Election Petitions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:34 am on 18th July 2011.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 12:34 am, 18th July 2011

I shall come on to that point in a moment. I just wished to make the distinction clear between matters of fact and the application of the law, which—to be fair—the hon. Gentleman did. The High Court made it clear that it was possible for judicial review of how the election court had applied the law.

On the basis of that decision, I do not think that the law needs to be changed to clarify the decision that matters of law can be appealed, although there was confusion in the reports of the case about whether Phil Woolas was appealing or requesting judicial review.

It is for Members to weigh up the issues, taking into account the hon. Gentleman’s point that we never know when we might be the subject of one these petitions. However, we must balance against that the need for a level of speed in the process. When Phil Woolas sought a judicial review, the High Court concluded on the justification for finality on fact:

“Election petitions must be determined with urgency. Finality in the determination is of great importance for not only must the electors have a representative in Parliament, but in times when majorities are small, the absence of a Member can be significant.”

A balance needs to be struck in this process between getting the right decision and getting it quite speedily. He raised several points about that matter. The Government keep it under review, but at the moment we are not persuaded by his arguments.

At the end of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman raised a more general issue about party funding. He will know that the coalition Government have made a commitment to deal with party funding—hopefully, on a consensual basis. We are waiting for the Committee on Standards in Public Life to publish its report. The Committee might make proposals that we can take as a basis for conversations between the parties and that might deal with some of the issues he has raised. He also made a point about the danger of political arguments being used to try to overturn elections. I think that the High Court made clear the distinction between false statements of fact about a candidate’s personal character or conduct and their political or public position—a statement had to be one or the other, but could not be both. Members when approving literature and others when thinking about challenging us should bear it in mind that it is not about running off to court every time someone says something about someone’s political position.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about things that get authorised by us. The legislation makes it clear that candidates should be liable to have their election voided only if they or their election agents—not lots of other people, but specifically they or their election agents—have authorised or consented to those illegal practices. That should ensure that election candidates and their election agents are careful about what they authorise and approve the spending of money on. They should perhaps be careful not to delegate that responsibility to others. It is not the case that anybody involved in a campaign can put out pieces of paper—if they are not approved by the candidate or election agent, they cannot lead to what happened in the case of Mr Woolas.

In conclusion, the Government agree that there should be proportionate and accessible procedures for challenging elections. We will keep the current position under review, and I will consider the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, particularly on costs, and come back to him one way or the other.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.