Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:34 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 5:34 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I support the points that the noble Baroness has just made about the burden on local parties, particularly the treasurers, that was implied in the 2000 Act and was originally going to be increased in the current Act. I welcome the Government's pull-back with the restriction of investigatory powers, which will be an important aspect in encouraging local people to serve as officers of their local parties. All too often, as many of us know, it is not a question of who is going to carry out these roles but how we will get anybody to do it at all. We want to find ways of encouraging them. In Committee, we will need to explore whether the changes the Government made achieve what it says on the tin.

Since this is a Second Reading debate, I shall step back from the detail and look at two issues which I describe as the elephants in the room. The first is the maintenance of public confidence in how our elections are run; the second is the maintenance of public confidence in the way in which our political parties are financed. If we get those two building blocks right, most other issues fall into place. Several noble Lords have remarked on the evidence of declining electoral confidence on both counts and the consequent dangers to the fabric of our democracy. That will be even more important at a time of considerable economic stress such as we are apparently going to have. People are at work; they are impoverished; it is more than ever important that they feel that their democracy represents their views and aspirations as a means of avoiding other and much less attractive ways of expressing them. Some people have said that this is primarily an issue for the other place, but I do not think it is any more, if it ever was. The waves of cynicism and disbelief are beginning to lap against the foundations of your Lordships' House as well.

On how elections are run, the Government's response to the decline in electoral turnout was to make it easier to vote, hence the introduction of pretty wholesale postal voting. But any dispassionate observer would have said that that was an experiment doomed to failure. Those of us who have fought general elections will recall travelling up and down streets on election night, asking people to vote. The person says that when they have finished washing the car or mowing the lawn or when their television programme comes to an end, they will go and vote. You say, "For goodness' sake, go and vote—for me, preferably—but above all, go and vote". Even so, you have a pretty clear idea that they are not going to.

Postal voting will not change that aspect of behaviour; rather the reverse, in my view, because the easier it becomes to vote the less people value it. There may be some argument for saying that voting should require at least some effort on the part of our fellow citizens in order to participate in our democracy. It happens, after all, only once every four or five years, and of course one should provide safeguards for the old, the infirm and the ill. However, as my noble friend on the Front Bench pointed out, it was worse than this because the cases of electoral fraud undermined confidence in the whole process, and participation decreased rather than increased.

I was extremely disappointed that there was nothing about this in the original Bill, but I welcome the Government's Damascene conversion on 2 March. God loves a sinner who repenteth. We have a very interesting set of proposals to consider. Of course we shall need to look at them in detail. If I heard him aright, the noble Lord, Lord Neill, set a few torpedoes running about the nature of them, which may well yet take those provisions amidships. I congratulate the Government on the Bill; certainly there is a cheer for having got that first part of the task in hand.

So much for the first elephant. The second is party funding, on which, I am afraid, the Bill is entirely silent. To use a caricature, if you go to the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck and talk about party funding, after a certain amount of unprintable stuff about politicians generally, you will be told that my party is funded by, and responds to, rich people and the Labour Party is funded by, and responds to, the trade unions. I think that the Labour Party has a good many rich people in it as well, but never mind about that. I am not saying that that is a true reflection of the situation, but it is how people think, react and behave. To restore confidence, we need to show that this is not the case. The Bill would have been an ideal opportunity for us to do so, but it would require courage and resolution on the part of both major parties to accept the inevitable consequence: a cap on individual donations. For my party, it would be an opportunity to demonstrate beyond peradventure that rich men cannot influence it; for the Labour Party, it would be an opportunity to introduce transparency to its financial arrangements with the trades unions. There are, of course, risks and dangers, but surely, given the degree of cynicism about our political process, it is a risk that we should all be prepared to run.

Finally on this point, if we really want to be bold and encourage the parties to reach out to a mass membership along the lines referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, in his intervention on the Minister's speech, perhaps some form of matched funding from the taxpayer, whereby, up to a modest level per head, individual donations could be matched, should be considered. This would have the twin benefits of encouraging parties to produce more members and providing them with additional funding. But I am afraid there are no ideas from, nor cheers for, the Government on this topic, because they have ducked it.

I turn briefly to the provisions. Clause 4 proposes the introduction of electoral commissioners from the political parties. I can see the superficial attractiveness—the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, referred to it—of getting people with political experience involved in the commission, but I say to the Government, "Be careful what you wish for". If one talks to Members of the other place about the way in which their internal disciplinary procedures run, they will say, in a moment of honesty, that they too often become party political matters, and that the process of discipline has therefore become less effective and less commanding of public confidence than might otherwise be the case. There is a danger in introducing party-political electoral commissioners. I understand that they will be extinct volcanoes—that is, people who have had a distinguished career but who are no longer involved in the day-to-day thrust of politics—but members of the Electoral Commission need to be, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion.

I draw the Minister's attention to Section 4 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, entitled "Parliamentary Parties Panel", on which, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, served if I heard him correctly in his opening remarks. Subsection (2) states:

"The function of the panel shall be to submit representations or information to the Commission about such matters affecting political parties as the panel think fit".

I accept that it is quite narrowly drawn, with financial matters primarily in mind, but it could be built on. We could have the advantage of party political input without running the risk of the Electoral Commission becoming involved in party politics. The Minister should consider whether we cannot get the best of both worlds by slightly reforming something that already exists in the 2000 Act.

Clause 10 relates to the compliance officer. I cannot see clearly what this man or woman will achieve other than duplicate existing functions. Most of the duties laid down seem primarily to be the responsibility of the election agent, and there are considerable dangers of divided responsibility, with neither party being prepared to take primary care. I refer the Minister to Clausewitz's old saying: "Better a bad general than a divided command". We have a divided command here.

We should look carefully at Clause 17. I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I was delighted to hear that the Minister intends to allow a free vote on this issue. Transparency is a key regulatory objective and one of the principles of good regulation. This change was popped into the Bill without any debate a couple of weeks ago. Electors are entitled to know where their candidate lives; for some, local roots are an important aspect of the appeal of a candidate. To those who argue about security, I say that I am not aware of attacks on candidates. There have been some dreadful cases of attacks on Members of Parliament, particularly the one in Cheltenham, but that was about a surgery. I assume, therefore, that a candidate's address will not remain a confidential matter; otherwise, the contact between the Member of Parliament and his constituents would be greatly reduced.