Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice 7:02 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for his clear exposition of what is in the Bill and I look forward to the Committee and Report stages with the noble Lord answering all the questions that will be put to him in due course. I also look forward to him bringing forward the other parts of the Bill that he has promised. As he will be aware, this Bill is already very different from what was originally introduced in the Commons and it will differ further, we hope, following the Committee stage. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, put it, it is unfortunate to have Second Reading of the Bill when a rather large part of it is not there. However, I shall come later to the subject of individual voter registration.

I start by declaring an interest, albeit a very small one compared with what my noble friends and others have declared, but I think that it is important. For many years, I have been active, like many others, in the local constituency association where I live and I am a former chairman of that association. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Hodgson, I think that the state of our parties is a matter of considerable importance and that we should all do all that we can to encourage greater participation in the voluntary side. In particular, I should like to encourage greater participation in the voluntary side of my own party, but I would hope that the other parties might benefit as well.

That should be borne in mind in all our discussions on the Bill because it is important that, as many noble Lords have put it, we do not impose burdens on individual members of associations—we all think particularly of treasurers—that discourage people from becoming actively involved in those associations. I mention treasurers in particular because I remember that when I was chairman of my own local association, we brought in a new constitution, one of the sensible rules being that no officer should remain in office in the association for longer than three years. However, we suspended that almost immediately when we realised that we were not going to be able to find a new treasurer. I think that many people who have been involved in their local associations will have come across that problem. That needs to be borne in mind, particularly when we come to the question of the levels at which to set the various sums that need to be disclosed.

As I said, the Bill is rather different from what was originally introduced and it will change further. I want to discuss a few points before I hand over to the Minister and allow him to answer properly for the Government. The first relates to Clause 13, which concerns the thresholds and limits for donations. These have not been changed since 2000. For that reason, we think it right that they should go up and we will certainly put forward amendments to allow us to discuss whether they have gone up by the right amount or whether they should go up further. That will be an opportunity to debate these matters nine years on from 2000.

It is also important that we should look at the mechanism for increasing those sums in the future. I can see that simply bringing in a power to increase them in line with the RPI each year would, again, make things very difficult for people on the voluntary side of the parties. The thresholds would go up by odd sums and it would be very difficult to remember them. Therefore, a better approach might be to have some mechanism by which the thresholds could be increased once each Parliament by an appropriate amount that could be looked at by all those concerned. The increase could be broadly in line with inflation or, if necessary, the thresholds could be changed by a greater amount. That could be done by order or it could be included in the Bill. I should certainly welcome the noble Lord's views on that and on the whole question of what the thresholds in Clause 13 should be.

I move on to Clause 14 and the whole question of triggering. I should like to hear from the noble Lord exactly what the point is of having this triggering mechanism at 55 months. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, it would have applied in only two of the past 12 Parliaments. It seems a rather pointless thing to have included in the Bill, but the Minister will no doubt give his justification for it in due course and I shall welcome hearing what he has to say.

I turn to the question of penalties—or civil penalties, as I think they were described. The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, rightly made the point that they might be called civil penalties but they look more like criminal penalties than anything else. That was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I underline that these will be very difficult for individual members of an association—again, I think particularly of the treasurer—who might, inadvertently, make mistakes. We are all told that ignorance is no defence in criminal law. However, we are told that these are not criminal but civil penalties, although to me they look like criminal penalties. The point is that it does not make the whole job of compliance very easy for the individual member of an association. Would the Government be prepared to consider whether there might be a defence of inadvertently not knowing what was going on? Again, we will bring forward amendments on that in due course.

I now come to the part of the Bill which is not there and which we are debating without having seen it—that is, the part concerning individual voter registration. We were told—I think in the Minister's response to a question from his noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—that an amendment will be tabled before the Committee stage. It would have been more helpful to see something now. I appreciate that the Minister could not amend the Bill before Committee, but even a draft of what was coming might have assisted us in this Second Reading debate. Although we have agreed that the Bill will go into the Moses Room for Grand Committee, I have some questions on that in the light of this new and big subject coming in. I make that point simply for the assistance of the usual channels, who can discuss it and tell us their conclusions; we will no doubt do what they say.

We are told that amendments will be tabled on individual voter registration but that, for some peculiar reason, they cannot be brought into effect for at least eight or nine years from now—2017. That is a suspiciously long time and we wonder why the Government are so keen to ensure that individual voter registration is not operable for at least the next two general elections. We know that there may be an election some time later this year or, at worst, in June of next year and that there will be another in about 2014. I appreciate that it is too early to get anything going for the coming general election, but surely the Government could manage something a little sooner than 2017. After all, this system has been tried and tested in Northern Ireland for some years. We shall be tabling amendments to that effect and I imagine that others will want to question why the Government are being so slow on individual voter registration, which is of considerable importance if we are to stamp out the fairly high degree of postal vote fraud in the past few years.

As is frequently said at the end of the Queen's Speech, "Other amendments will be put before the House". Certainly my noble friends and I will make sure that others are brought forward. For example, as suggested by the noble Lords, Lord Neill of Bladen and Lord Rennard, further constraints could be put on postal voting. We will want to give serious consideration to those matters. I wish the Minister well. As I said, we broadly support the Bill as it now looks and we very much support the idea of individual voter registration and what the Minister will introduce, but we will want it a little sooner than he suggested.