Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour 6:20 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, the real issue of this Bill, as I see it, is how we can galvanise our democratic electoral system so that greater numbers of our people feel that their participation in elections really matters.

We are facing a grave crisis—a crisis that affects all our political parties. We do not have an easy way out of this, but we have to face the situation together. Unfortunately, I do not think this Bill—or any Bill—can really do this. I am not suggesting for one moment that we should not consider what is being proposed. There are certain advantages in this Bill, but it is not a complete answer—or any answer—to the underlying problems that we face. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, was in my view unduly optimistic about the contribution that Members are able to make in the political process. That is an issue which confronts all parties but, as I have said, I do not think that any Bill can answer that problem.

I became involved in politics a long time ago—before the 1945 election. Some Members—very few in this House—will appreciate the significance of that. I became involved at a time when people really cared: the turnout in 1945, 1950 and 1951, and even in 1955, was enthusiastic and energetic in a way that few of us would say has happened since. I have been a member of the Labour Party for a very long time; the decline in voting is an issue that confronts all parties, if you care about the democratic system, as I do. I remember in that time—64 years ago—that people flooded into the election canvassing rooms. They really cared not only about casting their vote, but that other people should cast their vote, too. How can we resuscitate that situation? Is it possible? I repeat, it affects us all.

We are not facing up to the real problems. The real problem is that people want to feel that they can really effect change, something that many people think is impossible to achieve at this time. Despite what I have said, this Bill by and large represents an advance. It is also capable of becoming even more benign, within the limitations that were spelled out by my noble friend Lord Bach. I hope that in his wind-up, he will give the House further and better particulars of what discussions have taken place with the Electoral Commission and others about the proposals in the Bill, and about some of its shortcomings. The essential goals that we should seek to attain, as the Electoral Commission urges, are how we can modernise and strengthen the electoral registration system to make it more meaningful as far as ordinary people are concerned, and how we can introduce individual electoral registration. I would hope that we can see some worthwhile changes in this Bill.

The Electoral Commission is clearly concerned about the effect of the Bill's proposals about reporting donations and loans. Despite improvements contained in the Bill, the risk remains of a lack of confidence, as expressed by the Electoral Commission,

"in the transparency and integrity of party and election finance".

Is there validity in this concern? What is the Minister's response?

The Electoral Commission welcomes the changes devised by the Government to Clause 2 and Schedule 1, establishing that the Government are in listening mode and that this new procedure is a significant improvement on what we have now. I submit that the Electoral Commission is right when it suggests that statutory requests for information and explanations should be dealt with similarly to requests for documents, thereby extending the new court order procedure. As the Electoral Commission argues, such a procedure would enable an investigation to be effective. It strongly recommends—I think that it is absolutely right in this—that a civil court procedure is to be preferred to a criminal prosecution for not complying with a statutory request. What is the Minister's response to this modest proposal?

I turn to Clauses 4 and 7, concerning electoral commissioners. It was submitted in the House of Commons that the fourth nominated commissioner should provide a voice that would otherwise be unheard, for parties with fewer or no seats in the House of Commons. What is the Minister's view about this? It is essential that that issue should be faced.

So far as donations are concerned, Clause 13 increases the permissibility and recording threshold from £200 to £500. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, about this. Why have we come to that conclusion? There is a need to take account of the inflation that has occurred since 2000—that makes sense—but it is absurd to change the amount to £500. What justification is there to change it from £200 to £500? Although I think that there should occasionally be a review of the situation, we should react adversely to this particular proposal.

I turn to candidates in parliamentary elections. The Electoral Commission considered that voters should be able to have sufficient information to identify a candidate's links with his or her constituency, and the Minister indicated that there will be certain changes. Will there be any changes as far as that is concerned, and what is the general purpose which the Minister prescribes? It is quite insufficient to enable only candidates, some others closely identified with the candidate and representatives of the Electoral Commission to have access to the candidate's full address. What is suggested is that the returning officer should identify the candidate's home address. I think that that represents a demonstrable improvement on what has gone before. However, there needs to be further discussions with the Electoral Commission and the discussions should not be confined to that issue. It would be enormously beneficial to do that and I humbly commend the proposal.

I hope that what I have said is not wholly negative and that the Minister will take some account of it. I await his reply with bated breath.