Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:14 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 7:14 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, we of course take note of what the Electoral Commission says and have great respect for its opinion on that matter, but it does not necessarily decide what we want to do in this field. We will come back to these issues in Committee. I have a lot of ground to cover and, for various reasons, I do not want to hold the House up longer than I have to tonight.

I move on to the issue of electoral fraud and shall deal with it as quickly as I can. It was raised by a number of noble Lords. I think we are slightly in danger of falling into a trap. Our political system is not corrupt; it is still the envy of the world. That is not to say that it does not have considerable problems, many of which have been raised today. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern made clear that,

"there is no hard evidence suggesting a significant increase in electoral malpractice since 2000", and the Electoral Commission's report gave details of prosecutions for electoral malpractice. There were 23 convictions for RPA offences between 2000 and 2006. Convictions do not necessarily occur in the same year as the offence. Published information shows that the number of convictions relating to RPA offences in that period peaked at 11 in 2001, and the number of convictions has since declined. Of course, I am not naive enough to argue that just because there have been no convictions, there have been no cases of fraud. Of course there have been, but we have to put this in perspective.

It is clear that postal voting has proved popular and has helped to boost turnout. In itself, that is a good thing. We have to take very seriously the risk of electoral fraud, and, as one or two noble Lords said, we have put in a range of measures to safeguard the security of postal voting. I could go through them, but I shall not.

Innocent mistakes were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bates. I do not know whether this is the first time he has spoken from the Front Bench in a Second Reading debate, but I congratulate him on his speech. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, and my noble friend Lady Jones also mentioned them. We are considering a concession. We have undertaken to consider this proposal and will return to it in due course.

I turn to the issue of 55 months. I was surprised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on this. I understand that the noble Lord's colleagues in another place welcomed the proposal that the Government made on 55 months. It is for this Parliament, which may go longer than 55 months. Who knows? It is possible that it may. Let me concede this: these provisions provide for 55 months. I accept that that is a relatively infrequent occurrence. In bringing forward the Bill, we have been clear from the outset that any changes to the regulation of party funding must command a consensus. There is a potential problem of unregulated spending occurring prior to dissolution, and it could still arise in future Parliaments. I regret that we have been unable to find a solution to tackle this that all parties can support. If this House can find a solution, the Government would be extremely grateful. We do not deny that there is a problem, and we are doing something to sort it out for the forthcoming election.