step. However, I reassure him that we intend to look at the lists of regulated matters, and to do so not on a solitary or party basisalthough he tempts me, I shall resist the temptation to be parti prisbut on a consultative and co-operative basis.
To return to the main thrust of the debate, which we are grateful to the noble Lord for raising, this group of amendments is based, in a broad sense, on the package of recommendations on spending put forward by Sir Hayden Phillips, although there are some key differences between Sir Haydens suggested reforms and the amendments before us today. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned the key one. Sir Hayden proposed that the whole of term limit should be £150 million, including a general election premium of £20 million. Sir Haydens proposals for the treatment of smaller parties also differed, and he did not propose introducing the new controls until after the next general election. These differences are significant. We are not considering the Hayden package of reforms with these amendments, but a revised version which has not come about as the result of cross-party talks and discussion.
We have constantly stated that we broadly support the approach of comprehensive spending limits as proposed by Sir Hayden. However, we have also made it clear that there are concerns about how these could be made to operate effectively in practice. I talked about a meeting of officials and party administrators. Such a meeting has not yet been arranged but we will seekI give that promise from the Dispatch Boxto arrange a meeting of the type I mentioned to take place this summer.
We have also made the caseI know that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is not particularly happy with thisthat it is necessary to proceed in this area only on the basis of cross-party consensus. We do not think that we can introduce fundamental changes to the regulation of party funding unless all the main parties are signed up to the way forward. That requires detailed discussion between parties and scrutiny of any proposals for change. That is what the Sir Hayden Phillips talks sought to achieve. Alas, they failed to settle on proposals that all parties could support.
We have always said that this Bill is not intended to be the last word on party funding issues. We hope that, in the long term, cross-party agreement can be achieved. We do not believe such agreement exists in your Lordships House today. For that reason, we do not believe that this Bill is the correct place to introduce such a system. I hope the noble Lord will consider withdrawing his amendments on the basis of what I have said in my reply. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, mentioned the restriction post-55 months. My right honourable friend Michael Wills said on Report in another place that CA would be restricted for the longer regulated period introduced in Clause 18. That is a matter for the House of Commons to agree, not for the Government.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the very careful and positive way in which he has responded to our amendments. I am sorry that his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is not in the Chamber, because he was so effective in demolishing this argument that everything has to be agreed by total consensus across the parties. I wonder what the Ministers position would be if there was complete agreement between the Conservative and Labour Parties on an issue of this sort, but the Liberal Democrats did not agree. Would he still say that there was consensus, or would he say that the Liberal Democrats effectively had a veto on any agreement? The danger with the concept that we can do something in this field only when everybody is agreed is that we will not make any serious reforms to our political system at all. There will always be somebody who does not want to move. I have to say that we are usually rather more in advance when it comes to reform. However, this idea that consensus is essential, and therefore the slowest mover has a veto, is a dangerous new tendency in government. I do not see it in any other walk of life where government seek to interfere or control.
I hope I am not putting words into the Ministers mouth, but I think that I can detect from what he is saying that the Government take very seriously the sort of anxieties and concerns that we have expressed. He did not say that he is seeking to reconstitute any cross-party discussions but I hope that it can be read into his words that he is not giving up on seeking to achieve some agreement, even if it is not complete, 100 per cent consensus. As he rightly says, his colleagues in the other place are increasingly anxious about the failure of the present regulations, particularly in terms of qualifying expenditure, to prevent interference on a scale that has never been experienced before. Not in the past 100 years has there been such considerable expenditure by national parties to encourage people to support local candidates within the constituency. He
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I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who is engaged this afternoon and has given her apologies to me and perhaps also to the Minster, shares our anxieties on this score. If the Minister is sayingI think he is, and I hope he will intervene if I have it wrongthat there may be other ways in which we can tighten and improve how these categories of expenditure are currently treated, then my colleagues and I very warmly welcome that. Frankly, however, it is not very helpful simply to say that there will be an urgent meeting some time in the summer. That does not communicate to me the sense of urgency that even this House would feel in giving priority to this important issue.
The Minister has been generous in saying that these are matters of concern to him and his colleagues in government. I hope it will be accepted that the issue is certainly of concern to members on different sides of the House. It did not sound as though even the noble Lord, Lord Bates, speaking on behalf of the Conservatives, is really totally satisfied with the lack of clarity. In the mean time, I take at face value precisely what the Minister has said. I hope we will see some progress, outwith the discussions on this Bill, before the Summer Recess. On those terms, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 67.
Following the publication of the 2011 edition of the edited version of the electoral register, the provisions of section 9 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41), in so far as they relate to the edited version of the register, shall cease to have effect, and no further edited versions of the register shall be compiled and published.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, this is the first amendment I have moved that has been the subject of a campaign; I have received a number of e-mails urging me to oppose it. I fear I must disappoint the correspondents.
The purpose of the amendment is to get rid of the edited version of the electoral register, though providing time to do so. In seeking to abolish the edited register, as I explained in Committee, I am in good company. Support for abolishing it comes from the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner. The Thomas-Walport report last year on data sharing recommended that it be brought to an end, stating,
The arguments for abolishing the edited version rest on principle and practice. The principled argument is, to my mind, compelling. Heads of households are required, by law, each year to complete an electoral registration form in order for those in the household to be registered to vote. That is a fundamental part of our democratic process. Yet at the same time they have to decide whether they wish to have their name withdrawn from a register that is compiled for sale to any body that wishes to purchase it. People can exercise their option to opt outit is opt-out, rather than opt-inbut why should they be required, by law, to make such a determination? It completely sullies the integrity of the electoral process. The electoral registration form should be solely for the purpose of compiling the electoral register. I thus have a principled objection to using the force of law to impose this burden on citizens.
The practical argument is that the present situation imposes a major and, to my mind, unnecessary burden on electoral registration officers. They are required to compile the information and then sell it. They make no profit in doing sorather the reverse. There is no benefit to the local authority. There is certainly no benefit to electoral registration officers; it has no relevance to their role. Compiling the edited version of the register imposes a major burden. It will become even more of a burden as electoral registration officers prepare for the move to individual registration. We should be facilitating that move, not maintaining a significant burden. On practical grounds, the case for getting rid of the edited register is thus greater than ever before.
What are the arguments against? In Grand Committee, the Minister focused solely on practical arguments. There was no engagement with the issue of principle. The argument related solely to the benefit for organisations that purchase the register. Abolishing the edited register may create problems for them. The Government plan to consult on the issue.
There are two, related responses to this. First, my amendment provides for the edited register to cease after the 2011 edition. There is thus time to prepare, and indeed to consult. The Government can utilise their proposed consultation on the best way to ensure a smooth transition. The principal objections to abolishing the edited register appear to come from debt collection agencies that use it to track down debtors who have moved. Given that 40 per cent of electors opt out of the registerone suspects that those in debt may be among themthat strikes me as an inefficient way of proceeding. Credit reference agencies already have access to the full register to check the names of people applying for credit. As the Credit Services Association points out, it is illogical that the Ministry of Justice supports the continued use of the full register by credit
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Secondly, as my noble friend Lord Bates observed in Committee, if there is demand for such a product by direct mailing and marketing bodies, market forces will take care of it. My amendment allows time for the market to operate. This is clearly something appropriate to the market and not to misusing statutory provisions for commercial purposes.
My basic point is straightforward. The process of employing the force of law to compile the electoral register should be confined to that task. Electoral registration officers should be allowed to get on with their tasks as electoral registration officers. They are not, or rather should not be, in the business of helping junk mail companies. Given that the costs of compiling the edited register are not wholly recovered, we are in effect subsidising commercial concerns. We are doing so through the use of statute, through the use of a provision that is fundamental to the democratic process. Requiring people to decide whether they wish to remove their name from the edited register is a misuse of that process. We should restore the integrity of our electoral registration process. We certainly should not use it to subsidise commercial concerns.
Other democracies manage to survive without such an edited register. Their economies do not appear to be undermined by the absence of such a register. We should get rid of it. It is in principle objectionable and it imposes an unnecessary burden. I beg to move.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I support my noble friend. I have been astonished by the amount of paper that I have received on this amendment from the Finance and Leasing Association, the Credit Services Association, the Institute of Fundraising and the UK Cards Association opposing himI also received something from the Electoral Commission supporting himso I listened carefully to what he had to say.
My concerns are primarily threefold. First is the civil liberties argument. I am always concerned about information being collected for one purpose and then being passed on to be used for another, and my concerns have been increased by the examples given by my noble friend. The second is what I might describe as an ecological argument; that is to say, I suspect that what we are allowing here increases the volume of junk mail that travels through all our letterboxes. It is unnecessary, untidy and wasteful of our resources. The third is what I describe as the economic argument. I understand that the information is provided at cost, and I do not see why there should not be an economic
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My civil liberties argument is the most critical. We should make every effort to ensure that information collected is used for the purposes for which it is collected, and not passed to somebody else for use in a completely different way. Although the Electoral Commission says that it has worries about the drafting of the amendment, it strongly supports it. And given that the Minister has so often in the past prayed in aid the Electoral Commission when rejecting our arguments, I hope that on this occasion he will see the logic of its position and ensure that my noble friends amendment is accepted.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, every possible argument in favour of this extremely sensible proposal has been put forward by my noble friends. By rising to speak, I give the Government Front Bench an opportunity for information to arrive from the distant corners of the Chamber. I declare that I am a foot soldier in the army commanded by my noble friend Lord Norton.
Lord Bates: My Lords, in Committee my noble friend Lord Henley and I tabled an amendment that was similar in effect because we were persuaded by the argument put forward. The principle was very clear and has been ably articulated by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth.
It covered two pieces of very persuasive evidence. The first was the intervention of the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Mark Walport, director of the medical charity the Wellcome Trust, who, in their report published in July, said:
In addition, the Local Government Association carried out a survey of electoral registration officers, 98 per cent of whom wanted a change in the law to abolish the edited register that councils have to sell to direct marketing companies, and 88 per cent of electoral registration officers believed that the current system deters people from voting. The survey also found that councils raise on average only a mere £1,900 from this source.
Putting together all of those arguments that were so eloquently persuasive, I rose in Grand Committee and asked whether this was not an opportunity for a change. I should have realised that although taking on various groups is perhaps necessary in the course of public life, taking on direct marketing companies is a recipe for being inundated with e-mails, paper and representations. They certainly lived up to the reputation of their direct-marketing capabilities by making representations in between the Grand Committee and now.
I totally support the principal point of the more reasoned amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth which delays implementation of the abolition. Direct mailing companies need to be aware and acknowledge that there is grave discomfort at the information being passed on for marketing purposes. They need to start thinking in the medium term about finding other sources from which to garner this information.
However, we keep coming back to timing, which is everything. At present, the representations that we have received from the organisations that would be most affected by this measure have led us to a deeper concern about the impact on jobs and businesses in this country. At times of recession, when many people are losing their homes and jobs, and many businesses are closing for many reasons, we should take almost a hippocratic oath, which is, First, do no harm. My hesitation is not about the principle of the amendment but that at a practical level we may actually harm an important part of the economy.
Therefore, while we very much support the principle of the amendment and urge the industry to take notice of the remarks made in this House, and to look for alternatives, we would not be able to offer support from the Front Bench to my noble friend.
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