HC Deb 15 March 1978 vol 946 cc456-64

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Granville Janner (Leicester, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to change the Parliamentary Elections Rules in respect of the validity of nominations. This is a Bill to change the parliamentary rules in respect of the validity of nominations, in particular by raising the deposit of £150 payable by candidates, which sum was fixed in 1918, to the sum of £500, with the alternative—to provide for those cases where candidates have true and considerable public support but little money—of their finding a percentage, which I would suggest should be 5 per cent., of the people on the electoral role who are prepared to sign the nomination papers.

At present, anyone who is prepared to put up the sum of £150 does not merely acquire the right to stand for Parliament; he acquires subsidiary rights provided at the expense of the public which lend themselves to abuses of the democratic prosesses of the worst kind. As a start, anyone who wishes to stand and who can find £150 will acquire the right to one free mailing to every elector in his constituency at an average cost to the public of approximately £4,500. Secondly, if enough people put up for the same cause or the same party in sufficient constituencies, at a cost of £150 each, they acquire not only free radio time but the least expensive television time in the history of broadcasting.

The troubles to which this situation can lead have become plain. In the recent by-election at which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Sever) was elected there were 10 candidates, of whom eight lost their deposits. My hon. Friend has told me, as I understand he would tell the House were the opportunity to arise, that there was enormous confusion, with tremendously long ballot papers, people putting up posters all over the constituency for parties which scarcely existed, candidates indulging in self-publicity of the worst kind and, of course, the usual highly extremist representation of those who can put up candidates at no cost to themselves but who are able, in the process, to use the mail free to propagate ideas odious to the vast majority of the electorate. In the event these people lost their deposits.

In the by-election at Ilford, North there were eight candidates, of whom six lost their deposits. One was a Gentleman called Commander Boaks, who has stood in 13 parliamentary elections and whose views are well represented by some Tory Members who managed somehow, to get their party to adopt them as candidates, thereby saving their deposits. Commander Boaks achieved the zenith of his popularity in the Ilford, North by-election when he polled 38 votes, having for £150, on that as on other occasions, achieved the right to free franking facilities.

Commander Boaks is perfectly entitled to put forward his views. Any person in this democracy is free to stand for Parliament and ought not to be prevented on the ground that he has not the money. On the other hand, there must be a reasonable limit if elections are not to be turned into a three-ring circus. Following investigations made by him, the distinguished researcher, Mr. Fred Craig of Parliamentary Research Services, estimates that while there were just over 2,000 candidates in the 1974 election, if the deposit remains where it is there will be over 3,000 at the next election and the number is likely to go on increasing.

The situation would be ludicrous in any event. The seriousness of it becomes obvious when, for example, the National Front announces that it intends to put up 300 candidates in constituencies where it has not the slightest chance of saving its deposit. The National Front has not, as yet, saved a deposit anywhere in the country.

As a result of putting up these candidates, it will acquire the right to free television time, and I am told that to buy 10 minutes of television time on one channel costs £98,000. Instead of time on one channel the National Front would acquire three-channel publicity. It would acquire the right to free radio time, to put up candidates without other people in the campaign being able to point out, as they can in this House, that many of the leaders of that party are people with criminal records involving violence—people who would destroy our domestic process. Yet the National Front can have the opportunity, for £150 per constituency, of making use of the democratic process for that purpose.

I am happy to say that the Bill has received the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. There are individual exceptions, whom I respect. The broad area of agreement is a wide one—a spectacularly wide one now that the Liberals have joined the ranks of the supporters. Although some hon. Members have preferred not to support the Bill because they thought the Speaker's Conference would be the appropriate place for this sort of reform to be carried through. I ask the House not to accept that view, because it would be putting off the inevitable until almost parliamentary Doomsday.

Since 1918, there has been a series of parliamentary Speaker's Conferences, not one of which has succeeded in reaching agreement or movement on this subject. That is why for 60 years the deposit has remained the same. When the Front Bench and the Speaker's Conference remain unable to reach agreement of result, perhaps then is the opportunity for the Back Benchers to emerge and to try to get a little progress in an area in which, for the sake of parliamentary democracy, it is essential.

I ask that the Bill be allowed to go forward now and before another General Election comes, because the matter has an urgency. It is in those circumstances that I seek leave to present the Bill.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I take it that the hon. Gentleman wishes to oppose the Bill.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I rise to oppose the motion. I do so first and foremost on an issue of principle—that principle being that any citizen of this nation, save for certain known categories, has the right to stand for membership of this House. As everyone knows, the chances of an independent candidate being elected to this House are very small indeed.

The Bill basically proposes to make the candidatures of independent candidates more expensive and even more difficult than they are at present. It is another step in the direction of making membership of this House open only to the candidates of established parties or to those who can afford the heavy increased cost of candidature which the hon. Gentleman proposes.

I cannot believe that such a step is in the interests of this House and in the interests of this democracy. I remind Labour Members that at the beginning of their party was the candidature—which was described as futile and feckless—of Mr. Keir Hardie in West Ham in 1892. In case my hon. Friends are not exactly swept aside by that argument, I remind them of the early career of Mr. Benjamin Disraeli.

The hon. Gentleman starts from the proposition that the £150 deposit, which was imposed by the Lloyd George Government, was in itself a desirable novelty in the constitution. He also makes the argument or starts from the assumption that £150 today remains a derisory sum. I do not agree with either of those propositions.

The argument concerning the £4,500 expenditure on postage is a bogus one because, as hon. Members all know, it is only through the dedicated work of volunteers that it is possible to distribute the election literature which hon. Members of established parties have. If an independent candidate has sufficient volunteers and supporters who are prepared to do that work for him, why should he not then stand?

The hon. Gentleman spoke rather derisively about Speakers' Conferences. I would accept that the matter has not progressed very much over the last 40 or 50 years, but to seek a change of this magnitude by means of a Ten-Minute Bill seems to me to avoid the fundamental problems of the constitution in this country, the method of election to this House and the future of our constitution. It seems to me to be a highly imperfect manner of endeavouring to achieve reform.

This proposal, or any other proposal designed to increase the deposit considerably in order to make the position of independent candidates more difficult and more expensive, will not hurt the National Front. It will hurt primarily individuals and small groups. The hon. Gentleman may consider them to be not nearly as important as the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, or the independent parties, but I should like to give an example of the indirect importance of such candidates.

At the election which resulted in my coming to this House there was an independent candidate who stood for the self-employed. It so happened that his argument did not persuade a considerable number of the electors of Cambridge to elect him, but through his argument and his campaign he brought to the attention of all the candidates and to the electorate of Cambridge the deep importance of the self-employed and of small businesses. He did not win but he contributed to the debate in a very useful way, and his candidature was far from nugatory. He lost his deposit—he lost his own money—but his contribution, as a democrat and as an individual, to the debate during that election campaign, was very considerable. I deeply respected it and I was grateful for it.

I oppose the motion on two grounds. The first is a fundamental one of principle. I do not believe that the established, organised, rich parties have any right at all at this stage, in a dying Parliament, to try to put forward legislation which militates against small parties and individuals. Secondly, if such a measure is to be proposed, it should not be contained in a Ten-Minute Bill of this nature.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring

in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 158, Noes 60.

Division No. 149] AYES [4.26 p.m.
Adley, Robert Graham, Ted Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)
Anderson, Donald Grant, George (Morpeth) O'Halloran, Michael
Ashton, Joe Gray, Hamish Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Bates, Alf Grocott, Bruce Page, John (Harrow West)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Page, Richard (Workington)
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Hannam, John Palmer, Arthur
Biggs-Davison, John Harper, Joseph Pardoe, John
Bishop, Rt Hon Edward Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Park, George
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Parry, Robert
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Haselhurst, Alan Pavitt, Laurie
Brooke, Peter Hayhoe, Barney Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Hordern, Peter Richardson, Miss Jo
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Robinson, Geoffrey
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Roderick, Caerwyn
Campbell, Ian Hughes, Roy (Newport) Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Carmichael, Neil Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Rose, Paul B.
Cartwright, John Hurd, Douglas Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Churchill, W. S. Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Clemitson, Ivor Janner, Greville Sainsbury, Tim
Cockcroft, John Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd) St. John-Stevas, Norman
Cocks. Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Sandelson, Neville
Cohen, Stanley Jessel, Toby Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Coleman, Donald Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Corbett, Robin Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Sims, Roger
Cowans, Harry Jones, Dan (Burnley) Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Crawshaw, Richard Jopling, Michael Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Crouch, David Kaufman, Gerald Snape, Peter
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Kerr, Russell Speed, Keith
Cryer, Bob Kimball, Marcus Stallard, A. W.
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Kinnock. Neil Stanley, John
Dempsey, James Knight, Mrs Jill Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Dormand, J. D. Lamborn, Harry Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lawrence, Ivan Stoddart, David
Dykes, Hugh Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Strang, Gavin
Edge, Geoff Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Tapsell, Peter
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Elliott, Sir William Lyon, Alexander (York) Townsend, Cyril D.
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Wakeham, John
English, Michael McCusker, H. Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Macfarlane, Nell Ward, Michael
Evans, John (Newton) MacGregor, John Weatherill, Bernard
Faulds, Andrew MacKay, Andrew (Stechford) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Whitlock, William
Finsberg, Geoffrey Mates, Michael Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Fookes, Miss Janet Meyer, Sir Anthony Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Forrester, John Mikardo, Ian Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Freud, Clement Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Woodall, Alec
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde) Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Molyneaux, James Young, David (Bolton E)
Glyn, Dr Alan Montgomery, Fergus
Goodhart, Philip Moonman, Eric TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Mr. Ronald Atkins and
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Morris, Rt Hon Charles R. Mr. John Sever.
Atkinson, Norman Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Litterick, Tom
Awdry, Daniel Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Loyden, Eddie
Bain, Mrs Margaret Golding, John MacCormick, Iain
Beith, A. J. Goodhew, Victor Madden, Max
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Grimond, Rt Hon J. Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Canavan, Dennis Hawkins, Paul Maynard, Miss Joan
Cant, R. B. Heffer, Eric S. Neubert, Michael
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Hooson, Emlyn Parkinson, Cecil
Cope, John Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Penhaligon, David
Cormack, Patrick Hutchison, Michael Clark Reid, George
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) Kelley, Richard Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Crawford, Douglas Kilfedder, James Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil Kilroy-Silk, Robert Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) King, Evelyn (South Dorset) Silvester, Fred
Drayson, Burnaby Knox, David Skinner, Dennis
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Lambie, David Spriggs, Leslie
Flannery, Martin Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW) Watt, Hamish TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Thompson, George Welsh, Andrew Mr. Nicholas Scott and
Thorne, Stan (Preston South) Wigley, Dafydd Mr. Robert Rhodes James
Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon) Winterton, Nicholas
Tomney, Frank Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Ronald Atkins, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, Mr. John Davies, Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Mr. Ian Mikardo, Mr. John Pardoe, Mr. Edwin Wainwright, Mr. Peter Walker and Sir Harold Wilson.