Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:16 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:16 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, as I understand it, the commission suggested that the figure of £200 was too low. Later today I shall come back to the noble Lord and, if I am wrong, I shall withdraw what I said about the commission. As I understand it, that is what it said. It may not approve of the actual figure but it wanted an increase, and it seems to us common sense that there should be an increase.

The Government brought forward these provisions as amendments in another place to address concerns shared across the House that the current thresholds imposed a high burden of compliance that was not proportionate to the benefits. As my right honourable friends made clear in another place, while we are committed to transparency, this must not be achieved at the cost of overburdening political parties; and we have agreed to consider whether the reporting threshold for individual donees and party accounting units should be further raised.

Clause 14 introduces more effective controls on candidate spending in certain parliamentary general elections. The Bill originally proposed a spending limit that would regulate all spending for the purposes of a candidate's election, including that used before he or she is formally defined as a candidate. Debate on this provision during Public Bill Committee in another place was curtailed: but it was clear that the measure did not enjoy the support of opposition parties. I know that my honourable friends were disappointed that they had not been able to secure agreement to that proposal. Nevertheless, in the spirit of consensus, they listened to the views put forward by honourable Members and tabled the group of amendments which is now Clause 14.

Under current legislation, an individual generally becomes formally regarded as a candidate only at the point of dissolution of Parliament, with the result that expenditure by candidates on their expenses is currently regulated only from dissolution onwards. Having accepted that the earlier triggering proposal did not command consensus, Clause 14 introduces a second regulated period for candidate expenditure. This second limit would regulate candidate election expenditure during the period after 55 months of a Parliament have elapsed and before the date on which an individual formally becomes a candidate. At that point, the new limit would come to an end and the existing candidate expenditure limit would take over to regulate candidate spending from that point onwards. The Government are aware that Clause 14 does not represent an ideal solution—it may well be that no ideal exists. It will not tackle the problem of unregulated, pre-dissolution expenditure for shorter Parliaments. It will, however, improve the current system of regulation and does, we believe, command cross-party support.

The final group of clauses in the Bill, Clauses 16 to 23, relates to elections and electoral registration. With the exception of Clauses 22 and 23, these provisions are relatively straightforward and I will not go into detail now. Clauses 22 and 23 make provision for the piloting of data-matching schemes which will allow electoral registration officers to receive data from public authorities for the purposes of improving the comprehensiveness and accuracy of their registers. The pilots, which will be evaluated by the Electoral Commission, will help us to identify what data and what data-matching techniques are most useful for maintaining electoral registers.

As my right honourable friend Michael Wills made clear when he introduced these clauses in another place, the Government are entirely clear that any data matching must be carefully scrutinised and controlled. The clauses contain a number of safeguards: data must be relevant to electoral registration and can be used only for the purposes specified; public authorities providing data will be consulted on the release of information and proper safeguards will be put in place to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act; and any order putting in place a data-matching scheme must be debated and approved by this House and another place, and can be made only following consultation with the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner. We have sought the views of the Information Commissioner who has indicated that the measures seem proportionate and sensible in view of the strong public interest in ensuring that the register is as comprehensive as possible.

Noble Lords who followed the debate on these clauses in another place will know that they form only one part of a much wider package of reforms. My right honourable friend Michael Wills outlined the significant steps that the Government have already taken, and continue to take, to improve the electoral register; and announced that the Government would be bringing forward amendments in this House to facilitate the move to individual registration in Great Britain on a fixed timetable; but that timetable will have at its heart the twin principles of the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the register. These principles were welcomed and accepted by all sides in another place and I hope that they will be similarly supported here. As they will be a significant feature of the debates on the Bill in this House, I should like to say a little about the Government's intentions now.

In summary, the Government will bring forward amendments to put in place a statutory timetable for the introduction of individual registration; to begin the rollout of measures to prepare both the public and the electoral system for that change; and to put in place a series of tests that will be independently assessed by the Electoral Commission to ensure that the shift is made only once the system is ready for it. We intend to bring forward amendments which will make provision for electoral registration officers to collect personal identifiers from electors on a voluntary basis alongside the existing process of household registration from August 2010 until August 2015. At this point, and subject to certain tests which I will come on to, the provision of identifiers would become compulsory and household registration would effectively end. The period of overlap between the two systems would allow the Electoral Commission to work with EROs to identify any issues that are likely to arise from the move to individual registration, including what identifiers are most appropriate and which groups may have difficulty providing them.

From autumn 2015, all new registrations would have to provide the identifiers to be put on to the register. Anyone already on the register in autumn 2015 who did not provide their identifiers would be carried forward for two further years, to 2017. From that point, we would have full individual registration; that is, everyone on the register would have provided identifiers. However, we also intend to provide that that shift in 2015 would proceed only if two statutory tests, which would be assessed by the Electoral Commission no earlier than January 2014, were met.