Political Parties and Elections Bill (Extension of Carry-over)

– in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 13th July 2009.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:47 pm, 13th July 2009

I beg to move,

That the period on the expiry of which proceedings on the Political Parties and Elections Bill shall lapse in pursuance of paragraph (13) of Standing Order No. 80A shall be extended by 15 weeks until 29 October 2009.

The House will be aware that because this is a carry-over Bill, which was introduced on 17 July 2008, it will fall if it does not receive Royal Assent before 17 July 2009. It should receive Royal Assent before that date, or before the House rises for the recess at the very latest. However, it is only prudent for us to take precautions to ensure that it will endure in the event of parliamentary timetabling-which is always strained at this point in the Session-making it impossible for it to complete its passage within that time frame. The extension motion is intended to ensure that the life of the Bill-an important Bill that has spent some time in the House already-will continue beyond 17 July this year if that is necessary for the effective timetabling of parliamentary business. The motion in no way reflects any lessening of the Government's determination to put the Bill on to the statute book as soon as possible-I hope that Members in all parts of the House will agree on that-but it is only right for us to make provision for all future possibilities.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I agree that the Bill is important, but I am concerned about the date of 29 October that the Government have specified in the motion. Clause 14, for example, introduces important new regulations that will take effect on 1 January, and an Electoral Commission consultation must take place between Royal Assent and that date. What concerns me is that an extension until 29 October will not allow enough time.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

That concerns me as well, which is why I stressed our determination to complete the Bill's passage by the recess at the very latest. I look forward to the co-operation of the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, all Members, because it is important for the Bill to be on the statute book as soon as possible. This is merely a prudent measure to ensure that it does not fall altogether.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 4:48 pm, 13th July 2009

I think it fair to say that the Minister and I, and our respective teams, have come a long way with this marathon piece of legislation. What was a very weak and partisan Bill became-bit by bit, debate by debate, in both Houses-a Bill that I think we can broadly say was built on consensus. I am afraid, however, that that seems no longer to be the case. Given that we received the Minister's amendments only today, no one has yet been able to give proper and full consideration to the impact of clause 8 in its amended state. The Bill contains complicated clauses with significant underlying issues and complex tax implications. As it happens, we think that these provisions still have serious flaws and weaknesses, but that apart, from a procedural point of view, this is no way to make law.

In the other place, the Minister, Lord Bach, said most stridently that he was against what was then called the Campbell-Savours amendment and that it was "unrealistic and cannot work", yet here we are just one month later with the Government accepting the amendment in principle. The Minister needs to explain why this U-turn came about. Have the Government really become so weak that they have to introduce a series of major amendments to our electoral law just a few hours before they are debated? Frankly, this is outrageous. The Bill has been passing through Parliament for more than 18 months and it is unacceptable that this issue could not have been dealt with earlier within one of the two Houses.

The Government have consistently maintained that they want this Bill-the Minister just did so once again. They want it as a revision of electoral law and party funding, and they also want proceedings on it to be conducted in a consensual manner-and for the most part, after the revision of the overly partisan initial Bill, that has been the case. I should take this opportunity to acknowledge the usual spirit of co-operation that we have enjoyed with the Secretary of State and his Minister. However, it is totally unacceptable for them to come here today and announce this major change of policy, which I first saw only in Saturday's edition of The Guardian, and then to throw six pages of complicated amendments at us this morning. This is no way to behave; this is no way to act like a responsible Government.

What we are seeing here is the dying embers of a rudderless Government who have once again failed to control their Back Benchers. The reality of this situation is that it is a problem for the Government, not for us. So let me make it very clear that this Bill no longer carries cross-party support. Our position now is that the Government should take this Bill away, rethink it and come back in the next Session with a new Bill that we can debate properly. A significant number of knock-on issues emanate from this, and we need to think them through carefully. For these reasons, we will be asking the House to divide on this carry-over motion, and I recommend that my hon. Friends vote against its extension.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 4:53 pm, 13th July 2009

As the Minister said, Standing Order No. 80A(13) provides for carry-overs to last only one year, and that year comes to an end on 17 July, hence the need for an extension motion under Standing Order No. 80A(14).

Mr. Djanogly said that the Bill no longer carried consensus because of the Government's concessions on the clauses to do with tax exile donors. On the substance of that matter, I welcome very much the Government's concession and, as far as we are concerned, this increases, not decreases, the degree of consensus on the Bill. However, I do share the hon. Gentleman's concern over the process. This is now quite a short and insignificant Bill that has taken more than a year to get to its current state, but our debates on it have repeatedly been cut short. As a result, in the debates in Committee and on Report, only one of all the Hayden Phillips proposals that Liberal Democrat Members were proposing ever got to a vote. The Government constantly said there was not enough time to debate very important issues. In fact, on Report we ran out of time and could not discuss properly the very issue the hon. Member for Huntingdon has raised. For the Government to come forward at this stage with a carry-over motion on the grounds that we are running out of time, and on that very morning to table new and serious-even though very welcome-amendments strikes me as an abuse of process.

I want these clauses to work, but we have not had time to consider them in the depth that they deserve. I am concerned whether they will properly cover the devices that donors enter into to avoid being captured by the law-but I shall say more about that later. Those of us who might have had legitimate amendments to suggest to the Government's proposals have had no time to table them. The only thing that we can do is suggest manuscript amendments, and that is far from the proper procedure. As a member of the prospective committee on procedure to be chaired by Dr. Wright, I will raise this matter elsewhere.

The Government should be given a strict deadline to get this Bill through. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Reid, I do not think that that deadline can possibly be 29 October, because by then it will be too late to implement the Bill. If there were to be an extension of the carry-over, it should not go beyond 21 July. With great reluctance-because I strongly support the Government's concession on the major issue before us-I will advise my hon. Friends to oppose the carry-over extension.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Minister (Scotland) 4:56 pm, 13th July 2009

My hon. Friend David Howarth is right in his criticism of the process that this Bill has gone through. Procedurally, it has been a shambles. I served on the Committee and vast rafts of amendments were not debated. I sat here through the entire Report stage and, again, rafts of amendments were not considered. I tried to speak on Third Reading, but we ran out of time. There have also been huge gaps between different stages of the Bill.

My concern about the carry-over motion is that it specifies 29 October. I know that the Minister, in response to my intervention, said that the Government's intention was to get the Bill on the statute book before the parliamentary recess. In that case, why does not the motion simply give the last day before the parliamentary recess-21 July? Why does it specify 29 October?

Clauses 14 and 15 introduce important new rules about election expenses that come into effect on 1 January 2010. Between Royal Assent and 1 January, the Electoral Commission has to conduct a consultation exercise and then issue guidance. The two months between 29 October and 1 January would not be long enough for that to happen. I would have been happy to vote for the motion had it specified 21 July, but as it says 29 October, I will oppose it.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 4:58 pm, 13th July 2009

It is a pity that the Government wish to rush through what could turn out to be a bungled and unsatisfactory piece of legislation. Given the problems that candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour party got into under the law that the Government introduced before, one would have thought that the Government would have seen the need for simpler and clearer legislation and for more time to prepare it so that everyone could buy into it, understand it and comply with it. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members wished to comply with the earlier legislation, but they got into difficulties because it was complicated and not fully understood. That legislation had not been thought through or debated sufficiently so that all could grapple with its complexities.

I have the same worry, only more so, about this Bill, because it has a troubled history. We now learn that consensus has broken down between the main parties on this issue, but the Bill requires consensus and agreement because it relates to the methods of election of people of all parties and none to this House. Surely it requires as much time as Parliament thinks it needs or deserves to try to reach sensible agreement. It is not satisfactory to have a whole set of new proposals put before the House at the last minute.

I cannot understand why we need 80 days off this summer, but that is the Government's wish. If they are sticking with their 80 days off, there clearly is not time to do this Bill properly. They have an easy answer-they could put on another couple of days next week and get this thing done properly. I do not see the Minister rising to offer to do that. I find it very difficult to explain to constituents why there is not enough time to make our case or to do our job when we are then forced to take an 80-day break when some of us would be happy to work longer to see things through properly.

If we must have this kind of legislation, the Government should let us have the time to debate it. Indeed, why cannot we go longer this week if colleagues already have holidays planned for next week? We could sit later on Wednesday or Thursday to accommodate the need to consider these measures carefully. I think that it is a great tragedy that the Minister will not rise from his seat and offer us that- [ Interruption. ] Does Chris Ruane want to intervene?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

No, sorry. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to finish.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was keen to disagree-I am delighted that I have the agreement of the Labour Back Benchers. They do not wish to intervene and tell me that I am wrong to want more time to discuss these matters. Please will the Minister reconsider, will he see that this has broken any chance of consensus and will he grant us more time? There is plenty of time this week or next week.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd 5:00 pm, 13th July 2009

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient time to discuss the important issue of politically motivated leaders of local authorities who deliberately try to keep registration at a low level? The Minister will recall that I have given the example in previous debates of the Liberal leader of Islington local authority, who, when approached by the Labour group to have a registration drive before an election, was adamantly opposed to that idea because that was how Liberals won elections. Will there be sufficient time to discuss these important issues?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point 5:01 pm, 13th July 2009

I am not at all surprised that the Conservative party opposes the Bill. I want to see it come on to the statute book as soon as possible so that we can get more transparency on the funding of political parties and of elections in particular. I know that this Bill will cause problems for the Conservative party because it currently abuses the system. It acts in a way that the public perceive as totally improper in funding campaigns with tens of thousands of pounds even before the starting point of the election is reached. That is an abuse of the system. I want to see that stopped, and that is why I will be supporting the Government.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Did the hon. Gentleman also think that it was an abuse when the incumbent Government decided to add £10,000 on top of already generous allowances so that Labour MPs in particular, who have the majority here- [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

So that Labour MPs in particular, who have the majority in this House, were able to spend public money promoting themselves to the electorate.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The motion under discussion is the carry-over motion. Can we please keep to that motion in the time that is available?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall abide by your wishes and not be distracted from the motion that we are discussing. I am astounded that the Conservative party, of all parties, should seek to raise today, in this debate, the question of the abuse of Members' allowances. What brass neck they have.

I want to see the Bill brought forward and that is why I will be supporting the carry-over motion, although I want to see levels of reporting reduced to lower sums so that we have even greater transparency. I also want to see even greater restrictions on spending on elections. I do not want to see this country going down the same route as America on election funding.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 5:03 pm, 13th July 2009

As always, we have had a very interesting little exchange on these matters, but the contributions from Opposition Members have been unusually baffling and illogical. Of course, I agree with Mr. Reid. He is quite right that we need to get this done as quickly as possible, but the contributions that we have heard from both Opposition Front Benchers demonstrate exactly why we need to allow a little bit of time for the Opposition to get their act together.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise quite how offensive it is to suggest that the Opposition need time to get our act together, when the Government, on a matter of huge difficulty, which is the legislative equivalent of brain surgery, have produced six pages of amendments on the morning that these matters are to be debated in the House? To suggest that the Opposition need time suggests a lack of self-awareness that beggars belief.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I certainly would not want to cause any offence whatsoever, but if he had borne with me just a little, I would have explained precisely why the Opposition need to get their act together. I do not wish to cause him offence, but if he listens to me, I will explain exactly why I said that.

These amendments were debated at some length in the other place. I respectfully point out to Opposition Front Benchers that consensus is a matter not just of two Front-Bench teams reaching agreement, but of the whole House reaching agreement in so far as possible. We also need to take proper recognition of the sentiments in the other place.

In the other place, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, a very large number of Conservative peers take the Conservative Whip-200 or so. I wonder whether he can remember how many of them voted against the amendments that the other place passed. I will remind him: it was 40. He will be aware that a significant number of Cross Benchers also voted in favour of the amendments. We have to take account of the sentiment of the other place, and I am surprised that Opposition Front Benchers do not wish to do that. We believe that it is right and proper to do so. We are conscious of the time frame. These issues have been debated. We think that there is sufficient time to debate that.

I reassure my hon. Friend Chris Ruane that we will have time in later debates to discuss the matter that he has raised, and I will do so in relation to the appropriate clauses.

I am baffled by the contribution of David Howarth. On the one hand, he seems to be calling for a strict deadline to be imposed on the Bill; on the other hand, he has been vituperative in his criticism of us for not allowing sufficient time to discuss the Bill. As so often, I am afraid, the Liberal Democrats are facing both ways.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The problem is that very short debates were followed by very long intervals without debates, and that happened in both Houses. Why did the Government take so long to get the Bill to Third Reading in the House of Lords?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have discussed all these issues at very great length. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] We have, and as hon. Members on both sides of the House want to get on to discuss the Bill's substance, I beg to hope that the House will now agree to the motion.

Question put.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 283, Noes 196.

Division number 198 Political Parties and Elections Bill (Extension of Carry-over)

Aye: 283 MPs

No: 196 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.