Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:22 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour 5:22 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, in welcoming the Bill, I must declare an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society, an organisation that brings together from all parties high-level experts on election procedures, regulations and practices to examine and make proposals to maintain the integrity of all aspects of our electoral process. I welcome the Bill because it puts right many of the weaknesses and omissions of the 2000 Act. I have suggested the need for an Electoral Commission since 1991, after listening to the views of the Association of Electoral Administrators, which believed that many aspects of the electoral process at that time were insufficiently rigorous and in many cases little more than ad hoc. The establishment of the Electoral Commission was a milestone, but its remit in the 2000 Act was too wide and lacked sufficient regulatory control.

Last year, the HS Chapman Society held a seminar to consider the recommendations on the future role of the Electoral Commission proposed in the Eleventh Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and to hear the response of the Electoral Commission. That report stated:

"An effective Electoral Commission is a necessary and vital part of the modern institutional architecture. Its core duties should be as a regulator to ensure integrity and public confidence in the electoral process and in the framework that governs the political party funding and campaign expenditure".

I believe that the regulatory proposals in Clause 1, based as they are on those principles, will enable the Electoral Commission to be a proactive regulator of party funding with stronger control over electoral administration. However, this has to be accompanied by full implementation of the sanctions outlined in the Bill, which I believe will be adequate when we get the proposed amendments that will recast the current criminal offences into ones based on compliance models and fines.

The 2000 Act placed too great a burden on political parties and particularly on voluntary treasurers. The sanctions proposed will ease that burden by enabling the Electoral Commission to respond to breaches in a more proportionate and flexible way. Offences will be those committed without reasonable excuse, while those who have honestly made a mistake in reporting incomplete donation returns will be treated fairly. The training by the Electoral Commission of treasurers on compliance with the law should also ease that position.

The original writing of the Bill went too far in allowing the Electoral Commission to have powers to search donors' premises. The provisions finally arrived at will protect both the donor and the commission by making it the decision of a judge, based on a reasoned request from the commission, that any relevant document should be released, and only on further refusal would the police be able to carry out a search. This gives the donor every reasonable opportunity to comply.

I come now to what was previously a controversial subject when we discussed the 2000 Act: allowing some commissioners to have direct political experience, as in Clauses 4 and 5. As noble Lords will recall, in the debate on the 2000 Act all sides of your Lordships' House felt that it was wrong for there to be no direct political experience on the commission. As the Lord Chancellor said in the other place when introducing the Bill:

"With hindsight ... that was an error".—[Hansard, Commons, 20/10/08; col. 46.]

It will be of immense value to the commission to have four commissioners directly nominated by, but not representative of, the political parties in the Commons. It is important that the Speaker's Committee, which will confirm the appointments, ensures that there is absolute transparency in the making of those appointments, not least in how the fourth commissioner from the qualifying small parties will be determined.

The reduction of the restriction on involvement in political activity from 10 years to five years for all commissioners will provide a layer of experience that has been missing. The same principle applies in respect of the staff by reducing the current prohibition on employment from 10 years to one year, except for the post of chief executive, which is reduced to five years. In no way am I suggesting that the staff cannot be impartial, but I understand the desire of the commission for some flexibility so that, if necessary, it can apply to the Speaker's Committee for the five-year ban to be applied also to a small number of other posts, particularly to someone who might be acting on behalf of the chief executive.

I fully appreciate how difficult it has been to arrive at the necessary consensus on candidate spending limits but, without doubt, it was an unintended consequence of the 2000 Act that, in seeking to establish a clear definition of when someone has become a candidate, it seriously weakened controls on candidate spending. This has caused a dramatic increase in targeted spending by candidates. As outlined by my noble friend, Clause 14 removes the original triggering proposals from the Bill and replaces them with new controls on candidate spending at those Westminster parliamentary elections held more than 55 months after a Parliament first met. That is four and a half years, and I have some questions about that period. The proposal has the benefit of clearly defining when time controls will be in place.

I have been advocating since I was a party official that we ought to have fixed-term Parliaments, but this is not the Bill to deal with that position. However, I have some concern about the situation for shorter-term Parliaments. Having looked at the detailed explanation of the candidate spending amendment, I urge that the Electoral Commission, in its guidance to parties, spells it out in simple terms, with clear examples for each of the different outcomes depending on when an election is held. I found it more than a little complicated and felt that I ought to sit down with a pencil and paper and work it out. I am sure that voluntary party members will feel the same. It is important that it is spelt out clearly.

The new average limit of £30,000 per seat seems sensible. When I first became an agent we thought £2,500 was an enormous amount to spend. I therefore find £30,000 difficult to imagine, but I am sure it is right.

As my noble friend said, the increased reporting thresholds for donations should alleviate the compliance burden on political parties, which we also have to take into account. Importantly, the Bill clarifies the position on unincorporated associations and will increase the transparency surrounding large political donations. This will close the loophole which has allowed a breach of the principles of the 2000 Act and which currently allows wealthy donors to make anonymous donations to political parties above the amount which has to be reported. Actions like those also cause concern among the public, while we have to look seriously at the issue of foreign donations; I look forward to seeing whether that comes up in Committee. Having read Clause 10, about the compliance officers, I have one query for my noble friend. Could he clarify a little better exactly who can and should be a compliance officer, and what their particular role would be?

I turn to an important part of the Bill, which others in your Lordships' House have raised although it is not quite in the Bill yet. It is the question of individual registration. For far too long, there has been a democratic deficit arising from the 3 million eligible people who, because they are not registered, are not able to vote in this country. Ninety-one per cent registration is not acceptable. On polling day we are, all too often, confronted by people who want to vote, then discover that they have not registered and so cannot. It is such a simple thing; "No registration, no vote" should really be the sign that goes on all of our posters.

The Electoral Commission, as has been said, has long argued the case for individual registration to replace household registration, as has my own organisation, the HS Chapman Society. It is good news, then, that the Government are to produce an amendment for this House to discuss bringing in a scheme for individual registration. We will have to consider carefully the points within that amendment and look at it in some detail, but I support the Government in this; it is better to have it later than never. I am really glad that the Government have now come around to that thinking, but I appreciate why they had reservations that individual registration might result in a drop in the registration level, as in Northern Ireland. The process has to be rigorous enough to make sure that does not happen, which is why the timescale of allowing that work to go on until 2015 is absolutely right.

The integrity of the register is paramount and must be comprehensive and accurate, which means that electoral registration officers have to make special and increased efforts but have to be provided with the right tools and resources to make it happen. The Minister, Michael Wills, indicated that he would be coming forward with proposals to provide the extra resources needed. Experience has shown that money, unless ring-fenced for its intended purpose, is likely to be lost in other local government expenditure. The money has to be spent for the purpose for which it was allocated, but account must be taken there of the additional dimension of asking for personal information identifiers—such as date of birth or national insurance number—as well as a signature. The public will almost certainly want reassurance when providing that information. Equally, provision has to be made for reaching people living in multi-occupancy accommodation, those with literacy problems and other hard-to-reach groups. The decision to allow two-tier local government, as well as one-tier, to receive relevant data from other sources will greatly assist, but must clearly be done in compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

I appreciate that the Electoral Commission's monitoring of current standards and expenditure on registration by local authorities will give an assessment of performance variability throughout the country; those details will, I believe, be available shortly. That information should be the basis for starting the planning process towards individual registration. As my noble friend said, equally important will be the judgment of the Electoral Commission in determining whether sufficient time has been given to allow full implementation of the scheme or whether a further period, perhaps two years, is required.

The introduction of individual registration is a major breakthrough and should provide greater protection against electoral fraud while enhancing the legitimacy of the electoral process and the integrity of the ballot. Whether it is in the provision and expenditure of funds or the validity of our election, our electoral procedures—as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said—need the proposals in this Bill. I will fully support its progress through your Lordships' House.