Amendment 17

Elections Bill - Committee (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 10th March 2022.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

17: Clause 17, page 27, line 33, after “money” insert “greater than a peppercorn”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would probe the provisions which prevent the Commission from borrowing money.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I imagine that, compared with the previous debate, this one will be a lot shorter and sweeter. I tabled the amendment to Clause 17, which, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, deals with criminal proceedings. I am aware that there are other amendments relating to this area that will probe much more deeply the provisions for the police and the institution of criminal proceedings, so I will be brief.

My amendment would make a very small addition to proposed new sub-paragraph (2)(a), and add the phrase “greater than a peppercorn” after the word “money”. It is a probing amendment, which we decided to put forward for discussion because, although we would not disagree with the concept that the Electoral Commission should not borrow money, that is not the issue at all. I wanted to bring this forward, and ask the Minister some questions, to find out why this provision was placed in Clause 17.

The Minister may tell me I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Electoral Commission is already unable to borrow money, so this does not seem to me to be a new policy. Can he clarify that, in case I have got hold of the wrong end of the stick here and there is a particular reason why this clause has been included? I would appreciate some detail on the reasoning behind it. There is legislation that governs other bodies. The one that comes to mind is the Office for Students, which also is prevented from borrowing money. Is the idea behind this that the Government are trying to bring more consistency across legislation, looking at other bodies? Perhaps it needed tidying up. I would be very grateful to know.

On that point, I also ask the Minister whether there are any public bodies that are now in a position to borrow money. I have got a bit confused. If some are able to borrow money, what is the justification for that and for others not being able to do the same? I just want to get a better understanding of this part of the clause.

As I said, Clause 17 amends Schedule 1(2) to PPERA to expressly remove the potential for the commission to bring criminal prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—obviously, it does not apply in Scotland, where there is already the single prosecuting authority. I will not go into detail on that because, clearly, the next group of amendments in the name of the Lord, Lord Wallace, will probe much further into Clause 17 and the criminal procedures that it refers to, about which others have already expressed concerns, including in evidence given to different committees. I will not go into that, as we are about to debate it; this is a simple probing amendment to find out exactly what the thinking is and how it fits with other, similar organisations.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 6:00 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I support the amendment, probing as it is, from the noble Baroness. As she quite rightly said, this in large measure prefigures the next debate we are going to have. I await with interest the answers that we will hear. Particularly in the case of the borrowing power, it seems somewhat otiose to put in a power that has never been exercised in any way at all.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, it seems that it is time for a change of horse—although it is fair to say that the highway that this one is on is broadly the same. On this amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, I respect her wish to explore the issue; I understand that it is a probing amendment on the question of whether the Electoral Commission can borrow money. I will try my best to answer the questions that have been raised. It is our view, at the outset, that we do not think that this is necessary, but it is of course incumbent on me to explain why.

It is important to note that the Electoral Commission is funded through Parliament each year, following scrutiny by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. The commission submits a main estimate, outlining its required funding for the financial year ahead for approval by that committee, with the estimate then laid before the House of Commons. Should the commission require any further funding for the year, it is able to submit supplementary estimates throughout the year to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission as necessary. This could be where project costs have risen for unforeseeable circumstances or for unscheduled electoral events. Given this annual funding through Parliament, and with the ability to seek further funding if required for unforeseen projects or events, it is the view of the Government that the commission therefore does not need to borrow money. I think that is probably what the noble Baroness was seeking confirmation of, and I can confirm it. It is further noted that this restriction has been in place since the establishment of the commission.

On the noble Baroness’s specific question as to why it therefore needs to be in the Bill, I am seeking that answer. It may just be that it is confirmatory and needs to be put in but, if there is anything further to say on that, I will most certainly write to the noble Baroness, as it is a very fair and rather basic question.

On the other public bodies that might be in a position to borrow money—that is, who they are and perhaps to what extent—again, that is something I will need to write on. It may be a very long list or it may be a very short list, but it is a fair point in terms of providing some sort of context to this matter.

I hope that that provides a little reassurance. With that, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the Minister for his response and look forward to his letter. I thank him for agreeing to write to me so that I have the details of the response. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 17 withdrawn.

Debate on whether Clause 17 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

I rise to oppose the proposition that Clause 17 should stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17 is a strange animal. In explaining something of the context for new sub-paragraph (2)(a), the Minister did not give me the impression that there is a clear context for its inclusion in the Bill. However, it is much easier to see what it is for when you look at new sub-paragraph (2)(b). The way I see it—perhaps the Minister can tell me whether I have got it wrong—this is, in essence, the wing-clipping clause. Wing clipping leaves the bird looking fine; it just cannot fly. So the Electoral Commission will retain all its plumage and hopefully make all the right noises at the right time, but it will not be allowed to deliver so much as a peck to miscreants, let alone take off and fly. In short, new sub-paragraph (2)(b) removes the Electoral Commission’s right to instigate criminal proceedings.

In our report on this exact matter last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life looked very hard at the issue, not least because some of the Minister’s friends in the other place had clearly expressed strong views on it. We heard some of the context for that from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, earlier. If I change the metaphor from birds to football, I could say that the Minister’s friends in the other place objected to the yellow cards that the Electoral Commission issued following the 2015 general election. They wanted to appeal to the FA on the grounds that the referee was biased, did not understand the offside rule and had taken a long time studying VAR before reaching for his card.

The committee heard—indeed, the noble Baroness quoted our evidence—that it had been a very stressful time for some people, not least because there was an extended period of uncertainty and a high risk of reputational damage. Nevertheless, the fact is that offences were committed, breaches of electoral law were found and convictions followed. I might say in passing that, as an amateur agent and candidate multiple times over a period of more than 40 years, it is a stressful time. However, of all the difficulties in understanding and accurately following election rules during that time, I must say that I never found the rule that national and local expenditure should be kept separate particularly taxing or problematic—but they found it to be so.

I recommend that noble Lords take a close look at the CSPL report on this, which I believe they will find balanced and persuasive, although it does not seem to have persuaded the Government. In one particular respect, we recommended that the Electoral Commission should in fact have extra powers to grant permission to parties and non-party and referendum campaigners to pay late invoices or bills from suppliers. That is taking over a function that is currently exercised by the courts. At present, there is a very cumbersome process of applying to the courts for relief if a small mistake—or indeed a large one, although most are very trivial—has been made in paying invoices and bills at the end of an election campaign. That application to the courts is certainly stressful and wholly disproportionate. If stress relief is the aim of this clause, or the Bill as a whole, that CSPL recommendation ought to be included in it—that provision should be there.

One argument that has been advanced and that the Minister may be tempted to deploy is that it is not appropriate for the rule-maker to be the prosecutor of breaches of those laws. Well, quite a lot of people exercise power in situations where they might have a conflict of interest, which has been referred to by my noble friend Lord Scriven. I remind the Minister that the Health and Safety Executive is one of many regulators that do exactly that: it manages the regulations and carries out prosecutions. I further remind him that his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, is about to give the Health and Safety Executive, via the building safety regulator, a hugely extended role in tackling the cladding scandal and the many examples of poor practice in the building industry. It may be too much to expect consistency of approach from two Ministers dealing with two Bills on the same issue in the same week, but, in one case, a regulator is being given a greatly enhanced reach of powers to prosecute and fine, and, in the other, one is having its teeth ripped out.

It may be said that there have not been any prosecutions by the Electoral Commission and you never miss what you do not have. That of course is a completely post hoc position; it would make more sense to deploy that argument if there had not in fact been dirty work at the Thanet crossroads—but the court found that there had been. The evidence given to CSPL was that, in England, the very many different police forces have very different levels of expertise in election law and offences. They were often very hesitant to get involved in complex and possibly highly politically charged cases where there is little by way of case law to guide them and quite a low chance of securing a conviction. I do not know whether the Minister has any evidence to the contrary—has he got chief police constables and police and crime commissioners queueing up to ask him, “Please can we take on more election offences”?—but I have to say that that evidence missed CSPL. So, in the absence of that, what does subsection (4)(2)(b) achieve? As far as I can see, it reduces the chance of a successful prosecution or inquiry.

So, if there is no evidence that the police are gagging to take on more work, the impression that the Electoral Commission’s wings are simply being clipped is strengthened. So I want hear how the Minister expects prosecutions of egregious offences to proceed if this is removed from the system. If the system is to function effectively, the Electoral Commission needs the backstop power to institute proceedings, not least as a spur or lever to make sure that police engage properly in taking action in an area of law where they have traditionally shied away from it.

Although Clause 17 is by no means as dangerous as the earlier ones—Clauses 14 and 15—it is here simply as a piece of red meat to give to disgruntled politicians who had a near miss. It is out of place in a Bill that was once called the “election integrity Bill”—very sensibly, the Government dropped the word “integrity”. I am afraid that it diminishes the power of the Electoral Commission in yet another small way and reduces its capacity to deliver fully and properly on one of its core functions. It runs entirely contrary to the recommendations made by CSPL, which have been delivered to the Prime Minister after a most careful consideration of all of the available evidence. I and my noble friends say that it should come out of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:15 pm, 10th March 2022

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s intent to oppose Clause 17 standing part of the Bill and to probe the new restrictions on the Electoral Commission which, in effect, will prevent it instituting criminal proceedings. This represents a significant change in the role of the commission which, until now and since its establishment, has held the power to bring prosecutions against those who break electoral law.

This will no doubt mean that greater responsibilities are left to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to enforce electoral law. On this, can the Minister confirm whether additional resources, support and training will be provided for this purpose? The transfer of functions away from the commission will also reduce its overall responsibilities and could mean that the positions of some of its workforce are made redundant. Does the Minister expect that any jobs will be lost as a result of these clauses?

Overall, I am concerned that these measures could be short-sighted and form part of a broader attack on the capabilities of the independent Electoral Commission. At a time when democracy is under threat elsewhere in the world, the UK should stand as a beacon for our values and oversight is crucial to that. If the Government can justify this transfer of functions away from the Electoral Commission for the purpose of effectiveness, they will have our support, but given that other clauses in this Bill undermine the independence of the commission, I am sure the Minister will understand our caution over these provisions.

Let us look at the evidence. The Electoral Commission considers that its

“current powers to establish a prosecution function are consistent with those available to many other regulators” and that the proposed measure would

“reduce the scope for political finance offences to be prosecuted, relying solely on the police and prosecutors having the resources and will to take action.”

It notes that the current low levels of prosecution for a PPERA offence, referencing one in the past 20 years, have “important implications for deterrence.”

Assistant Chief Constable Pete O’Doherty from Thames Valley Police noted:

“the current state of legislation has created a two-tier system with parties and non-parties being investigated and regulated by the commission with civil penalties imposed, while of course candidates and individuals by the police, who will end up with much more severe sentences and even criminal records. Also the relationship between the police and the commission is very strong, and having organisations that apply two very different pieces of legislation is not ideal. For example, it can cause issues in deciding what should be classed as party and what should be classed as candidate expenses, to give you an example.”

The Government note that the CSPL’s recent report on electoral finance regulation did not recommend that the Electoral Commission should be able to develop the capacity to bring prosecutions. They stress that they are

“committed instead to supporting the police as necessary to enforce electoral regulation proactively and effectively and as stated in the Government’s response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report, the local nature of offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983 means that it is sensible for investigations to lie with local forces police, rather than being run on a national scale. The Government will consider further the Committee’s findings and recommendations, including on enforcement of electoral law.”

Finally, I turn to the PACAC recommendations:

“The Government has not clarified whether more resources and training will be provided to the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland (PPS) to investigate alleged criminal offences under PPERA.

… The Government should set out how it will ‘support the police as necessary to enforce electoral regulation proactively and effectively’, as committed by the Government in its letter to the Committee of 7 October 2021, including what resources it will make available to the police to investigate and bring forward criminal prosecutions under PPERA.

… We urge the Government to commit to review, monitor and report on potential criminal breaches under PPERA and their enforcement, which would assist in bringing forward any further legislative changes to either the civil and/or criminal sanctioning regimes. The Government should publish its findings and lay a statement in Parliament every year.

… The Government should also commit to undertaking a review of the civil sanctioning regime for electoral law offences and its interplay with criminal prosecutions under PPERA and the RPA, providing a timetable for consultation and review of the CSPL’s recommendations in this regard.”

On the Government’s response to the PACAC recommendations, we do not think that the Government have not done enough to address the committee’s concerns.

I finish by echoing the words of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that, as it currently stands, this is wing-clipping of the Electoral Commission. It is silencing and reducing its power—a theme that we have seen continuously through different groups of amendments in Committee. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this brief debate and I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Khan, as another member of the team on the Front Bench opposite for this Bill. I look forward to working with him as I do with other noble Lords opposite.

The purpose of Clause 17, which the noble Lord opposes, is not to change anything but to maintain the existing role of the Crown Prosecution Service and Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland in bringing prosecutions under electoral law by clarifying the extent of the Electoral Commission’s existing powers.

I remind noble Lords that, when PPERA was passed—and it was an important reforming Bill by a Labour Government that established the commission—Labour Ministers then were absolutely explicit that the Electoral Commission should not have prosecution powers. The noble Lord, Lord Bach—a fine noble Lord—said at the time that the Neill committee, which was the independent committee that had looked into this,

“made clear its view that prosecutions in respect of breaches of the law relating to controls on donations and election expenses should be placed in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions and should not be the concern of the commission … the commission does not have that power … the commission will be an enforcement authority but not a prosecuting authority.”—[Official Report, 20/11/2000; col. 631.]

That was what the noble Lord said then, and I agree with him now.

The Explanatory Notes for PPERA clearly state that the Electoral Commission shall have

“a duty to monitor compliance (but not to mount criminal prosecutions).”

That was the basis on which the commission was set up, and all parties at that time assented to that proposition, including the Liberal Democrats.

What has actually changed? The Electoral Commission publicly stated in its Interim Corporate Plan 2020-21 – 2024-25 its intention to develop a prosecutorial capability that would allow it to investigate and bring suspected offences directly before the courts. That was in the aftermath of what some might consider the debacle of the pursuit by the commission of some citizens, which was summed up in by a headline in the Guardian on 14 September 2018:

“Elections watchdog got law wrong on Brexit donations, court rules”.

While the commission considers that current legislation provides scope for it to develop this function, that has never been explicitly agreed by any Government or Parliament. Indeed, as I just suggested to noble Lords, absolutely the reverse was the intention of Parliament when the Labour Government introduced this legislation. It is therefore important to clarify, in the light of the Electoral Commission’s statement, the relevant legislation to make it clear that the commission should not bring criminal proceedings and to put the matter beyond doubt. By doing so, we will avoid the risk of wasting public money as well as the risk of duplicating the work of the prosecution authorities who are already experts in this domain—I agree with the noble Lord opposite that that is where the resources should go.

The clause that the Government propose would add to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to make clear the original attention of Parliament that the commission should not bring criminal prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would not apply in Scotland where there is already a single prosecutorial authority.

The clause will not amend any of the commission’s other existing powers. The commission will continue to have a wide range of investigatory and civil sanctioning powers available to it, and it will remain able to refer criminal matters to the police, as is currently the case. We must not forget that, as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, himself reminded us, the commission has never brought a criminal prosecution to date, although it may be talking of wanting to develop that role. Clause 17 merely retains that status quo in practice, so our measure will not add a burden to the prosecution authorities or lead to fewer prosecutions.

The proper place for criminal investigations and prosecutions lies with the experts in this domain—namely, the police and prosecution authorities. That is in line with the Regulating Election Finance report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which found that there was no evidence or support for allowing the regulator to develop a prosecutorial ability in order to increase the number of prosecutions. The proper place for criminal investigation and prosecution is with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland. These are the experts. Having the commission step into this space is unnecessary.

I draw the Committee’s attention to the Crown Prosecution Service’s evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life in July 2021, when it stated that

“the CPS deals with criminal offences under the RPA and criminal charges under PPERA, while the Electoral Commission has civil powers to deal with PPERA cases. We assess this is an appropriate division. There are important prosecutorial functions that the CPS has vast experience of, and expertise in, including police PACE processes, adherence to CPIA legislation and to disclosure rules … In our view”— this is the CPS, not the Government—

“a criminal-civil divide provides a good level of precision … Any unintentional blurring of the lines would be counter-productive.”

I think that is advice from prosecutorial authorities who know what they are doing.

We are committed instead to supporting the police as necessary to enforce electoral regulation proactively and effectively. For that reason, I urge the Committee to resist this opposition to the clause. If your Lordships were to follow it, it might encourage the Electoral Commission to develop this function. I think the existing practice should be maintained, and therefore I urge that Clause 17 should stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17 agreed.