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(6) In the 1983 Act section 76 (Limitation of election expenses) is amended as follows.
(7) In subsection 2(a)
(a) in paragraph (i), after electors there is inserted in the period between the end of the 50th month following the month of the previous general election and the dissolution of Parliament, plus the same amount between the date of the dissolution of Parliament and the date of the general election;
(b) in paragraph (ii), after electors there is inserted in the period between the end of the 50th month following the month of the previous general election and the dissolution of Parliament, plus the same amount between the date of the dissolution of Parliament and the date of the general election..
We come now to triggering, which for many of us is the most important issue in the Bill. I am conscious that we have very little time left so I shall not take an unfair share of it. It is important to set out the issues. I have been dedicated for a long time to the notion that if the Bill achieves nothing else, it should close the loophole unintentionally created in the 2000 Acton which Committee I also servedwhich leaves completely unrestricted spending by candidates up until the date of dissolution.
Triggeringin other words, control of candidates spendingwas in force for 17 years before that, since the 1983 Act and, as far as I know, since the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883. For most of our history we have had control of candidates spending. It was dropped only by mistake in the 2000 Act. I have looked up the historic debate in the House of Lords where that occurred. Amendment No. 253G was the first time in the discussion of that Bill that it was proposed to introduce the words
a) on the date of
(i) the dissolution of Parliament,[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 October 2000; Vol. 618, c. 227.]
That was just a few weeks before the Bill received Royal Assent, long after it had left the House of Commons and long after the Committee stage. The phrase had never been mentioned and there had been no intention or discussion to remove the trigger during the course of that Bill. Then on 24 October that amendment appeared in the House of Lords. It was opposed by the Conservative Front Bencher Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who sought to delete the words
on the date of dissolution.
Sadly, the deletion was opposed by the Government Front Bencher at that time, Lord Bach, who said:
If he withdraws his amendments, I promise to look at the point that he has raised.[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 October 2000; Vol. 618, c. 229.]
That is a phrase we often hear in Committee and on Report. I have implicit trust in the Minister that when he has said to me that he promises to look at the points that I raised on a number of amendments, he will be as good as his word.
I do not mean any disrespect, but I have Hansard, column 61, of 20 October 2008, in front of me, and so far the hon. Gentleman has read out his speech as it appears there. He made those points on Second Reading. If he carries on like this, we will end up having to make all the obvious repliesthat he tabled a probing amendment, that he made that clear, and that the decision was taken without even a Division, which hardly suggests that there was opposition on our part. There is no merit in his persisting.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Chichester is making, but without the context we would not get to a meaningful discussion. I shall not dwell on what has happened since that loophole was opened up. I do not blame Lord Ashcroft for making use of it in the 2005 election and I cannot blame him for seeking to make use of it now in his new position in the Conservative party. After all, I would not deny that my party tries to match spending by the other party, so both parties are using the loophole.
Parenthetically, I do not accept the argument that parliamentary newsletters invalidate the issue. Hon. Members are welcome to look at my parliamentary newsletters. I do not think that they bear on the point of candidate spending at all. It is perfectly right that Members should be allowed to communicate with their electors and tell them what they have done in Parliament. If they have done things that are good for the constituency, it is right that they should get whatever credit the electors feel that they deserve, but that does not invalidate the need for a return to candidate spending limits.
I agree absolutely that there is a problem that must be tackled, but I am concerned that the clause is not the right way to tackle it. The hon. Gentleman referred to newsletters, but what if an Opposition candidate put out a newsletter saying what a wonderful job he was doing, how he had got the roads fixed and so on? It is totally unclear whether that would be counted as election expenses. That is our concern about the clause.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are difficulties with triggering. That is the reason for the amendment. I do not deny that the difficulty with triggering is that there is a certain element of uncertainty about it. It is like a sword of Damocles hanging over a candidate. They never know when they might accidentally overstep a mark and trigger election expenses.
I am trying to act in a spirit of cross-party consensus. I am not insisting that there should be a consensus, but I believe we can find a degree of it. The Bill reinstates the legislation of 1983, which was Conservative legislation, so the Bill cannot be accused of being partisan. I would prefer us to stick with what the Bill says because that is the system that worked for 117 years, and that is the system that we know has some effect. If a better system can be found, we should all try to move towards it.
In the amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and I suggest a different version of triggering that is meant to achieve the objective in a better way. The idea first came up in evidence from my hon. Friend to the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Instead of candidate limits that apply from the point when somebody becomes or declares themselves a candidate or appeals for votes, they should apply from a specific point in the parliamentary cycle. The first suggestion was 42 months. Three and a half years into a Parliament, candidate limits should automatically come into effect.
The wording of the amendment takes into account the fact that we are already well past the 42nd month of this Parliament. As 42 months is not relevant to the present situation, the amendment refers to the 50th month, which means that the candidate limits would come into force in July next yearthat is, 11 months before the last possible date on which an election can be held. There would essentially be one period from the beginning of July until dissolution during which candidates could spend up to their candidate limitthose limits vary from constituency to constituency, but they fall roughly within the range of £10,000 to £12,000and another regulated period during the campaign itself.
So there would be two regulated periods, which would double the amount that candidates could spend to £20,000 to £25,000. That is a reasonable proposition. I do not make it out of self-interestmy self-interest would best be served by what is in the Billbut because I recognise that there are many legal difficulties associated with triggering and that, in the past eight years, parties have got used to having no restrictions on candidates. It might be a bit difficult for us to turn the clock back to a situation where triggering operates all the time.
Before the first regulated period starts, candidates, as now, can spend as much as they like. Once a regulated period has started they can spend only up to the constituency limit in that regulated period. The reason for two regulated periods is because if we merely increase the candidate limit over a longer period, some candidates who were adopted only towards the election would have twice as much to spend during the election campaign as a candidate who had been adopted earlier. That would introduce an element of unfairness. The concept is that there should be two regulated periods. It could be three regulated periods, so that candidates are not completely precluded from spending any money before the election, but they are not allowed to save all that money up and have a spending spree during the election itself.
Members of Parliament who have been adopted as candidates would be caught by the same provisions. To the extent that they wanted to promote themselves as candidates, they would have to work within the limits, as they do during the election period. It would not stop them putting out parliamentary newsletters, provided that those conformed not only with Parliaments definition of a parliamentary newsletter, but with the electoral returning officers definition. Those should, in principle, be the same, but there is no guarantee of that.
The simple principle that I am putting before the Committee as a possible way forward, if one is needed, is that we can proceed on the basis of a fixed triggering point, where every candidate is triggered and that that should be at a fixed point in the parliamentary cycle. In the normal course of events I would propose 42 monthsthree and a half yearswhich means that in a four-year Parliament, the last half year would be covered by limits. In the occasional five-year Parliamentthey are still a minorityit would be the last 18 months. That would remove the doubt as to when triggering started. It would remove the need for all the long titles like parliamentary spokesperson and prospective parliamentary candidate, which the public find rather laughable. It would mean that the starting gun was fired at the same point for everybody and that the rules were the same for everybody.
I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that the test is not whether there is consensus between the parties, because the history going back to the 1970s is that one party can see that it has an advantage in consensus and uses the consensus as a veto. That is why we had the 20 or 30 years of scraping the bottom of the barrel for party funds in this country, whereas other countries all found consensus around party spending limits, party donation limits and state spending. We were the only country that left it until 2000 before we even began to consider comprehensive party funding legislation. Where there is consensus, that is desirable, but it is important that we do something that is seen by the public to be fair. A fixed triggering time for everybody would be the right principle.
Will the hon. Gentleman indicate, on a scale of one to 10, to what extent the Electoral Commissions proposal would be second best? The commission has come forward with a four-month proposal.
The Electoral Commission agrees in its note that this proposal could provide greater certainty for parties and candidatesMembers can read it themselves. The commission basically supports the proposal. It sees one or two possible disadvantages, but it prefers it to triggering. I have no personal interest here; as a Member with a majority of 163, anything that reduces the spending of my potential opponents is welcome. Triggering might be more effective, but this is probably a fairer systemit is certainly a clearer one. It is more likely to be the basis of cross-party agreement, and above all, it is more likely to appear fair to the public.
The proposals made by the hon. Gentleman in amendments Nos. 201 and 202 are interesting. I am glad that he has now explained just what they mean and why he has proposed them, and I sympathise with his attempt to produce a clearer and more certain Bill. I hope that we will have time to debate the whole of clause 10, because it is one of the most important in the Bill. To ensure that we have as much time as possible for that debate, I will be brief in my remarks on the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman and others have used the phrase going back togoing back to triggering, going back to what happened before 2000. We should not look to go back to the confusion that we had then; we should look to go forward. [Interruption.] Of course I will give way. I am sorry; I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to intervene.
I was simply gesturing that that is what the amendment attempts to do: to go forward to a more satisfactory version of what might misleadingly be called triggering but which ought to have a new namea pre-election period that is clear to everybody and does not relate to whether somebody has called themselves a candidate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that apparent clarification. It is difficult to have a pre-election period when it is not known when the election will take place, but I entirely concede that the wording of the two amendments is much clearer on that, because it refers to the previous election. The amendments, therefore, make sense from that point of view. While I am referring to the initial remarks of the hon. Member for Battersea, I also pay tribute to the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who noticed this problem, brought it up and was sadly ignored. He was a great parliamentarian and a very clever politician, who is much missed in both Houses and in the political firmament generally.
The lack of clarity worries me considerably. In considering triggering, before 2000, I have had reason to look at the literature of each of the three main political parties that advises candidates when it is that they become candidates and when election expenses begin. I sympathise with the hon. Gentlemans assertion that it is necessary to be precise about when election expenses begin. That is why triggering, as set out in clause 10, is so worrying. Due to lack of time, I will not quote what I might have quoted, but I will reserve, I hope, the duty of Her Majestys Opposition to bring the matter forward again on Report.
We are in danger this afternoon of not being able to consider important matters. However, I draw the Committees attention to the guidance produced by the Labour party in a document called, The Way to WinLabours Campaign Handbook for the 1990s, which is when triggering was in effect. There is a paragraph in the document called, The dangers of election law. I always thought that we made laws to protect people, not to endanger them, but the way in which the then Opposition saw electoral law at that time was as dangerous. In the advice to candidates, the document says:
Keeping on the right side of election law is vital. But its not an excuse to keep out of sight. Use your imagination to avoid the constraints imposed by election law on the candidates activity.
That is what the Labour party told its candidates in the run-up to the 1997 general election.
My argument is that it is essential to have a law that does not leave itself open to the imagination of Labour candidates or of any other player on the political field during a general election and that it must be certain. Sadly, I do not consider that the hon. Gentlemans amendments would improve clause 10, and we therefore cannot support them.
The Committee has only 24 minutes left, and I feel not only that will we not have a chance to discuss the matters later in the list, but that we do not have enough time to discuss this matter in the depth that it requires. I am sure that the Committee will agree that this is a matter to which we ought to return, in detail, on Report.
The hon. Member for Battersea has moved an amendment that assumes that triggering is not the right thing to do. I will not to spend the Committees time explaining why I think that he is right to make that assumption. That leaves only two other solutions to the problem of when local spending limits should kick in. One is the fixed-month solution that he suggested; the other is to say that permanent local spending limits should be there all the time.
I think that the permanent local spending limit should be the solution. The problem with the fixed-month solution that the hon. Gentleman has proposed is that we do not have fixed-term Parliaments. His proposal is certainly better than the suggestion made by the Electoral Commission, which said that the limit should apply a certain number of months before the election. One would have to be a mind reader to work out when that would apply.
Nevertheless, there is a different problem with the hon. Gentlemans solution, which would apply a certain number of months after the previous one. It is obviously clearer, but it still gives an advantage to the incumbent party, because the leaders of the incumbent partynot necessarily the people who are standing for Parliament for that partywill have a much better idea about when the election will happen than the Opposition parties, and they can give signals to their candidates to spend. [Interruption.] We know what happened last year. Those were unusual circumstances, where the signals got confused on all sides.
The advantages of incumbency are great, and they include, on the whole, being in a better position to predict or understand the timing of elections than the Opposition. Therefore, Government candidates will be in a position to spend more earlier; they will not have to delay their spending to get it into the first regulated period. That would not be the case if the regulated period started so soon after the previous election that no one would plausibly call an election at that point. The trouble is that even the hon. Gentlemans permanent suggestionnot the one that would apply to the five-year partwill not really achieve that end. As we have seen, it is still quite possible for Prime Ministers to think that they should call an election after two and a half years.
The only way to solve the problem properly is to ignore a fixed starting point and go to a third solution. Admittedly, it is one that the Electoral Commission says is difficult to administer and everyone says would raise problems with enforcement, but it is nevertheless clearer. It is to have a permanent local cap on spending. There are various ways to do thatsome are proposed on todays amendment paperbut the principle is clear.
The hon. Gentleman might be coming to this. I have considerable sympathy with his proposal for a permanent cap over the life of a Parliament, but that is not on offer at the moment. Is he going to insist on the best at the price of the good?
The hon. Gentleman says that that proposal is not on offer, but technically it is, if we get enough time to discuss new clause 9. However, what we are going to do at this point? Not a lot, given the state of play on the arguments about consensus and not doing anything unless we all agree, which means that one party can veto any proposal.
My other point involves the difference between candidate spending and party spending. Campaigns now are not just about candidates. Candidate regulation involves proper 19th-century regulation of the extraordinary amounts that were spent by candidates in elections in the second half of that century. However, politics is not like that anymore. Candidate spending still occurs, and it ought to be regulated. If hon. Members want to see some candidate spending, they should go down to Richmond Park and see Mr. Goldsmiths spending. Nevertheless, candidate spending is not the leading problem nationally. The leading problem nationally is party spending, directed at a particular constituency. That is how parties attempt to buy elections, and it needs to be regulated as well. It seems that the only way to do that is by separate, clear regulation of local party spending across the entire life of a Parliament.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that this is far more about national decisions on where money is spent than about the individual? What did we spend money on before the new system was introduced? The only difference is that my name is on the literature. Before, it had pictures of Conservatives, doing nice Conservative things, as well as lots of other people. Subsequently, my name is on it. What is the difference?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Triggering or fixed-month solutions that deal with candidate spending will result only in his name being taken back off the leaflets. Party spending will continue. I am not saying as a consequence that there should be no control on candidate spendingwe must have that as wellbut the solution to the problem is a local party spending cap.
I want to make one final point. One thing that we have not and perhaps ought to have discussed is how the spending of third-party peoplenot Liberal Democrats, but people who are not technically involved with a partycomes into play. The present problem is that spending by such people, who support parties campaigns but do not partake of official party spending, is regulated only in the national cap and as part of election expenses.
We must be careful not to leave a gap there as well. Perhaps that is also the way that we need to go in order to regulate the spending of individuals who intend to become candidates later. We need to count them as regulated third parties and expand the definitions in the relevant part of PPERA, which would catch instances such as Mr. Goldsmiths campaigns in west London.
At the moment, we have a platonic form of a possible all-encompassing solution to party funding, both national party funding and local party funding, including how national and local party funding might interact over the course of an entire electoral cycle. Indeed, in that platonic form I would agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that a whole-term regulation of local spending is probably the right way forward.
Also, whole-term regulation of local spending incorporates the idea that national spending may be applied for local purposes and therefore ought to be regulated as if it were local spending. Indeed, if one had overall regulation with a choice between a cap on local spending and a cap on national spending, that idea would automatically be implemented.
Does the hon. Gentleman not perceive an unfairness if local spending by a candidate over the whole period that he is talking about is restricted while spending by the sitting Member of Parliament is not only unrestricted but backed by the taxpayer to the amount of £10,000 a year?
The spending by Members of Parliament is not unrestricted and it would not be unrestricted in the system that I have suggested might be encompassed by a whole-term spending restriction. Indeed, the idea of a whole-term spending restriction was set out in the Constitutional Affairs Committee report on party funding a little while ago.
As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, spending on items such as newsletters is carefully regulated by this House, particularly by the efforts of the Standards and Privileges Committee to define carefully what is regarded as promotion of a person and what is regarded as a report of parliamentary activities. Under those circumstances and under the circumstances that I am about to describe, if a Member of Parliament used the resources of the House to go beyond telling the electorate what they have been doing as an MP, which is quite reasonable, that expenditure could well come under the heading of local election expenditure to promote that persons candidature. A penalty would then be levied on that person automatically for going beyond what is reasonable in terms of parliamentary expenditure.
At the moment, there are a number of debates about whether that expenditure is within the right terms. A number of hon. Members have either been required to repay what they have spent on putting out their newsletters or, in certain instances, have had to apologise to the House for what they have put in them.
An additional sanction could well be that, in circumstances where there is a clear date-based trigger point, expenditure after that date will not relate to whether or not a person is a candidate, or an avowed candidate. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has said, there were practices in previous years where people were hiding behind metaphorical bushes, as it were, prior to the point that they declared themselves a candidate. In a sense, with a clear date-based trigger point, which is what we potentially have on offer in the real world and not in the platonic world of a whole-term cap, the real issue would not be whether a person had declared themselves as a candidate but what they had done to promote that candidature, in terms of expenditure, within that period. It would be the same for everybody and it would be the same within each constituency on a rubric that we already have, in terms of how much money can be spent.
I want the hon. Gentleman to clarify a point on which I am genuinely not certain. Does he believe that a candidate should not be able to spend any money before the trigger point in his amendment? The Member of Parliament would spend both taxpayers money and private money. To use taxpayers money, they would have to explain what they have done as a Member of Parliament without any party political advantage. None the less, it still gets the name of that person known in the locality as a Member of Parliament while, at the same time, the candidate would not be able to declare himself or herself as a candidate and would not be able to spend any money.
I fear that the hon. Lady has misunderstood the mechanism of the trigger point. There is a difference between a trigger mechanism and what is proposed in the amendments. The amendments work back, as it were, from a solid point in the riveror a post in the riverand that is the point at which one has to have a general election. After Dissolution, there is a period of restricted local expenditure, as is the case at present under PPERA. Before that, there is a pre-election period. Once that point has been reached, everybodywhether or not they have been a candidate previous to thatknows what the rules are on local expenditure. If they have been a candidate before that point, they can spend what they like. That is not regulated until that point has been reached. A sitting Member of Parliament is bound by exactly the same regulations except that they can put out a newsletter or similar, which is regulated by the House authorities, talking about what they have been doing in Parliament. If, after the period of pre-election regulation, that person goes beyond that, their expenditure could conceivably be counted as their candidate expenditure.
I suggest that that method overcomes the problem that was inherentas the hon. Member for Cambridge saidin the Electoral Commissions suggestion of the four-month period when one had to guess when the general election might be. In that case, one might get into problems of retrospection. In the present circumstances, if this were to become law before the next election, there would also be no issue of retrospection because a date would not have been reached by the time this went into law. Therefore, there is no question of anybodys expenditure to date being caught within such an arrangement.
I was encouraged by what the hon. Lady said in her initial comments on the amendment, but she then did an Indiana Jones-like bound and said, Therefore, we cannot accept it. I thought that, in substance, her comments were rather supportive of the ideas in the amendment, and those potentially on offer in the real world of what we do now to regulate issueswe all know that there are problems, in our current electoral arrangements. That is the spirit in which the amendment is offered. Whether the issues work in the round depends, I hope, on the ability of parties to reach a consensus on how to operate such matters. The amendments provide a framework that reflects the consensus of a fair and level playing field for all concerned, clear points before and after which expenditure is regulated and a method for ensuring that the maximum that can be spent relates to a route that already exists and by which we can judge what happens constituency by constituency at local level.
I agree with everybody who has said that we have not had enough time to consider this area of triggering, which is the most important issue in the Bill. It is extremely important that we do everything we can to give it salience on Report, and the attention that it deserves. I fear, with the shutter coming down at 4 oclock, that the Minister will not get long to respond to my remarks on the amendments.
My guess is that the clausenot the amendmentis so controversial and mistaken that the whole Bill will be delayed. I would be surprised if the great hurry, which has afflicted every aspect of the Bills consideration, continuesthree cheers, or at least two cheers, for that. I may be wrong, and we may see the Bill on the Floor of the House before Christmas, but I have my doubts. It is not unreasonable to describe the main proposal in the clause as blatantly partisan. That is why I would certainly favour going down the road of the amendment, which, as a Back Bencher, I can say has considerable meritalthough I am sure that, as I always or sometimes do, I shall vote slavishly should we find ourselves in a Division.
This issue seems to be the meat of the Bill and why we have it. We have had newspaper reports saying that there must be a move against Ashcroftism, as it is described, and that this is the essential measure to tackle it. We have had all sorts of reports of that type, which I shall not go through one by one. This was not a good way to proceed. We should have had a chance to consult on the sort of idea embodied by the amendment, but we had no consultation at all on the triggering issue. When I asked the Secretary of State in the evidence session whether there had been any consultation, he said that there was and there was not. It would have been more helpful and, frankly, more accurate to say that there was not.
As I mentioned, I was involved in the talks. All that happenednot in, but outside, the talkswas that Sir Hayden asked the parties individually whether they had any views and wanted to open up the issue. He spoke to the three parties, and they all said that they did not particularly like the current arrangementsthey had suggestions for improving them, but they did not want the issue to form part of the talks. Sir Hayden made that point clear publicly. I do not see how anyone can reasonably call that consultation.
The amendment proposed is much better than going back to the old rules, which would risk retrospection for the forthcoming election. We have had overwhelming evidenceavailable for many years, not just in what we have heardnot just from academics but from others that the old rules would be a disaster. Lord Bingham made such remarks in a case, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life has given unequivocal advice that we should not go down the road of the old rules. I shall not read it out, because I do not have time, but it is absolutely clear.
We have just had an interesting debate about whether the solution, from where we are, is to go to a fixed period, as proposed in the amendment, or to whole-Parliament limits, which is what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test was advocating as the alternative. He used a different phrase, but that is what he is suggesting at local level. The problem with whole-Parliament limits is that it is difficult to disaggregate them administratively at local level. Sir Hayden looked at that issue in the context of expenditure limits. He came to that conclusionit may even have been something he published, but it is certainly in some of the unpublished papers, which we would very much like to see in the public domain, but which the Government are obstructing and blocking the public from seeing.
In the remaining seconds, I would like to make a point about incumbency