HC Deb 27 November 1968 vol 774 cc620-35
Mr. Sharples

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 6, line 25, leave out 'six' and insert 'four'.

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Harry Legge-Bourke)

With this Amendment it would be convenient to take Amendment No. 66, in page 6, line 14, leave out '£750' and insert '£500'; No. 67, in line 15, leave out 'six' and insert 'four'; No. 68, in line 18, leave out 'six' and insert 'four'; No. 11, in line 28, leave out 'six' and insert 'four'; No. 12, in line 35, leave out 'six' and insert 'four'; No. 13, in line 37, leave out 'six' and insert 'four' and No. 14, in line 37, at end insert: (3) Notwithstanding the provision made in Clause 8(1)(b), for the Greater London Council elections held subsequent to the coming into force of the one member electoral areas the maximum amount of election expenses shall be £200 together with an additional 1s. 0d. for every four entries in the register of electors to be used in the election and for any less number of entries above a multiple of four.

Mr. Sharples

I understand, Sir Harry, that Amendment No. 14 will be called for a separate Division if necessary.

The Temporary Chairman

That is correct.

Mr. Sharples

These Amendments deal with election expenses at local government elections. The last time the sum for election expenses was fixed was in the 1949 Act. Mr. Speaker's Conference took account of the increases in prices since then, particularly in such items as printing. It recommended increases in the rates of expenses for constituencies which would raise the rate, for example, for the average-sized constituency of 60,000 electors from £850 to £1,150, or by approximately 30 per cent.

The question of local government election expenses was considered by the Home Office Advisory Committee. This was before that Committee had the advantage of knowing what the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference would be. I think that if it had had the advantage of knowing the considerations taken into account by Mr. Speaker's Conference it might have reached a different conclusion.

9.15 p.m.

There is no doubt about the need to increase the amount of election expenses allowed at local government elections. The purpose of these Amendments is to bring into line with the amounts allowed for Parliamentary elections the increase which is proposed for local government elections, taking into account increases in costs which have arisen since they were fixed originally in 1949.

It is proposed to alter from six to four the number of entries in the register of electors for which an additional shilling can be claimed. We accept the recommendation of the Home Office Advisory Committee that the basic amount should be increased to £30. However, the effect of the Government's proposal is to increase the amount only by something approaching £9, irrespective of the number of electors in any local government area.

In the case of a very small local government unit, that may make sense. However, more thought should be given to the larger units, and perhaps I might give some figures of the differences between the present scale, that which the Government propose and the Amendment which we suggest. It will help the Committee to get these matters into perspective.

In the case of a parish council with 150 electors, the present scale is £25. The Government propose to increase that to £31 5s. We suggest that it should be raised to £31 17s. 6d. In other words, we more or less agree with the Government's proposal for the smallest units, but we consider that, as the size increases, there should be a comparative increase in the rate of expenses allowed.

Taking a local government unit with 5,000 electors, the present scale of expenses allowed is £62 10s. The Government propose to increase the rate to £71 13s. They make that proposal despite the fact that those who took part in Mr. Speaker's Conference agreed that costs had risen by about 55 per cent. Our proposal would be to raise the amount to £92 10s.

In the case of a unit with 20,000 electors, the present rate is £187 10s. The Government propose to raise it to £196 13s. We suggest that it should be £280.

I do not think that we are asking the Committee to accept excessive rates in local elections. However, the rates agreed in 1949 with the simple addition of £9 or thereabouts are quite unrealistic in modern conditions, taking into account, above all, current printing costs.

Amendment No. 14 makes special reference to Greater London. If the Government do not accept it, we propose to divide the Committee on it. In Greater London, we claim that the basic amount should be increased from £30 to £200, and that the same alteration should be made by reducing the number of electors for whom the shilling can be claimed from six to four.

Greater London is on a much larger scale. Greater London Councillors, broadly speaking, represent the same number of electors as are represented by Members of Parliament in Greater London constituencies. The rate agreed by the Government—and agreed by Mr. Speaker's Conference—for a constituency represented by a Member of Parliament is £1,150. The rate proposed in the Bill for expenses for a Greater London councillor, representing approximately the same number of electors, is £446. I do not believe that this is realistic. Our proposal would increase the rate of expenses for a Greater London councillor to a maximum of £825.

I believe that our proposals are realistic in the light of increases in expenses. The proposals are directly in line with the proposals for Parliamentary Elections recommended by Mr. Speaker's Conference, accepted by the Government, and included in the Bill. But, above all, I think all concerned with democratic government worry a great deal about the comparatively small turn-out at local government elections. We shall be considering later how a candidate at a local government election gets his name known to the electorate. No matter how hard a candidate may try, it is not possible to do this on the maximum scale of expenses proposed by the Government.

We are not proposing anything extravagant or anything which will particularly benefit one party or the other. I do not believe that this enters into the figures we are proposing. In the light of an increase in expenses of about 53 per cent. since 1949, we are proposing something which is in line with the modern rate of expenses which a candidate has to bear to make it possible for him to put his views over to the electorate whom he will be asking to return him as their representative.

[Mr. HARRY GOURLAY in the Chair]

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I understand, Mr. Gourlay, that you are also allowing discussion of Amendments Nos. 66, 67 and 68 standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and myself relating to a county constituency in a Parliamentary election, which is a little different from what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) has been discussing.

The Clause increases to some extent the sums which may be spent in Parliamentary elections. I agree that there must be a severe restriction on expenditure. Nobody wants to see a tremendous increase in expenditure permitted in Parliamentary elections. At the same time, we must recognise that costs have gone up especially for large constituencies. The formula in the Clause produces an allowance of 8d. per voter in the case of a small constituency of 30,000, but only 4d. per voter in a larger constituency of 90,000—and 90,000 is by no means the largest. Large constituencies are a modern feature of the landscape.

Much expenditure is directly related to the size of an electorate. A large item of expenditure is on envelopes and paper, before there is any printing. There is also the question of posters. With large constituencies the experience has been that election addresses get smaller and smaller and more and more meagre because it is impossible to run an election and produce a satisfactory election address.

The Boundary Commission is now engaged on the task of producing an average-sized constituency of about 60,000, plus, presumably, 10,000 in respect of votes at 18, which will bring the average up to 66,000. That provision will not be enforced before the next election. We shall face the new election, therefore, with constituencies of between 90,000 and 120,000——

Mr. Speed

In my case, if the election occurs at the beginning of 1971 my electorate will be between 150,000 and 160,000.

Sir D. Glover

It should not go out from this Committee that a Conservative Member says that we shall not get this change before the next election. I hope that my Front Bench will have a blazing row if we do not get it before the election.

Mr. Allason

I was indicating the clearly expressed intention in the debate on the Queen's Speech. I agree that we skill have a blazing row about it, but we must face the fact that the Government will probably not do anything about it.

The effect of the formula provided in the Clause will be to provide an allowance of £750 in a county constituency, plus 2d. per voter. The Amendment would substitute the figures of £500 and 3d. respectively, which gives exactly the same total for the average constituency of 60.000. The Amendment would attack small constituencies by reducing the sum which candidates were entitled to spend, but would allow large constituencies a fairer deal.

With an electorate of 30,000 the allowance will be £1,000, which, if the Amendment were accepted, will be reduced to £875. Ai 90,000 the allowance is £1,500 under the Bill, which would be increased to £1,625 by the Amendment. With an electorate of 120,000 the figure under the Bill would be £1,750, which would be increased to £2,000 by the Amendment. I regret that I have not worked out the figures for an electorate of 150,000, but there would be an increase of about ½d. per elector in the case of my hon. Friend's constituency of Meriden.

The Amendment would produce a more reasonable disparity between electorates of 30,000 and 90,000 respectively. Instead of the allowance being £1,000 for an electorate of 30,00 and only £1,500 for an electorate of 90,000, it would be £875 for the 30,000 and £1,625—nearly twice as much—for the 90,000. That is a much fairer way of dealing with the problem of large constituencies.

The House must recognise the immense disparity in the size of constituencies. The Bill's formula is unfair on large constituencies and my Amendment, which is very modest, makes some improvement. I appeal to the Under-Secretary of State, who is a constituent of mine—he looks doubtful, but I thought that he was; perhaps he has a country cottage there—to let ma spend 4½d. on him at the next election rather than just 4d.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Hamling

The Opposition's Amendments are far too modest. There is no Amendment at all on the particular provision for borough constituencies in Parliamentary elections. I have discussed with my agent the limit which the Bill puts down for my constituency. We might be able to fight a General Election this year at this figure—this certainly will not arise; I must disappoint some hon. Gentlemen opposite—but I doubt whether we could afford to fight an election in five years or even two years on these figures.

This puts an unfair burden on party agents. We ourselves never have to certify accounts or draw up the budgets for elections. Someone might say that we are not, either, expected to find the money——

Sir D. Glover

You could not.

Mr. Hamling

I could find the money in Woolwich, all right. My party is not a poor party. We could find the money to fight an election tomorrow in my borough.

Sir D. Glover

If I'm called, I intend to say exactly the same thing, because I agree entirely with the hon. Member. But I did not mean that. I meant that he personally or the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) could not find the money. Of course the constituency parties could find the money.

Mr. Hamling

It might be better if I made the hon. Member's speech and then we might be saved another one.

We are not being realistic enough. My point about the imposition which we place on agents is very serious, because to keep within the limit they might resort to shifts, stratagems, devices, not to say fiddles. I will not say what fiddles an agent might use, since I do not want to put evil thoughts into the minds of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite—[An HON. MEMBER: "And on your side."] We are a decent lot over here. We should certainly consider this carefully. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell the Committee that, whatever his attitude to these Amendments, before we finish with the Bill, we will have a much more realistic approach to this problem.

It is reasonable to argue that there could not be excessive expenditure by constituency parties on either side, because the costs of printing and envelopes and the other costs of an election these days are such that few parties, with odd exceptions, could really afford to go in for the sort of expenditure which was indulged in in my home town in 1840, when a gentleman spent £20,000 on an election and then lost the election as well as the money. He went bankrupt. Those were the corrupt days of borough politics. We are not living in those times now. No party—actually, it was a Conservative—could afford to go in for that excessive expenditure today.

I am always chary about controlling expenses because one can get into a very artificial situation. If there is one level of expenditure which is considerable, which ought to be looked at and controlled, it is precisely not mentioned in the Bill. I refer to national expenditure, expenditure on advertising. If there is any expenditure that should be controlled, it is this. Expenditure which involves candidates presenting themselves to their electors, however, is surely the one kind of expenditure which should not be looked at in this rather censorious manner.

I have always felt that the control of expenditure was looked on with a rather censorious eye. But it is the impersonal, large-scale national propaganda, which is not related to particular constituencies, which is frequently of a rather crude and superficial character, which is allowed to proliferate. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that we should look at this national expenditure again.

The other kind of expenditure which, I hope, my hon. Friend will reconsider is the expenditure by outside bodies, by vested interests. I do not know how we can control some of this, but there is a lot which comes flooding in at election times from different outside bodies, calculated to have an effect upon the result, from people who have no responsibility to the electorate. It is this sort of expenditure which, I hope, my right hon. and hon. Friends will look at again.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) in the second set of Amendments which we are discussing with the principal one which has been moved from the Front Bench on this side of the Committee. I will make simply the modest comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) that it is an interesting commentary on the Government's economic policy that a highly intelligent supporter of the Government can calculate that while he might well be able to underwrite an election today on the figures given in the Bill, he could not do so in two years' time. This is one of the most damaging admissions of the present inflation that I have heard for a long time.

Mr. Hamling

I can look at the sort of expenditure that was permissible when I first stood at an election, and I have been contesting elections for 20 years. I have been looking at the inflation in election costs which happened years ago. One does not need to make a petty party point on this.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I have got the hon. Member to his feet and succeeded in my object. I think that I have made my point.

I support this series of Amendments because I represent, as do other hon. Members, a county constituency with, mercifully, a large majority, but also a large electorate. Indeed, if one counted one's majority at the present time, it would be positively vulgar. I represent 100,000 constituents. I am, therefore—to use the technical expression—"overweight". [Laughter.] I trust that no hon. Member will wish to comment on that. Hon. Members who represent very large numbers of people in their constituencies are directly affected by the Clause and, therefore, by the Amendments.

Having listened to the remarks of the Home Secretary on this matter, I am convinced that amendments to boundaries will not take place before the next General Election. The proposal for my area would divide the constituency roughly in half—I must not go into that at this stage, because I would be out of order—and there would then be two Conservatives representing the area instead of one, and that is why amendments to boundaries will not take place. I am satisfied that a seat like mine will be represented by one hon. Member after the next General Election, as it is today.

We are, therefore, acutely interested in the, amount of money involved. I do not understand why the scale of what I shall call "fees" proposed in the Clause stops at an upper figure well below the electorate of a considerable number of constituents now represented in the House of Commons. Why does the scale stop at a certain figure when many of us demonstrably represent many more constituents than that? The Minister must meet this point head-on if he is to give an effective answer to the alternative scale contained in the three Amendments to which I am speaking.

I agree that all sorts of expenses have gone up. I let hon. Members into a secret when I tell them that I fought the last two General Elections without issuing an election address. Why do hon. Members persist in having election addresses when they are things of the past? They are, however, represented as part of the Amendment because they come into the costs which we are discussing. However, they are basically a left-over from an era when communications were poor. At that time candidates had to circulate in full their views on each matter of the day. That is no longer applicable.

Nevertheless, the electorate expects to hear something from candidates and, while the free post—which is available to all candidates—is of considerable help, the expenses involved in producing and circulating a massive electorate of the kind I represent are not properly reflected in the Clause. This problem will be accentuated—and I am glad of this—by our decision yesterday to add further to the electorate.

The Government have not, in the Clause, made sufficient weighting for the size of a county constituency. This is a real problem for those of us who must fight such seats. We have not only substantial areas to cover—in my case I cannot complain about that—but substantial numbers of people to cover, large numbers of meeting to attend and a great many people to circulate through the various communications systems. This is one of the more expensive features of a General Election campaign. This must all be done within what the average man would regard as perfectly reasonable expenditure.

9.45 p.m.

Since I made a reference, in quite a lighthearted way, to the hon. Member for Woolwich, West, I end by saying that I think that he made a very real point when, at the very end of his speech, he spoke of the risk of making criminals of election agents. The Government must treat this point with care. The Committee must treat this matter with some delicacy— and we all understand why—but the point made by the hon. Gentleman struck home. Frankly, some of us know that our affairs are arranged with care, and I do not believe that it is conducive to a healthy democratic system.

Very little extra would obviate all that. It would not get anywhere near approaching to the kind of luxuriant expenditure that neither side is prepared to contemplate. But it would remove the criminal or quasi-criminal nature of some of the arrangement of affairs that goes on in all parties on both sides of the Committee when we are faced with the predicament of getting a gallon into a pint pot. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will not feel that this is a frivolous exercise. It is put as a serious contribution, and it is particularly relevant to those who, like myself, represent very substantial electorates.

Sir D. Glover

I give qualified support to the Amendment, but I warmly support the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling). I will be quite honest with the Committee by saying that when this matter was discussed in Mr. Speaker's Conference—and I do not think that that hon. Member was a member at that time I expressed my hostility——

Mr. Hamling

So did I.

Sir D. Glover

I am very worried about this Clause. By the very nature of things, it will probably be another 10 or 15 years before Parliament debates another Representation of the People Bill, and the figures in the Clause are even today totally inadequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), in a very charming speech, called attention to the difficulties of agents. Let us be quite blunt, and say that we are stretching the credibility of some of these election expense returns to the absolute snapping point. It is not right that the House should inflict this dangerous responsibility on a lot of very hard-working, responsible and worthy citizens. It is not right that we should ask them to try to put a quart into a pint pot.

What makes the position worse, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will go back to the Home Secretary and tell him, is that we know that this is the position now. The increases in this Clause are totally inadequate even to take care of the inflation we have had since the last similar Bill was debated, but the figures in their purchasing power are still far less than the House of Commons thought adequate 20 years ago. Yet we are putting these figures solemnly into the Bill; accepting them as adequate for the 10 or 15 or 20 years before the House of Commons debates the subject again.

The Home Secretary should take the whole Clause back, and return to us with a realistic assessment of the sort of expenses a Parliamentary candidate can incur at an election. If we do not do this, it is because—let us be blunt about it—we are frightened of creating an impression on any individual elector that we are spending too much money. We are not prepared as a responsible House of Commons to say that this is the sort of money it is reasonable to spend in Parliamentary elections.

I therefore hope that the Committee will put real pressure on the Home Secretary to bring us, on Report or at some other stage, a completely new Clause on expenses, because everyone here, almost without exception, knows that we are not dealing with the realities of the situation. We are pretending that certain conditions exist that do not exist. We are pretending that the money is adequate when we know that it is not adequate. And we are doing so because we are frightened of appearing to be lush on the question of expenses.

I can understand how this picture grew up. Quite candidly, it was because the party opposite at that time had more difficulty in raising money than had the party I represent. Therefore it was quite right to limit the amount of expenses. Today that situation does not apply to anything like the same extent.

I believe that the party of hon. Members opposite now raises more money for political purposes than the party I repre- sent. I am not speaking about the position nationally, but constituency-wise. Admittedly the Labour Party in my constituency does not raise as much as my party, but equally the Conservative Party in the constituency of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West does not raise as much as the Labour Party there. If we take like with like, there is not much difference.

I plead with the Committee to take a realistic attitude to this problem. To put this provision in a Bill which has to last for 15 years or more would be completely dishonest in view of the problem that we know exists now and will exist in future. We should deal with it properly.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South West)

I support the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) because of my experience. Before I became a Member of Parliament I had been chairman of my local party. I know the difficulties I had to square my conscience with the bills and so on put forward as election expenses five, six or seven years ago. At the last election, I am glad to say, I had nothing to do with putting forward bills for expenditure.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) who said that election addresses are not needed. In my constituency, even under the new rule, we are not allowed to spend as much as £10 per polling district and there are 115 villages. We need election addresses, because people want to know about candidates' proposals. At a following election the voters will refer to an old election address and ask what has been done about carrying out pledges given in it. We have to spend adequate amounts of money putting forward a case which every voter in the constituency can understand.

I do not entirely agree with the Amendments we are considering, because I think that a rural constituency with a fairly small number of constituents could be hit by these proposals. The whole Clause should be looked at again because we are not merely concerned with the next election, but with two or three elections ahead. The present suggestions are not adequate even for today, quite apart from conditions as they will be in the future. Election agents have a terribly hard job to do. We do not want to lead them into doing something which we know they ought not to do.

Mr. Speed

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) and the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), who made an admirable contribution to the debate. No one has yet spoken in favour of the Clause as it stands. Agents and voluntary workers have very important work to do. Professional people working for any party are grossly underpaid for their services. We are giving them an intolerable responsibility to have to manage their affairs carefully not only now, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr.van Straubenzee) said, even in four years' time.

It is easier to arrange one's expenses if one is fighting an election in part of a city or in a borough where one can get together with other candidates and there can be joint advertising and the communications generally are very much cheaper, but in a large constituency there is a considerable problem.

I hope that the hon. Member for Woolwich, West will excuse me for taking his point a stage further. We seem to be very concerned about the amount which can be specifically spent within a constituency—this should be looked at more realistically—yet no limitation is imposed on the extra-mural help which can come flooding in. This help can come from a group of industrialists supporting my party or from some millionaires helping the Labour Party. A considerable amount of propaganda is put out through the trade union and Cooperative movement, and not just through their political funds. Most of the trade union magazines are not paid for out of the political funds of the unions, but they carry a lot of propaganda for the Labour Party. I do not quarrel with that.

On the other hand, we are making life much more difficult for party agents and whole hosts of voluntary workers. On the other, we seem not to worry about what happens, sometimes on a very large scale, by way of massive propaganda put out by extra-mural bodies.

I therefore echo what everyone else who has taken part has said and hope that the Government will agree to look again at the Clause. Otherwise, many dedicated people in all parties will be put in a quite intolerable position.

Mr. W. Howie (Luton)

I want to say practically nothing as briefly as possible. I add my small voice to the consensus which has enveloped the Chamber in the last twenty minutes and which was started by the admirable speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling). A quick calculation, based on the figures given by the Government, leads me to believe that with an electorate of 60,000 the expenses allowed in my constituency will be about £1,125. As the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) said, this does not seem to be the sort of sum which will finance elections in the next ten years or so.

If we are to impose a limitation of this type now, we must impose a limitation which will last for a substantial number of years, because we do not want to be chopping and changing every other election or so. The Government should carefully consider the amount involved.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) made a valid point when he pointed to the difference between some county constituencies and others. We have heard of a county constituency which in a few years will have an electorate of 150,000. In the Highlands and Islands the electorates are small but the areas of constituencies are very large. In the Islands there is the additional problem of communications. The differential which is added to the basic £750, if it is based on the electorate, does not give such a constituency much of a chance.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention, not only to the weakness in the Government's proposals, but also to the weakness in the Opposition's official Amendment and in their unofficial Amendment. A complete re-thinking is required of this whole question of the financing of elections.

Hon. Members have mentioned the problem which faces the election agent in devising his return—I think that "devising" is the correct word—at the end of the election. It must not be forgotten that, although if he has any sense a candidate does not look at this very closely——

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

Back to