Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Shadow Minister, Cabinet Office, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government, Shadow Minister, Energy and Climate Change, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 4:40 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I share the concern—it is shared on all sides of the House—that participation in all voluntary organisations in communities is declining. Our communities are the weaker for it. We would certainly want to see all measures in this legislation enhance the prospect of people taking part in party political activity up and down the country. I will come to that in a little more detail later on.

Wherever the ambiguities may be about the funding of political parties and party political donations, there is certainly no ambiguity about the fact that, over the past seven years, there have been 42 convictions for electoral fraud in the United Kingdom and only one of the 43 authorities in England and Wales has had no case to investigate. The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly's monitoring committee commented that there are,

"vulnerabilities in the system which should urgently be addressed".

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust stated in its report of April 2008 that:

"There is widespread, and justifiable, concern about both the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the UK's electoral registers—the poor state of the registers potentially compromises the integrity of the ballot".

We take that extremely seriously. This proves that it is not so much the risk of serious fraud at the ballot box that we are talking about. It is happening, and change is urgently required to tackle this aspect of the legitimacy of the process as soon as possible. Furthermore, this opportunity for fraud was significantly increased by the extension of postal voting, as was again found by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report, which said:

"Public confidence in the electoral process in the UK was the lowest in Western Europe in 1997, and has almost certainly declined further as a result of the extension of postal voting".

As it stands, the Bill is therefore a missed opportunity. It was going to be a calamitous missed opportunity to tackle this important issue but, on Report, just before Third Reading in the other place, the Government finally conceded that they would bring forward proposals for individual voter registration, as the experts have long been calling for. However, it was rushed through at that stage. Many Members of the other place would have preferred that this concession was given in Committee so that it could have been scrutinised by them. So we will be looking to the Minister to provide some assurances and much more detail than we have so far received about how this will operate in practice. What we have been offered so far by the Government is an incomplete system that will not be introduced in a mandatory way until 2015. It will not exclude people already on the electoral role, and it will therefore be 2017—possibly two general elections' time—before we can again have confidence in the veracity of the register. As the Minister has told us today, personal identifiers will be introduced, but only on a voluntary basis. Can that deliver the confidence that we seek?

All of this is happening while this system has been successfully introduced as a pilot in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office published Electoral Registration in Northern Ireland, which said that voter registration had been central to enhancing the accuracy of confidence in the electoral register. That is the case made. We do not resent them for having it, but why can the people of Northern Ireland have it and why can it not be spread much quicker into the rest of the United Kingdom?

Finally, there are places where the Bill should be toughened and uncompromising. However, there are also areas, relating to local associations and committees having responsibility to appoint an effective compliance officer in order to identify the source of donations over £500 on pain of criminal offence, which seem to us to go too strongly in the other direction, to the extent that they could discourage legitimate volunteers from taking on those places, or legitimate donors from making donations to the party. It is important to recognise that at a local level, the association, committee chairman or organisers are not qualified lawyers, they do not have access to the best city regulators and they do not have teams of accountants working for them. They are often working by themselves, late into the night and on a voluntary basis, and trying to follow the rules. It is very difficult for them, particularly when the rules change with such frequency.

Therefore we propose two suggestions: first, that there ought to be a defence of innocent mistake; and secondly, that the threshold required for registration—rather than being reduced from £500 down to £200, as was hinted at early on in this debate—should actually be raised to £1,000, to take in many more donations and potential donations, and to remove lots more bureaucracy from this. I understand that the Minister finds this slightly puzzling, but of course this particular element is all about trying to answer the problem which arose from the David Abrahams donations scandal, when it was alleged that donations of £600,000 had been made to the Labour Party through a series of proxies. We understand that that is unacceptable, and that we need to restore confidence to the system. However, we feel currently that moving that threshold to a higher level would help with that, whilst doing nothing to diminish the prospect of catching the serious abuses, which is what we are looking for.

I have spoken about some of the measures which we hope to see this Bill address as it goes through Committee. We feel that this Bill has been framed in such a way as to provide a missed opportunity for a long-term, sustainable settlement with regard to party donations from trade unions, companies and individuals. However, the Government's many concessions in another place mean that this Bill is now in a format that for the most part we welcome.