I rise to introduce this Adjournment debate on an issue that should be, and I think will be, of interest to all Members of the House—perhaps unexpectedly and by surprise in future years if the law is not changed. I declare not an interest, but a long-standing personal friendship with one of the individuals to whom I shall refer—Mr Phil Woolas, the former Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, who is nowadays something of an expert on election petitions and their impact.
There has been a long history of election petitions over the past 400 years, but since 1604 there has not been much change in this respect in Parliament and therefore in this country. There has been a fundamental weakness in how the law has been consolidated in 1983 and since then. As is well recognised, the Electoral Commission has been privy to cross-party discussions—one could even call them negotiations—on such matters. In a helpful advice note, the commission said of the legal basis for challenging the result of an election:
“There was broad support for a review of the current legal basis for challenging the results of an election. The general”— cross-party—
“consensus was that the process was antiquated, not user-friendly and that reform of the process was needed.”
Similarly, on the rather minor issue of the correction of procedural errors, it states:
“If the Returning Officer concludes that the wrong person was declared ‘duly’ elected because of a procedural mistake, he or she currently has no powers to correct the error beyond advising the affected candidate to lodge an election petition.”
That is clearly nonsense and an anomaly that needs to be rectified in law.
Petitions on minor but important issues that do not affect the result do not occur. In essence, those issues disappear. One cannot challenge a precise wrong within the process without a full election petition. We should have a system that allows candidates or third parties to point to errors that do not affect the outcome without involving the principle or requiring the potential expense of attempting to remove an elected Member. Any candidate or third party with a rational interest should have the power to point to something that has been done that is anomalous, wrong or mistaken, such as errors that are made in the process by a local authority or a returning officer. The inability to do so in the current system, other than by an exchange of correspondence, is a weakness that undermines our system of democracy.
We now get on to the much bigger issue of costs and surety. Given the nature of political argument and the often heated debates within election campaigns, it needs to be difficult for losing candidates to put in petitions that could be deemed frivolous. If it is too easy to put in an election petition and every candidate puts one in, perhaps because they have lost by a few votes and are looking for an excuse to overturn the result, it clearly does not suit Parliament and democracy. That must be balanced against the potential risks of costs should one put in a petition. It should not be only those with significant wealth who might be able to meet adverse costs who should feel confident about putting in an election petition if there is a wrong that requires righting. There is an imbalance within the process that needs to be rebalanced. We must allow genuine petitions to go forward without encouraging reckless or frivolous petitions that are not genuine, and the ability to take forward a petition must not rely on finance.
The problem of costs was compounded recently by a case involving local election petitions in Slough. This is not a party political point, so I will not even mention the parties involved. The key issue is the principle. One of the major parties ended up with a councillor in prison. The other party, which brought the case, sought to have its costs awarded when it won the case. However, the party whose councillor was in prison dropped the candidate. It was up to the party that won in court potentially to bankrupt the individual. Clearly there needs to be a better system than that. I put it to the Minister that what is needed is a provision to allow election courts a wider remit in awarding costs and in deciding who should meet them. In particular, if a party defends the case, or aids and abets the defence, there should be the possibility of costs in part or whole being awarded against that party rather than necessarily against the individual. I do not think the continuation of the Slough example will serve any of the political parties in this country in future.
A case that, perhaps remarkably, has not been discussed in the House before is that of Mr Phil Woolas, who was a Member of the House and was elected at the last general election. I think it is reasonably fair to say that he was a widely respected Member on both sides of the House. Of course, he is no longer a Member, and indeed he cannot stand in any election for three years. I am not questioning the judgment that was made; I am questioning the process and its weaknesses and inflexibility. I think it will be helpful if I quote part of the conclusion of the judgment made by the two judges who sat on the election court. They stated:
“In our judgment to say that a person has sought the electoral support of persons who advocate extreme violence, in particular to his personal opponent, clearly attacks his personal character or conduct.
It suggests that he is willing to condone threats of violence in pursuit of personal advantage.
Having considered the evidence which was adduced in court we are sure that these statements were untrue. We are also sure that the respondent had no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true.”
One of the anomalies in the current law is the question of what is “personal character and conduct”. The previous time there was an electoral petition on the matter was the North Louth case in 1911. However, unless the law is changed, there is a danger in the era of the modern media that because one such case has been taken, many such cases could be taken. From looking at the publicity and propaganda that there have been, I think it is factually accurate to say that there have been worse in recent elections from all three main parties than in the case of Mr Woolas, and the candidates in question have won. Indeed, there is a significant question of how we determine the facts of a case. Others have raised that matter, and it was part of the appeal that was attempted. However, before I come to it, there is a point that has never been raised that I will raise for the first time.
I am aware that the leaflets that caused offence were not written by Mr Woolas. He never made great play of the fact that he did not write them, but I put it to the House that less honourable politicians may well have used that as a basis of defence, although not necessarily successfully. They might have said that somebody else wrote the publicity. The question is where the sanctions should be applied. Should they be solely applied to the candidate?