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Deposit by Candidates at Parliamentary Elections

Part of Orders of the Day — Representation of the People Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 14th February 1985.

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Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York 4:45 pm, 14th February 1985

I wish to speak to new clause 23 and to develop the theme so eloquently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). The new clause proposes that a nomination form should be signed by 500 electors, and I wish to deal with the practical aspects of that.

First, I should make it clear that the proposal is based not on some quirk of my own but on considerable study of other legislatures. Our proposal is in sympathy with practice in other democracies, whereas the current procedure is not.

For instance, nominations to the Belgian Chamber of Representatives must be supported by 200 to 500 electors, depending on the size of the constituency. For the Belgian Senate, directly elected Senators must be supported by 100 electors. There are no deposit requirements for either House.

In Denmark, between 25 and 50 signatures are required for nomination. Again, no deposit is required.

In West Germany, nominations for candidates for the Bundestag must be signed by 200 electors entitled to vote in the constituency concerned. In the Land party lists, parties not previously represented by at least five members but recognised as political parties — this has been a major theme in speeches from all parts of the Committee in this debate—must have nominations signed by one elector per thousand entitled to vote in the previous general election up to a maximum of 2,000. Again, no deposit is required.

In Italy, between 351 and 700 signatures are required for nomination to either House, depending on the size of the constituency. Again, no deposit is required.

In Canada, at least 25 supporting signatures of electors in each constituency are required for nomination to the House of Commons. A deposit of 200 Canadian dollars is required.

Finally, although I could spend a long time citing other legislatures that support my argument, in the Netherlands candidates in each electoral district for both Chambers must be supported by a minimum of 25 electors.

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One can see, therefore, that requirement for support on a far wider basis than the United Kingdom nomination paper, with its simple procedure of proposer, seconder and eight subscribing electors, is in use. A cash sum is not a bar to publicists who are not genuine. I believe that it is a real disincentive to truly democratic candidates who should have the right to stand. I therefore favour removing the outdated £150 deposit and replacing it with a nomination roll of 500 electors. Such rolls could, as now unofficially, be submitted in advance to the acting returning officer to be checked for any errors.

I deal now with the practical problems that right hon. and hon. Members may raise. There is no problem of verification elsewhere, and I do not believe that our local government staff are any less efficient than others. I therefore allow the period in the proposed new clause of six months for any political agent to offer a list for verification with the provision of a further six months. To overcome the difficulty that would arise if anybody should move away from a constituency or to a higher place—in which case, I understand, such a person does not participate in our elections — I have introduced a provision for a margin of error of up to 5 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East rightly referred to some of the absurdities who tried to stand for Parliament in the Chesterfield by-election. One accepts that aspect of British eccentricity, but it hardly endears itself to serious candidature for the House of Commons.

In my view, we should consider five principles. The first is the argument that might have been suggested—although I am sure that in his wisdom the Minister will not do so—that the electoral system is being damaged by an increasing number of candidates standing at parliamentary elections. In that connection, I refer to the evidence submitted by the Home Office to the Select Committee on Home Affairs inquiry into electoral law and procedure in 1983, that there was little evidence of serious abuse of electoral privileges by candidates who do not come from the main political parties. Secondly, there is the argument that an increase in the parliamentary deposit would deter frivolous candidates. The Committee should be mindful that at the general election a number of companies and trade bodies considered putting up 650 parliamentary candidates purely for the purposes of publicity and free literature. A bar of £150, or £500, would be no disincentive. Furthermore, such candidates bodies might be looking to the possibility of obtaining television time, and so on. Such abuse will not be dealt with under the present system. Under the proposed new clause, the requirement of 500 assentors or electors will overcome this difficulty. The genuine Conservative in south Wales or the Left-wing candidate who would like to put up on the sunny south coast where prosperity under the Conservatives prevails will thus be entitled to that democratic right, as will the various ethnic and Celtic interests which may wish to be represented in a wider way in the House of Commons.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that there is no reasonable alternative to raising the deposit. The advantage of my proposed alternative is that it demands political commitment from the prospective candidate. If we go down the road of increased deposits, we will be putting a bar on genuine parliamentary candidates who are not able to afford, out of their own pockets, to stand for Parliament.

Fourthly, it has been argued on occasion that 100 signatures, or, as I have suggested, 500 signatures, would create problems for the electoral returning officer. I have overcome that difficulty by suggesting that political agents can submit these for verification up to six months before a general election. To counter the argument about the uncertainty of the date of a general election, when somebody is of the view that a general election is likely, he could submit a list and continue to do so on a six-monthly cycle, with an allowance for a margin of error of 5 per cent.

Finally, the argument has been advanced that £500 is not much to raise for a parliamentary deposit. I believe that all political parties will be faced with the problem of having to put up front significant sums of money to contest elections. If the deposit is increased, the smaller parties, or those which wish to demonstrate a serious intention, will be in difficulties. The answer to all the problems that have been raised are in the proposed new clause.