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I apologise to the Committee for my brief absence a moment ago. I was necessarily speaking to a group of my constituents who have honoured us with their presence today. I hope the Committee will accept that as a legitimate reason for my brief absence.
We are discussing two principal matters. One is whether we believe that it is desirable to seek to reduce the number of candidates who stand at elections, and the other, what, if we did so decide, would be the best method to do so. Several colleagues have already mentioned specific examples of elections where a large number of candidates have stood. I want to tell the Committee of my favourite, because it illustrates the point extremely well.
At one by-election, one candidate was called Mr. Tarquin-Fintim-Linbinwhin-Binlim-Bus Ole Biscuit Barrel F. Tang. He described himself as the candidate for the Cambridge University Raving Loony Society, and obtained 223 votes. We can draw two different conclusions from that. One is that such candidates bring elections into disrepute and that we should seek to discourage them; the other is that is such a candidate can attract 223 votes, the electorate get the candidate and the politician that they deserve. That is a specific example of a candidate standing in a frivolous manner, offering himself for election with no serious intent. He was obviously well able to afford the £150 deposit.
We must consider whether we should seek to reduce the number of candidates. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) set the matter in a different context when he referred to parties of the extreme Right offering themselves to the electorate on some sort of racist platform. He failed to condemn, or to draw attention to, the parties of the extreme Left which offer themselves to the electorate on platforms of class hatred and divisiveness, and which on many occasions preach revolution or even violence.
We must consider whether it is our job or duty to seek to deny the opportunity to such small and fringe parties —to say nothing of self-described loony parties—to offer themselves to the electorate. That first question leads on to our second consideration. If we wish to make a reduction in the number of candidates, what would be the best method of doing so? Two possibilities are being considered by the Committee, one of which is financial. The Government's original proposal to introduce a £1,000 deposit was hardly extreme or outrageous. I calculate that £1,000 represents about six weeks average manual wages, or about the cost of a package holiday in the Mediterranean for a family of four. That is hardly likely seriously to discourage people from offering themselves in something as important as a parliamentary election. Therefore, I am at a loss to understand why there has been such concern about the figure of £1,000 and why a compromise figure of £500 has been suggested.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary kindly wrote to me saying:
we have accepted all along that there is no figure which is clearly and absolutely right. The figure of £1,000 is the one that was unanimously recommended by the Select Committee on Home Affairs.
The burden of persuasion is, therefore, on those who argue for a different figure. I believe that £1,000 is a reasonable amount to ask of those who wish to offer themselves in something as important as a parliamentary election. Unless I am otherwise persuaded—and I shall
listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has to say when he replies to the debate—on balance I would prefer the £1,000 figure to remain.
I am not convinced about the requirement for signatures. Those of us who receive petitions from the public know that it is all too easy, unfortunately, to gather a large number of signatures for almost anything one cares to dream up. I have often been tempted to go on to the streets, offer a blank piece of paper to people and ask them to sign it. I am convinced that I could gather a large number of signatures and then use that paper for whatever purpose I chose. I do not believe that an apparently impressive, numerically large number of signatures is necessarily the right and proper way to authenticate parliamentary candidature. I prefer the simple, but effective financial method of discouraging frivolous candidates, which would still allow those who seriously wish to offer themselves to do so. However, I shall listen to what my hon. Friend has to say before finally determining my position.