HL Deb 11 March 1982 vol 428 cc307-10

3.18 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1982, which was laid before this House on 18th February, be approved. My Lords, the amount of money a candidate may spend on the conduct or management of an election is, as I need hardly say, subject to statutory limits. The Representation of the People Act 1978 empowers the Home Secretary to vary the limits on candidates' election expenses by order, subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament, to take account of changes in the value of money. The purpose of this draft order is to increase the limits on candidates' expenses at parliamentary elections and at certain local elections. It follows consultations with local authorities and all the political parties represented at Westminster.

The present limits for parliamentary candidates are £1,750 plus 2p per elector for county constituencies, and £1,750 plus 1½p per elector for borough constituencies. These were fixed in July 1978. The draft order increases these limits, in line with the rise in the Retail Price Index, to £2,700 plus 3.1p per elector for country constituencies and £2,700 plus 2.3p per elector for borough constituencies. This does not, of course, preclude further increases, if necessary, in time for the next general election.

The present limits for all local elections in Great Britain, save those to the Greater London Council, were fixed in an order made in March 1980 by my right honourable friend at £100 plus 2p per elector. The retail price index has risen by about 20 per cent. since then, and the draft order increases the limits for these elections to £120 plus 2.4p per elector. In addition, the maximum sum which may be spent by candidates at elections of certain City of London officers is increased from £750 to £900.

The order-making power in the Representation of the People Act 1978 does not extend to local government elections in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the present draft order does not extend to elections to the Greater London Council; the GLC limits were increased for the GLC elections last year, and the next GLC elections will be held in 1985. As noble Lords will know, the penalties for overspending at elections are severe. For example, a successful candidate who overspends runs the risk of losing his seat. This order will help to ensure that candidates are able to conduct a reasonable campaign without being in danger of a breach of the statutory limits on expenses. We are bringing forward the order now so that it may come into effect in good time for the local elections in May. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order, laid before the House on 18th February, be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, we thank the Minister for explaining the order so clearly. As he said that its terms had met with the agreement of the local authorities and political parties which had been consulted, I need not delay the House for long in giving it support. There are, however, two matters I would raise with the Minister. First, would it be possible in future, instead of having such figures as 3.1p and 2.3p, to round off the increases either to whole or half pence and adjust the flat sum accordingly? It may be said it is easy to multiply by 0.3 or 0.1 but it would be simpler to use round figures and increase the flat rate accordingly, and that could be done without affecting the figure we desire to achieve to meet inflation.

Secondly, it is clear that with inflation—it may be argued that the incomes of everybody should rise accordingly, but life does not work out that way—the cost in a local election of some 10,000 electors will now be a maximum of about £360. That becomes especially difficult for independent candidates, and there are genuine independent candidates in some parts. In view of that, and of the fact that for any organisation contesting the whole 623 seats in the United Kingdom the maximum cost would be a little over £2½ million, may I ask if the Government would consider this an opportune time to consider the proposals of the Houghton Committee on financial aid to political parties; namely, giving aid, if not to central party headquarters then in assisting all candidates, party and independent candidates, with a proportion of their election expenses, as proposed by that committee?

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, we on these Benches have no real objection to the order, although in the submissions we in the Liberal Party made we asked for somewhat higher levels. I note with interest that the increase is about 54 per cent. for parliamentary elections. If one calculates the rate of inflation from the last elections, in May 1979, that takes us to September of this year. I wonder whether the Government are trying to tell us something—either that they are thinking of having an election then, or that they do not expect inflation to increase after that time.

We did our calculations on the basis of there being an election towards the end of 1983 or early in 1984, in which case the limits should be increased still further, and we suggested £3,000 plus 3.5p for county and £3,000 plus 2.5p for borough constituencies. I go along entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said about rounding up and rounding down. I know that professionals such as he can well do such calculations, with the wonders of modern electronics, but there are people who get confused, and splitting the money up in the way proposed seems a rather strange way of going about it. Rounding up or down in halfpennies would make a difference of only about £60 or £100 on the total limit for a county or borough constituency, and that would not seem to create a grave margin of error.

Although I have to be a little careful in view of certain things going on in certain quarters at the moment, may I ask if the Government would consider looking at the definitions of what constitutes an electoral expense in parliamentary elections? With changing types of electioneering and varying styles of campaigning, grey areas are appearing and a clearer definition, and perhaps an increase beyond the present limits to cater for those problems, might be of help to candidates. Having said that, we support the order.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff, for their support for the order. As for the point they both made about the desirability of rounding off the figures for the variable expenses, while I sympathise with the wish to keep the sums involved as straightforward as possible, my right honourable friend is permitted by the terms of the order-making power to vary the figures only to the extent justified by changes in the value of money. I am advised that any rounding of the variable elements to keep them in whole or half pence would therefore be outside the scope of the power under the order. The proposed figures, however, should not present returning officers and election agents with undue difficulties. The calculations will he no more difficult than those which were required under the Representation of the People Act 1974 and those which are currently required for local government elections in Northern Ireland. Having said that, I accept that two wrongs do not make a right and I take the point that it would be desirable to try to round them off. Moreover, I have explained the situation as we find it under the present order-making power.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, asked, incidentally, whether I was trying to tell the House something about the rate of inflation. What I am trying to tell your Lordships, as I said in my opening remarks, is that if any further increase is needed in election expenses, that will not be precluded by agreement to the order, if your Lordships agree to it, before another general election.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether the Government would consider the proposals of the Houghton Committee for financial aid to political parties. That is a matter which all political parties have considered. So far as Government are concerned though, it would, I suppose, be a matter for legislation, and I am afraid I have no more to say on that at present, except to add that I am aware that the maximum personal expenses that a parliamentary candidate can pay without going to his election agent are not dealt with in the order. They are not very satisfactory; they are, I should have thought any fair-minded person would say, too low, but again, they can be dealt with only by primary legislation, and although we accept there is a case for increasing the amount, which is £100, I am afraid I cannot give any promise that there will be an opportunity for an increase during this Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, asked if the Government would look at the definititions of what constitutes an election expense. Certainly we should be ready to look at that, and it may well be being looked at in the review which my right honourable friend has been undertaking of election procedures, and again we are talking about the scope of primary legislation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.