Clause 47 - Political party description

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 17th November 2005.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 2:15 pm, 17th November 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 64, in clause 47, page 54, line 28, leave out 'up to five'.

The amendment continues with an issue first raised on clause 23 by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon at Tuesday afternoon's sitting—descriptions of independent candidates. I shall not repeat the arguments made two days' ago, as the Committee properly considered the matter then.

The amendment would remove the Government's new limit on the number of variations allowed on a political party's description. The clause would thus read, ''A party's application under section 28 may include a request for the registration of descriptions to be used on nomination papers or ballot papers.'' The limit of ''up to five'' would be unfair to political parties; independents would be able to call themselves whatever they wished, yet candidates from political parties would be prevented from using regional variations.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Then what is the point of being an independent?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Surely there can be nothing wrong with a member of a political party being attached to a particular region or area—or even a village. Given that subsequent provisions allow returning officers to prevent confusing or mischievous descriptions, I see no reason why the number of variations should be limited.

The desire to maximise the opportunity for independents to describe themselves in any manner they wish seems highly inconsistent with a clause that radically restricts the ability of political parties to do the same. Parties will be limited to five different types of description, although I appreciate that the number can be varied by the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister would give an undertaking that the Secretary of State would be willing to make such variations. Independents could therefore run as '''Independent for Liverpool''; but a registered party could not nominate itself as ''Liverpool Labour'' or ''Liverpool Conservative''. [Laughter.] I appreciate that that would not bring in a large number of votes for my party in that area, but there are some Conservatives in Liverpool  

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I probably could name them, but it would not take long. I must be careful, Mr. Conway, to treat Conservatives in Liverpool with respect. They are a fine and courageous band.

Why is it wrong to be ''Liverpool Labour'' or ''Liverpool Conservative''—or even ''Liverpool Liberal''? Surely, it cannot be right that independent candidates will be free to use any description they wish but each political party will be limited to one of its five registered descriptions. It seems counter-intuitive that political parties will not be allowed to use the descriptions that they wish to use. It would not be reasonable to amend the Bill as we suggest except that checks are already in place to ensure that descriptions are not misused and do not cause confusion among the electorate. If the Minister does not accept the amendment, he will be advocating simplicity for political parties but diversity for independents. That would simply be unjust.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

There is nothing that I can possibly say on this that I did not say on Tuesday, with the possible exception of the Welsh and Gaelic that arose on that occasion. We have made the arguments, but the Minister does not agree. I imagine that he has not changed his mind since Tuesday, but we live in hope.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Mr. Conway, you will recall our long and magnificent debate on a related theme a day or two ago. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said then, the Government are in listening mode. We have made that clear all along. No doubt the hon. Gentleman might wish to revisit the issues that we discussed the other night during later stages of the passage of the Bill. However, clause 47 permits a registered political party to register with the Electoral Commission up to five descriptions for use on ballot papers. That would implement the Electoral Commission's recommendation on standing for election in the United Kingdom, published in June 2003, allowing one description each for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the UK as a whole, and would simplify the use of party descriptions for the benefit of candidates and returning officers.

Following the commission's recommendation, we feel that five is a reasonable number of descriptions, particularly when one bears it in mind that the limit for the central register of emblems is three. As part of the consultation, there was a move to limit those descriptions, also, to three, but the commission thought that allowing five would give flexibility for all the nations of the United Kingdom and provide one for the UK as a whole.

I can see the attraction of the hon. Lady's position. A number of years ago, the Conservative party in Scotland rebranded itself the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. I have to tell the hon. Lady that that has not done it an awful lot of good in terms of attracting more voters in Scotland—

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

The hon. Lady is now champing at the bit.  

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I myself stood as a Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate, and I received 5,420 votes.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

And on that basis, the hon. Lady is now the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. What a wonderful thing democracy is; we live in such happy times.—[Interruption.] I am sorry that I did not catch what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said from a sedentary position, but I am sure that it was very witty.

I understand the arguments that were made on Tuesday and do not intend to revisit them at this stage. None the less, we have a reasonably clear understanding that allowing the political parties up to five descriptors addresses the main concerns that they had at the time of the consultation. They should be allowed some flexibility but not an open book—that would take the focus away from what we are trying to do, which is to have a centrally held register of such things and put the onus back on individual returning officers, who would have to make to make decisions about the appropriateness of such descriptions. It was felt that taking a national approach, with a fixed, centrally registered, number of descriptions would remove possible confusion and give a degree of certainty.

I say that without prejudice to any further discussions that may take place about the independent descriptions. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 2:30 pm, 17th November 2005

The Minister has explained the position very well. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 48 to 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.