HC Deb 24 April 1975 vol 890 cc1828-34
Mr. Emery

I beg to move, as a manuscript amendment, in page 4, line 8, at end insert: (3)(A) The breach of any of the conditions specified by the Lord President under clause 3(2) of this Act shall be deemed to be an offence. (B) Any person or organisation shall be liable on conviction for an offence committed under this Act to a fine not exceeding £10,000. (c) No prosecution may be brought under this Act without the consent of the Attorney-General.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

With this we will take the manuscript amendment in page 4, line 8, at end insert: — (3) The Lord President shall apply the conditions specified in subsection (2) above not only to the organisations named in subsection (1) above but also to any other corporate person or organisation receiving or spending for the purposes of the referendum campaign more than £1,000.

Mr. Emery

This is the second roneoed or xeroxed sheet, in case any hon. Member is unable to follow the different pieces of paper that we have had in covering the Bill on Report.

I find myself in a strange position. Not being a lawyer, I find myself entering into the legal sphere and getting into problems by trying to ensure that there should be some sanction against any offences.

The House will realise that Clause 3 clearly sets out that the Lord President of the Council may make grants to certain organisations and that, having done so, he shall specify conditions. These conditions include the keeping and the making available for publication of accounts and such other information as he may think fit.

It appears that if persons who are to receive this money do not comply with the conditions specified by the Lord President, then, other than perhaps arraigning them in this House as was suggested, there is no way of controlling or having sanctions against them.

It was argued that this was perfectly all right because the Home Secretary was a joint chairman of one organisation and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) was an officer of the other organisation.

7.45 p.m.

It seems to me that both the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will be pretty busy campaigning. One will still be a senior Minister. I cannot see them having much control over the way that books are kept or of meeting the direct conditions that the Lord President may specify. Therefore, it seemed imperative to put some sanction into the requirements of the conditions which would be set.

I have done that in a simple way. First, I suggest that a breach of the conditions specified by the Lord President shall be deemed to be an offence. That seems fairly logical.

Secondly, I suggest that Any person or organisation shall be liable on conviction for an offence … to a fine not exceeding £10,000. I put the figure at that amount because I want it to be a high court rather than a magistrates' court offence. That seems to fit in with normal electoral procedure under which such provisions are dealt with in the high court. That proposal would achieve that end.

Thirdly, because it is a political matter and there should be some responsibility somewhere—we do not want this dealt with in a minor way—I suggest that No prosecution may be brought … without the consent of the Attorney-General". I have suggested a fairly simple sanctions method. I recommend it to parliamentary draftsmen in their drafting of other legislation because it can be read and understood. That is not normally so easy when dealing with liability or sanctions clauses in most legislation.

We all hope that these provisions will not be necessary. They are certainly not meant as criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury or any organisation with which he may be associated. It just seemed sensible to have such a sanction. I put it in this way because I want it to be applied only if there is a major breach. That is why any breach should be considered a high court offence, brought only with the consent of the Attorney-General, with provision for a large fine if it is proved to be a breach of the conditions.

This should not be a political matter. I hope that it makes sense. It was with the wish of trying to make the Bill slightly better that I proposed the amendment.

Mr. English

I should like to refer to the manuscript amendment in my name which has been selected for discussion with the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery).

In the circumstances, it may be helpful if I read it: The Lord President shall apply the conditions specified in subsection (2) above"— those are the conditions relating to accounting, and so forth— not only to the organisations named in subsection (1) above"— the two umbrella organisations— but also to any other corporate person or organisation receiving or spending for the purposes of the referendum campaign more than £1,000. The Leader of the House will recall that he, and certainly publicly the Prime Minister, originally said that we were to have a declaration of expenditure by all the participants. The Bill does not provide for that. It merely provides for a declaration of expenditure by the two umbrella organisations. Therefore, any company, or trade union for that matter, can spend as much as it likes on the purposes of the referendum. It can shower its employees, or members in the case of a trade union, with documentation representing its points of view. That expenditure will not be declared and included in the return of accounts since under the Bill the return of accounts is merely a condition of the grant to the two umbrella organisations. In the same sort of way anyone could create a front organisation to receive and spend moneys for the purpose of the referendum campaign.

There could be, for example, Britain in Europe (No. 2) or the National Referendum Campaign (No. 2) which could receive and spend as much money as they liked without accounting for it because they would not be recipients of the £125,000 grant. This is an unsatisfactory position. We are liable to end up with a system in which organisations are accounting for sums which might not be the greatest part of expenditure on the campaign.

The Lord President could apply the conditions he has determined in the earlier subsection to everybody spending money. But to apply them to everybody in the literal sense would seem excessive. For example, individuals do not matter in this context. If an individual wishes to engage in political propaganda, that is his right. I have excluded from the provisions individuals and organisations and companies which are spending small amounts which it is not necessary to include. I have chosen a lower limit of £1,000.

The object is simply to see that any major expenditure by major corporate bodies or non-corporate bodies such as trade unions, but bodies rather than individuals, is declared. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will feel able, if not to accept the amendment, at least to produce something like it at a later stage.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office (Mr. William Price)

We respect the thought behind the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery). We recognise that it is a matter of concern to this House that the taxpayers 'money should be spent properly and that we should take whatever steps are practical and realistic to ensure that this is achieved. However, I am a little surprised at the amendment which I do not believe would be in the best interests of the House.

My right hon. Friend the Lord President announced in a Written Answer on Monday, and described to the House last night, the conditions imposed upon the umbrella organisations. Those conditions have been clearly laid out in letters to them, and this was a matter which, quite rightly, the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised last night and on which I think I gave clarification.

The organisations have agreed these conditions. The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) and Sir Con O'Neill have put their signatures to letters confirming that they accept them. It is now in no one's interest for these two organisations to break these conditions. Surely no one imagines that these gentlemen will lend themselves to signing bills for money knowing that they will have to produce accounts, or see that the money is properly spent and the accounts properly produced.

It is difficult to envisage a situation in which they would have money left over anyway, and if that were to arise I could not see it finding its way to Transport House, Tory Central Office or any other political organisation. One other point is worth making. We have great respect for these two gentlemen, but if something were to happen to them I find it hard to believe that they would be replaced by anybody less reputable.

My second point for doubt over the amendment is that a committee is being formed to look into the desirability of giving public funds to political parties, and if it thinks it desirable it will devise schemes for doing so. That independent committee will examine what is being done in other countries and will think carefully about the safeguards and penalties which might be necessary.

In this case, given the reputable nature of the two organisations, the people running them and the manner in which we can call them to account in this House, we should not prejudice the recommendations of the committee by taking the rather drastic step of making it an offence punishable by a heavy fine to break the conditions upon which the money is being given.

Mr. Emery

The Parliamentary Secretary said that neither of the gentlemen concerned would break the conditions. There can be no harm in having such conditions in the Bill, because they will never have to be applied. I am sure, therefore, that the Minister will accept the amendment.

Mr. Price

That is the best one I have heard all week.

I turn now to the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). Again, I appreciate the care with which my hon. Friend has approached the subject, but I think that he is asking more than is practicable. We are now in the area of control of all campaign expenditure—

Mr. English

Not all.

Mr. Price

There is certainly an element of control, which we discussed this morning. My objection to the amendment is that it is unworkable. We have laid down certain rules and we must demand declarations from the two campaigning organisations. We think this is reasonable, because they are dealing with a fairly substantial sum of public money. It seems to me to be another matter to demand that organisations which are not getting public money should be required to keep accounts in a special form, to have them ready in two months and to subject them to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Moreover these organisations will be required by the amendment to produce accounts in this special form, covering the period since 26th March—the date of publication of the Bill. They will have had no warning about that, and I fear that it will create a real problem for them.

The Government carefully considered the possibility of including such provisions, and for a variety of reasons decided it was not on. Perhaps I can give my hon. Friend an example of the difficult ground we are on. A number of organisations are active in this way at General Elections, and we think we have control over them. In practice, we have no control. In my constituency, in 1970, I was defending a majority of 409 when two organisations plastered the town of Rugby with posters and advertisements in the local newspapers and goodness knows where else. One was for free enterprise and the other one concerned the "pound in your pocket". The effect was catastrophic from their point of view. My majority went up 700 per cent., and I have not seen either of them since. I have doubled my majority since then and they, presumably, have gone to greener pastures.

I accept that we would all like to exercise some such control at General Elec- tions, but there are many problems, and I suspect that such action would be equally difficult to take during the referendum campaign.

Mr. English

Surely my hon. Friend realises that this situation arises only because of the way in which the Representation of the People Acts are worded. Organisations are liable to formidable penalties if they plaster a town with posters naming one of the candidates. There are also political penalties. The law does work, and organisations do not get away with breaking it. It is only because of the wording of the legislation that these outside bodies do what they like.

Mr. Price

I accept that that is the position, but it does not alter the fact that an organisation like Aims of Industry can spend large sums of money in the period leading up to campaigns, and in my experience other organisations do the same thing. Whether or not the law is working properly, they get away with it. They have done so in the past and I have no doubt that they will attempt to do in the future.

In spite of my hon. Friend's enthusiasm and attention to detail, I can see great difficulties if his proposal is carried out, and there would be scope for snooping during and after the polls. We want the biggest turnout for the referendum and we want the public to take an active and enthusiastic interest in the campaign.

My hon. Friend's amendment might well inhibit people from taking part, and that would be undesirable. I must ask the Committee to reject both amendments.

Amendment negatived.

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