Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish (Crossbench)
In moving Amendment No. 215, I shall speak to Amendment No. 216. Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that these amendments get us away from referendums. They are probing amendments because something has been drawn to my attention about the way the Bill changes the Representation of the People Act 1983.
These amendments deal with candidates' election expenses. It is an important matter but it has been dwarfed by party funding, donation disclosure, Northern Ireland and all the referendum funding questions.
Prior to the Bill being brought before the House, election expenditure was mainly linked to candidate's election expenditure under the requirements set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Clause 129 of the Bill seeks to amend Section 76(1) of the existing Representation of the People Act 1983. It removes from existing legislation the statement that:
"No sum shall be paid and no expense shall be incurred by a candidate at an election or his election agent, whether before, during or after an election, on account of or in respect of the conduct or management of the election, in excess of the maximum amount specified in this section, and a candidate or election agent knowingly acting in contravention of this subsection shall be guilty of an illegal practice".
Nowhere in the proposed legislation is there so clear an indication that any expenses incurred by a candidate prior to the dissolution of Parliament, or in the case of a by-election the occurrence of the vacancy, will count towards their election campaign expenses.
This might be an oversight, or the Minister may wish to argue that the intention remains the same. However, the proposed Clause 132 of the Bill introduces a new Section 118A for the Representation of the People Act 1983 which in its subsection 2(b) envisages that a candidate can be declared, by himself or by others, as a candidate earlier than at the dissolution of Parliament. However, this section does not make clear the position on election expenditure.
We are told by the Government that the aim of the Bill is to produce a level laying field in the area of national political campaign expenditure. We can argue whether that may or may not be achieved, but I contend that it muddies the water around candidates' constituency campaign expenditure and it is a disservice to election law.
Election law contains many grey areas. I fear that if we are not careful an opportunity will be lost to introduce real clarity in respect of candidates' election expenses.
At every election there are questions raised by one or other candidate that an opponent is taking unfair advantage of existing law or, more often, bending it. Nothing undermines the integrity of a poll more than questionable or illegal acts like those we are seeing at the moment in the American presidential election. I believe that the missing elements of Section 76 of the RPA could be reintroduced into Clauses 129 and 131 of the PPER Bill in subsection (5)(a) of the proposed new Section 90A. That seems like a huge amount of letters--almost an alphabet soup. But I am sure that the Minister has been well advised about what my amendment seeks to do.
The key to when a candidate's election commences is that it should start from the first moment that he or she, or anyone on their behalf--I stress "on their behalf"--takes any action to promote their candidature for an election at which they are subsequently nominated. It could not be simpler. The expenses to be covered would be those for the promotion of the candidature and the conduct or management of the campaign.
I have not cooked this point up out of thin air. People who for many years have operated election law at constituency level are concerned about the change the Bill makes to the 1983 Act and they feel that there may be a serious problem of which the Government have perhaps not thought. I beg to move.