I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is designed to improve the fairness of our democratic process. Before I deal with the detail, as this is the first occasion on which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) will respond to a debate in his new place on the Opposition Front Bench, I congratulate him on his further elevation to the esteemed position of shadow Home Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman and I have debated issues several times, although perhaps less often than one might have thought, given the time that we have both spent in the House. I look forward to the future, in which we shall have that opportunity in greater measure.
The Bill will help to prevent the use of misleading candidates' descriptions on ballot papers at elections, thus helping to protect the identity of political parties and, therefore, the integrity of the political process. In addition, the Bill will allow, for the first time, a registered party's emblem to be printed on the ballot paper as a way of helping to distinguish as clearly as possible between candidates from different parties.
The Bill introduces no criminal sanctions against non-registration. It does not make the registration of political parties compulsory, but it creates strong incentives for them to register. Any serious party that intends to put forward candidates at an election would be well advised to register so as to be allowed to do the following four things, which otherwise would not be permitted under the Bill.
First, a party will be able to protect its name from misuse by others. Secondly, it will be able to put forward lists of candidates for the additional member system for election to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly, and, within Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland, for the regional list system of election to the European Parliament. We have had many fascinating debates on that system, and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has missed them.
In view of the Conservative party's new-found attachment to the algebra and algorithms of electoral processes, I shall send him a full briefing from the Home Office on the difference between the D'Hondt divisors, Sainte-Lague pure and Sainte-Lague modified. He may then wish that he had taken on a different job.
No, not at all.
The third incentive for parties to register is an important new one—so that a party's emblem can be printed alongside a candidate's name on the ballot paper. I find it relatively easy to vote for the appropriate Labour candidate in parliamentary elections, because, for the last five elections, that has been me, so I have no difficulty spotting the name. However, when faced with a long list in the three-member local government ward in which I live, I have wished for emblems so that I could immediately spot the names of the excellent Labour candidates alongside them.
Fourthly, the Bill will ensure that only those parties that are registered will be eligible, but not entitled, to be offered a party political broadcast—unregistered political parties will not be allowed that benefit.
Any organisation, large or small, will be able to register. The way in which a party is organized—or, as I should say to the Conservative party, whether it is organized—how it selects its candidates and its aims and objectives will remain for each party to determine individually in accordance with its rules or constitution.
The key condition for inclusion in the register is that a party intends to put forward one or more candidates at a relevant election. If hon. Members turn to clause 2(2)—as I am sure that they have in preparation for the debate—they will see set out the relevant elections for these purposes, which include parliamentary and local government elections, and elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the New Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament.
Nothing, except that the party will have wasted the registration fee, as no benefits from registration could apply unless the party has put forward candidates at an election. Parties may want to register and then not put forward candidates, but we shall certainly not make that a criminal offence—"tough on crime" does not include such behaviour.
We need a register of parties to cope with lists of candidates representing the same party that will be put forward for the additional member seats in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales and in the regional list seats in the European Parliament. As the House knows, those seats will be allocated on the basis of each party's share of the votes in the region. For the system to work fairly, there has to be a simple and effective arrangement to ensure that the voters and the returning officers are clear which list of candidates is being put forward by each party.
Apart from the other mischief with which we want to deal, the Bill's main purpose is to cope with the additional member and regional list systems, whatever their merits—I accept that they are controversial—which require a register of political parties. The Bill spells out the details of the registration scheme required for the new electoral systems, as requested by Opposition Members during the debates on the Scotland, Government of Wales and European Parliamentary Election Bills.
This Bill follows extensive consultation with Opposition parties, so I hope that, although there may be many points to be made in Committee, it will receive support from both sides of the House. I have raised the issues with spokespeople for the other political parties in the House—last summer, in the case of the main political parties. I wrote formally to the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National parties and Plaid Cymru on 18 February and again on 23 April, setting out the plans for registration and giving them an opportunity to comment both orally and in writing. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has kept the Northern Ireland political parties informed of our proposals on registration.
The final clause—clause 26—makes it clear that the Bill extends to Northern Ireland; it applies without exception to every political party putting forward candidates anywhere in the United Kingdom. Paragraph 2 of schedule 1, which deals with the names of parties, requires that, whenever a language other than English or Welsh is used, a party should give a translation of its name. There is not a requirement for the translation to be shown on the ballot paper. The registrar simply needs to know what the words mean. That will not apply to Sinn Fein—the phrase has been used in common parlance for as long as the party has been in existence. Everybody knows what it means.
These days, we are a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Many of my constituents have a first language that is not English, but Gujarati, Urdu or Punjabi. There are similar groups across the country. If they put forward a name, it is important that there is a translation attached in English so that the returning officer can make a judgment on whether the name is consistent with the criteria in the Bill.
I want to make it clear that the requirements on the translation being given in English have nothing to do with Ireland, because all the names there are well known. They were much more concerned with languages used by minority groups in Great Britain. In some languages, the same word may have different meanings—that is also true in English—and it is important that we know which meaning is being used.
My right hon. Friend mentioned that he had written to Plaid Cymru, which recently decided on a—quite accurate—translation of its name as "the party of Wales". Clause 3(1)(a) refers to a name
likely to result in the party's being confused by voters with a party which is already registered".
The party of Wales is the Labour party. We have 34 of the 40 Members of Parliament, yet Plaid Cymru chooses—
Under paragraph 2(2) of schedule 1, there is no requirement for a translation when the name is in Welsh. We do not need to argue what Plaid Cymru means—it means what it says in Welsh. Those of us whose knowledge of Welsh extends to a few words, and who do not presume to get involved in Welsh politics, will not require a translation. Welsh is separately identified in the schedule because Welsh is a separate statutory language under the Welsh Language Act 1967.
There are other languages in common use in other parts of the UK, including Gaelic and a number of languages from south Asia. Some might say that more people use Urdu every day than use Welsh. I could not possibly offer a view, but that is not the point. The point is that Welsh is the only language with statutory status, apart from English.
No. I respect the fact that there is a vibrant Cornish language, but Cornish is not statutorily provided for; Welsh is. If someone wishes to register a name in Cornish, he or she would need to provide the registrar with a translation of the name. The words used on the ballot paper will be the Cornish words, provided they are in Roman script. However, the registration officer might not be versed in Cornish—or Welsh, Scots Gaelic or Irish Gaelic—and will need a translation in English so that he can check the name against the others being used, and against the prohibitions in respect of obscenity, for example. A party supporting Cornish nationalism, or a Gaelic language party, can stand not only in Cornwall or Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland. They can stand where they like in the United Kingdom. It does not automatically follow that if a Cornish nationalist wants to stand in, say, Scunthorpe, the registration officer will know Cornish all that well.
The Home Secretary has revealed a wide flaw in the Bill. There are bound to be differences of opinion over what constitutes a rightful name for a political party. The Bill has no provision for third party involvement in making representations or appeals against registration.
The scheme is similar to that for the registration of company names, although it is not the same. It makes use of the registrar of companies, which has had decades of experience of dealing with similar names and people trying to pass off one name against another. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) seems to have volunteered to serve on the Standing Committee, which will surely come as a great relief to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. There are many ways to pick through the Bill, saying, "What if this, or that." The ingenuity of people who are interested in British politics knows no bounds. However, I suspect that, in practice, the difficulties will not be as great as the hon. Gentleman expects.
Before the Home Secretary leaves that point—I am not quite sure what it was—will he touch on a matter of interest to Members on both sides, which is the number of candidates at the last election, and in recent years, who have been guilty of passing off? They have called themselves Conversatives or Literal Democrats in a deliberate attempt to mislead the electorate. I welcome the thrust of the Bill, but will the Home Secretary explain whether it will assist in the striking out of that sort of candidate? Returning officers have powers now, but do not often use them. In my constituency, at the last election, a man—
The Bill deals directly with misleading descriptions of parties. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall explain the provisions in detail.
The Home Secretary referred to the fact that some languages, particularly south Asian languages, have different meanings for the same word. Although the Bill requires an English translation to be published, it does not appear to provide for which English translation that should be. Do the Government intend to make sure that an appropriate and accurate representation of the meaning of names is given?
South Asian languages are not alone in having words of the same spelling and different meanings. Invalid and invalid is one example. When people move on from the usual Christmas parlour game of naming 10 famous Belgians—I can help the House with the first name: Victor d'Hondt—they can move on to lists of homophones, homonyms and homographs, with which we have whiled away many a happy hour in my household.
As the House knows, we originally intended to use the Bill to introduce regulations on funding of political parties, as I said last October. At the request of Lord Neill of Bladen, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, those provisions have not been included in the Bill. His committee is in the middle of an inquiry on the wider funding of political parties, so I agreed with him that it would be wrong to pre-empt its conclusions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear."] I am glad to hear that that has the approbation of Opposition Front-Bench Members.
As was spelt out in our manifesto, the Government remain committed to requiring details of all donations to political parties above a set figure to be published and to introducing a ban on the foreign funding of political parties. Therefore, we remain committed to legislation in that area, but will bring forward our proposals only in the light of the Neill committee's recommendations.
On further and wider legislation, is it also the Government's view that we need to bring all aspects of the conduct of elections, including funding, together under some sort of electoral commission, as is often proposed outside the House? The Bill will clean up particular problems, but are we finally moving in the direction of such a commission to pull it all together?
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is chairing a working party that includes representatives of all the main political parties and their organisation departments, to look into electoral practice. For many years, an electoral commission has been proposed, which could merge the work of the two boundary commissions—parliamentary and local government—with some of the work currently undertaken by the Home Office. I understand the arguments in favour of such an electoral commission and we are certainly open to argument about such an idea, but we have no proposals to put before the House for the moment.
The Bill provides for the register of political parties to be maintained by the existing Registrar of Companies for England and Wales based at Companies House in Cardiff. I am sure that the House will agree that it is much better to base the register on an existing tried and tested organisation, which is used to providing a highly efficient service both to companies needing to register and to members of the public seeking information from the register.
The register of political parties will be quite separate from the companies register and much smaller. More than 1 million companies are registered at Companies House, whereas we expect that no more than 100 or so parties will seek to register, although that, of course, is a matter for the parties that choose to do so and it is only our guess.
The expertise of Companies House staff in providing public access to the register and deciding whether a company may use a particular name will prove invaluable and the Government believe that it is right, therefore, to have a single register of political parties for the whole of the United Kingdom.
Before a party can be registered, the registrar will need to make sure that its name is not likely to be confused with a name that is already registered. That would mean, for example, that if the "Conservative Party" were to be registered, the registrar could refuse to allow another party to register the name the "Tory Party", in case it was confused with the party led by the Leader of the Opposition.
Under the Bill, the name of a registered party will have to be six words or fewer, to ensure that it meets the existing rules governing the candidate's description for nomination and ballot papers. The Bill provides that the party's name should not be obscene or offensive and must not include words that would be unlawful, in the sense, for example, of an incitement to racial hatred.
The Bill also contains an order-making power in clause 3(1)(f) to allow any word or expression to be prohibited. In case hon. Members are worried about that, I should explain that it is there to prevent certain words, such as "Royal", from being used in the title of a party. It will also help ensure that certain generic words or phrases, such as "Independent" or "Residents Association" are not registered by a single party so as to prevent their being used widely by individual candidates. It would be possible to use that power to require any party wishing to use such a term to qualify it with a geographical area, for example—choosing one entirely at random—the "Blackburn Residents Association Party", or the "Revidge Independents". That is the ward in which I live in Blackburn.
Clause 9 requires each party to provide the names of two "responsible officers" as the "registered leader" and "registered nominating officer", who, together, will be responsible for authorising any change to the registered details of the party. In addition, the nominating officer is to be responsible for authorising use of the party's name by candidates at elections, either directly or by someone acting on his or her behalf.
To keep the register up to date, parties will have to confirm their registration annually. There will need to be a fee, set by regulations, both for initial registration and for the annual confirmation of registration. Although the exact amount has yet to be determined, we think that it will be about £100 for initial registration. That is not likely to be onerous, even for the Conservative party. Parties will be able to register an emblem.
Would the £100 figure apply to a local council candidate standing for, say, the Redbridge residents association?
Yes, but only if he or she decides to register. There is no requirement to register. If such people decided to register, they would have to pay a fee, but I do not think that it is onerous.
As I understand it, there is nothing to stop a local man standing in a general election as a Local Conservative or Loyal Conservative, even though he would be misleading the electorate into thinking that he is the official Conservative candidate. The Bill does not deal with that, so he could stand—just as at present. Are the Government thinking of adding something to help in those circumstances?
The Bill provides for precisely that. In paragraph 2 of schedule 2, we have reworded rule 6 of the election rules. Rule 6A states:
A nomination paper may not include a description of a candidate which is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with a registered political party unless the description is authorised by a certificate—
As I read it, rule 6A merely clarifies something that was not too clear, while leaving the onus on the returning officer during a general election to make a decision. If he decides against someone, that person would have go to the High Court, and the whole thing would become so extended that the general election would be over. Is there any new procedure whereby the returning officer would not have to go down that track if someone does not agree with his finding that a new or alternative name is not misleading?
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for a long time, I do not believe that he has quite followed the true meaning of the provision.
It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to say that. He has not followed the true meaning of the reworked rule 6A. It is possible, in extremis, for electors to challenge a decision of the returning officer and to seek judicial review of decisions. That is important for any person exercising such a key function in our democracy. Returning officers carry out their jobs to a high standard of integrity and professionalism, but there are sometimes controversial decisions. It is important that there should be a safety valve of supervision by the courts, which will examine only the reasonableness of a returning officer's decision. They will consider whether the Wednesbury test applies: that is, whether the decision is manifestly unreasonable, rather than considering its positively reasonableness.
The Bill does not deal directly with the issue of misleading candidates' names. It is a matter of record that, at the last general election, the courts showed themselves ready to grant injunctions to prevent that sort of passing off. That was the case in respect of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). The right hon. and learned Gentleman was faced with a candidate who had adopted the name "Sir Nicholas Lyell" and, in the same vein, my hon. Friend was faced with a candidate calling herself "Alice Mahon". [HON. MEMBERS: "Himself."] As I recall, there is provenance for men calling themselves Alice, but that is a very different point. We believe that there are remedies already available in law to deal with such cases.
Having lived through such an experience twice in the past 12 months, I know that one of the difficulties is the period of time in which one is allowed to challenge these processes. What the Home Secretary suggests is fine, but what is not fine is the period of time in which the controls can be put in place. Has he any plans to extend that period from the current rather hurried 24 hours and so ensure that proper legal process can take place?
The process of registering will take place in a relatively relaxed period, as any sensible political party—which category will, in my judgment, include all those that are currently represented in the House—will register at the first opportunity after the Bill becomes law. Once that happens, Liberal Democrats will be protected from, for example, people trying to apply the description "Literal Democrat", which produced a quite undemocratic result in an election during the 1994 European elections; and the Conservative party will be protected from the twist of using the words "conservatory" or "conversative", which has also caught out electors and tricked them into voting for one candidate when they wanted to vote for another.
No one should underestimate the huge difference that the use of emblems on ballot papers will make. The Bill will ensure that, for the first time, emblems will be included on ballot papers. There is an illustration in the appendix on page 10 of the Bill. Only parties that are registered and have registered their emblem as a trademark, as it were, will be able to use that emblem. Given that party emblems are so widely known these days, that in itself will provide a major protection.
In order to ensure the smooth introduction of the register, there will be two transitional registration phases, each lasting six weeks. The first phase will apply to all parties that have at least one Member of the House of Commons. The second phase will apply to any other party, but will require the registrar to defer any registration until the end of the period, so that he can consider any competing claims for the same or similar party names or emblems. In making a decision at the end of the second phase, the registrar will be able to take account of the history of parties with competing claims.
In making decisions on similar names, the registrar will need to ensure that voters are not likely to be confused. In case of doubt, clause 10 allows the registrar, before deciding an application, to seek advice from a Committee of Members of the House of Commons, appointed for that purpose by the Speaker. We thought long and hard about how we could best ensure that the registrar would not be left in the awkward position of having to make a judgment in an area where his expertise currently does not lie. We decided that the best approach was for him to be advised by a Committee of the House appointed by Madam Speaker.
We initially took into account the remote possibility of the advice from the Speaker's Committee being unclear, confusing or contradictory. Therefore, clause 10(2) provides that if the registrar disagrees with the advice of the Committee, he must give the Committee his reasons in writing. However, there is no question but that the registrar will be expected to follow the Committee's advice.
I recognise that there is a degree of impertinence in expecting a Committee under Madam Speaker to make a decision but allowing for the possibility of that decision being overturned by the registrar. Having considered that question further in consultation with Madam Speaker, I now think that the most appropriate course would be for the registrar, in circumstances where he is unhappy with the advice received from the Committee, to go back to the Committee for further clarification, but then, in the final analysis, to follow its advice. Therefore, in my judgment, there is no need for the final part of clause 10, and I propose to table amendments on that point in Committee. Once the two transitional phases are complete, any application to register a new party will be considered simply on its merits.
Clause 14 deals with party political broadcasts. Once that provision comes into force, any party that is not registered will not be able to benefit from the opportunity of having a party political broadcast. That does not affect the existing arrangements for the allocation of party political broadcasts. In particular, it will not entitle registered parties to broadcasts, but will merely bring them into the group of parties that may be eligible.
Schedule 2, which we have already discussed at some length, amends the parliamentary election rules to enable returning officers to refuse a nomination with the name of a registered party, or with any description that is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with that party, unless the nominating officer has authorised the use of the party's name. As I have explained—I hope to the satisfaction of the House—I believe that that will deal with the long-standing problem of misleading candidates' descriptions.
The Bill will return some of the sense and fairness to our democratic system by removing the anomaly of candidates who are able to exploit loopholes in the current electoral rules and who use such clearly misleading labels. The Bill may be a technical measure, but it is an important one. It introduces for the first time provisions allowing parties' names to be registered and party emblems to be shown on ballot papers and prevents misleading candidates' descriptions. I hope that the House will agree that the Bill is a positive step forward, and I commend it to the House.
Listening to the Home Secretary, it seems to me that, in some ways, we have regressed on the question of rules for elections. In the debate on proportional representation, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned a former Member of Parliament for my home town of Chelmsford in Essex, the late Sir Hubert Ashton. He reminded the House of Sir Hubert saying that his job was to represent Chelmsford at Westminster and not the other way around.
As the Home Secretary revealed, we are both Essex-educated men: I at the local grammar school; he, rather more grandly, at the posh public school down the road, but I do not hold that against him. He will know from those earlier days that, for many years, there was no description of party at all on the ballot paper. In Chelmsford, one voted for Ashton or for Millington—the Liberal candidate did not really count; nothing really changes in Chelmsford. In those days, when class sizes could be more than 40, let alone 30, the people were sufficiently politically aware to work out for whom they should vote: they had received the election address; they had seen the posters; they were capable of remembering the allegiances.
Now, with the Bill, the Government are introducing a system whereby not only will the party of the candidate be set out on the ballot paper, but symbols will be printed on it, so as to make even clearer the party position. In his press release announcing the Bill, the Home Secretary said that casting one's vote will become even "simpler" as a result of the Bill, but I am not sure whether the illustration on page 10 of the Bill proves his case. My feeling is that the net effect of the symbols is to make a more crowded and rather bizarre ballot paper that is more likely to confuse than to inform. I remain deeply sceptical as to whether that change is necessary.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that complexity arises out of the electoral changes that the Government either have already initiated, or have in prospect, which will make the whole business of voting and the ballot paper so much more complicated that we might require such symbols in order to find out where we stand?
My hon. Friend takes me, in an almost seamless flow, on to my next points.
We have moved on a long way from the 1947 committee report on electoral law reform, which said,
we think the nomination paper should describe the candidate and not the cause".
The Home Secretary set out some of the events that have led to confusion among the electorate and, at times, deliberate attempts to deceive them. That is the one good reason for supporting the Bill on Second Reading, and that is why we shall not be pressing for a Division.
There is no question but that confusion has been caused by candidates deliberately seeking to deceive and take advantage by getting on to the coat-tails of a well-recognised party or personality. I shall come to that later. The Bill is at least an intention to improve the position concerning the name of the party.
Although Rod Richards obtained an injunction on the misleading person or name, the candidate was still able to stand for the Conservatory party under his real name. There have been other well-known cases, including the case in the European elections in which a Literal Democrat stood. All parties have suffered as a result of those deceptions. I am on record as having sought a change in the position, which is why I give one cheer, at any rate, for the Bill and welcome its intention to prevent the confusion of the electorate.
However, we should be in no doubt about why the Bill is being introduced. It is not, first and foremost, to prevent the confusion that we have had in the past. The Home Office has seen many such problems. The Bill is being introduced because of the demands of proportional representation and, in particular, of a list system whereby parties, not candidates, are voted for. In the first sentence of the press release announcing the Bill, the Home Secretary said:
A formal register of political parties is essential for the smooth operation of the proposed PR systems for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the European Parliament.
The Bill has been introduced for the wrong reasons: to enable the introduction of a list system and an additional member system, which I and, I suspect, the Home Secretary find objectionable.
In Scotland, there will be 73 members elected by first past the post and 56 additional members. In Wales, there will 40 members elected by first past the post and 20 additional members. The additional members will be based on the old European constituencies, which will, in any event, disappear next year. We shall then have a new regional system of members without constituencies for the European elections. If ever there was an example of the Government making it up as they go along, it is this. The position may be bad enough already, but it would be worse if such a system were adopted for Westminster. On that point, I have hopes of making common cause with the Home Secretary.
Up to now, as the Home Secretary said, we have had a rather vicarious political relationship that dates back to the last time that I was in the shadow Cabinet. That was in Margaret Thatcher's first shadow Cabinet, when I was shadow Secretary of State for Social Services. I know that I do not look that old. The Minister opposite me was the then Barbara Castle, a left-wing, self-avowed socialist—all the words that today induce a collective wince on the Government Benches. The Secretary of State's special adviser at that time was none other than the left-wing, socialist gentleman who is now the Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). Politically, they were so close that he inherited her seat.
The reason that I mention that—apart from being gratuitously offensive—is that in my first debate on pensions, which the Home Secretary may remember, the then Secretary of State, supported, I presume, by her adviser, hastened away from the Chamber for a press conference on the referendum on Europe. She, perhaps with the right hon. Gentleman's support, was passionately opposed to entry into the European Community. Never mind the single currency—they did not want to go into the Community at all.
I know that I am carrying at least one of my hon. Friends with me.
At that time, the Cabinet had decided that Ministers could campaign on either side of the question. As we look ahead, therefore, we know that with the right hon. Gentleman's experience and his influence in Cabinet, he will be able to persuade his colleagues that if there is to be a referendum on proportional representation, Government Ministers will be able to follow their conscience. I look forward to the Home Secretary campaigning with us on that issue in favour of first past the post. I have waited 25 years to be on the same side as the right hon. Gentleman, and that is the fairest offer that I can make him, although I see that his natural discretion keeps him very much in his seat at this point.
Irrespective of whether that referendum happens, there are basic questions to be asked about the Bill. The first arises straight from the additional member system that the Government are introducing and has been raised by Michael Dyer, a lecturer in the department of politics at Aberdeen university. He raises the question whether political parties that are likely to receive few additional members should not create or foster surrogate parties. He uses the example of Scotland at the last general election—not, I emphasise, the next election. On that basis, Labour would have had such a high number of first-past-the-post victories that it would receive no additional members, or almost none.
Mr. Dyer goes on to offer a number of solutions. One, which he calls "a greater prize", involves Labour forging a pact with another party and delivering its list vote to that party. That would leave that party heavily dependent on continued Labour good will, rendering it less likely to desert a Labour-dominated coalition in difficult times.
The point that relates directly to the Bill is a further example that involves Labour, or its voters, forming an understanding with a so-called Independent Labour party that had received no first-past-the-post votes. Mr. Dyer estimates that if all Labour voters supported the ILP list, no fewer than 35 of the 56 additional members would be elected and, of course, the majority would be overwhelming. Equally, the spirit and principle of the change would be utterly defeated.
The question is, what can be done to prevent such a situation from arising. I am aware of the assurance given by a Minister in another place, but the question is not simply what is the Government's intention or even what is the Labour party's intention. We are making law. Doubtless we could create other scenarios in which other parties took similar actions, but the question is how abuse can be prevented.
The second question is even more relevant. The 1947 committee said that
the nomination paper should describe the candidate and not the cause",
but there have been well-known examples of attempts to deceive the electorate. I mentioned the case of Rod Richards, and the Home Secretary mentioned that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), when Peter Rubery-Hayward decided to rechristen himself Sir Nicholas Lyell. As it happened, injunctions were granted on both occasions.
In the 1983 general election, there was the famous case of a man who changed his name by deed poll to Margaret Thatcher and declared the address of his flat to be henceforth Downing Street mansions, while an associate changed his name to Ronald Reagan in order to act as his agent. In that case, the returning officer declared the paper invalid, on the grounds that it was an abuse of the right of nomination, and was an obvious unreality.
A more difficult case was that of Roy Jenkins. Unlikely as it may seem, someone had the temerity to seek to impersonate that grand figure.
If he is a good Welshman, I am a Dutchman.
In 1981, an artificial Roy Jenkins attempted to fight the Warrington by-election, but the returning officer ruled that his nomination was invalid. However, in November 1982, in the Glasgow, Hillhead by-election, the artificial Roy Jenkins was allowed to stand, on the grounds that the returning officer there felt that the name Jenkins had been used for some nine months and no objection was received in time from the real Roy Jenkins.
As I understand the Bill, we shall legislate to make it more difficult for political parties to be confused, but there is no similar provision for individuals. We intend to leave it to the existing processes, whether the returning officer or the courts. In other words—the Home Secretary should take this point to heart—if legislation closes the door on political party deception, there is a danger that all attempts will move to personal candidate deception. We shall have turned the position of the 1947 committee on its head.
However, that position raises a further question about the position of individual returning officers. Self-evidently, different returning officers have made different interpretations of the law. The Bill is intended to set general rules to prevent the public's being deceived. However, what is being done to ensure that the policy of individual returning officers is the same as that of the registrar of political parties? How do we ensure a uniform policy throughout the country?
The detail of many Bills is crucial; never has that been truer than of the Bill before us. The Bill is presented as a voluntary system of registration, but, as the Home Secretary freely admitted, it is voluntary only if a party wants to forgo the advantage of party political broadcasts and the help that it can receive for the costs of security at party conferences. If it wants those advantages, it must register.
Equally, there is the question of appeal from the registrar's decision—the point rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East.
I beg your pardon; I meant my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).
The registrar grants an application for inclusion in the register unless the proposed registered name would be likely to result in the party being confused by voters with a party already registered. What does that mean? I do not make a party point, but one could make a sensible case that a candidate who stands as "Old Labour" is distinguishing himself from the present Administration. Equally, one could make a sensible case that a person who wants to stand as an "Independent Conservative" is giving himself a sensible description. From experience as party chairman, I can vouch for the presence of many independent Conservatives in the mid-1990s—and Independent Conservatives is only one of the descriptions that I gave them at the time. Probably, however, none of those descriptions would be allowed under these rules.
Who will settle these disputes, and who will settle the question of symbols? I really want to know that. I am deeply sceptical about the need for symbols; disputes are bound to break out as a result. The Home Secretary looks forward to our having 100 parties; the mind boggles as to what they will be. If we have 100 political parties jostling around, some will tend to push to make their symbols as provocative, or outrageous, as they possibly can. Who settles those disputes? In short—this is a short debate—we shall want to explore a range of questions in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) raised another important point during the Home Secretary's speech. I have said that we shall not oppose the Bill on Second Reading because, obviously, we support the principle of trying to reduce confusion among the electorate—deception of the voters. However, we wish to reserve our Third Reading position, depending on the answers that we receive. By definition, we do not want legislation that makes the position worse or produces glaring loopholes in the law.
That apart, it would be wrong of me not to warn the Home Secretary that, in my belief—which, I suspect, he substantially shares—we are embarking on a dangerous electoral journey. This is but one small part of a much bigger picture. My greatest worry is about the way in which, step by step, we are moving away from the constituency basis of our democracy. In my view, the constituency link, which enables constituents to hold individual elected representatives to account, is right in principle and has served the country well.
I find the list system—whereby the public are asked to vote for parties, not individuals, and where control can easily pass to the centre and not be held at the local level—objectionable. I suspect that the Bill will raise some of the questions that will become part of the national debate in months to come, and I suspect that, when the issues have been properly exposed, the public will deplore the direction in which the Government have chosen to take the country.
I am the representative of the constituency that is, in many ways, the cause of all the trouble. In Wandsworth, in 1967, when each party had four vacancies to fill, a Liberal candidate named Pritchard stood against a distinguished Labour councillor in the area, Sir Norman Prichard, and received 4,000 votes more than the three other Liberal candidates. As the Labour candidate named Prichard was distinguished and popular, it was an inescapable conclusion that the confusion over names had misled 4,000 voters. As a result, the Representation of the People Act 1949 was amended by the Government of the day, to allow a six-word description of candidates.
That reform was very reasonable, but, in many cases, the description has become not as much a description as an advertisement, a form of abuse, a campaigning message or an attempt to confuse. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) spoke about the terrible distress caused to some of his constituents when they discovered that when they voted "New Labour" they had voted, not for him, but for an unofficial candidate—so much so that one of his constituents burst into tears, and another ate her ballot paper rather than put it into the urn.
I very much welcome the Home Secretary's assurances about the meaning of the grounds—set out in clause 3—on which names can be refused, especially his explanation of clause 3(1)(d), which, as I understand it, refers mainly to words likely to stir up racial hatred, and the expression "prohibited by order" in clause 3(1)(f), which refers mainly to words such as "royal". I assume that the main casualties of this clause will be those parties that set out deliberately to confuse. At the last election, some candidates stood as Literal Democrats, Conservatories, and Conversatives, and many others stood under the inaccurate title of New Labour. Many other categories of parties may or may not be affected by the measure, and I would appreciate further explanation from the Minister.
If candidates are allowed to use a six-word description without registering as a party, will they be allowed to give themselves party names although they are not registered? I refer not to the Monster Raving Loony party—which I have no doubt will register as a fully fledged political party—but to parties such as Happiness Stan's Free to Party party, the Juice party, the Rizz party, the Ronnie the Rhino party, the Sub-genius party and the Teddy Bear Alliance party.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in reality, what constitutes a political party is democratic legitimacy? Having members elected to Parliament is what designates a political party. Under this legislation, anyone may be the leader of a political party in much the same way as anyone can buy a company off the shelf and become a company director.
I do not think that one must win an election in order to qualify as a political party. The hon. Gentleman cannot seriously believe that—if he does, I take it that he will stand at the next election as a candidate for the Sub-genius party.
At the last election, we also encountered the problem of candidates using their six-word descriptions as forms of advertising. I do not know whether that is covered by the Bill. For example, the Mongolian Barbecue Great Place to Party party strikes me as being a commercial message rather than a party description. The West Cheshire College in Crisis was clearly an attempt to use six words to make a point—I do not know whether it is correct. There were also a few lonely hearts-type candidates. One candidate described himself as Black Haired Medium Build Caucasian Male and there was also an Independently Beautiful party candidate. I look forward to hearing whether those examples will be affected by the Bill.
There is also the question of the commission of an offence. Several parties, such as the Legalise Cannabis party and the New Millennium New Way Hemp party, could, on a strict reading of the legislation, be in jeopardy. Several parties at the last election used descriptions that some people may consider offensive. Most of them were what might be called anti-political parties whose titles were attempts to deride other candidates on the ballot paper. Some examples were the Common Sense Sick of Politicians party, the Lord Byro versus the Scallywag Tories party and the People in Slough Shunning Useless Politician party—whose name I think was chosen mainly for its potential as an acronym. One candidate, whose surname must have begun with "W" or "Y", stood as a candidate for None of the Above Parties party.
I do not imagine that the Government want to use the legislation against such parties, but it would be useful to have a better idea of what the word "offensive" is intended to mean to acting returning officers. I hope that the tradition in this country of having not entirely serious electoral candidates, such as Screaming Lord Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony party, will not be lost. It may give our democracy a bad name sometimes when people from overseas see the joke candidates standing behind the serious ones, but I would hate to think that this Bill could be used to limit people's freedom to such an extent that they were prevented from standing in elections.
I should like, at the outset, to offer the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who has had to return to his constituency because his son has been taken to hospital. I am pleased to say that he is now recovering.
It is difficult to see how any democrat could object to the principles behind the Bill. It is obvious that the details must be discussed, but there is nothing of substance to which we can object. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, which we believe will allow political parties to register and protect their names and logos. My party, above all others, has reason to support such legislation.
The Bill relates also to the proportional systems that will be used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh assembly and the European Parliament next year, and it will allow registered parties to provide lists of candidates. I agree to some extent with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) in that it is disappointing that voters in those elections will not be able to select candidates from within the party list or across the parties, but the Liberal Democrats nevertheless welcome the new systems as an improvement on the unfair first-past-the-post system. We look forward to seeing further improvements.
It is pleasing to see that the Bill extends to local government elections, although they will use first past the post. The debate so far has concentrated on Westminster, but I believe that local government will also benefit greatly from the proposals. Elections to this place will also use first past the post. Let us hope that the experience of using fairer voting systems in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Europe will encourage people to vote in the promised referendum to change the system that is used here.
The use of the registrar of companies to avoid creating a separate registrar of political parties is appropriate, but the Bill leaves to local returning officers the important decision whether a candidate not representing a registered party can use a description on the ballot paper. Unlike the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), I shall not give an exhaustive list, but we have heard of and seen such candidates. I wonder whether they help the democratic process—although they certainly liven things up. The arrangement is likely to lead to inconsistent use of names on ballot papers in different parts of the country and will almost certainly cause disputes and legal action. As the Bill progresses, I hope that those matters can be examined afresh and, perhaps, resolved.
The Liberal Democrats have two particular reasons for welcoming the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) knows only too well the problem caused by candidates using misleading names. I do not think that any democrat would approve of what happened in my hon. Friend's constituency. My hon. Friend stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate in the 1994 European elections for the seat of Devon and East Plymouth and lost to a Conservative candidate by 800 votes. A previously unknown candidate stood as a Literal Democrat and got 10,000 votes.
I think that hon. Members will agree that it is extremely unlikely that 10,000 people chose to vote for a candidate who had done no campaigning and had no published principles. The Liberal Democrats were thus deprived of our third Member of the European Parliament. However, it was good to see my hon. Friend go on to defeat the Conservative Member of Parliament at the general election and win a seat in the House—Europe's loss is our gain.
The same Literal Democrat candidate who defeated my hon. Friend in Devon almost cost my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) his seat. At the 1997 general election, my hon. Friend won by an impressive two votes. A court later declared the result null and void and my hon. Friend went on to win a by-election this year with one of the largest majorities in Parliament—there may be a moral in that story. The Literal Democrat from Devon stood in Winchester in 1997 as the Liberal Democrat Top Choice for Parliament and won 640 votes—most of which were almost certainly intended for my hon. Friend.
The Bill would not allow parties with names similar to registered parties to register, but there may be confusion when unregistered candidates seek to use names similar to those of registered parties. That needs to be clarified. The Bill does not deal with the problem of candidates using a name that is likely to confuse voters. We have already heard several examples of confusion deliberately caused by candidates. Each involved parliamentary elections. There is only one Andrew Mackinlay, but as has been pointed out there have been several Margaret Thatchers and Roy Jenkins. Such confusion is not dealt with in the Bill.
The Bill would not prevent candidates from using terms that may cause confusion with registered parties in their election literature; it regulates only the use of names on the ballot paper. However, confusion occurs not just in parliamentary elections, but in local elections. Two years ago, in the borough of Colchester, four candidates stood as Conservatives in a deliberate attempt to undermine the Conservative party campaign.
I welcome that clarification. The example that I shall give may have cost the Conservatives control of Essex county council, for which a by-election is taking place today. At the county council elections last year, a rogue Conservative—I think that Conservative Members will agree with that term—stood, and split the vote, and a Liberal Democrat took the seat. With Essex county council being finely balanced, the result of today's by-election could well alter the political control of the council.
It was expected that the Bill would include provisions on the funding of political parties. We support the Home Secretary's decision to await the report of the Neill committee before such legislation is introduced.
We welcome the use of party emblems on the ballot paper and the fact that Welsh parties will be able to register both a Welsh and an English name and to use both on the ballot paper. Registered parties should also be allowed to register regional variations of emblems to allow bilingual emblems in Wales and, for example, to allow parties in Scotland to have a different emblem from their emblem in another part of the UK. That may be useful for the Conservatives north of the border.
Can the Home Secretary tell us whether the emblems will be printed in the party colours? If so, perhaps there could be variations in tone to indicate where candidates stood in the various political parties, especially under the list system. I congratulate the person who designed the ballot paper on the good sense and humour that it reflects—the good sense to put the Liberal Democrat candidate at the top and the Conservative at the bottom. Typically for new Labour, its candidate has a hyphenated name. The Conservative emblem seems to be flopping over more than usual—misrepresentation?
Perhaps the Conservative emblem is up to date.
Another issue that is not covered in the Bill is the gender balancing of candidates on lists in proportional systems. Liberal Democrats are using a system known as zipping for the European elections; across the UK, half of the Liberal Democrat lists will be headed by a man and half by a woman. That is equality. On each list, men and women will alternate. The gender at the top of each list has been chosen according to electoral prospect, which should ensure that one half of Liberal Democrat MEPs are women. I should have thought that the Government would welcome that.
A system of gender balance was agreed with Labour in November 1995 for elections to the Scottish Parliament but, because of the legal uncertainties and the lack of exemption from sex discrimination legislation in the Scotland Bill, it is unlikely to go ahead.
Legal opinion on gender balance is inconclusive. We had, therefore, hoped that the Bill would include a widening of the existing exemptions under sex discrimination legislation to include party lists in elections under the proportional representation system. The Government seem reluctant to do that, despite the 1995 electoral agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. It would be possible to exempt political parties only for the first proportional elections, to give women a good opportunity to achieve fair representation.
The Bill is another part of the constitutional reform of the United Kingdom. It will improve democracy in elections by preventing spoiler candidates from distorting results. It will allow party logos to appear on the ballot paper, which will assist voters in placing their votes for the party of their choice. I am disappointed that my former Essex man colleague—the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—cannot see the sense of that.
Liberal Democrats want an independent electoral commission to be established to oversee the running of elections and election campaigns. The commission would also have control of boundary reviews, the monitoring of election expenses and the allocation of broadcasting time, and would remove the regulation and control of elections from politicians. The Bill is only a first step towards the fairer management of elections. I hope that the momentum for reform will extend to the electoral system for this place to provide for a fairer distribution of seats.
I am one of those odd individuals who collect election results. I have the various volumes of F. W. S. Craig going back to 1832. They usually contain a health warning that, although he has put down the results, he has added a description of the parties that may not have been recognised by the candidates. For example, following the split in the Liberal party in the 1880s, some candidates are listed as Liberals and some as Liberal Unionists. The distinction required historical research.
We are unusual as a nation in that Parliament developed earlier than strong political parties, so there has always been a strong element of individualism in our political process. People have always been able to vote on a geographical basis, for individuals whom they trust with the description or political label sometimes worn quite lightly, certainly in earlier years. As time has gone by, the political process has become more intrusive.
The debate in the 1960s, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said, concerned political descriptions, which Sir Richard Sharples pointed out could be used to mislead people. We have heard several examples today. Nevertheless, I believe that a description of the political party for which the candidate is standing is a positive development. For example, in local government elections in multi-member wards, if one of the candidates is stupid enough to state that he is a farmer or a company director rather than use his political label he usually runs well below the other candidates with a political description.
A description helps voters to make a decision. We in political life like to think that every elector has had a leaflet or two and has been canvassed, but, in reality, people turn up at the polling station with little idea who the candidates are until they read the ballot paper. At least that gives them the comfort of knowing that they are voting for the candidate who best suits their political views.
I welcome the Bill as an opportunity for us to deal with abuses—Literal Democrat is the one on which we focus most—but it is no panacea. In Committee and in later stages, we shall have to test many of the propositions in it to ensure that we get it right.
The requirement that a description be no more than six words long is important, but when a party registers perhaps it should register all the other terms or uses of its name. For example, we are not only the Conservative party, but the Conservative and Unionist party, the Tory party, we can be Scottish Conservative or Welsh Conservative, and some people tell me that we are even the European People's party on occasions. It is important that registration should cover all those terms. I know that there is a party allied to the Labour party called the Co-operative party. Would that party register separately, or under the umbrella of the Labour party? All those matters need to be tested.
The registrar's worst difficulty will probably lie in determining which party can use the term Unionist. In Northern Ireland, the majority community uses numerous versions of that term, with prefixes or suffixes. That causes a good deal of confusion.
I mentioned earlier the issue of registration depriving people of broadcasting rights, and the issue of Sinn Fein. I am pleased that there is to be a Committee under the Speaker to give advice. Whatever we may say about looking ahead, circumstances will arise that no one will have anticipated, and it is sensible to establish a Committee that enables political parties to give their views to the registrar.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) referred to the difficulties of the additional member system and pointed out that, under a list system—as has been suggested by one or two academics—it may be possible to mislead people into voting for the alter ego of a major party, particularly one that wins all the first-past-the-post seats. I was reassured by what the Home Secretary said about disqualifying candidates using names very similar to those of existing political parties. It is important that people who have voted initially under the first-past-the-post system and then under the list system are not misled into voting for what they mistakenly believe to be an official party. How the electoral system that will be used in Scotland, Wales and indeed London is received will depend largely on whether people feel that it has operated fairly and has not deceived the electorate.
I want to raise a couple of issues that I raised when we debated the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. The nomination of nominees for the European parliamentary elections will stand from one election to the next: for five years, until 2004. There will be no by-elections; if someone dies or resigns, the next person on the list will inherit the seat.
It is one thing for someone who has been sworn in and has become a member of an assembly—particularly a European assembly—to decide after a few years to switch to a different party. Three years after an election, however, the first reserve on the list might decide to stop being a Liberal Democrat and join the Labour party. When a vacancy occurred, under the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, the returning officer would have to offer the post to the next available candidate. I assume that the system would give the candidate the right to refuse, but it would not discriminate against someone who had left the political party involved. It is possible that the first reserve on a Labour, Liberal or Conservative list could inherit a seat without being a member of the relevant political party.
Given a proportional list allowing people to vote Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour—a system in which proportionality is intended to be the key—it would be very odd if someone who had resigned or been expelled from a political party could still inherit a seat. Five years is a long time in this context. We should not forget that such an arrangement is entirely outside our experience: under the British political system, a candidate is elected or ceases to be the candidate. An ex-candidate—which many of us have been—is very much an "ex". What happens if, four years after an election, someone who is no longer a member of a political party—perhaps owing to expulsion from it—inherits a seat? Will that person have the right to take the seat?
In New Zealand, which has a system of mixed member proportionality, some of those elected under a list system have switched parties, having given undertakings to their respective parties that they would not do so. In a famous case, a member of the Alliance became an independent. An electoral registration Bill promoted by the Labour party in New Zealand proposes that someone elected under a list system who switches to another party ought, in effect, to be resigned from Parliament. I do not think that that Bill will become law, and the issue is controversial, but we should ask whether, if people are voting for a party rather than an individual, the individual has the right to switch. Such action entirely destroys the purpose of proportionality.
There are problems with the European parliamentary system that we have implemented. There may be problems with the additional member system—that will depend on how well the Bill works—but I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, I also welcome the introduction of symbols or emblems.
Before I was a candidate in Poole, I was a candidate in Walsall, North and encountered a difficulty that was outside my experience, as I came from Wiltshire. There were wards with a high proportion of Asians who did not speak English. In such circumstances—especially in local elections, which involve multi-member wards—ballot papers have to be produced saying "Vote for 7, 9 or 14". Symbols or emblems would enable those who do not speak English to exercise their democratic right. Blackburn may be similar, but it is certainly true of parts of the midlands. Politicians who wish to mislead people may do so by messing up the order on the ballot paper: it has been done. Emblems may well prove beneficial, especially for ethnic minorities.
Overall, I welcome the registration proposals, although it is rather sad that we have reached this stage—it is an inevitable consequence of the dreadful PR systems that we are introducing. We have an opportunity to make politics more transparent and honest and to rid ourselves of some of the discrepancies from which members of all parties have suffered.
There has already been one volunteer for the Standing Committee; another may be standing here.
There is a long and not entirely dishonourable tradition in British politics of candidates using descriptions on ballot papers to make a point. My favourite is the description used by one by-election candidate—"Reclassify Sun Newspaper as a Comic". Other candidates have formed their own parties or pressure groups to promote issues or highlight causes: the late Bill Boakes and Sir James Goldsmith come to mind, as do the numerous stop this or stop that campaign groups formed at both local and parliamentary level.
Candidates who have fallen out with their parties, either locally or nationally, have stood as independents in the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat interest. Others have disputed a change in a party's constitution and claimed to be members of that party's heir or successor. Social Democrat and Liberal candidates have done that in recent times.
I understood that the Bill's purpose was not to outlaw any such legitimate descriptions, but to prevent people from deliberately frustrating the democratic process by confusing voters with lookalike descriptions. Having read the Bill, however, I fear that its effects could go much further than was intended. I have a number of questions to ask the Minister. I hope that he will be able to reassure us that the specific problem of spoiler candidates is the Bill's only target.
Spoiler candidates are thieves: they steal people's votes. They violate our democracy, and legislation to outlaw them is long overdue. I know from personal experience in the 1994 European election how it feels to be a candidate for the party for which a majority of the votes were intended.
My loss, however, was not as great as that of those who filled in their ballot papers and left the polling station believing that they had voted for a Liberal Democrat rather than a Literal Democrat. The descriptions sound different, but they look the same to someone who glances quickly at a ballot paper.
The loss felt by those 10,000 voters was expressed in letters and radio phone-ins at the time, in terms used more often by people who have been recently burgled or assaulted. They felt violated—that something intangible had been taken from them without their permission. For them, it was not only that someone they had specifically voted against was going to represent them for the next five years, but that their rights had been taken away. They will be among the first to welcome legislation that prevents such a situation—as will I—but my concern is with the scope of the Bill and whether it would prevent someone from standing as a Unionist, Liberal or Co-op candidate if the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties registered those titles as their own.
What will happen in Northern Ireland in relation to the competing claims on the Unionist description? Would the Bill prevent a person from standing as an independent Conservative, an independent Liberal Democrat or an independent Labour candidate'? Could an organisation register as the Independent party? If that were to happen, perhaps prospective council candidates would have to approach the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) for their voucher, although the Home Secretary made it fairly clear that he felt that there would be one generic term for independents—but what if there were a dispute between independent candidates?
I am concerned about the fate of residents or ratepayer candidates. We may get both a Redbridge residents association and a Redbridge tenants and residents association wishing to register. What would be the adjudication then?
Is it right for someone to stand as an independent and suffix their leaning or political affiliation to their description? It is extraordinarily dishonest for people to stand as independents when they are from a political party and often align with it in a council chamber after the election.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman quite understood what I was saying. I was saying that independents should be able to use a suffix to show their leaning or political affiliation and I ask the Minister to clarify whether they will be able to do so. I do not believe that right hon. and hon. Members have the exclusive right to determine the legitimacy of those in dispute with a party that is represented here—no matter that, under the Bill, I would have benefited from more than 1,000 Liberal votes when I have a majority of just 12. People have an inherent right to describe their politics as they wish, and I fear from my reading of the Bill—I hope that I shall be put right—that that right will be taken away.
If the Bill could be misused by Westminster-based parties to prevent what I view as the strength of our pluralistic democracy, it is a bad Bill which, rather than clarifying choices for electors, will reduce their choice. I seek the Minister's reassurance on that and the other points that I have raised.
I do not intend to detain the House long. Indeed, I do not believe that the Bill deserves to detain the House long; I am afraid that my view of the Bill is different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms).
There seems to be something sinister about a Bill that describes itself as the Registration of Political Parties Bill. There is something vaguely totalitarian about the notion of registering a political party. Of course, the Home Secretary has told us that it is not like that at all—the Bill is in fact a mouse and the kernel of the Bill is schedule 2; that is really what it is all about.
I accept the necessity of schedule 2 and entirely agree with the thrust of the remarks by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), including those on the particular grievance that has arisen. I accept entirely that schedule 2 is necessary. We need to amend the Representation of the People Act 1990 in that way. I hope that, when we come to Third Reading, schedule 2 will be all that is left of the Bill, although I somehow doubt it. The real agenda behind the Bill was revealed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler): this Bill is all about the party list system.
We have relatively few political parties in this country. I know that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) rehearsed a great long list of political parties, but I reject the notion that they are political parties at all. As I said to him, in this country, what constitutes a political party is democratic legitimacy. It is having Members of Parliament.
I am a reasonable man and I realise that I have overstated the case. I am prepared to accept that the Green party is a political party and to adjust my definition. There are other political parties, but those on the list that was rehearsed by the hon. Member for Battersea do not constitute political parties. We have, and I stand by this, relatively few political parties. I accept that there is a Green party and a United Kingdom Independence party, but such parties are relatively few. We do not need a mechanism for the registration of political parties in the same way that we need a mechanism for the registration of companies.
We need a mechanism for the registration of companies because there are so many. There are not so many political parties. Are we anticipating a great influx of political parties? I suspect that that is the reality. Party list systems give rise to a plethora of political parties. I fear that there is something in the fact that the companies registration mechanism has been selected as the mechanism for the registration of political parties.
Part of the problem of modern politics in the television age is that frivolous candidates are increasing. That is far more of a factor since television, satellite and everything else came into being.
I accept that entirely and I hope that schedule 2 will ensure that such frivolous candidates will not be able to abuse our procedures so as to usurp the votes that were intended to be cast for serious candidates, but there is no mechanism that can rule out frivolous candidates standing at an election. In a moment, I shall say a few words about frivolity, of which my hon. Friend may care to take note.
The selection of the mechanism for the registration of companies as the mechanism for the registration of political parties strikes me as unfortunate. As I said in an intervention, there is something unsavoury about meeting a citizen of the United States to be told that he is vice-president of a particular company. Anyone, it seems, can be a vice-president of a company, much in the way as, increasingly, anyone in this country can become a company director, having paid £100 and bought the title off the shelf.
As a consequence of the Bill, anyone can be a leader of a political party.
The purpose of my intervention during the Home Secretary's speech was to highlight that. I asked him what would happen if a political party registered and then fielded no candidates and acquired no votes. He said, "That is entirely proper. Nothing would happen at all." One would therefore he able to become the leader of a political party, and acquire the—quite false—authority of sitting on the "Today" programme and being interviewed as the leader of a political party, without having any intention of securing any political legitimacy. Allowing that to happen seems quite unnecessary.
Will the hon. Gentleman help the House? As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) has just held up a note up for the hon. Gentleman to read, does that mean that he is in imminent danger of becoming leader of his own political party?
The note concerned a domestic matter that my hon. Friend and I discussed earlier.
I come now to the matter of frivolity, as there seems to be a measure of mirth in the House.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to frivolity—a subject close to his heart—will he tell us whether he agrees that the Bill contains not only a sinister element, which he rightly pointed out, but a deeply patronising one? Does the Bill not assume that voters are so dim, undiscriminating or unable to make up their own mind on the legitimacy of candidates or political parties that they need to be spoon fed and nannied throughout the electoral process? Does he agree that that is a most unfortunate development, which we hope will be resisted at all costs?
My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. However, the problem is even worse, as the trend that he mentioned will be assisted by the Bill.
A principal difference between myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole is that I can think of nothing more dispiriting than logos appearing on the ballot paper. It is the dumbing down of British politics, in which candidates are to sell themselves in much the same way as they might sell soap powder. Only one symbol should legitimately appear on a ballot paper: an "X" marked against the name of one candidate. In the case of New Forrest, West, that name is mine.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole was strenuous in attempting to be in line with the new politics—the consensual attitude that is engendered by proportional systems, four of which we have already legislated on. I was therefore struggling for something complimentary to say about the Bill. However, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) has assisted me, as I now realise that I welcome in the Bill what is not in it. The hon. Gentleman wished that the Bill would empower the Liberal Democrats to circumvent the United Kingdom's very proper anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation, to persist with their extraordinary agenda of political correctness.
Will the hon. Gentleman define his comment, at the very beginning of his speech, about not wishing "to detain the House for very long"?
I have been fairly reasonable, so far, and certainly do not intend to detain the House for much longer. Were the hon. Gentleman to remain in his seat, I should be quicker.
The demand of the hon. Member for Colchester for a system allowing his party to circumvent equal opportunities legislation is rooted in the Liberal Democrats' attitude—their political correctness—which itself seems to be rooted in an attitude that pervaded the councils of the early Church—that men and women, the male and the female, are effectively two species that have antithetical interests and cannot be represented one by the other. The logical conclusion of such a system is that there has to be an equal number of male and female candidates to secure proper political representation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a most ridiculous argument, and I welcome the fact that the Bill does not endorse it.
The Home Secretary seemed to volunteer me for the Standing Committee that will consider the Bill, but I should certainly not relish the work that the Committee will have to put into it. The Bill seems to have been a very rushed job, and the Committee will have to do a great deal of work to sort it out.
I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that the only hon. Members who should serve on Standing Committees are those who are fawningly in favour of some ghastly consensual Bill. I hope that he accepts that the essence of the House includes Standing Committees scrutinising Bills with a proper degree of criticality. If so, does he not agree that—if he can find it within himself—he should offer himself—
For precisely the reason given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I was not volunteering myself for the Standing Committee.
The Committee will have so much to do, because the Bill contains so little that is necessary to make it workable. I have already mentioned to the Home Secretary the fact that the Bill contains no mechanism for third parties even to be notified that applications for registration are in prospect. It provides no means by which an application can be published, and therefore brought to the attention of other political parties that might wish to make representations. Nor does it contain an appeal procedure for those whose applications might be refused. All those matters will have to be dealt with.
The Bill is quite inadequate. In clause 10, for example, the question arises whether the "Committee of Members of the House of Commons" will be a Committee of the House. Will it enjoy parliamentary privilege? That matter will have to be sorted out.
I return to the point with which I began my speech. I wish that the Bill consisted of nothing more than schedule 2, which deals with the quite proper concern of the hon. Member for Torbay. The rest of the Bill is necessary as a consequence not of any inadequacy in our current electoral arrangements but of the awful systems that those on the Treasury Bench have in prospect for us.
This has been a short but interesting debate. When he was Home Secretary, James Callaghan said:
I would hope that most people who stand for election would have a proper sense of responsibility. I agree that one cannot wholly rely on that". —[Official Report, 18 December 1968; Vol. 775, c. 1404.]
In "The Times Guide to the House of Commons", when describing the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), Neil Hamilton and others at the count in Tatton at the general election, Matthew Parris said:
Behind both, towering above them and swaying from side to side in a weird dance, writhed a 7ft being. A 6ft transvestite in 12in platform heels, wearing a birdcage on her head, her face painted with wild shapes and red and green colours, dressed in royal robes, covered with glitter and plastered in £5 notes, 'Miss Moneypenny'—in reality Burnel Penhaul, 32, from Birmingham—was standing for the Miss Moneypenny's Glamorous One Party. Campaigning on the slogan 'Put the tat back into Tatton' she won 128 votes.
I think that that shows how wrong James Callaghan was in 1968. The fact is that, at the most recent general election, a record number of candidates stood, and a record number of candidates lost their deposits.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said, it was not so many years ago that candidates stood without any label on ballot papers. The changes that are occurring in the United Kingdom electoral system—especially the list system in European elections—make it is absolutely necessary that the registered names of political parties should be protected. Next year, for the first time in this country, people will vote for a political party. That will be their wake-up call on the consequences of proportional representation and the list system.
Not so many years ago, it was important for candidates to get their name known around the constituency. Now it is important for the party name and emblem to be known around the constituency, because that is what people will be voting for. That is not progress for politics in this country.
We have heard about the d'Hondt system. The Home Secretary said that d'Hondt was one of 10 famous Belgians whom he knew. Unless Mr. d'Hondt had nine other family members, I would struggle to name 10 famous Belgians. The d'Hondt system is simple compared with how the Liberal Democrats will select their lists.
The debate is about correcting a problem that we know exists because there have been a few Adjournment debates on it since the election. The problem is the spirit of fighting elections and allowing electors to choose clearly between candidates, individuals and clearly defined political parties. The arrangements have been flouted and, unless we do something, they will be flouted again.
I was once told that politics is not cricket. I guess that it is not. Some people will not play the game as it is intended. Deception is the clear intention of rogue candidates. I am not referring to any of the genuine articles in the House of Commons today. In a less generous mood, I could say a lot about deception and rogue candidates, but I am a generous person.
The speech of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) before the Christmas Adjournment reminded me of a typical "EastEnders" episode—it was depressing and without hope to start with and then it got worse. We have an opportunity to end that soap opera. The Bill is not a cure-all and there will still be judicial appeals because of the problem of people changing their names rather than passing off political parties, but it is a step in the right direction.
A quick review of "Dod" or "The Times Guide to the House of Commons" shows why we need to act. There were 3,717 candidates in 659 seats at the 1997 general election. "Dod" lists no fewer than six legitimate left of centre parties: Labour; Labour Co-operative; Scottish Socialist Alliance; the Socialist Labour party; the Socialist party of Great Britain; and the Workers Revolutionary party. That does not even include new Labour, which we all know to be a deception, whichever party uses the description.
In Camberwell and Peckham, the Labour party, the Socialist Labour party, the Socialist party and the Workers Revolutionary party all appeared on the same ballot paper. In Cardiff, South and Penarth, the New Labour candidate, who stood against the Labour candidate, scored 3,942 votes-three times more than the Plaid Cymru candidate. In Blackburn, a Common Sense candidate stood against the Home Secretary. As we know, the electors turned their backs on common sense and voted Labour-we can see the Home Secretary in his place.
A distinction has to be made between the more eccentric candidates—such as the Monster Raving Loony party, the Sub-genius candidate, the Glow Bowling candidate and the Independent OAP—and others with more sinister intentions to deceive, such the Conservatory candidate and other examples that we have heard this evening. I spoke to Rod Richards earlier today about the exercise that he had to go through. We have heard about it many times. A gentleman called David Neal, who did not even change his name by deed poll, gave the returning officer a nomination form filled in under the name Rod Richard. He dropped the letter "s" so that he would appear above Rod Richards on the ballot paper and called himself the Conservatory candidate.
The hon. Member for Winchester mentioned the problem of the 24 hours available for an appeal. In many cases, the candidates have less than 24 hours because they do not find out about the problem immediately.
What is the hon. Gentleman's opinion of changing the order of the candidates for elections by pulling a letter out of a hat to start the list off so that those names beginning with "A" are not guaranteed to be at the top? That would stop the pre-emptive spoiler, whose name is guaranteed to come above the candidate from whom they are trying to steal votes.
That would stop me from changing my name by deed poll to Aaron Aaronovitch, so I am not too sure about the idea. The Home Secretary says that a committee is considering the problem. It is one of many issues to be taken account. The hon. Member for Winchester mentioned several in his Adjournment speech, including the time available for postal ballot forms to be submitted, which is ridiculously long in these days of computers.
The problem of changing names—not even by deed poll—such as that Rod Richards faced, desperately needs to be solved. It is a definite problem which is not covered by the Bill. Even after the judicial review, in which the judge told the impersonator of Rod Richards to stand as David Neal, he was allowed to stand as the Conservatory candidate. He gained almost 600 votes, having changed his name just for the election and without campaigning or being well known in the area. We need to change the situation as soon as possible.
We welcome the Bill, but it is not perfect. We shall table amendments in Committee, as will other parties—perhaps even the Government will do so, remembering the Government of Wales Bill.
I am reassured by the Home Secretary's comment that nobody will be able to register the word "independent". I had thought that the hon. Member for Tatton might be able to register the word in the first round and that people would need to seek his permission to stand under that banner. We need clarification on whether a Conservative party member who was disgruntled with the Conservative party could stand as an Independent Conservative. He would be both a Conservative and independent. The Library has produced figures for the number of people who stood at local elections using the word "independent" before the party name—Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative. There were no figures for the 1998 elections, but in 1996, there were 51 candidates listed as Independent Labour, 30 as Independent Conservative and four as Independent Liberal Democrat. There were also 49 Militant Labour candidates and one Independent Green. We would welcome clarification on that.
We have heard of the Liberal Democrats concerns about the protection of their party's name. There is also the problem of the Liberal party, which had candidates at the general election. The Liberal party is older than the current Liberal Democrats. It has no Members of Parliament, so it would not be able to register the word Liberal in the first round of registration, but I am sure that it would be keen to seek protection for its name. Would that be possible under the Bill?
I should like to go into a little more detail on one issue that has been mentioned. It is not covered in the Bill, but it is important. It relates to the spirit of voting and to the Government of Wales Bill and the Scotland Bill, which are both in another place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said that there will be 40 first-past-the-post candidates and 20 additional members in the Welsh assembly, and 73 first-past-the-post candidates and 56 additional members in the Scottish Parliament. Under the d'Hondt system, people will be able to vote for a constituency member and use their second vote for the list system.
The great worry, which was addressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) in Committee on the Government of Wales Bill, is that the split ticket will be abused. Alter ego parties could stand, and the spirit of the d'Hondt system would be totally destroyed. In reply to my right hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), said:
"I thank the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) for advancing new clause 35 … We acknowledge the points that he has made and I concede that there may be scope for collusion between and within parties to exploit the two-ballot structure of the additional member system in the manner that he described. Such cynical manipulation … would be an affront to the electorate and would undermine the democratic credibility of the elected body … If that were to happen in Wales, it would not reflect well on the guilty parties."—[Official Report, 2 March 1998; Vol. 307, c. 804–05.]
To return to the quote of Jim Callaghan, we might all hope that people standing for parliamentary elections would play the game, but it does not always work that way. We cannot say what will happen to political parties that might try to use and abuse the system.
For instance, in Scotland, the Labour party sometimes stands as the Labour Co-operative party. What is to prevent the Labour party from fighting constituencies as the Labour party and list-system seats as the Labour Co-operative party? The Labour party would not be the only party able to do so. We have heard that Plaid Cymru is also to be known as the Party of Wales. It could stand as Plaid Cymru for constituencies and as the Party of Wales under the list system.
When we argued against the d'Hondt system in the first place, we were told to be quiet and to be grateful for it, as the Government were being extremely generous because no Conservative Members represent constituencies in Scotland and Wales. We can hardly be grateful if the system is open to such abuse. Fine words from the Government are well and good, but we need guarantees to ensure that loopholes are closed. We shall have to return to that matter in Committee.
I recently spoke to members of Charter 88 about their attitude to the Bill. They have major concerns about the fact that there is no appeal structure. We know that the registrar will be able to seek guidance from the Speaker's Committee, and that he can accept, ignore or overrule such guidance as he thinks appropriate. However, someone representing a potential political party has no right of appeal. Are the Government prepared to consider that matter in Committee, so that anyone who feels any grievance has a proper right of appeal? That is very important.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield also mentioned the importance to be given to electoral returning officers. Time and again, we have heard how returning officers did not want to become involved in making adjudications. Once nominations were submitted, and they were valid, that was it. They did not want to get involved in whether a candidate was really whom they claimed to be; a name is submitted and it is accepted. That is why there has been so much recourse to the courts. Going to court is expensive and stressful for individuals, political parties and local authorities, which must defend the adjudication. Are we to be assured that the 659 electoral returning officers will be properly guided to ensure uniformity, so that, if somebody is turned down as a candidate in one area, it will be extremely unlikely—indeed, rare—that that person will be able to stand elsewhere or that somebody else will be able to stand under exactly the same name?
The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) mentioned some of the strange, weird and wonderful parties that stood at the general election. We know that the Secretary of State will have powers under the Bill to ban certain words from ballot papers. If, for instance, somebody tried to stand for a Legalise Cannabis Now party, would he be able to take a view on that, given that the message is in the party name? We know that, once the election campaign starts, people may campaign on all sorts of issues, but we should bear in mind the fact that, under clause 3(1)(f), the Secretary of State, by order, will be able to ban all sorts of names. Does he expect to use that power a great deal? If so, in what circumstances?
We welcome the Bill. I know that many of us are keen to serve on the Committee because we want to improve it. We are absolutely certain that change is needed, to protect not only candidates and political parties but the people, who genuinely treasure their votes. They have the opportunity to use their vote in a general election only once every four or five years, and the last thing that they want is to be deceived. People were deceived at the last election by candidates standing under fraudulent, rogue party political names. We welcome the fact that that will change. We are interested to hear the Minister's response to the questions that have been posed in the debate.
This has been a very positive debate. Although there may have been slight echoes of dissent here and there, the general thrust of the Bill and its proposals have been welcomed by the whole House.
The measure is essential, particularly if, it must be conceded, we are to deal with new electoral systems, such as those for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh assembly and the European Parliament. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) acknowledged, the Bill does not uniquely address that aspect. It deals with other problems which, as I think hon. Members accept, need to be addressed irrespective of views on proportional representation or any other electoral system. I assure hon. Members who do not support proportional representation for election to this House or anywhere else that there will be an opportunity in due course to consider whatever proposals the Jenkins commission makes on voting systems. The Bill concerns distinct issues relating specifically to the problems that have been mentioned in the debate.
The setting up of a register for political parties is sensible, concerning as it does the means to combat deliberate attempts cynically to mislead electors. We have heard many examples of that. I was going to say that I would hope to reassure the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on the matter, but, on mature reflection, I am not sure whether anything that anybody said in the House could ever reassure him a great deal, such is the nature of his political approach. I shall return to the hon. Gentleman's comments.
I ought to spend a little time dealing with several of the issues that have been raised. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned the importance to the Westminster Parliament of the constituency link. I do not want to labour the point, but if he reads what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in debates earlier this week and looks at the terms of reference of the Jenkins commission, he will—I hope—agree that we accept the important role of the constituency link in the House of Commons, and hope that, by whatever means we end up resolving the issue, it will be preserved.
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be on the edge of his seat, but, as a constituency Member myself, I reaffirm everything that the Secretary of State said. Not only is that link a source of a great deal of information that makes us better at taking decisions in the House, but it means that those whom we represent in the Westminster Parliament know clearly who represents them because there is a defined geographical area that sends us here. Those points were well made by the right hon. Gentleman, and we accept them. Does he want to intervene?
The right hon. Gentleman spent a long time in government himself, and knows that it would be premature for me to give any such assurance now. At the appropriate time, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet will make that decision, and when the matter is decided, we shall be able to enlighten the right hon. Gentleman. In the meantime, he must exercise his customary patience.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether registration would prevent parties from colluding to exploit the additional member system—a question which was also raised by others. Any party that wants to contest the list part of the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh assembly or the Greater London assembly will need to be registered. The registrar will not be empowered to refuse a registration application merely because he believes the party to be a bogus one set up purely for the purpose of manipulating the electoral system.
However, any party set up as an "alter ego" party to try to win additional member seats would obviously be exposed by the media. That would become clear from the way in which it was campaigning, and I am sure that the voters would seek to punish it. Furthermore, the registrar would not register a supposedly new party if its name were too similar to that of an existing registered party.
The Under-Secretary of State in the other place, Lord Williams of Mostyn, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, gave an assurance during the passage of the Government of Wales Bill through another place that the Labour party would not attempt to use collusion to deceive the electorate, and I hope that any responsible party would take the same view. No doubt such matters will be further debated in Committee, but it was important to get that point on the record now.
The right hon. Gentleman and others asked why there was no appeal against decisions by the registrar. It will be for the registrar to decide whether in his opinion a name does not meet the tests in clause 3. As has been acknowledged, if he is in any doubt, he will be able to refer for advice to the Speaker' s Committee established under clause 10.
It is important to reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said—that, as part of the process, the registrar will examine the history of any political party, and how that may have led to the development or evolution of a name. For example, the relationship between the Liberal party and the Liberal Democrat party could be considered in that context—I would not like to predict the outcome, but it should be fairly obvious. The registrar would determine which was the successor party to the original Liberal party. I must admit that I do not envy him that task.
The process is not as sinister as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley made out. Perhaps, on reflection, he did not mean to make it sound sinister, but that is the impression that he may have created. I believe that the registrar will operate the system in a sensible way, and there is no reason to suspect any compromise of independence or any favouritism. We should wait and see how it works, but I am confident that a lot of thought went into the most appropriate methods. I am confident, because those methods work well in many other contexts.
I apologise if I am pre-empting something that the Minister was about to deal with, but I am interested in the question raised by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about the legitimacy of calling oneself an independent Conservative, Labour or Liberal candidate. It is important that people should be able to do that. Does the Minister agree?
The hon. Gentleman is right; he did anticipate an issue that I intend to deal with later. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made a number of points, and I shall try to cover the remainder of those first.
The right hon. Gentleman asked how misleading candidate descriptions are to be prevented. Any candidate standing on behalf of a registered party will require a certificate authorised by or on behalf of that party's registered nominating officer before the party's name or any form of words that voters are likely to associate with the registered party can be included on the ballot paper.
The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members also asked why the Bill did not deal with misleading names of candidates as well as of parties—names such as "The Bogus Roy Jenkins". The Bill does not deal with candidates' names, as has rightly been said, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, at the general election injunctions were successfully granted in the High Court against spoiler candidates using the same or a very similar name to stand against the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and Rod Richards, the former Member for Clwyd, North-West.
I shall deal later with who is and who is not an independent candidate, but that is a separate issue. I am talking about names now.
The Bill gives protection to the names of registered parties, and the possibility of including the party's emblem on the ballot paper should reduce any confusion arising from the use of misleading candidates' names.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, a little ungenerously, raised the possibility of emblems causing confusion and being used humorously. I think that emblems are a good thing. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made a strong point about how the emblems could help people whose first language was not English. I ask the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to accept another point: emblems could be useful in helping people with poor vision. There is evidence from the general election that disabled people in general, but especially partially sighted people, sometimes had difficulty in voting. A well-placed emblem on the ballot paper would be easier for somebody with dim sight to make out than the name of a political party, so the emblem would be helpful.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what there was to prevent inconsistency in decisions between different returning officers about what is misleading. That is a valid and important question. Different decisions will indeed be possible, because it will be up to each returning officer to decide whether a candidate's description is misleading when it is not supported by a registered party.
However, by and large, the returning officers do their job well, and we expect them to make reasonable decisions. I do not therefore expect any great variation between decisions. All of us here have stood for election, so we know about the good sense of returning officers. They are often put under pressure by people such as ourselves, and they usually make reasonable decisions in line with common sense and the requirements of legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) raised several points, and asked whether non-registered candidates would still be allowed to use party names on the ballot paper. He is right that the Bill will not prevent the continuation of so-called joke candidates with party descriptions, so long as, in the opinion of the returning officer, those would not lead voters to associate the candidate with a registered political party.
My hon. Friend also asked how the registrar of political parties would decide whether a proposed party name was offensive. That is up to the registrar to decide. If he is uncertain, he may seek advice from the Committee to be appointed by Madam Speaker under clause 10. Those are sensible arrangements. I do not want to be drawn into a debate with my hon. Friend as to what is and what is not offensive—first, because I detect some eagerness among hon. Members to get away tonight, and secondly because it might be slightly dangerous.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell)—part of whose speech greatly upset the hon. Member for New Forose, West—asked why the Bill should not contain provisions to allow parties to adopt all-women shortlists. The Government share the aim of increasing the representation of women and minority groups in Parliament and the devolved legislatures, but we do not believe that it would be possible or, indeed, appropriate to use the Bill to enable political parties to introduce measures such as all-women shortlists.
As has been made clear during discussions on the Scotland Bill, our legal advice is that, even if political parties were to be given a general exemption from the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, all-women shortlists would still fall foul of the European Union equal treatment directive. We could not have used the Bill to overcome that difficulty even if we had wanted to. We hope that political parties will do all that they can within the existing legal framework to encourage women candidates and to ensure that their selection procedures are not inadvertently discriminatory. I hope that the House will agree that the huge increase in the number of women Members of Parliament following the general election last year has improved the way in which we conduct business.
The hon. Member for Poole—I am about to damage his reputation, possibly beyond repair, and certainly in the eyes of the hon. Member for New Forose, West—made a typically thoughtful speech; I think that it was the second or third speech that I have heard him make this week. apologise if I am damaging his prospects, but he asked some useful questions, including whether a party would be able to register variants of its name, such as Conservative and Unionist, and who would be able to use words such as "Unionist" in their party's name. The Bill provides for each party to register one principal name, with an option, as was said earlier, for a Welsh-language name. It already provides protection for variations in a party's name. For example, if the Conservative party is registered, we would not expect the registrar to allow another party to register its name as Tory, Scottish Conservative or Young Conservative, as those names are associated with the Conservative party.
There is nothing to prevent a party from advising the registrar of the alternative names or variants that it uses—although they would not be registered separately—which could be misleading if registered by another party. The test is whether, in the registrar's opinion, voters are likely to be confused. That means that more than one party could use the same word in its name—such as "Liberal" or "Unionist"—provided that it was clear that voters could distinguish between the parties; if there were any doubt, the Speaker's Committee would be able to advise. Again, the history of those political parties would be taken into account. I recognise that, because of the way in which the Conservative party has developed over the years, there is some difficulty in the use of the word "Unionist", but we would not in any way seek to exploit that.
The hon. member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who described his rather sorry experience of misleading party names, asked about the use of the title "independent"—the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) intervened somewhat prematurely to raise the same issue. The order-making power under clause 3(1)(f) allows any word or expression to be prohibited. That will prevent some words, such as "royal", from being used in the title of a party. It will also help to ensure that some generic words or phrases, such as "independent" or "residents association", are not registered by one party so as to prevent their being used by individual candidates. The power can be used to allow a party to use the words "residents association" in its registered name only if it is qualified to do so within a geographical area—in other words, a party would not be able to operate nationally using the name Residents Association. As has been said, it would be open to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) to remain an independent or to register under any name that he chose—perhaps the Martin Bell party or the Anti-Corruption party—
Or, indeed, the White Suit party. He could use one of those names, provided that it could not be confused with that of another party and that it met the tests of the Bill. People will be able to continue to stand as independents provided that their use of the name is not intended to cause confusion through identification with a legitimate registered party.
I fear that the Minister is missing the point. Our concern is not the permissibility of using the name "independent", but whether it is permitted to use the names Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat in conjunction with it. The use of the word "independent" must surely be sufficient to make it clear that there is no intention to deceive.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The conjunction of the words "independent" and "party" is probably a tautology, so perhaps we should not be drawn down that road—we can have that debate at greater length in Committee.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the outset, the Bill is largely a technical measure, but it is none the less important. Once it has been enacted, there will be proper protection at elections for the names of political parties from spoiler candidates who use deliberately misleading descriptions. The electorate will have a much greater certainty that whoever they vote for represents the party that he or she claims to represent—I know that the House will welcome that.
We believe that it is vital that, for the purposes of list-style elections, the political parties have a simple and straightforward means of putting forward their candidates. The Bill is also right for the other reasons that I have mentioned, and it meets all the challenges that were set for it. I commend it to the House.