HC Deb 13 February 1985 vol 73 cc417-24

  1. (1) The Secretary of State for the Home Department may, by order, establish a scheme for the registration of political parties. No condition of eligibility shall attach to such a scheme, except that a registration fee, prescribed by the Secretary of State shall be payable.
  2. (2) Any party so registered shall be a registered political party for the purposes of this Act.
  3. (3) No political party will have to register to be able to participate in an election. Political parties not wishing to register will be able to continue to field candidates by the method otherwise prescribed in the principal Act.'.

Sir John Farr

We in the midlands have felt for a long time that £150 is too low for an election deposit. However, the Government's proposed deposit of £1,000 is unrealistically high. The £150 deposit was established many years ago, and, like the dog licence, it has remained unaltered. Action is obviously needed, if only to rule out the huge number of unsuitable candidates who stand for Parliament, particularly at by-elections.

In the past few weeks, I have received many letters from teenagers in schools in my constituency who want to know how to become a Member of Parliament. I have guided them to other constituencies and offered them good advice about their prospects in Leicester and Leicestershire for advancing their career. None of those teenagers has been deterred by the £150 deposit. If we raised the deposit to £1,000, surely that would deter teenagers who are still at school and who are keen on politics and may even want to set up their own party. Such a massive increase in the deposit would be a deterrent to those who aspire to enter Parliament.

I believe that, sooner or later, the House will be televised and that will lead to more people wanting to stand for Parliament. Whatever their reasons, we have no right to bar them by price from attempting to reach the privileged position that we are lucky enough to enjoy.

The deposit recommended in the Bill is definitely too high. No deposit is required in local government elections, but I accept that we must stop the sort of thing that happened in the Chesterfield by-election in February last year. The vast majority of the 17 candidates lost their deposits, but forfeited only £150 each. I will not list all the ridiculous names that appeared in the Chesterfield by-election, but 15 of them lost their deposit.

I want to consider what happens in other countries with which we are closely associated. We may be the oldest practising democracy; I think we are the best but we are not the only one. Fairly close to us is Belgium; the information I have this month is that no deposit is required for a candidate for either House. In Denmark, no deposit is required for a candidate for either House. In France, the deposit for a candidate for the Assemblée Nationale is 1,000 French francs which is about £100. In Germany, no deposit is required of a parliamentary candidate. In Ireland, a candidate for the Dail has to make a deposit of £100. In Italy, no deposit is required. In Canada, the deposit is 200 Canadian dollars. In Japan, it is 2 million yen; no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) can do an immediate conversion but I think it is about £120. In New Zealand, the deposit is 100 New Zealand dollars which, at the present rate of conversion, is about £80.

The Government have got it wrong in proposing a deposit of £1,000. It will be a deterrent to many people if they have to find such an amount. We want to encourage everyone who wants to stand for election to do so; we do not want them to be deterred by the price.

Mr. Winnick

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has told us about other countries. It does not persuade me that they are right and we are wrong. Does he know whether facilities such as free postage at elections are afforded to candidates in those countries on the same basis as here?

Sir John Farr

I have all the details but I do not want to detain the Committee too long. Some have requirements about the number of signatures required to support a candidate. Others have different formulae for the percentage of votes that a candidate has to obtain to retain his deposit. Basically they all have a smaller entry fee or membership fee than we have.

I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will accept amendment No. 51, which is fairly near to the suggestion in the report of the Select Committee. I think it recommended a deposit of between £600 and £1,000. I hope, too, that my right hon. and learned Friend will accept my suggestion in amendment No. 52 that the number of votes required to avoid forfeiting a deposit should be one tenth rather than one twentieth. If the deposit were reduced to £500 it would be better at the same time to double the percentage of votes required to save one's deposit from 5 per cent. to 10 per cent. I shall be interested to hear the response of my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Beith

Discussion on the Bill has been dogged from the beginning by the issue whether we should put a barrier of a £1,000 deposit in the way of someone who wants to stand for election.

It has been the contention of those who wanted that barrier not only that the £150 figure was long out of date, but that the barrier was needed to deter candidates who were frivolous, undesirable, threatening to our way of life or in some other way worthy of being deterred. It has been the contention of my party throughout the discussions—a contention shared by members of other parties and by a number of people outside the House—that that is not the right approach.

The imposition of a barrier of £1,000 would simply deter those unable to find that sum of money — not necessarily those who were frivolous or those whose motives in standing for election were wrong, perhaps for some commercial or undesirable purpose, or any of the other groups such as those with a racialist policy that some Members of Parliament have thought might be deterred by a high deposit. We have argued that such a high deposit would damage some of the smaller parties, such as the Ecology party, which has made representations to Members in all parts of the House, Mebyon Kernow and Plaid Cymru.

A high deposit would present problems even for parties that do not lose deposits. Our position is somewhat different from that of the Labour party which lost 119 deposits at the last general election. We lost barely a handful. Even so, having to put up so large a sum at the beginning of a campaign is a cash flow disability to a party fighting an election. For example, a party might have to find more than £500,000 before funding any of the expenses involved in fighting the election. At a time when its resources are most greatly stretched, that would be a considerable additional burden.

Mr. Winnick

Let us consider the matter on the basis of preserving our parliamentary democracy. Of course we recognise immediately that having a deposit of whatever sum— I am not in favour of £1,000—would not stop candidates whose motive in standing was to promote racial hatred. Does the hon. Gentleman really believe, and is he telling the Committee, that, if the system was changed to one of collecting signatures, that would not help such candidates? Is he not aware that it is such organisations as the National Front which have always advocated that change? Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that a deposit is no deterrent to such candidates and that, on that basis, we should recognise that that would not cause any harm to our parliamentary system?

Mr. Beith

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman because I believe that it is better for parties to stand for election and be shown, as the National Front has been shown, to command minimal support in the country as a whole. It received derisory support in relation to the claims it made. Should it be prevented from putting up candidates and provided with an opportunity to say that because it was denied that opportunity it must take to the streets to put its case? I do not believe that we should give it such an opportunity. The voters, quite sensibly, have shown that the vast majority have no truck with the appalling propositions of the National Front. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman believes that the barrier, whether deposit or signatures, should contribute to discouraging such organisations from putting up candidates at elections. Therefore, we start from a somewhat different approach.

As to the test itself, I believe it would be more relevant to ask whether a candidate enjoys support in the constituency in which he is standing than to ask him to produce money — wherever it may be from, whether inside or outside the constituency. The signature system is, at least in some measure, a test of support from within a constituency.

It is often argued that people can gather signatures in bus queues or while walking down the high street. It is not as simple as that, as those who have had to gather the minimal signatures now required must know. The signatures must be those of valid electors, with the electoral number placed alongside the signatures, which are then checked by the returning officers.

One of the two new clauses grouped with this amendment is designed to remove a technical difficulty from the present arrangements. Whether we have a large or small number of signatures, at present the nomination form must bear valid signatures and no provision is made for the discovery that one signature is accidentally found to be invalid. A new clause which stands in my name and which we will discuss later would ensure, if we went for a system of signatures, that it would be possible to submit 110 signatures, and so long as there were 100 valid signatures on the paper the test would have been satisfied. That is a technical point which I hope will receive the attention of the Home Office.

9.30 pm

The main issue is the test—whether the deposit is a reasonable test of a candidate's support in a constituency, and therefore whether money should be the test. My argument is that signatures are a more valid test and that money is no test at all.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) is right to say that, even if we stick with the deposit system, we should not have a level as high as £1,000. Suggestions of £500, for example, seem a marked improvement in terms of the burden that would be placed on parties outside the House and on the initial capital burden which would be placed on the parties represented here.

If, as I believe they will, the Government move away from the £1,000 figure, they will help to relieve themselves of the charge that they might be influenced by the greater financial security of their party compared with others. A change in the deposit figure would help the Government to ensure that such a charge could not be made to stick.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some Conservative Members would prefer the deposit to be even less, and that an amendment standing in my name suggests £250 so as to give anybody who wishes to stand the chance to do so?

Mr. Beith

It follows from what I have said that I would prefer the smallest deposit to which the Committee is prepared to agree. I do not believe that the size of a candidate's cheque book is a relevant test of any of the questions that we might ask to establish whether a person should avail himself of the opportunities of candidature. I appreciate that there are certain facilities and opportunities given to candidates and that those benefits cost money, such as the free delivery of post. There may be a case for not making those facilities available unless some test has been satisfied.

A financial test is not appropriate, however, and a deposit of £1,000 would be no answer. I would rather a candidate's financial resources were negligible, or virtually nil, so long as he could show that a number of people agreed to the proposition that he should be given the opportunity to stand. I would rather see him given that opportunity, however few votes he gets.

I do not accept the argument that the proliferation of fringe candidates at by-elections or even at general elections is a serious problem with which our democracy cannot contend. I fought a by-election in the early stages of what might be termed the blooming of a thousand flowers of fringe candidates. A number of interesting characters stood against me, representing a variety of strange causes, some from the Conservative and some from the Labour side. They represented various fringes of the political system, while some stood simply as individuals.

The conduct of that by-election in my constituency did not suffer from the presence of those people. Indeed, I do not believe that the Chesterfield by-election suffered materially or that the electorate were confused by the candidates. As it happens, I do not believe that the voters came to the right conclusion in electing the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Those who voted for or against him were not materially or seriously confused by the presence of other candidates.

Certain other difficulties which arise—such as the ability of a candidate to veto a television broadcast in which a candidate from one of the principal parties wants to appear — should not be resolved by imposing a financial barrier. Such problems, if they need resolving, should be resolved by reference to the rules governing the television appearances of candidates and not by saying that only candidates who can afford more than £1,000 should be able to veto whether another candidate should appear on a television programme.

The deposit approach is mistaken, while the signatures approach is preferable. But if the Committee insists on persevering with the deposit idea, it would be wrong to accept the proposed figure of £1,000.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

In rising at this stage I want to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way seeking to truncate discussion. I merely thought that it would be convenient to give the Government's view.

Unlike the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I think that the deposit is a perfectly respectable parliamentary barrier founded in principle. It is not just a financial barrier erected to make it more difficult for those who do not have the necessary money. The deposit is founded in principle because the essence of election to Parliament is the contest between people who have serious aspirations to represent a constituency. Everyone is entitled to stand; no one is prevented from standing. It is reasonable that the considerable privileges rightly enjoyed by parliamentary candidates should not be too readily available to those who stand for purposes other than a serious expectation of election. There is a variety of possible purposes. Personal publicity, the sheer fun of standing and the attempt to gain commercial advantage are among the motives that have influenced people to stand for election.

A more respectable motive is to advance a cause or an argument, even though there is no chance of being elected to Parliament. I do not believe that that is other than a distortion of the electoral process. It is possible for people to hold meetings outside an election context and to advance their views in a variety of ways, but if they are standing for Parliament the assumption must be that they regard themselves as people who have some credible chance not just of putting forward views that they would like to make more readily acceptable but of being elected to Parliament.

For those reasons, the deposit is a reasonable barrier — not an obstacle. It is not a barrier that prevents anyone from standing, but one that can be surmounted. The level at which that barrier should be set is a matter of degree.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

Why is the deposit a reasonable test of a person's serious expectation of being elected?

Mr. Brittan

If he places the money down and is prepared to forfeit it, that indicates that he has some reasonable expectation of obtaining the number of votes required for him not to forfeit his deposit. There may be people who are simply prepared to throw their money away and have no serious expectation of obtaining the necessary number of votes. I suggest that there are not many of those people. Not many parties are prepared simply to do that. Therefore, the deposit is a hurdle that must be surmounted. It is not an absolute obstacle.

The benefits conferred upon candidates are considerable. The benefit of the free post is worth about £8,000 alone. It is reasonable to say that that benefit should not be enjoyed by someone who is not prepared to put something at risk.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said that the problems, such as the veto on radio and television appearances, should be dealt with separately. I do not believe that that is so, because such aspects are part of our electoral system, which is designed to ensure fairness. I do not see why they should be removed simply to take away the problems caused by the proliferation of candidates. It is a matter of where one sets the level.

The Home Affairs Select Committee considered that aspect. The £1,000 figure has the respectable backing of the Select Committee's unanimous recommendation. That is the principal reason why that figure appears in the Bill. It is a respectable reason. One must consider that £1,000 is less than half what £150 in 1918 terms would be if translated into today's money. Plainly, any figure is bound to be arbitrary. Therefore, the Government have made it clear that they are prepared to listen to the views of all concerned and to see which figure would command the widest consensus among those who are prepared to accept that the deposit has a proper place in our electoral system.

I listened with great interest to what my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) said in support of the view that £1,000 is too high, and £500 is the right figure. It is no secret that we had discussions with all the parties about those matters, and in particular, as is right and proper, with the major Opposition party, the Labour party, which has a legitimate interest in these matters. As a result of the discussions, I came to the view that the figure of £500 would have the widest common consent in the Committee. Therefore, the Government now commend that figure to the Committee in the spirit of compromise and of wanting a measure such as this to go on the statute book with the widest agreement.

Mr. Winnick

We recognise the need for consensus and welcome the reduction from the proposed £1,000 to £500. Has it occurred to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the sum could have been increased by a more modest figure—say, £250— while retaining the number of votes that have to be gained before losing the deposit? Would that not have been a better way?

Mr. Brittan

I was going to come to that point.

I shall deal, first, with the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) about the deposit not being forfeit, and exempting candidates from paying a deposit if they are nominated by political parties that were registered as such on a scheme to be prescribed by the order of the Secretary of State. I do not find it attractive to have such a registration system for the purpose of exemption of payments of deposits. I do not find it easy to see, although I have not had the benefit of hearing from my hon. Friend, why those parties that are formalised and organised in the way described should be given such a privilege. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, if he catches your eye, Sir Paul, will no doubt be able to deal with the argument as expanded rather than the argument as anticipated.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) asked about the threshold. The right balance is to increase substantially the deposit from £150 to £500, but to reduce the threshold not just from 12 per cent. to the 7.5 per cent. recommended by the Select Committee, but to 5 per cent. I have come to that conclusion because one is trying to set up a forfeit in the form of a deposit, if one wishes to look at it in that way, but a forfeit that should not be lost if the candidate concerned has established that he is a credible candidate in the sense of securing a reasonable percentage of the poll of those who vote in an election.

Again, there cannot be anything absolutely right when we talk about percentages. It can only be a matter of judgment or assessment. I am not proving or demonstrating that 5 per cent. is right or 7.5 per cent. is wrong. An analysis of recent elections will show that a threshold of 5 per cent. is sufficiently high to eliminate purely frivolous candidates, recognising that the word "frivolous" has a high element of subjectivity. At the same time, we should not inhibit the free expression of opinion, and the participation in elections of budding political parties that have serious claims to credibility at the time that they stand for election.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed discussed signatures. I do not commend the signature method to the Committee. The hon. Gentleman airily dismissed the technical problems. Any agent who has been involved in such matters for whatever political party would not dismiss the objections so readily. There might be ways round them, but even collecting the limited number of signatures required at present can be a headache for agents. One cannot simply disregard that.

9.45 pm

More seriously, I rely upon the question of principle. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talks about 100 signatures and my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) in a new clause refers to 500 signatures. The number of signatures is not a proper test of support because those who sign do not promise their support for the candidate, but merely assent to nomination.

At the trial involving the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) in 1983, it was alleged that one candidate collected his signatures in minutes at the pub opposite the town hall. People sign because they believe that a person should be allowed to stand, not because they support him. Even if we changed that and said that the person who signed was showing his support for the candidate, the problem would still exist. That would be a hollow gesture. It is possible to collect many signatures when all that is asked is to allow a person to stand.

The question is whether we believe it is right to erect some hurdle and impose a penalty if a person does not surmount that hurdle. It is reasonable and right that in an election to choose a Member of Parliament the hurdle should not be placed so high as to prevent serious candidates, but high enough to prevent abuses of the system of the type that have come to the fore in recent years.

In that spirit and for those reasons the Government commend the proposition that the deposit should be raised from £150 to £500 with a 5 per cent. threshold.

I beg to move, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

I move that in view of the hour, because many hon. Members wish to participate further in the debate and because we have made good progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again tomorrow.