HC Deb 25 June 1997 vol 296 cc761-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Jane Kennedy.]

9.34 am
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

I imagine that on 1 May this year all parliamentary candidates were united in similar feelings. Labour candidates went to the count that evening in the hope that the opinion polls were correct and the expectation that the Labour party would at long last be forming the Government. Candidates from what are now the main Opposition parties had the opposite feelings.

It was not always thus, of course. In 1983, you in your previous role, Madam Speaker, and I went to our respective counts in the town of West Bromwich hoping that the opinion polls were wrong. I hoped that I would be able to hang on against the trend and you hoped that your majority would endure in the way that it had in previous years. So all of us as candidates have similar emotions. If my arithmetic is correct, 3,591 of us shared those emotions on election night on 1 May this year.

The vast majority of those 3,500 candidates stood under their respective party label. Some stood proudly as independents. Some might be regarded as eccentric, although I suppose that the House could argue that one or two of us who stood under party labels could be regarded in the same light. Some candidates had particular axes to grind. The grinding of axes is not unheard of during parliamentary elections, although axe grinders are not conspicuously successful when the votes are added up.

I want to set aside the hopes and ambitions of most of the candidates on 1 May and draw the attention of the House to the conduct of elections. I wish to put some serious matters before you and the House, Madam Speaker. I recognise that electoral fraud was raised in this Parliament, on 21 May, by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore). In that debate he dealt exclusively with events in his constituency.

A man called Terry Betts referred to himself in the general election as the "New Labour" candidate. That person had no connection with the Labour party and the description on the ballot paper was, in the opinion of my hon. Friend, deliberately designed to mislead. Similar misleading descriptions were used in many other constituencies by a variety of candidates, in an attempt to pretend that they represented something different from what they did in reality.

Not only candidates from my party were the victims of deception on 1 May. On 18 April—the day after nominations for the general election closed— representatives of all three major political parties appeared at the High Court of Justice before the honourable Justice Longmore, pleading that there was a threatened breach of section 115(2)(b) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, in that there was an intent or threat to impede the free exercise of the franchise by means of a fraudulent device or contrivance. The alleged contrivance was that the defendant in each of the cases was telling an untruth about himself in the description in his nomination paper.

The first case that morning involved the then Solicitor-General, the Conservative candidate in Brighton, Pavilion constituency, who was opposed by a man named Huggett, who styled himself on his nomination paper as the "Official Conservative candidate". The second case also involved a Conservative, a former Member of Parliament and a Minister in the previous Government. He faced in the Clwyd, West constituency an opponent who called himself Rod Richard. The Conservative candidate's name was Rod Richards. His opponent described himself as "The Conservatory party candidate".

The third case involved the prospective candidates for Winchester, who were challenged by the same Mr. Huggett who was standing for election to the Brighton, Pavilion seat. In Winchester he described himself as "Top Liberal Democrat for Parliament"—whatever that may be—"a Liberal Democrat Challenge".

The Labour party was also represented before Mr. Justice Longmore.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

You have mentioned my constituency and the case of Mr. Huggett. Are you aware that he stood as the "Liberal Democrat Top choice for Parliament"? Are you also aware that we sought out five of the 10 people who had signed his nomination paper and that three of them were prepared to meet the returning officer to claim that they were misled and tricked into signing it? Perhaps you could pick up on that in your speech, because powers must be introduced to overcome that problem.

Madam Speaker

Order. I should just like to remind hon. Members to speak through the Chair.

Mr. Snape

I understand why the hon. Gentleman sought to intervene now; he had the courtesy to let me know that he is involved in a separate court action this morning about the Winchester constituency and will have to leave the Chamber before the debate is concluded.

I was unaware of all the circumstances surrounding Mr. Huggett, but the hon. Gentleman's remarks underline the concern that we should all feel at the fact that the democratic process is being subverted by characters who have no intention to stand for Parliament, which is everyone's right, but want to mislead the electorate deliberately.

The Labour party was also invited to appear before Mr. Justice Longmore on 18 April, the day after nominations closed, because my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman), faced a challenge from, among others, a Mr. William Johnson Smith who described himself as "New Labour". I understand that Mr. Johnson Smith is the son of a distinguished Conservative Member of the House. Afterwards he claimed that he stood under that title for a lark. It is not for me to tell Conservative Members how they should bring up their children, but I hope that most of them would not approve of their children behaving in that manner.

The examples that I have cited reveal the lengths that some people will go to, to try to mislead the electorate deliberately. I do not believe that any of us would wish to prevent the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch from standing for election on behalf of the Monster Raving Loony party. Over the years, I have acted as minder to various Labour candidates across the midlands and I have had the pleasure of meeting David Sutch on quite a few occasions. He puts up his deposit; organises a few gigs in the constituency in which he is standing; and brings a little joy and happiness to what are normally fairly serious proceedings. Good luck to him.

I would not wish to stop some eccentric characters similar to those who were around in my youth from exercising their right to stand. All of us of a certain age in the House will remember Wing-Commander Bill Boakes, who pedalled his Heath-Robinsonian contraption around various constituencies as he fought by-election after by-election. He described himself as the road safety, public safety, white resident candidate, or something along those lines. He was never successful, but at least he brought a touch of gaiety to the nation.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) fought a serious campaign, but I can remember that he made his victory speech with a 6 ft 5 in transvestite standing in the background with a birdcage on his head. Some hon. Members might feel that such characters bring the parliamentary process into disrepute, but that person paid his money and took his choice, as did the electors. I do not object to such characters popping up at election time for reasons best known to themselves.

During the election, there were no fewer than 19 constituencies in which the Labour party name was misused by candidates. In six cases, the misleading description "New Labour" was used— [Interruption.] I realise from the reaction of some of my hon. Friends that that might have been the case in more than six constituencies. I had better be careful—I was referring to such a description being used fraudulently, but that will not satisfy some of the humorists in the Chamber. Most of my hon. Friends will know what I mean, but I had better abandon that potentially embarrassing topic.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many names were on the ballot paper for the constituency of Hartlepool?

Mr. Snape

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman must tear himself away from the pleasures of Kensington and Chelsea and make his way down the Corridor to the Library, where that information will be readily provided.

Mr. Clark

It is relevant.

Mr. Snape

I am not sure whether that question is relevant to the debate, but given the right hon. Gentleman's distinguished record inside and outside the House, should he feel that it is, I am sure that he will seek to catch your eye later, Madam Speaker.

I should like to refer specifically to the constituency adjacent to mine, West Bromwich, West, which has been represented with such distinction by you, Madam Speaker, for many years. The House will be aware that nominations to stand in the election closed on Thursday 17 April at 5 pm. About 48 hours before that deadline, the west midlands Labour party received information that a candidate would stand in the West Bromwich, West constituency describing himself as "New Labour".

On two occasions before the deadline for nominations, my election agent rang the election office at the council house, Oldbury, in the borough of Sandwell, to ask whether he could have sight of or details on any nominations submitted for the West Bromwich, West constituency and for the four Sandwell boroughs. That request was refused, apparently on the instructions of the acting returning officer and chief executive, Mr. Nigel Summers.

It was only after nominations closed that the information was published—indeed, it was first published in one of the local newspapers. We then learned that one of your opponents at the election, Madam Speaker, was describing himself as "New Labour—Time for Change". That person is not and, as far as I am aware, has never been a member of the Labour party, new or otherwise.

Given that injunctions had already been sought on the following day concerning various other constituencies and we were wrongly denied prior information about that opponent, the regional Labour party was unable to take any form of legal action. As a result of that blatantly misleading description, that candidate received more than 8,000 votes. Without betraying any confidences or transgressing the Official Secrets Act, I can inform the House that there were also literally hundreds of spoilt ballot papers from electors who had erroneously voted twice—both for you, Madam Speaker, and for that "New Labour" candidate, the imposter.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that such conduct is becoming ever more common. In two other constituencies, North-East Bedfordshire and Halifax, candidates who had changed their name by deed poll to that of the defending Member attempted to stand. Had legal action not been taken, electors in those constituencies would have been faced with two candidates called Nicholas Lyell and two candidates called Alice Mahon.

As the second Alice Mahon was a male, it is difficult to imagine that that candidate was doing anything other than attempting to deceive the electors of that constituency. I understand that the returning officer in Halifax declined to refuse that nomination on the ground that he claimed that there was a male pop singer around in the 1960s by the name of Alice Cooper. I note that some of my hon. Friends nod in agreement. They are obviously more trendy than I am—at least, they were in the 1960s.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

Perhaps we are older.

Mr. Snape

I shall settle for that description. My hon. Friends might well remember Alice Cooper—the nearest I can get is the song "A Boy Named Sue"—but that name did not arise from the nomination procedures before 1 May.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that, where information is available, action can be taken by any of the political parties to try to prevent an abuse of the democratic process. I am most concerned that in West Bromwich, West, we were denied even that elementary right and, although I have since written to the chief executive, I do not know why information regarding the nature of nomination papers before nominations closed—information that was readily available elsewhere—was denied us there.

I assure you, Madam Speaker, that had that information, which should have been available, been given to us, the Labour party in the west midlands would have taken prompt legal action. I can say that because I chaired the regional campaign committee during the election; when such cases arose, there was regular contact between regional officers and Labour party headquarters to see what action could be taken. As far as I am concerned, action would have been taken in your constituency, Madam Speaker, regardless of the fact that you and I have been political colleagues for many years and regardless of any Speaker's former political affiliation. The question whether any Speaker should be opposed is one for the political parties and I hope that hon. Members on both sides will agree that, if any Speaker is opposed, it should be based on fairness, not on attempted misleading fraud.

My hon. Friend the Minister will also be aware that there is even less protection against such misrepresentation in local elections than in a parliamentary contest. A number of unitary and county council elections were also held on 1 May this year, but is my hon. Friend aware that, in the new unitary authority of Bracknell, no fewer than four candidates who described themselves as "New Labour", but who had no connection whatever with the Labour party, appeared on the ballot paper?

Those candidates so split the Labour vote that the Bracknell Conservative party achieved overall political control, thus rendering any legal challenge—had one been possible—impossible. Legally, there is nothing that can be done, although the unfairness of such an abuse of the electoral procedure is all too obvious. I should tell Conservative Members that, although their party might have benefited in Bracknell, in other parts of the country and especially in the parliamentary elections they, too, were penalised by such action.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not only a question of past malpractice? When Scottish and Welsh Assemblies are established and if, as I hope, we move to a regional list system for the European Parliament, the question of the correct description of political parties will become even more important and pressing.

Mr. Snape

Although I cannot join my hon. Friend in willingly going along with a list system— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am not alone on Government Benches in being a founder member of the first-past-the-post system. Although it is not, strictly speaking, a matter for this debate, I have to tell my hon. Friend that I remain so committed. However, whatever the electoral system in future, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the likelihood of abuse. Given the fact that Scottish and Welsh devolution will bring more elections to both countries, the issue has to be sorted out sooner rather than later.

I do not underestimate the difficulty inherent in attempting to change the law, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that something has to be done—and done quickly—to prevent candidates from deliberately misdescribing themselves and using political party titles to which they have no right. None of us would object to the descriptions "Independent Labour", "Independent Conservative" or "Independent Liberal". Such descriptions make it quite clear that the candidate, while having some sympathy with a specific political party, is standing as a candidate in his or her own right; but I hope that action will be taken against those who deliberately attempt to mislead.

In the earlier debate, the Minister who replied mentioned the use of party logos on ballot papers. Such procedures do not seem to cause great problems elsewhere in the world; a change in the law to protect party logos and a strengthening of the Representation of the People Act 1983—perhaps to provide for a specific offence of using a description deliberately intended to mislead—might help to stop future problems.

The time is long overdue for a detailed inquiry into the registration of political names and parties in order to prevent deliberate abuse of the democratic processes. I have deliberately tried to raise the matter in a non-partisan way and I hope that hon. Members from the other parties will agree that democracy is important enough for all of us to defend, especially when an attempt is made to subvert that democracy in your constituency, Madam Speaker, and in many other constituencies throughout the United Kingdom.

9.55 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for initiating the debate, and I am privileged to have an opportunity to make a brief contribution.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue in a notably non-partisan way, and that is entirely as it should be. All parties and, more important, the electors stand to lose when episodes of the sort he described occur, whether wholesale or on a limited scale in individual constituencies.

One of the most notorious examples affecting my party and those who sought to support it during the most recent elections to the European Parliament was the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). He lost his seat because of a deliberate attempt by another candidate to deceive the electors by using the title "Literal Democrat". Efforts to gain redress through the existing procedures of the Representation of the People Act were wholly unsuccessful.

Following that incident, and throughout the previous Parliament, all-party discussions with the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), endeavoured to produce a proposal. The Lord Chancellor of the day, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was also involved in those discussions. However, we got nowhere, and I am not sure that that was because no perfectly satisfactory proposals were put forward. I had a strong sense that the discussions were not progressed with determination, deliberation or any recognition of the seriousness of the issue.

The debate gives rise to wider questions, and wider solutions might be canvassed on the conduct of elections. My right hon. and hon. Friends would favour the establishment of an independent electoral commission. The regulation of elections is not a suitable matter to be handled by a Secretary of State and a Department. It is more appropriate that such matters should be handled by an independent body that is responsible to Parliament, as recommended by the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government as long ago as 1991, in its report on the conduct of elections.

The commission would bring together the expertise of Home Office officials, the personnel of the boundary commission and those responsible for local authority electoral administration. Such a commission could be responsible for electoral administration, boundary revisions, monitoring of election expenses and the allocation of broadcasting time for all elections and referendums. To my mind, none of those matters is adequately dealt with at present. This is a short debate and I would not wish to expatiate on those topics, but I wish them all to be properly monitored and openly discussed, and ultimately decided on by Parliament as a whole.

I wish to ask the Minister a question about an issue wider than that touched on by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East. Before the election, the Labour party, in its manifesto, expressed its intention to refer the issue of electoral funding, and especially the moneys that are made available to parties from sources other than the state, to the Nolan commission. I understood that to be Labour party policy before the election, but since then we have heard nothing about it.

I understand that the Nolan commission is appointed to sit until next spring; if it is to do that job, it should be charged with doing so quite soon. I hope that the Minister can tell us whether Nolan will be charged with that important question, for it is highly unsatisfactory that, at present, attempts are made effectively to buy parliamentary support.

There is a huge discrepancy between the amounts that political parties spend. Apparently, such expenditure does not always succeed in its objects. I suspect that, in the recent general election campaign, the amount spent by the Conservative party, which is widely rumoured to have been about £40 million—perhaps the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Dr. Mawhinney) can enlighten us—did not give value for money. However, I would not wish to enter into the merits of the ways in which the matter should be handled. That matter, including the extent of state funding for parliamentary elections, would be a proper issue for investigation by the Nolan commission, and all political parties might wish to give evidence on it.

The Liberal Democrats would support an element of state funding and some control limiting national expenditure on elections. As things stand, the rules are obviously being breached, not only nationally, but locally. Widespread telephone canvassing of constituencies is conducted from central locations to ensure the return of local candidates. Much that is done is difficult to track, but outside existing law. There is an urgent need to tackle that problem if the issue of expenditure on conduct of elections is not further to bring the process into disrepute.

Electoral registration has been mentioned on previous occasions by Labour Members. The present system is highly unsatisfactory. There are very substantial inaccuracies in the electoral registers. In 1991, the Hansard Society estimated that electoral registers were 16 per cent. inaccurate by the time that they expired. Not only are there inaccuracies in the registers as compiled, but some names are missing.

Treasury figures show that, in 1996, 14.7 per cent. of the population was missing from registers; in 1983, the figure was 2.3 per cent. Between 1986 and 1994, the percentage of the population on the registers fell from a bad 81.6 per cent. to an appalling 75.9 per cent., and nearly a quarter of those who should have been able to vote for the first time at the recent general election were not registered to do so.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It would be interesting to conduct research to discover how many people were missing from the registers at the recent general election, and the extent of the inaccuracies that developed between mid-February, when the new registers started to operate, and the election date. Already, by 1 May, many people had moved and people had died. A host of problems had entered the registers in that short time. It would be interesting to have that information in addition to the Hansard Society information—the 16 per cent. figure—which is about 10 years old.

Mr. Maclennan

I agree, and I hope that in this short debate the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity of developing the point. Obviously, we should have an accurate rolling register. That would be a suitable matter for the electoral commission that I recommended to embark on as soon as possible. It would help if we had the Government's acceptance of the principle of a rolling register in the life of this Parliament—even if, understandably, they were not able to say now how they proposed to bring that about.

Liberal Democrats also attach importance to the constitutional matter of the triggering of elections. The power of the Crown—or the power that is exercised in the name of the Crown, by royal prerogative—to call elections is inappropriate and highly anomalous in a modern democracy. It is time seriously to contemplate fixed-term Parliaments. We advocate fixed-term Parliaments of four years. We think it inappropriate that, in the political race, one competitor should fire the starting gun of an election, and we advocate that, as part of the agenda for reform, the new Government should seriously consider that proposal.

In our view, the issue of misleading descriptions on nomination papers, on which the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East—who spoke so eloquently—focused, is a matter of urgent importance. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), with whose position we all sympathise at this time and who is unable to be in the Chamber now because of the pressures of his situation and a current court case, faced a candidate described as the "Liberal Democrat Top choice for Parliament". No doubt that description was designed to deceive, although I cannot say whether it had an effect on the outcome. It is unsatisfactory that such an element can be introduced into a debate, and it is important to emphasise that the sufferers are not only candidates but electors, who above all should be clear about their true choices.

One proposal to emerge from the all-party discussions was to enable reference to be made to a judge in chambers as soon as nominations were received, by any party who considered that the description of a candidate was misleading. The case would be heard as a matter of priority. I remain of the view that that is a practical proposition. The Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department should have been able to come up with a more compelling response to the proposal.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

At the last election in Totnes, a candidate stood as the "Local Conservative". He was both local and a paid-up member of the Conservative party. In other words, he was standing for what he was. Perhaps that poses a greater difficulty than a candidate's intentions. If someone intends to deceive, that is one thing; if his intention is to stand for what he is, that is surely quite another.

Mr. Maclennan

Parties must determine whether a candidate is entitled to present himself as an official candidate, and there ought to be some sign whether he enjoys that entitlement on the ballot paper. My proposed electoral commission should be able to deal with such matters—but we do not want to wait for a final solution. The problem is relatively straightforward.

It may be difficult to judge intentions to deceive, but I remind the House of what happened at Hillhead. My noble Friend Lord Jenkins stood as a candidate there, and someone styling himself Roy Jenkins appeared on the ballot paper ahead of my noble Friend's name. There can be little doubt that the whole exercise was designed to pull the wool over the electors' eyes. What is required is speedy recourse to the courts.

What really counts is the will of the Government. There are doubtless several ways in which the problem could be tackled.

Brief allusion has been made to the possibility of registration of parties. That will become of great importance in the context of the Scottish and Welsh Parliament and Assembly if they are established under legislation following the referendums. I hope that the arguments that will be deployed then will be seen to have equal force in respect of elections to this House and the European Parliament. Registration is almost certainly the longer-term solution, and it would be interesting to hear the Government's thinking on it. It would certainly represent a course of action that would command the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

10.13 am
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I support what the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) has said. Like him, I had a bogus candidate standing against me who sought to deceive the electors by calling himself the "Loyal Conservative", as opposed to the official Conservative. Like the hon. Gentleman, too, I distinguish between two types of bogus candidate—those seeking to deplete the number of votes given to the official candidate and those seeking publicity.

The hon. Gentleman used the famous example of the Monster Raving Loony party. What he omitted to say was that, for the £500 deposit that they put up, those people get about £8,000—worth of free postage and an enormous amount of invaluable free publicity. If they happen to be in the entertainment business, putting on gigs, that will boost their audiences and put a great deal of money in their pockets.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have thought it a good idea before now to bring this matter before the House. I followed with great interest the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), who faced a "Loyal Labour" party candidate who took 2,500 of his votes. It was said in that debate that the candidate did not set foot outside his house but picked up all those votes by virtue of his description and position on the ballot paper.

That was some slight comfort to me, because the so-called Loyal Conservative in my constituency picked up 3,000-odd votes. He also chose the prime Conservative bits of the constituency and deluged them with propaganda—to the extent that people living there thought that I had done a runner and that the official candidate had changed. That was reflected in the number of spoilt ballot papers; people did not know whom to vote for, or whether I was dead or alive—

Mr. Snape

If the hon. Lady is trying to tell us that the bogus candidate out-publicised her, I can only say that he must be a remarkable character.

Mrs. Gorman

I shall take that as a compliment.

I see that the press are always here waiting to pounce on our peccadillos, which reminds me that there was a time in my colourful past when I stood as an independent candidate. In 1974, my platform was "Less government, less taxes and more choice". Like most of my colleagues, therefore, I like to claim that I was a forerunner of the Thatcher revolution.

I have been to discuss this matter with the Minister concerned—whom I thank for his courtesy—the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). He was extremely accommodating and sympathetic, and assured me that the Government take the matter seriously and are contemplating legislation that may deal with it. I compliment the Government on that. Bogus candidates seem to multiply at national and local elections.

The £50 deposit was introduced in 1918 under the Representation of the People Act. Incidentally, that Act also enfranchised women. I offer that by way of a nice little reminder of the not-too-distant past. The deposit was introduced because bogus candidates were reaching saturation point. As the deposit becomes less significant financially, so the number of candidates will always increase. Some people may think £500 a lot of money these days, but it is peanuts compared with £50 in 1918—that was a very great deal of money then. Even into the 1980s, as many as 17 candidates, most of them bogus, stood in constituencies such as Bermondesy and Chesterfield. Although each one may pick up only a few hundred votes, together they add up to a great many.

Another problem that we face is the difficulty of actually confronting bogus candidates. As the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch said, his challenger did not set foot outside his front door, and there was no reason to believe that anyone was canvassing in the area. So there needs to be a time lag between the handing in of nomination papers and final registration. There must be enough time to let people to get to court—a process which itself is fraught with difficulties.

The obvious parallel is the register of company names and trademarks. If the official names or titles, "Conservative" or "Labour", supplemented by "Tory" or "Socialist"—

Mr. Snape

Steady on.

Mrs. Gorman

That used to be the Government's policy, but I am no longer sure. They seem to have become pseudo-Conservatives, so perhaps they should register that as well.

A registered company can challenge people who use its name. A classic case is that of Harrods, which often finds that stores, little cafés or even boot sales open up and call themselves Harrods. The company then goes to court and has that stopped.

I congratulate the Government on taking this matter seriously, and the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East on bringing it to the attention of the House. I trust that legislation will be introduced speedily, because local councils experience exactly the same problem with candidates. Where money is no object or the deposit is low—in the case of local councils there may be no deposit—there is no real deterrent to nutters and spoilers seeking to subvert the course of justice.

Mr. Steen

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not bogus candidates but genuine candidates masquerading under a bogus title? The problem is not that they should not stand—that is their democratic right—but how they describe themselves. I foresee a tremendously big court case every time one challenges such people as to whether they are describing themselves correctly.

Mrs. Gorman

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. In his case, someone described himself as a Conservative and considered himself to be local, so that was difficult.

I have yet to learn of any legislation that solved every aspect of every problem. Nevertheless, by and large there are two options: either the deposit is pushed up to the point where people are deterred—that would be difficult because the amount of free publicity and postage is enormous, with £8,000 postage allowance in an average-sized constituency—or we devise a system like that which exists in the commercial world to protect a company's official name. We could then protect the official and, to all intents and purposes, real names of the official parties standing at elections.

10.22 am
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, initiated so interestingly and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). I come simply to tell a story and then make a proposal.

The story is of someone who was challenged by a candidate describing himself as "New Labour" at the general election. It is arguable whether someone describing himself as a "Loyal Conservative" and standing against the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) was seeking to mislead the electorate or to contribute to the democratic process, but in my case, to have a candidate standing as "New Labour" against me is a deep affront. As in the case of the hon. Lady, I had no time to do anything about it. When the gentleman in question stood some four or five elections ago, he managed to secure 19 votes; having decided to describe himself as "New Labour", he managed to secure 1,615 votes and an outcome that produced 573 spoilt ballot papers.

The candidate enjoyed the fact that his name was Mr. Hurley. We realised afterwards that we had foolishly spent most of the election morning saying over the loud speaker, "Vote Labour. Vote early", which did not help our cause a great deal. Once we discovered what had happened, we took out newspaper advertisements to tell people that there was only one real article and that they should not be confused by substitutes. The candidate availed himself of free post at great public expense, much to the distress of postmen and postwomen who had to deliver bogus material to the electorate.

As ever, my name, suffering from the W factor, appeared at the bottom of the ballot paper, while he and other candidates were way up there. It turned out that we were taking people to vote who had voted for him and not for me. One old lady whom we had taken to vote memorably came out saying, "These 'New Labour' candidates are very good. I am glad that we are going to get them in." In a constituency that has been substantially reorganised as a result of boundary changes, I am known less well in some parts than in others, so that is an additional factor.

That entirely bogus candidate deliberately sought to mislead the electorate and put out material through the free post proclaiming his support for Tony Blair and new Labour and seeking to capitalise on the way the wind was blowing. I see the temptation of doing that. I could understand if Conservative candidates at the last election would also have liked to describe themselves as "New Labour".

When we came to the count, that gentleman, whom I had never met up to that point, told me absurdly that the returning officer had invited him to describe himself as "New Labour"—a ludicrous suggestion. When he made his little speech after the announcement of the result, he declared his undying support for me in particular and for the Labour party in general. On all the evidence, it was a deliberate attempt to mislead the electorate. As it happens, it did not matter, given that I was part of a landslide. However, the number of votes that he got was the size of my majority last time, so this is extremely serious.

Although the political system should not be monopolised by the existing players—we must have ease of entry for new people, whether they are quirky, eccentric independents or genuine new parties wanting to break in—we must get the balance right so that we do not allow deliberate misrepresentation to take place. My credentials on diversity are proved by the fact that, after the general election, our victory party and disco were held for us by the Monster Raving Loony Custard candidate, who is an expert on such matters.

This is not the time to rehearse the solutions to the problem. Some have been suggested, but there is not just one way to proceed. The matter must be approached seriously. We should regard the problem in the context of a range of other problems relating to the running of elections. We have paid some attention to the problem on and off over the years but have never seriously grasped it. The Labour party had the Plant committee, which reported in 1993 and is known for what it said about electoral reforms. It is less well known for what it said about the conduct of elections, but it made a raft of reform proposals.

In the last Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who has gone to graze in pastures new, introduced the Parliamentary Elections Bill incorporating some 30 recommendations arising from the Plant committee deliberations. It also picked up suggestions from the Hansard Society report some years earlier. I shall not go through the range of proposals, but they included voter registration, emergency voting, ensuring that disabled people have access to voting stations, the day on which votes take place, counting procedures, expenses, and a range of issues to do with the conduct of elections, which are currently deficient and need to be corrected.

As a party and as a Government, we are about to embark on a process of sustained political reform. Many of us celebrate that. As part of that process, one of the proposals that has emerged over the years and gained much force recently is for an electoral commission. I invite the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) to comment on that when he replies.

We must be serious about how we conduct elections. The present system is full of deficiencies and in some ways is a disgrace. I want to hear the Government say that they have plans to introduce proposals to set up an electoral commission, and that the commission will examine the issue of misleading candidates as part of its more general remit to make sure that the conduct of elections from now on meets with general democratic approval.

10.29 am
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

This is the first time that I have spoken since you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have been in the Chair. I take the opportunity of welcoming a fellow Glasgow Member of Parliament to the Speaker's Chair—the first since Sir Myer Galpern was there. It is a great honour for the city that you have been appointed to the position.

I do not intend following the route of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and other hon. Members by discussing the lesser candidates in elections. It is an important issue and has been well aired, but other aspects of the conduct of elections need to be raised.

If I had any objection to other candidates, it was to those who called themselves pro-life candidates—not because I object to candidates putting forward pro-life views, but because the title "pro-life" implies that every other candidate is anti-life, which is a very unfair description.

I shall speak about the way in which elections are conducted, including the registration of electors. I do not know the position elsewhere, but in Glasgow at the last election there were grave concerns about the allocation of schools as polling stations, and other polling stations. Major changes were made.

In my constituency, residents of two high-rise blocks of flats—largely old-age pensioners—who in previous elections had voted at the local primary school 100 yards from their homes, suddenly found themselves transferred to a polling station a mile and a half away. That caused us considerable difficulties, but it caused them even greater difficulty. The greatest problem was caused to those voting for other parties, which had not laid on any means of getting them to the polls.

I am concerned also about the way in which the count was conducted in Glasgow. Again, I do not know the position elsewhere. In Glasgow, it was extremely slow and took far too long. All the counts for all the Glasgow seats had to be completed before any of the results were announced, which meant that it was 3.30 am before we could leave the hall where counting took place.

My main purpose in speaking, however, is to look to the future. Although I welcome the proposal for an electoral commission, one or two things must be done before such a commission is appointed. We are now in the electronic age, but we are not yet making full use of computers in the way in which we organise elections.

First, although the register is held in electronic form, the political parties generally get it in printed form. In some areas, one can get the electoral register on disc, but there is no statutory obligation for it to be provided in electronic form, or in an electronic form that can be easily read by the computers that most people have—the standard Windows 95 or other such formats.

Now that the register is in electronic form, it should be a rolling register. There is no reason why it should not be as up to date as possible when the election takes place. Anyone who can prove that he is living at a particular address should be included on the register at any point up to the calling of the election, if not right up to election day.

We must start cross-referencing the electoral register. We know when people are born, so we know when they reach the age of 18. If they do not appear on the electoral register then, there should be some check to find out what has happened to them in the meantime. We know that they go through the school system. Those records are increasingly held on computer by the same local authority that maintains the electoral register. I appreciate the potential dangers in terms of civil liberties, and we would have to be wary, but the task is not impossible.

My second and most important point is that, at the next general election, we should be voting electronically. People should go to the polling booth, receive a ballot paper, mark a cross on it by the candidate's name and, instead of putting the paper into the ballot box, should put it into a machine similar to that used for the national lottery. The vote will be recorded automatically and at 10 pm when the polling stations close, we will know at the press of a button the result of the election. The papers can still be placed in a ballot box after the vote has been recorded, so that a check can be carried out.

Electronic voting would save time, effort and in many cases the heartache of standing around in cold, dreary halls while people flip through papers and, especially when the result is close, repeat the count again and again. It is no longer necessary to do things in that way.

Initially, electronic voting will be conducted in much the same way as voting at present. People will go to the polling station, have their names checked off by a clerk and mark their ballot paper. I hope that all the polling stations in a constituency can be linked electronically and that the clerks can operate using a computer screen, so that any voter in that constituency can vote at any polling station in the constituency, not necessarily at one to which he has been allocated, and his name will be recorded as having voted. There is a possible problem of fraud, but there is no reason why it should be any greater than at present, and fraud is not a major problem in Britain, as far as we know.

Electronic voting would make it easier to vote and simpler to obtain the result. Some people will still want a formal ceremony at which the results are announced. There is no reason why all the candidates should not assemble at 10.30 pm to hear the returning officer announce the results. Television cameras could still be present, and candidates could still make speeches. In the age of modern computer systems, it is absurd that we should have to wait for hour after hour while the votes are counted.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to consider the matter because action is needed now. We cannot wait until an electoral commission is established. If the commission is to consider electronic voting, it will want to conduct trials in limited areas. There is no reason why, even in the referendum in Scotland, the system could not be tried out in four or five polling stations to see whether it is feasible. It should certainly be tried at the next local elections and the next European elections, possibly in a full-scale trial. By the time of the next general election, an electronic voting system should be up and running. It will develop, so that it becomes faster and easier for future elections. I hope that the Government will examine the system and introduce it by the next general election.

10.39 am
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) addressed the important issue of candidates' descriptions eloquently and in a very entertaining manner. Several other hon. Members underlined the importance of that issue, including my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) who made a powerful contribution.

We acknowledge that there are serious issues to be addressed in respect of candidates' descriptions, and my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary has met the Home Secretary to reflect on that matter. We shall consider it further—and in a non-partisan way—in the future.

10.40 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) on securing this important debate. I join the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) —whom I welcome to his new position—in complimenting my hon. Friend on his speech and on the interesting way in which he described an important and difficult issue. Other hon. Members have also raised some concerns. I know that Madam Speaker will have listened to the beginning of the debate with great care and attention. As we have heard, she was involved in an incident during the election campaign.

I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Madam Speaker and all hon. Members who have contributed or listened to the debate that the Government take such matters very seriously and that we are actively examining ways of tackling them. I shall report to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on several issues that have been raised during the debate—including the interesting suggestions on ways in which votes might be registered, which deserve serious consideration.

On 1 May, more than 30 million people cast their votes in the general election. No other event involves the direct participation of so many people. Therefore, it is appropriate that we should take time to consider whether our elections are conducted effectively and efficiently. It is important to ensure that the electoral process does not allow people's wishes to be distorted.

I shall deal first with the issue on which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East concentrated: misleading descriptions on candidate nomination forms and ballot papers. This is not the first time that the issue has been raised in the House since the election. In an Adjournment debate on 21 May, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) described the problems that he had encountered in his constituency. I know that a significant number of other hon. Members have experienced various difficulties in that regard. For example, in the 1994 European elections, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was opposed by a candidate calling himself a "Literal Democrat". The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) outlined the difficulties that she has faced, and I hope to return to those matters in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East referred to incidents that had occurred in council elections. He drew attention to the Bracknell council election, the outcome of which he alleged was affected materially. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) referred to a little old lady who was deceived when casting her vote. That is an unacceptable situation, and we shall address that problem seriously.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

Until the late 1960s, party political descriptions did not appear on ballot papers. A candidate was described as a "farm labourer", "gentleman" or "gentleman retired". We could avoid attracting fringe candidates who do not have proper support, not by increasing the deposit, as the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) suggested, but by increasing the number of people who are required to nominate a candidate for election. The current figure is 10 nominees per candidate in parliamentary elections, but only two nominees are required in some council elections. There may be a case for increasing the figure to 1 per cent. of eligible voters, which would deter those candidates who do not have sufficient support but not those candidates with genuine conviction.

Mr. O'Brien

I suspect that that condition might also deter the eccentric candidates, whom we have agreed we would not wish to dissuade from standing in elections. Screaming Lord Sutch has become almost an institution in the British electoral system, and I do not think that any hon. Member would seek to dissuade him from putting his name forward. There are certain difficulties associated with increasing substantially the number of nominees required. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend also advocates removing candidates' descriptions from ballot papers. Those descriptions—so long as they are not misleading—often assist the voter.

Candidates who seek to confuse the voters deliberately and to garner votes that should properly go to another candidate are a menace. They threaten to undermine the democratic process, and the Government are determined to deal with them. The hon. Member for Billericay was opposed by a candidate who called himself a "Loyal Conservative". She and the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) referred to candidates who mislead the voters but who believe that their titles honestly reflect their politics. My initial reaction is that what is important is not the candidate's intention but the effect on the voter. Elections are about giving voters a choice—not about allowing candidates to use their preferred titles. We must consider whether the voters are likely to be deceived, even if that is not the candidate's intention.

Before outlining possible solutions to those problems, it might be helpful if I provide some background information. Descriptions on ballot and nomination papers were introduced in 1969 to address the problem of misdirection or attempted misdirection of the electorate. They have clearly not been as effective as we might have wished. The returns from the general election have still to be compiled, but I fear that the use of potentially misleading party names on ballot papers has increased from 1992. Fortunately, that spoiling tactic does not seem to have affected the election outcome in any constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East described how it affected a council election—but that does not detract from the seriousness of the problem. As a result of a deliberate deception, some people may have been misled and ended up voting in a way that they did not intend.

The provision that allows every candidate to include a description on his or her nomination paper is set out in the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

The rules regarding nomination papers are explicit. However, those rules are often not applied when people fill in nomination papers, which may be signed without completing the details at the top. A simple solution to that problem, which does not require primary legislation, would be to have nomination papers signed in the presence of a justice of the peace in the same way as expenses are signed off after an election. That provision would apply only to parliamentary, and not local, elections.

The Minister might like to consider another solution that would not require primary legislation. At the close of nominations, the returning officer could draw a letter from a bag containing 26 letters of the alphabet, which would start the alphabet for the purposes of the ballot paper. That would prevent a pre-emptive spoiler from using his or her surname against a candidate whose surname began with the letter W, for example—or S in my case.

Mr. O'Brien

Both ideas are interesting and deserve consideration in the review that will obviously take place after the 1997 general election. In conjunction with other parties, we shall be considering what changes might need to be made. No doubt the hon. Gentleman's propositions can be fed into that process of full and proper review and consideration of the issues.

I return to nomination papers. No candidate is required to provide a description as such on the nomination paper. Where he or she does so, however, the description set out on the paper is automatically transferred, in the same terms, to the ballot paper. The description may not be obscene or racist or act as an incitement to crime. Beyond that, the rules provide only that the description must not exceed six words and must be sufficient, with the candidate's other particulars, to identify him or her.

I should now explain the responsibilities of acting returning officers. They have responsibility for the conduct of parliamentary elections in each constituency, but they do not have power to amend a candidate's nomination paper, and may reject a nomination only in very restricted circumstances: the circumstances are if the candidate is disqualified because he or she is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment or if the nomination paper is not as required by law and the paper is not subscribed in the due form.

The effect of the second part of the rules is that the acting returning officer can rule only on the validity of the nomination paper, not on the validity of the person's nomination. The reason for limiting the returning officer's authority is clear. Successive Governments have taken it as a first priority that acting returning officers should not be drawn into making decisions that might be considered political, or party political. The officers themselves do not want to be drawn into the political arena. In principle, I think we would all agree that that is right.

I listened with interest to what my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East said about information about spoiler candidates not being available. I cannot explain why the returning officer in Sandwell took the view that he did. I shall certainly draw the matter to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who usually deals with these matters in the Home Office. I am sure that the appropriate inquiries will be made.

Some possible solutions have been suggested, including some this morning, as to how we might approach these issues. Over the past couple of years, Home Office officials have had meetings with officials from the political parties to examine options for dealing with the use of misleading descriptions.

I shall consider the various other options before moving to that of registering political parties, which was raised by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan). One of the other options would be to increase the level of the deposit. The value of the deposit has fallen against other financial comparators, both since it was first introduced in 1918 and since it was revised in 1985. The evidence suggests, however, that an increase in the level of the deposit would not influence those individuals who deliberately set out to use misleading descriptions as spoilers. It would, however, seriously reduce the opportunity for fringe but genuine parties, such as the Green party, and those people who wish to stand independently of any party, to put up candidates in a general election.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East and others have said that there is no wish to discourage fringe candidates. We seek only to ensure that, when names are on the ballot, everyone who is voting recognises what they are and is not deceived into thinking that they are something that they are not.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East suggested increasing the number of people who nominate. I am not sure that there is any evidence that that would act as a deterrent, other than to deter fringe candidates. In practice, spoiler candidates are likely to be able, if they have a misdescription on the nomination form, to garner higher numbers of attested signatures than the present requirement. Obviously, if we increased the number substantially, the difficulties for such candidates would increase. The price of doing that would be to deter the fringe parties. We are reluctant to do that.

Mrs. Gorman

Is the Minister aware that, in the United States, a candidate must secure several hundred names on the paper before he or she can stand? That does not seem to deter candidates or adversely affect the US electoral system.

Mr. O'Brien

I am not fully briefed on all the United States election practices. My recollection, however, of when I have been in the US at election time is that the rules are somewhat different in different states. There are, of course, particular rules for the presidential elections. There are various different types of ballot, including ballots for the primary elections. Different numbers of votes have to be achieved in different parties and in different states. There is a mixed system.

Although extremely rich individuals such as Ross Perot have managed to fund the raising of the number of nominations required, other fringe candidates seem to some extent to be deterred. I accept that there are some fringe parties and that all sorts of parties put up, but not to the same extent as in the UK. Increasing numbers is something to be considered, but I am not convinced at this stage that that is the way forward.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is nonsense that only 10 signatures are required on a ballot paper when someone is seeking to represent 70,000 people within a parliamentary constituency, whereas the same number of signatures is required to represent 2,000 people at parish council level? Surely the purpose of signatures is to demonstrate an acceptable level of community support.

Mr. O'Brien

The objective is to ensure that there are some people at least who want to nominate an individual. What should be regarded as a proper level of community support is a matter for debate. I suspect that each Member of this place is likely to have his or her own view on what that level of support should be. It is an issue to consider, but at this point I am not persuaded that merely increasing the number of attestors would remedy the mischief that we are seeking to address.

Another option is to introduce scope for nominations to be challenged in different ways. The approach is superficially attractive, but it would almost certainly require an increase in the statutory election timetable that determines the period between the issue of the writ and polling day. The advice of the Court Service, which would need to service any challenges, is that a period of at least five days might be required. The period would be greater if an appeal procedure were to be included, or if a judge determined that additional time should be allowed for the preparation of a defence or to introduce disputed evidence. A consequence of a flexible timetable could be that polls in some constituencies at a general election might not be held on the agreed polling day. That is something that we would, I think, view with concern.

Registering the names of political parties as types of trademark is another possibility. I understand that some of the major parties have already obtained trademark registration. The difficulty with this approach is that the Trade Marks Act 1994 provides protection only in the course of trade, and we are advised that political activity does not fall within the definition of an activity in the course of trade. Similar constraints limit the ability of passing off proposals and providing for parties to become companies guaranteed by law.

If we are to change current legislation, we might as well tackle the issue itself rather than try to mess about with trademark law or something else. Let us address the issue itself.

None of these options seems especially attractive or effective. That has led the Government to conclude, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, said when responding to the debate on the issue last month, that the answer probably lies in a system of registration of political parties, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said.

The principal problem with the use of party names as candidate descriptions is that the political parties are not recognised in electoral law. That means that there is no procedure by which a political party can register its name for electoral purposes, or prevent anyone from using its name, or a similar name, to confuse the electorate. A system of registration could help to overcome that by giving statutory recognition to political party names. It might then be possible to prevent attempts to pass off a person as a candidate of a recognised political party by using a description intended to deceive.

The Government are considering how best to take the issue of party registration forward. There are various difficulties and problems that we need to address. In discussion with other parties, we want to work on procedures to deal with the important issues that have been raised in the debate. We intend to deal with them, and we hope that we will be able in due course to proceed with a system of registration.

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