HC Deb 03 March 1997 vol 291 cc659-64 5.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville)

I beg to move, That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 11 th February, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

I understand that with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motion. That the draft Local Elections (Variations of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 12th February, be approved.

Mr. Sackville

On occasion, the Government propose to the House that we upgrade the limits for money that can be spent by candidates at local and parliamentary elections. That has normally happened every two years, but, partly as a result of the very low inflation that the Government have achieved, it has happened after three years on this occasion. The limits will be increased by 6.95 per cent.

I have racked my brains as to what else can be said on the subject, but I have failed to find anything, so I shall limit myself to commending the orders to the House.

5.45 pm
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

I am not sure whether the Minister was complaining that he could not rack any more, or whether he had done too much racking and could not find anything; but the House will have heard what he said.

It does not surprise me that the Government wish to nod the order through promptly. I do not intend to speak for long, but it must be said that the public expect some transparency in the way in which we deal with election funding. The order is important, because it regulates the amount of funding that any candidate who contests the next general election, or elections in Northern Ireland, can spend. It is important for that to be dealt with on the Floor of the House, where a little more attention is paid to the matter than might be the case in Committee—although not much more, I suspect, looking around the Chamber.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

The Minister could find very little to say, because he could not or would not address the fact that room for manoeuvre is very restricted. If we were able, as we are not, to talk about the £40 million war chest that the Tories have obtained from devious sources, and are going to use—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is right: he is totally out of order.

Mr. Henderson

I am rather glad that I took that intervention, and learned the mood of the House. I might otherwise have been tempted to move a little further than the precise terms of the order.

The Opposition support the order. We recognise the need to uprate the amount of money that candidates can spend in line with inflation. Nevertheless, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I beg your indulgence so that I may comment on some of the inadequacies of the order. It deals only with expenditure at local level in electioneering.

Nowadays—in contrast to the days, 50 years ago or more, when Parliament first drew up orders such as this—the expenditure incurred by a local candidate pales into insignificance compared with the amount incurred by parties nationally in a general election campaign. It seems to me a little crazy that we can examine only the expenditure that a candidate can incur at a local level, and cannot consider how much is incurred by his political party at national level.

Hon. Members will make their own judgment on how any political party can best get its general election message over. Some may believe that it is still more effective to tramp around the streets, knock on doors or charm the locals in a club, but others—I include myself in this category—think otherwise. We recognise the importance of those factors, but by-elections are different, in that only a small margin of votes may be at stake, with a large effort concentrated on them. In a general election, that kind of campaigning, which is relatively cheap, is not so effective, and does not influence public opinion in the same way as the bashing of political parties on billboards, direct mailing—which is very expensive—or saturation propaganda in newspaper advertisements.

If we believe that that second group of factors has become more and more important in persuading people in our political system, it strikes me as logical that regulations governing the amount that any political party can spend in an election should also focus on the ability of parties to raise funds for campaigning purposes.

I am told by Library staff that a candidate can spend an average of £8,000. There were 651 candidates at the last general election, which means that the total was £65.2 million. That pales into insignificance compared with the war chest of £40 million which this morning's newspapers tell us the Conservative party will have at its disposal in the election. The House needs to conduct a review of the way that political parties and elections are funded. It is not enough to regulate what is happening locally, although that is important. It is crucial to look beyond that, at how public opinion is influenced and how political parties raise funds to influence public opinion.

The British people would not want rich people similar to Ross Perot in America, Berlusconi in Italy—[Interruption.]—or Sir James Goldsmith, as the Government Whip mutters—because it is not right that those who are phenomenally rich should be able to build up a political party and move into the political spectrum with virtually no support among the people. The vast majority of people will not agree with that, and that is why they will fully support a review of the regulations.

It is not possible at this time, eight weeks before a general election, to undertake a major review of the matter, but the next Parliament should look not only at how political parties are regulated and how much expenditure they can incur locally, but at national provisions as well. That is the way to ensure long-term democracy, and the British people will expect serious politicians to support it.

Like the Minister, I have trawled my brains on the order. I support it, because the change is necessary. However, it is also necessary for the House to signal a long-term review of the funding of political parties and election campaigns, to make sure that the public and democracy are protected and that the rich cannot just move in and buy political power.

5.52 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The order is nonsense. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said. Everybody understands that election thresholds should be valorised each year. The last variation order was presented on 13 March 1994, and this one simply catches up with the increase in the retail prices index over that time. If everybody accepts that inflation should be reflected in the base limit for expenses for candidates, why not recognise that in the RPI and amend the 1983 legislation so that, as a new electoral register is produced each February, the RPI will automatically calculate a new threshold limit for expenses?

It is a complete waste of parliamentary time for a poor Minister to have to sit in a darkened room and rack his brains, although goodness knows what that must look like. Even the official Opposition spokesmen have trouble trying to find something to say. I say "snap" to that. Why do we do it? Why not have annual RPI uprating for the new register each February? That would spare us the agonies to which Ministers and Opposition spokesmen are subjected.

5.53 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

I was tempted to oppose the order after studying it in detail. We are debating an important subject. What could be more important to democrats than the representation of the people? One of the finest aspects of our electoral system is the tight control of expenditure by candidates. Members of other legislatures, such as that in the United States, look with a mixture of astonishment and admiration at our system, and at the tight control of how much each candidate can spend in an election.

You are a well-travelled Member, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you will know that, under the United States' system, there is no limit on what a candidate can spend. One of the great dangers of the US system and those of many other countries is that a very wealthy person can almost purchase votes because of the intensity of his campaign. That is especially the case if the ability to spend is linked to the ability to buy television and radio time. Hon. Members can count their blessings not only that is there a strict limit on individual expenditure but that, nationally, there is a strict attitude to political broadcasts on radio and television. Long may that continue and prosper.

The one issue in the order that impinges directly on representation of the people is that each candidate is restricted to expenditure of £8,000. But a party with enough money to take all the billboards in my constituency and all the advertising space in my local paper makes nonsense of that by undermining the legislation. By taking space on billboards alone, that party can double the allowable expenditure for each candidate. That faces me, and I have perhaps one of the best, well-oiled electoral machines in the country. Huddersfield Labour party has no equal in the land for membership and commitment, and it uses every modern technique to maintain Labour's majority. I have no concerns on that score.

My constituency is surrounded by marginal seats, but the Conservative party will spend so much in my constituency, to which many people come from outlying constituencies for shopping and entertainment, that it will dwarf my £8,000. In the election campaign, possibly £50,000 will be spent on poster sites alone and another £100,000 will be spent on advertising. Given that reality, the order is nonsense.

In a full debate on the nature of our democracy and on the impact of the representation of the people legislation, we would examine in detail not only the principles but the fact that the system is unfair to parties with fewer resources than others. That comes down to the grass-roots issue of one candidate having an unequal chance against other candidates. I fear that that will go on, because we have allowed a great difference.

When I entered politics, I stood for my first seat, in 1974, in Taunton. At that time, not only was expenditure much lower, but the propensity for big poster campaigns and national advertising, even by the Conservative party, was far less pronounced. Now I read of £40 million, and of more money flooding in from China and the far east and from all kinds of dubious sources to the Conservative coffers, and I fear that that will lead to the undermining of our electoral system.

I am not surprised that, before this important debate, the Minister sat in a dark room scratching his head and thinking of something to say. He does not care about our parliamentary democracy, but the Opposition do.

5.59 pm
Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I speak somewhat earlier than I had expected, after the Minister's sparkling introduction.

The orders are the result of the periodic review of election expenses and, as has been stated, could hardly be more straightforward, particularly the Northern Ireland one. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) pointed out, they are the product of an almost automatic process, and are before us this evening to ensure that they have effect in time for the electoral festivities, which are but a few weeks away.

The Northern Ireland order merely repeats exactly the provision for the rest of the United Kingdom according to the different procedure. I did have a couple of questions, assuming that a Minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland might be here. Although one is not, I shall read them anyway, and perhaps the Minister could arrange for the responses to be sent on.

Mr. Sackville

indicated assent.

Mr. Dowd

I see the Minister nodding. I am grateful for that.

The questions relate to giving some indication of when and how the other remaining regulations relevant to elections in Northern Ireland—the Representation of the People Act (Amendment) Regulations and the Northern Ireland Local Elections (Amendment) Regulations—will be processed. If I could have that information, I should be grateful.

0 Despite the slight lapse into hyperbole by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I am sure that the Huddersfield Labour party is an excellent fighting machine. It is certainly a consistently successful one, as his presence here this evening and over many years representing Huddersfield testifies, but he strikes at some pertinent points. The limitations for expenses are a fiction, because they control nothing but individual candidate expenses.

To some degree, the whole legislative framework under which we operate our elections, both parliamentary and local, fails to recognise anything other than candidates. It fails to recognise the existence even of political parties and the machinery they have, whether they are genuine political parties or the inventions of rich individuals.

Although the order calculates in considerable detail the theoretical maxima allowed to be spent by individual candidates at the general election, the whole world knows that they give little indication of the amounts that will actually be spent, particularly during a general election. Taking the 362 county constituencies and the 297 borough constituencies in the UK at the time of the next election, and an average electorate of about 67,000, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said, that would imply maximum expenditure of £5.5 million in total, if a party were to contest every seat in the UK, and I do not think that that is entirely probable.

However, it is authoritatively reported that Sir James Goldsmith, the well-known grocer who has been mentioned, plans to spend some £20 million on his Europhobic adventure at the general election. In addition, today we have read reports, again alluded to already—I will not elaborate on them, lest I incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker—of £40 million from a variety of highly dubious sources being deployed by the Conservative party in a frenzied last-ditch effort to buy an election that it richly deserves to lose.

Only one small part of that money will appear on official returns to returning officers—although it is a failed effort, anyway—but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North has already stated, the whole issue of party funding is a source of continuing scandal and shame to the Tory party. Our action to date in refusing donations from overseas nationals and in revealing the source of all donations of more than £5,000, together with our commitment to review the regulations governing the funding of political parties, stands in marked contrast to the Tory party's disreputable conduct in this matter, where we have also witnessed the questionable use of official overseas visits, paid for by taxpayers, to raise money for the Conservative party.

Mr. Sheerman

Did my hon. Friend read the reports in the McAlpine memoirs this morning that the Prime Minister himself played an active role in that fund-raising activity?

Mr. Dowd

I did indeed, as did many other people. The revelations by the former treasurer of the Conservative party—this is not just some minion at central office, but the person who was responsible for spearheading the fund-raising campaign—add to the shame and scandal that attach to the Conservative party. It is grossly out of touch with public sentiment. The public want more openness, transparency and honesty in relation to the funding of political parties and where those funds come from.

We cannot oppose the orders. They are self-evidently sensible. As I have said, I have great sympathy with the point of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire about whether this is the best use of parliamentary time, given that all we are doing is taking the last orders and multiplying the figures by the retail prices index. The House can be confident that, if the British people give us the opportunity in a few weeks' time to form the Government, the Labour party will take the whole question of party political funding far more seriously than the Government ever have.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 11th February, be approved.

Resolved, That the draft Local Elections (Variations of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 12th February, be approved.—[Mr. Sackville.]