HL Deb 10 July 1978 vol 394 cc1334-8

4.8 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. This is a short Bill, and is deliberately of limited scope. Its two substantive clauses are both concerned with election expenses. The first proposes an increase in the maximum expenses which may be incurred by a candidate at a Parliamentary election. The second proposes that subsequent increases in these limits and in the comparable limits for local government elections should be effected by secondary, rather than primary, legislation.

My Lords, there has been a strict control over the expenses incurred by candidates at Parliamentary elections since the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act 1883. I believe that there is general agreement on all sides that such a limitation is essential in the sort of democracy that we enjoy, to prevent the richer parties and candidates from obtaining an undue advantage in the election campaign as a result of their wealth.

The trend in the first half of this century was for a reduction to take place in these limits both in real and in money terms. Thus Acts of 1918, 1928 and 1948 successively reduced the limits on candidates' expenses contained in the Act of 1883. Subsequently, these limits were increased in 1969 and 1974, primarily to restore the value of the limits in real terms. Generally, these changes have been preceeded by discussion in a Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law and the legislation has been based on a Conference recommendation. The Government would have wished that the present Bill could have been similarly founded on a Speaker's Conference recommendation. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister proposed some time ago to the leaders of the other main Parties that a new Speaker's Conference should be established to consider a number of electoral topics. Unfortunately, it has not yet proved possible to secure the agreement of the official Opposition to the terms of reference for such a Conference.

In view of the fact that, under the Parliament Act 1911, there must be a General Election in or before October 1979, the Government considered it would be sensible to consult the other main Parties on an increase in the expenses limits for candidates at Parliamentary Elections. The results of that consultation were mixed; some of those consulted considered that no increase was required in the expenses limits, and some that it would be right to increase the limits to take more or less full account of inflation since February 1974, when, as I indicated, they were last checked. Most of those consulted, however, considered that there should be a substantial increase, but with more emphasis on the variable amount per elector than on the basic sum.

It is in the light of those views that the Government brings forward the proposals contained in this Bill. We propose that the present limits should be increased to a basic sum of £1,750 and a variable element of 2p per elector in a county constituency. In a borough constituency, the figures would be £1,750 plus 1½p per elector. The present limits, set in February 1974, are £1,075 plus 1p per elector in a county constituency, or £1,075 plus ¾p per elector in a borough constituency. These figures may be more meaningful if I relate them to a typical constituency of 60,000 electors. The proposals in the Bill would raise the total amount from £1,675 to £2,950 in a county constituency, and from £1,525 to £2,650 in a borough constituency. The percentage increase will vary depending on the size and type of constituency, but the increase in a county constituency of 60,000 electors is just over 75 per cent. The Government consider that these increases would be justified and would provide a fair balance between the needs of large and small constituencies and I hope the House will share that view.

I turn to the other part of the Bill covered by Clause 2. This provides that the Secretary of State may by order vary the maximum amounts of candidates' election expenses at Parliamentary Elections, certain local government elections and certain elections in the City of London to take account of any change in the value of money. At present, an Act of Parliament is required to make any change, however small, in the expenses limits for Parliamentary or local government elections. This is because the actual figures are provided in the Representation of the People Act 1949 and any change must at present be effected by primary Legislation.

It is clearly right that Parliament should retain control over these limits since, as I mentioned, they constitute an essential element in our democratic process. At the same time, it seems inappropriate to require the full legislative procedure in those cases where changes of a very limited nature are being made. It is for this reason that we are proposing this procedural change. Clause 2 contains, however, two essential safeguards. The first is that the order-making power should be limited to increases to take account of inflation. The second is that orders would be subject to the Affirmative Resolution of both Houses, and thus Parliament would have the final say.

I hope your Lordships will agree that this is a sensible and welcome proposal. The Government believe that the present proposals are sensible and necessary. As I have explained, they result from consultation with the other Parties, and I hope they will meet with the approval of the House.

Moved, That the Bill be read 2a—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for explaining the purposes of the Bill. It is of course a matter of special concern to the other Chamber, but it is of interest to all who are involved in our Parliamentary system. Such proposals normally follow a Speaker's Conference, and Lord Harris indicated that that has not occurred on this occasion and that the Bill has come forward as a result of consultations with other Parties.

There is general agreement that candidates' expenses should be raised and there is of course one main reason for that; that is, inflation. It is a reflection of the extent of the inflation there has been since the two Elections of 1974 that the limits set in this new Bill in real terms are less than the limits that existed in 1974. So it is not, in effect, an increase in purchasing power; it is a reduction from the limits which were available in the 1974 Elections. Some of us therefore think this increase in monetary limits is not enough and that it should have been put higher. However, I can see that because this had to be done on the basis of consultations—because the Government had to do that—they were cautious about raising the limits.

Also, for the reasons of inflation, there is in Clause 2 the new power for the Home Secretary in future, by an order with the Affirmative Resolution procedure, to obtain the consent of Parliament to raise the limits. We hope that will not be necessary for some time. If inflation were to go into double figures again, it would be necessary before long, but it is our hope it will be a much longer time than four years before it will be necessary to come forward with an order to raise the limits again.


My Lords, I believe these limits are too low. I know the thinking behind the statutory limits and in my view they have always been too low. There was a time when the so-called richer Party, whichever that was, was able to influence very small electorates by the expenditure of very large sums of money, but I believe that, with universal suffrage, that time has now passed. The danger nowadays is that we set limits so low that after the end of the election either candidates or their agents swear affidavits which are not strictly true. That has happened on a gigantic scale in the United States, and I believe that one of the contributory causes of the decline of standards in American public life is that most candidates for office start their careers by committing perjury.


My Lords, I rise to reiterate the last point made by my noble and learned friend—


My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me if I intervene to say that we had arranged to take a Statement now. One understands of course that some noble Lords wish to speak on the subject at present before the House. However, would noble Lords care to take the Statement now?

Several noble Lords