HC Deb 17 May 1977 vol 932 cc241-424

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit expenditure by political parties and other organisations connected with general elections; to provide for the publication of income and expenditure of such organisations incurred in connection with general elections; and for connected purposes. Most of the discussion about the finances of political parties in recent years has been concerned with their incomes. That is understandable in some respects, and the Houghton Report showed huge discrepancies in the incomes of political parties. In 1975 the income of the Conservative Party was about £6,290,000. That of the Labour Party was around £2,950,000, while that of the Liberals was about £863,000. It is right and proper that we should be concerned about the incomes of political parties, but in terms of the possible influence on voters expenditure is more important than income.

If we examine the expenditure of the political parties we find some strange anomalies in existing controls, particularly at General Elections. One anomaly, to which I particularly wish to draw the attention of the House, exists between the expenditure that can be made by candidates in their constituencies and the expenditure of the national party organisations.

It has long been accepted—for nearly 100 years—since the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act of 1883—that there should be strict control over the expenditure by candidates in individual constituencies. As far as I know, nobody seriously objects to that. The need for that is self-evident. One cannot have a fair election in a constituency unless there are controls over the candidates' expenditure. At the same time, although we control local expenditure in constituencies, there is no control whatsoever over the amount that the parties and their supporting organisations can spend at a national level during a General Election campaign. This leads to all sorts of ludicrous anomalies.

In my own constituency it would mean, for example, that if an advertisement supporting the Conservative Party appeared in the Tamworth Herald, it might be liable for declaration by the Tory candidate as part of his campaign to be elected in my constituency, because the Tamworth Herald circulates in that area. If, on the other hand, the advertisement appeared in the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, urging people to Conservative as part of that party's campaign, it would not be subject to any kind of control.

I can never understand why the Tory Party bothers to advertise in the Daily Express or the Daily Mail. It seems to me that the Tories get more than they could reasonably expect free. However, this is considered to be a normal part of a national election campaign. It is a serious anomaly about which the House should be concerned.

Another anomaly concerns the support and fringe organisations that back political parties. I am thinking here particularly of organisations such as Aims of Industry, which in 1974 had an income of £607,000, most of which was used for promoting the Tory cause in two General Elections. If this were done at a local level, if an organisation in a particular constituency threw large sums of money behind a particular candidate in the hope of getting him elected, that would obviously and unarguably be part of the candidate's election expenditure and be subject to controls. However, there is no control at national level over the expenditure that organisations such as Aims of Industry may use on behalf of particular political parties.

There are only two consistent positions that hon. Members can adopt in relation to the Bill. One of them is my view, which is that there should be controls both locally and nationally. The other attitude is that there should be no controls whatsoever. I should not like to hear anyone defending that point of view, although it is at least consistent.

The present position, whereby there are controls over candidates locally but no controls nationally, is absurd—particularly as, although some of us like to think a lot of our capacities at certain times, the outcome of a General Election is now universally recognised as being far more determined by the national expenditure and national campaign of the parties than by individual campaigns in individual constituencies. We may regret that, but it is a fact. The swing is fairly consistent throughout the country and we know which seats are vulnerable if there is a swing to one party or the other.

I hope that the principle of controlling national expenditure is one that commends itself to the House. The only problem is how to do it. My proposal has at least the virtue of simplicity. At present, if a party puts a candidate in all 635 constituencies, the total allowable for all candidates to spend, assuming that each spends the maximum, is about £1 million. My proposal is that the amount that parties may spend nationally should be half that amount, so that the figure would be about £500,000.

That figure has a number of virtues. It would not be that different from what the parties have spent in recent elections. In October 1974 the Tories spent about £600,000 and the Labour Party a little less than £500,000. It also has the strong advantage of being linked to local expenditure and would therefore automatically change when we changed local expenditure.

The strongest advantage of all is that by setting it at a fairly low level we should prevent our General Elections being involved in the sort of ballyhoo and obscene expenditure that is associated with, for example, American presidential elections. I hope that everyone would wish our election expenditure to be limited in this way. The Bill would also provide for the proper publication and auditing of party accounts—we have to do this in our constituencies—and would mean that expenditure by fringe organisations supporting political parties would be included in the party accounts and subject to the maximum figure of about £500,000.

This is the main concern of the Bill, but there is one other proposal that, although it is related, could be considered separately. I wish to see the deposit that candidates have to pay at General Elections increased from £150. That figure was set when deposits were first introduced in 1918 and it has not been changed since.

There are only two positions that can be adopted on this issue. Either we get rid of the deposit or we raise it to a more realistic level—we can argue about the precise amount—bearing in mind the value of money now compared with 1918. I am aware of the suggestion that increasing the deposit would penalise certain sorts of candidates who might not have the requisite funds and some of the smaller parties, but £150 is extremely good value as a deposit for a General Election campaign.

A candidate gets a lot of benefits for his £150. There are television and radio coverage and free postage. I am surprised that commercial organisations have not taken advantage of this before. There are 100,000 electors in my constituency and the £150 deposit means that a candidate can get a delivery to every elector for 0.15p each. That is pretty good business for any organisation backing a particular cause. A candidate also has the great advantage of receiving free copies of the electoral register, for which many commercial organisations would be grateful. It is time that the deposit was increased and the proposals in the Bill would make for fairer elections in this country and would help the democratic process.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bruce Grocott, Mr. Ivor Clemitson, Mr. Joseph Dean, Mr. Geoff Edge, Mr. John Garrett, Mr. Bruce George, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mr. Terry Walker, Mr. Ken Weetch and Mr. David Young.

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  3. CONTROL OF OFFICE DEVELOPMENT BILL 21,321 words, 1 division
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  11. BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE 42 words
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