HC Deb 20 April 1948 vol 449 cc1718-22
Mr. Grimston

I beg to move, in page 30, line 38, at the end, to insert: Provided that the said amounts may be varied from time to time by regulation in such manner as may appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary having regard to the difference between the level of costs affecting election expenses in the year nineteen hundred and forty-four and in the year in which such regulations are made. As drafted, Clause 31 carries out the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference with regard to election expenses. We are glad to note that on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman has carried out one of those recommendations.

Mr. Ede

Even now we cannot satisfy the Opposition.

Mr. Grimston

Well, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will. There is this consideration. Printing and other expenses have risen considerably since 1944; I would emphasise that there is now a 50 per cent. Purchase Tax on many forms of printing. The right hon. Gentleman might like to carry out the spirit as well as the letter of the Speaker's Conference. If he adopted this suggestion to vary the scales by regulation, according to the value of money and goods at any time, he would be carrying out the spirit of the recommendations. If the Clause is left as it is the actual values which were recommended by the Conference would be greatly reduced. For those reasons, I would ask him to accept this Amendment.

Mr. Ede

I am gratified to know that the Speaker's Conference is not entirely sacrosanct, and that its recommendations can be varied—and without a previous conference to arrange it. I think that this would be a very injudicious way of dealing with the matter contained in this Clause. I admit that £450 plus the sums that were mentioned in the Speaker's Conference, which we have embodied in the Bill, represent something very different now from what they did in 1944. But I would not think, either that it was unnecessary to put into the Bill some definite sum, or that the maximum expenditure for elections should be left to successive Secretaries of State to consider, and possibly just before an election to bring in regulations which require affirmative Resolution of the House. That would not be a satisfactory way of dealing with the issue. The figure should be embodied in the Bill.

It would probably be a good thing if, between now and Report, consultations took place to ascertain the appropriate figure to insert which would carry out, as near as may be at the present time, what the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference in 1944 actually meant in capacity to deal with the necessary expenses of an election, so that approximately the same amount of material and labour should be available to the candidate as would have been the case had money not altered in value since 1944. I have no doubt that it would be possible for people knowledgeable in these matters to meet, and for consultations to take place with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself as a result, with a view to seeing if we can arrive at a figure, which could be recommended to the House on Report, to insert in lieu of the figure of £450. I should not be inclined myself to vary the other two figures, but if as a result of such consultations which I have suggested, variations were also put forward from there, it would be quite possible for the House to consider them.

It would be very unsatisfactory to insert an Amendment of this kind in the Bill. I anticipated that there would be suggestions for a variation of the figure of £450, and I ought to say that the Government would not contemplate inserting a higher figure than could be justified in relation to the £450 of 1944. As an old election agent, I have often thought that a great deal of unnecessary money is spent at elections by all parties. My own view is that an election can be fought so cheaply that it is lost because the candidate is not given a good enough show, and that there is a point above that where there is the maximum return for every penny spent. Certainly, between 1918 and the present time, it has been possible to spend an amount above which a candidate cannot expect to get any return. Therefore, we should not contemplate going back to anything representing the old standard. An effort should be made to ascertain, in terms of present values, what is the proper figure to insert as compared with the £450 suggested at the Speaker's Conference.

Mr. Grimston

I wish to say at once that we concur in that view. We have no wish to depart from the value which the Speaker's Conference laid down. The suggestion of the Home Secretary is very much better than that contained in our Amendment—I give him that straight away. He has behaved in quite an exemplary manner and has done all that we would wish. We are carrying out the principle of the Speaker's Conference if we have consultations between all parties to get agreement on this matter. I am very pleased that the Home Secretary appears now to be coming round to our point of view, and I hope that he will continue to do so in other directions.

Mr. Ede

I think that one thing I said has been misconstrued. I suggested that consultation between the knowledgeable people should take place as quickly as possible, and that when they had reached their conclusions they should come along with an agreed recommendation to the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself. I pointed out that I did not want to be involved as head of a Government Department with a heavy responsibility of impartiality in this matter, in what might be party arrangements in the early stages of these consultations.

Mr. Paton

My right hon. Friend has met the Opposition in an extremely conciliatory way, but it is necessary to utter a cautionary word from this side. I have no objections to discussions taking place to see whether there is a case for increasing the amount laid down, but I should be very much against any suggestion to increase considerably the amount of money which may be expended. If we are to take into account the rise in prices since the time of the Speaker's Conference in determining the permitted amount, we might easily find a permitted expenditure of about £1,000 in the borough constituencies at the next elections. Such an amount would be altogether too generous. I hope that my right hon. Friend will keep any extensions within extremely narrow limits.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. J. Paton) in regard to keeping the limit low. I agree also with the right hon. Gentleman's remark that it is sometimes possible to spend too much at elections. It evokes a very responsible echo in my heart, and I recollected that at the General Election my opponent's expenses were nearly £400 more than my own. The Home Secretary has made a helpful suggestion, but I should like to know what are the intentions in the future if the present rise in prices continues. It is surely undesirable that we should have a series of amending Acts. The right hon. Gentleman has admitted that three and a half years have seen a great rise in prices which has necessitated a change in the figure recommended. Surely, it is not inconceivable that a similar or even greater rise may take place in the next three or four years. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would say how he proposes to deal with that. The Amendment deals with that point, but while the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion gets over certain difficulties inherent in it, it does not deal with the problem of what will happen in the future.

Mr. Ede

I do not think that I have said anything outside the spirit of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. Paton). I want to see election expenses kept as low as possible. With regard to what the hon. Member for Kingson-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) has said, I consider that the figure should be laid down in the Bill. If it is necessary to vary it, it might be desirable to vary it downwards. If we take a figure, with Purchase Tax at 5o per cent. on some of the items involved, it might be desirable, in the event of an alteration in the Purchase Tax, to consider a reduction. That is a matter which should be the subject of a Bill. I am sorry on this occasion to steal the thunder of the Opposition and declare against a regulation in favour of a Bill, but a matter of this con- stitutional importance ought to be dealt with by a Bill. I hope that the Committee will concur in that view. Some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) and of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames are an indication of how desirable it is that the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself should not be brought into these discussions at too early a stage so that we shall be able to give unprejudiced consideration to whatever suggestions are put forward and make a reasonable and impartial recommendation to the House on Report.

Mr. Grimston

There is a great deal to be said for the maximum figure being put in the Bill. We do not wish to put the expenses any higher than is necessary, and certainly no higher in terms of value, than was contemplated by the Speaker's Conference. In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.