I object, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that there are very few people in the House who know what is happening. As I understand it, this House is about to pass some legislation on to the statute book. Despite all the difficulties, I have just about managed to follow what is going on. I shall be grateful if you, Mr. Speaker, would confirm that we have now reached the Second Reading stage.
It does not matter whether there are 630 hon. Members or only two hon. Members in the Chamber. There are frequently only two or three hon. Members in the Chamber when legislation is being passed. But hon. Members who might be interested in the legislation which we are now being asked to pass should have not only a technical but also a real and practical opportunity to read the Bill. I have just looked at the first 50 words or so of the Bill. I have not had time to read the whole Bill, although I guess that there are only about 200 words in the text.
If this country had a written constitution—some day we must get round to having something of that sort—no doubt what we are being asked to do now would be impossible. No sensible country would permit the passage of two bits of legislation in the manner which we are now adopting. We are now considering the second piece of legislation, having galloped through the first piece in 30 seconds flat.
I have no doubt that the proposal in the Bill has been looked at very thoroughly and professionally by Mr. Speaker's Conference. But I have not heard any statement of the reasons why the Bill should be passed. So far as I noticed, the Minister did not even intend to offer any explanation to the House on Second Reading. No doubt he will now get up and say something. We were going to give a Second Reading to the Bill without the Minister saying a word. That is entirely wrong.
I appreciate that technically he does not have to say anything. But it is reasonable for the Minister, in presenting a Bill and asking for it to be passed, to offer for the record, if for nothing else, an explanation of the figures in the Bill.
I do not know whether the provisions in the Bill are good or bad and I shall not allow it to be passed without that being recorded. I hope that the Minister will give an explanation of the figures in the Bill, how they have been arrived at, why these figures in particular rather than other figures have been adopted, and why he suggests that it is necessary for the House to pass the Bill urgently this afternoon rather than in a proper way.
If the case is good enough and the figures can be justified, I suggest that the haste with which the Bill is going through can be taken only as a criticism of the Government for bringing on a General Election in a situation in which they do not give time for Parliament to pass sensible legislation applying to the conduct of the election.
I look forward to an explanation from the Minister.
No doubt, when I have made my point, Mr. Speaker, you will rule whether I am out of order. The Bill concerns the forthcoming election. As we know Parliament will be dissolved tomorrow and we shall cease to be Members of Parliament. I seek your aid, Mr. Speaker. I heard—I wonder whether correctly—that there was a proposal that the hon. Members who go to the European Assembly should continue to do so during the course of the election campaign.
It may be, after you have heard me through, Mr. Speaker. The Bill concerns candidates at elections. There is a proposal that people who are not Members of Parliament should be able to go to the European Assembly. According to Article 138(1) of the Treaty of Rome, delegates to the Assembly
shall be designated by the respective Parliaments from among their members".
Therefore, whatever the Government may produce tomorrow must be out of order in relation to the Treaty of Rome.
We are engaged in a manifestly grotesque travesty of parliamentary procedure. There seems to be only one copy of the Bill.—[Interruption.]— at least I have been handed one, which is a draft of the Bill. The copy which I have been kindly given by the Minister has significant obliterations in white ink upon it, so the latest thought must have been applied to it.
This is a grotesque travesty which can be justified only by the shambles of the Government's position and the grotesque situation into which they have driven the country.
I do not for a moment agree that it is a grotesque travesty of the procedures of the House. It is an extremely prudent provision that Parliament should, even at this late hour, make it possible for candidates to spend slightly more on elections than they have been able to spend previously.
I welcome the Bill. It is some years since the limits on expenses were raised. The Bill will better enable many candidates to go into the forthcoming General Election and to lay before the people of the country their views upon which the election will be decided. For these reasons, I welcome the Bill and hope that it will have a speedy passage.
I am not against the Bill, but in a Second Reading debate hon. Members are entitled to say whether they support a Bill and to put forward their reasons. We are going into the General Election and every hon. Member present, whatever his party, will be asked certain questions by the voters. One question will be why the old-age pensioners, those on social security benefit, the sick, the infirm and the lame have to wait months or years to get anything done for them.
People who ask this question will be told by Government supporters that the Government have great difficulty in getting legislation through Parliament. Yet here, almost within hours of Parliament being dissolved, we see that the Government—who cannot do anything to help the sick, the aged, the infirm and the lame—can bring in legislation overnight. We shall probably support the Bill, but I suggest that it shows to the electorate that when it suits the Government's purpose—whether in conjunction with the official Opposition I care not—Parliament can work swiftly.—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers), who always seems to be attending the Council of Europe——
I am sorry that you said that, Mr. Speaker. I have no objection to the hon. Member for Sevenoaks—who spends most of his time in the Council of Europe and who comes to Parliament when it is being dissolved in order to show that he sometimes attends—making inane remarks. I am concerned about a general principle——
Order. I must intervene here. It is not right to have too wide a debate, and perhaps I may to some extent be at fault, since the Bill would implement a recommendation from my Conference. Yesterday it seemed to the majority of that all-party Conference that something should be offered to the three parties on the basis of an effort to make up the difference in purchasing power since the figures were last laid down. Perhaps I may reveal that I was doubtful whether the parties would agree that something should be done about it in time, but it so happens that they have agreed to do so. It has been done purely in an effort to help candidates of all parties.
I say at once, Mr. Speaker, that no castigation or adverse comment of mine should be taken as reflecting upon you or your Conference. I pay immediate tribute to you personally and to your Conference for both the excellent work which you have done and the speed with which you have arranged for this measure to be introduced. That was in no way the point of my complaint.
If I may now revert to the comments of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, I am not concerned here with what the Government have or have not done. I am not concerned with what either Government have done. For nearly 30 years now, I have been a Member for Parliament, and my experience has been that all Governments constantly say that they cannot do this, that or the other because they have no time, but when it suits them they can overnight bring in a measure to meet their purposes.
I welcome the Bill now before us, but that should not preclude me from saying that, while I support the principle, I hope that when there is a Labour Government after the General Election they will not refuse to do things which ought to be done on the ground that there is no time.
This is not the only example. In Northern Ireland affairs, the Government of the day, when it suited them, could bring in a measure to do what they thought essential. I hope that when we come back to power I shall not have to attack my right hon. Friends because they will not do something essential and excuse themselves on grounds of lack of time. If they do, I shall have to remind them that it is possible, and I shall ask them to bring in a number of progressive measures to help the underprivileged. I shall press them to do it as expeditiously as the House is now expected to pass the present Bill.
I see nothing in the Bill, which arises out of the recommendation of your Conference, Mr. Speaker, which deals with the hour for the closing of polls. At the last General Election, the closing hour was 10 o'clock, I believe, and many people regarded this as unrealistic and too late. I wonder whether my hon. and learned Friend could say something about that, since many people feel that 9 o'clock would be perfectly suitable.
I am afraid that the matter which the hon. Member raises is outside the scope of the Bill. Perhaps I may add that my conscience cannot allow me to accept any sort of halo for acting quickly, since the Conference has been sitting for well over a year and we have many items still to deal with, such as the one which the hon. Member is now raising. But we thought that there was something immediate which we should offer to the House as a matter of urgency, and that is covered by the proposals in the Bill. If a Speaker's Conference is set up again, it will have to consider the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and your Conference, for what you have recommended on the question of expenses. I have thought about this matter extremely carefully, and, from my point of view, I know that it would be extremely difficult to conduct a proper election campaign on the existing limits. I know that the recommendation came as the result of a meticulous survey, and I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and your Conference very much indeed.
I have no wish to detain the House, but as this will be the last time I speak in this place, at least for some time, I feel that I might be allowed to say that I am not altogether happy about the recommendation embodied in the Bill, although I was a member of your Conference, Mr. Speaker.
I fully accept that there is a strong case for raising the permitted level of expenses to take account of the disastrous inflation which has been raging during the present Government's term of office, but to increase the limits to this extent only a week or two before polling day will give constituency party organisations which already have money in the kitty an opportunity quickly to increase the amount which they spend during the campaign. This will be of considerable advantage in a number of constituencies, and I regret to say that one party in particular is likely to gain from it more benefit than others will.
Also, I regret that nothing has been done to change the differential between borough and county constituencies, which cannot, I believe, be justified in its present form.
Most of all, I regret that Mr. Speaker's Conference was not allowed to discuss not just how much money should be spent but how the money should be provided, and, in particular, the question of State contributions towards election expenses such as one finds now in a large number of democratic countries, and such as are proposed to be introduced even in the United States in 1976. We were not able to consider that matter because the Prime Minister vetoed the suggestion when it came from this side of the House.
Perhaps I phrased it infelicitously, Mr. Speaker. But the fact remains that the representatives of the Opposition wished that matter to be considered by your Conference. The Government side refused to allow its inclusion in the terms of reference. That is one reason why, although I shall not vote against the Bill today, the welcome which I give it is lukewarm, to say the least.
Since, purely adventitiously perhaps, I am the only occupant of the Opposition Front Bench at the moment, I should not wish it to be thought that I was churlish or less than deeply grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the speed with which you have brought this matter before the House. But may I repeat, none the less, my complaint that the Government's way of conducting their business has produced an utter travesty of a method for dealing with the Bill.
Most of us understand the purpose of the Bill very well. As you have said, Mr. Speaker, the intention is merely to implement a recommendation of your Conference. Great respect is always paid to the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference, which consists of hon. Members from all parties.
The recommendation which Mr. Speaker's Conference reached is a matter of common sense, being intended to help us to deal with the effects of inflation which we know so well and to help candidates to conduct an election campaign in the way they have always done. It will help candidates to meet higher printing bills, for example, without running the risk of overspending and transgressing the law. That is the simple purpose of the Bill, and I believe that almost all hon. Members are in favour of it.
Obviously, the provisions of the Bill will be extremely welcome to candidates of all parties, and we do not oppose it in principle. But I think it legitimate to observe, Mr. Speaker, that the recommendation of your Conference is an explicit recognition of the appalling inflation and atrocious rise in the cost of living which has taken place under this outgoing Conservative Government.
Only a week or two ago, a Minister told us quite calmly that there had been a rise in food prices of—I think it was—48½ per cent. since this Government came to power in 1970——
Of course. It goes up every day. That is one of the reasons why we on this side welcome the forthcoming General Election, so that my party, which will then, I believe, be in government—I shall not be here myself—may take practical steps to redeem the present Prime Minister's promise to cut prices at a stroke, or take steps which would reduce inflation at a stroke. The Conservative Government have been totally unsuccessful in redeeming that promise, and the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference is, as I say, a recognition of that fact.
The second matter to which I draw attention is that rushing through this Bill in one day or overnight——
As I have said, the early election is welcomed by the Opposition. We have always said the sooner the better. But I remind the right hon. Gentleman that Clement Attlee, at the conclusion of one of his periods of government, announced with general consent from all parties at the time that he was against so-called "snap" elections, that he would not have one, and therefore that he had decided to give a fortnight's clear notice from the day of the announcement of the election to the start of the campaign. That would have been much more decent. It would also have meant that we should not have entirely lost, as we shall now, one or two very valuable pieces of legislation. One which was to have its Second Reading tomorrow is the Children Bill, sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen). That could not have gone through all its stages, but we could have had a very valuable Second Reading debate.
Although we welcome the election, it is most regrettable that it should be taking place with such an unseemly rush.
Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I was not all surprised that a Bill could be rushed through all its stages so quickly. I recall what happened with a more important Bill about Northern Ireland, which was rushed through this House in an afternoon and which had a much greater effect than the present one.
However, in my view we should ask ourselves why it is necessary to put any limit on election expenses. It is being done so that unfair advantage will not be given to very wealthy candidates who otherwise would be able to use their wealth unfairly to obtain election to this House. Despite all the respect that we have for Mr. Speaker's Conference and the recommendations which it produces, we as back-bench Members must satisfy ourselves that unfair advantage is not being given to wealthy people. For that reason, it is necessary to examine the proposals in the Bill.
I do not suggest that the Bill gives any unfair advantage. But it is interesting to try to work out quickly what the new upper limits for election expenses will be. In a county constituency of approximately 50,000 electors, for example, it appears that the upper limit will be in the region of £1,600. I should like the Minister to say what it is at the moment so that we may see by how much the amount is being increased. I hope, too, that he will justify it if he can so that we may hear from his own lips some admission of the tremendous inflation which has gone on under this Government.
As a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference, perhaps I might make one or two comments.
I comment kindly upon the remarks of the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), who, I understand, is retiring after long and distinguished service to this House. However, the hon. Gentleman spoke as though inflation were a purely British phenomenon and did not obtain in any other country. He suggested, rather naively, that there might be a future Labour Government which would be able to contract out with ease from the inflationary tendencies affecting practically every other progressive industrial country.
Mr. Speaker's Conference had to deal with a very narrow matter here. I accept that the Bill appears to be a rush job and that it should not have been done in this way. However, the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) will appreciate that in the normal course of events a Speaker's Conference is a fairly leisurely body which considers these matters maturely and that had this Parliament gone on for another six months or a year we should have considered this matter in greater detail.
We are confronted with an immediate problem, and it would serve no good purpose for any candidate of any party in any constituency if we refrained from passing this measure today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, to take only printing, that costs have escalated in such a way that without some increase in expenses the presentation of a reasonable programme by any candidate to his electors would be impeded seriously. I remind hon. Members that what is proposed is no more than a modest increase to restore the value of money to what it was in 1970.
With more mature consideration, a future Speaker's Conference will examine this matter in detail and make recommendations. This Bill merely implements the immediate wish of Mr. Speaker's Conference to see that candidates up and down the country can present their programmes adequately to their electors.
The Bill is designed to remove some of the more obvious anomalies which have arisen from the increase in printing costs and so on. However, there is a wider issue, which is that election messages by candidates need to be put across more effectively than in the past simply because there is much more Government involvement in the life of the nation and there are more issues to be explained.
There is the possibility that electors would have been disfranchised if they had not been given an adequate opportunity to know what their candidates were feeling. What is more, without such an increase there would have been a greater risk of this election becoming a TV election, which we should all deplore.
I assure the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) that I intended no discourtesy to him or to the House in not saying anything immediately on moving the Second Reading of the Bill. He will remember that on begging leave to introduce the Bill I explained its purpose and effect. No hon. Member appeared to want a longer explanation than that which I gave——
I am afraid that I did not hear the hon. and learned Gentleman's elaborate explanation of the purpose and effect of the Bill. At that stage I was rushing out of the Chamber in order to obtain a copy of the Bill, and his speech was so long that he was concluding it when I returned.
I did not say that I had given an elaborate explanation. The hon. Gentleman must not assume that a lengthy speech necessarily means greater clarity—in his speeches or anyone else's.
I say with respect to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) that what he said about the financing of political parties was not quite the complete picture. As I understand it, the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) suggested on behalf of the Opposition that this was a matter which might be added to the terms of reference of Mr. Speaker's Conference. The hon. Member for Romford is right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not think that it was an appropriate matter for Mr. Speaker's Conference.
To complete the picture, however, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary agreed that it was a matter which should be discussed, and he offered at that stage to meet my right hon. Friend the Lord President, the hon. Member for Hitchin and other representatives of the Opposition to discuss what would be an appropriate forum if it was the wish of the Opposition that that should be raised.
I do not dissent from the account which the hon. and learned Gentleman has just given. But I still hold the view that this matter should have been considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference and that the effect of the Government's action is that consideration of this very important matter has been delayed beyond the end of this Parliament.
I accept that the Government's decision made it impossible to discuss this matter in the context of Mr. Speaker's Conference. However, an offer was made immediately to the Opposition of meeting, if they wished, to discuss what would be an appropriate forum for a matter of such major importance as the whole basis of the financing of political parties.
As I said briefly in introducing the Second Reading of the Bill—the hon. Member for Islington, South-West may feel that it was introduced inadequately—the purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the recommendation by Mr. Speaker's Conference on the maximum limit of candidates' expenses.
I have been chided, if that be the right word, by the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) and other hon. Gentlemen about
the speed with which the Bill has been brought forward. As Mr. Speaker pointed out before vacating the Chair, the recommendation from the Conference arrived with the Prime Minister only yesterday. Therefore, it is difficult to see how we could have brought forward the Bill earlier than today. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that, in accordance with the tradition of the House on matters of this nature, we always await the views of Mr. Speaker's Conference before introducing legislation. The Government take the view, which I believe has the support of the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House, that, having received this recommendation, albeit only yesterday, it is right to act on it immediately because Mr. Speaker, in his letter to the Prime Minister, said:
The Conference decided today (by 14 votes to 1) that, as a temporary measure and in the context of a possibly impending general election, the limits of expenditure per candidate should be raised".
Therefore, it clearly was the wish of Mr. Speaker's Conference, and I should think of the House, that the recommendation should be carried through before a forthcoming election. Inevitably, it means that the Bill must be carried through this House and the other place before Parliament is prorogued.
Did I hear the hon. and learned Gentleman aright that the report, in effect, that he is reading to us from Mr. Speaker's Conference indicates that it was not the unanimous view of those who voted on the point that the Bill should be passed? Will he tell the House how many of the total number of Members of the Speaker's Conference voted one way or the other on that decision?
With respect, that is a matter for Mr. Speaker's Conference. Members of the Conference are present in the House. I read part of a letter from Mr. Speaker to the Prime Minister. This is the formal way in which the Conference's recommendation on such matters is always conveyed. I thought it right to read the appropriate terms of that letter, which I will repeat:
The Conference decided today (by 14 votes to 1) that, as a temporary measure and in the context of a possibly impending
general election, the limits of expenditure per candidate should be raised".
It then goes on to deal with the figures.
I was saying that, in the spirit of that letter of recommendation, the wish of the majority of that Conference was that its proposals should be implemented before a General Election took place. The effect of the recommendation was to raise what is the recognised flat rate of any candidate.
We are going through a process of legislation by an unusually fast means, and I do not apologise for interrupting the Minister in these circumstances. Will he confirm that there are nearly 30 Members of the Speaker's Conference and that therefore we are acting upon a recommendation of roughly half of those members voting one way or another with one dissentient voice against the proposal that the House is considering?
I will attempt to confirm the technical size of the Speaker's Conference. The hon. Gentleman, referring to voting one way or another with one dissentient, seems to imply that there were many directions in which the members were voting. The voting was 14 to one. Therefore, the Government thought it right to implement the recommendation.
The effect of the Bill is to raise from £750 to £1,075 the basic flat rate maximum expenditure per candidate. Mr. Speaker's Conference recommended the figure of £1,072, but the Government thought it appropriate to round it up to £1,075 and to raise the per capita fee or expense, which is different, for both borough and county constituencies. On top of the new figure of £1,075 there will be 6p instead of 5p as at present for every six county constituency electors or eight borough constituency electors.
The hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. James Lamond) asked whether I could spell out what that means. Taking the two examples that I have here—they are not quite the same as the example given by the hon. Gentleman, but with a rapid mathematical calculation he will be able to relate them to his example—it means that for an electorate of 65,000, which is an average electorate today, in a borough constituency the present limit of £1,156 rises to £1,562 and in a county constituency the limit of £1,291 rises to £1,725. In effect, the increase for a county constituency is a maximum of 33·6 per cent. and for a borough constituency 35·1 per cent.
Without wishing to get involved in the various political comments that have been made about inflation and matters of that kind—I have a feeling that there will be plenty of time to do that in the next few weeks—I feel sure that no one would reasonably suggest that those percentage increases were out of line with what we know has been the increase in the price of printing, for example, during recent years and since the matter was last reviewed.
I notice that there is no increase in the personal allowances of candidates. On a technical point, am I correct in saying that if a candidate exceeds the £100 allowed the excess would have to come out of the additional amount provided under the Bill?
My immediate response to my hon. Friend is "Yes, that is so." The only effect of the Bill is to raise the maximum permitted amount which may be spent during the course of the campaign. I believe that the limit on what one should be enabled to spend in promoting one's return to this House should be reasonable so that a mammoth advantage should not be extended to an extremely wealthy candidate. At the same time it should be adequate to ensure that the candidate can appropriately put his case so that people may vote knowing the issues involved.
I think that the feeling of many people—clearly it was the feeling of Mr. Speaker's Conference—was that the present limits, if not raised, would not be adequate to achieve the second part of the aim of a limitation on expenses, bearing in mind that to exceed the maximum laid down is an unlawful electoral practice.
I commend the Bill to the House. Again without wishing to get involved in the various political comments that have been made, may I say that the contribution by the hon. Member for West Ham, North was about as arrantly hypocritical as would be consistent with many other contributions made by him during this Parliament when he had the nerve to talk about this Government having done nothing for the sick, the aged and the infirm.
I did not say that. If the hon. and learned Member will study HANSARD he will see that I said that all Governments claim that they have not time and cannot give legislative time. I went on to explain that when it suits them they can find time. I did not pass any comments about what they do or what they have not done. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will withdraw that remark.
If I have the wrong words, I apologise. I formed the impression that the hon. Gentleman said that we could rush the Bill through speedily to look after the expenses of Members of Parliament and had done nothing for the sick, the infirm, the elderly and the lame. I thought that that was the impression he wished to leave with the House. With my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers), I believe that, whatever may be said during the election campaign, this Government have done more for the infirm, the chronically ill, the severely disabled and the elderly than any other Government for many years.