HC Deb 23 January 1991 vol 184 cc428-9

Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Representation of the People Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums to be paid out of that Fund under any other enactment.—[Mr. Maples.]

10.59 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I hope that the Minister can give the House an explanation. It is worth making the request, because the Bill was taken in a Second Reading Committee on 18 December. The circumstances arose apparently because of advice from Mr. Speaker's Counsel. It was found that the maximum expenditure laid down was ultra vires. I cannot recall accurately the circumstances, but the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments discussed at least one order relating to returning officers' expenses. The legislation may result from that.

All I seek is an assurance from the Minister that the orders that the Treasury will introduce under the powers granted by the Bill, which will cover the expenditure of returning officers, will represent expenditure previously carried out under different legislation, and that there will not be reductions in the amount of expenditure granted by the Treasury to returning officers.

I mention this because there is an apparent conflict. The explanatory and financial memorandum on the Bill says: there will, however, be no net increase in expenditure attributable to the Bill. Yet the money resolution says that it will cover any increase attributable to the Act in the sums to be paid out of that Fund under any other enactment. The fund referred to is the Consolidated Fund.

I do not object to an increase in expenditure because, like all hon. Members, I think that money for returning officers is extremely well spent, especially when it has such good results as in Bradford, South where we tripled our majority. Of course, we want much better results at the next general election. We want to make sure that returning officers have adequate facilities to count the massive votes that will be cast for Labour. I should like to hear the Minister's comments.

11.2 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Maples)

The hon. Gentleman is right in his description of what gave rise to the Bill. It was found that under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which says that the Treasury shall prescribe maximum charges, we had difficulty in prescribing maximum charges because what: may be an appropriate maximum for one constituency is not necessarily appropriate for another. Therefore, we were faced with setting amounts that would be too low for some, or so high that they might encourage returning, officers to spend up to the prescribed amount. The regulations prescribed that in certain cases there would be specific monetary amounts and in other cases what would be recoverable would be actual and necessary costs. It was that which was found by the Speaker's Counsel to be ultra vires. We were advised that it did not fit within the power to prescribe maximum charges.

The most recent regulations use the phrase "authorised maximum" in cases where it is difficult to prescribe a maximum. That is defined as being the amount that was spent at the 1987 election, with an uplift of 30 per cent. The problem is that that cannot continue to work past the next boundary reorganisation. It would be difficult to make it work at the next general election when the Milton Keynes constituency is to be split into two.

We had to face the problem. We have dealt with it by putting the law in the position which everyone thought that it was in before, which is that returning officers will be able to recover all expenses that were reasonably incurred, as long as those expenses are under a heading that is prescribed in the regulations. Again, where it is appropriate, the regulations will prescribe maximum payments. In that respect, the Bill will put the law back into the position that we all understood it to be in before.

The reference in the money resolution is to a slightly different problem. Sometimes expenses incurred by returning officers quite properly exceeded the maximums laid down in law. We are advised that under the 1983 Act it was possibly not legal to pay more than the amounts of money prescribed, although in some cases payments were made. Most of the payments under the original Act and under this Bill are made out of the Consolidated Fund, but when extra-statutory payments were made to reimburse returning officers for amounts over and above authorised expenses, they were paid out of voted money. It is that with which the money resolution deals; the hon. Gentleman will find that it refers to section 29(4A) of the 1983 Act.

I hope that I have answered the questions asked by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

Question put and agreed to.