HL Deb 27 February 1986 vol 471 cc1174-6

3.57 p.m.

Viscount Davidson rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th January be approved. [8th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I do not propose to speak at great length in support of this measure, which should be uncontroversial and which is of great importance to all candidates, especially those standing at this year's local government elections on 8th May. The amount of money a candidate may spend on the conduct or management of an election is currently restricted by Sections 76 and 197 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Articles 2 to 4 of this order will merely increase the present limits at parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom and local government elections in Great Britain in line with changes in the value of money since 1982. Article 5 will provide a similar increase for candidates at ward elections in the City of London. If the draft is approved by your Lordships today, the Home Secretary will make an order in similar terms as soon as possible thereafter.

Article 1 provides for the order to take effect on the day after the day on which it is made, that is, in ample time to benefit those who wish to contest this year's local government elections. The order will allow any candidates who are in the midst of an election campaign to incur expenses to the new limit set by the order. It will not, however, authorise expenses retrospectively in excess of the present limits which have been incurred before it takes effect; nor will it increase the limit of £620 plus 3.7p. per elector at ILEA elections, which was recently fixed by the Local Government Act 1985.

The need for this order is quite simple to explain. The present limits for candidates' expense at parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, ward elections in the City of London and local elections in Great Britain—excluding GLC and ILEA elections—were originally fixed by order in March 1982. Since then, there have been substantial changes in the value of money. The Home Secretary accordingly decided last October to exercise his powers under Sections 76A and 197(3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to raise the present limits by 20.2 per cent. to reflect the corresponding increase in the retail price index between March 1982 and the end of August 1985.

None of the major political parties and local authority associations who were consulted about the proposed increases has objected to them being implemented in time for this year's local elections in England, Scotland and Wales; nor will the making of this order preclude the making of another one before the next general election, should this appear necessary to ensure that the candidates can conduct an effective campaign. I therefore recommend these proposals to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th January be approved. [8th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Viscount Davidson.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for explaining this order, which is generally welcomed because it increases the maximum election expenses in accordance with inflation. I should like to ask the noble Viscount a question, but before doing so I must make a few introductory remarks, though I am certain that the House would not wish me to initiate a debate on this point.

When the order was debated in the other place there were two specific questions raised. One speaker raised the question of the national expenses through television—and I am certain that very few people would wish to move from the present strict control of radio and television; another speaker raised the question of the national expenses incurred at parliamentary elections. I think that the latter question used to be dealt with by Section 63 of the previous Act and is now covered by Section 75 of the 1983 Act which deals with the expenses of outside bodies.

We have always endeavoured to obtain some improvement from the national angle. This is so important that I have still in my possession in my personal files the judgment given in 1952 on the Tronoh Mines and a copy of The Times on the day when the Tronoh Mines issued a general national advertisement asking for support for a political party. The judgment was given that this was in order as long as no constituencies and no candidates were identified; but since then national expenditure has increased considerably.

The question that I now ask is: Can the Minister say whether or not there is any intention to conduct a review of this matter? It is one thing to limit the expenses of parliamentary and local government candidates, and another to have almost unlimited power of a national character on expenses as long as candidates and constituencies are not identified. That is the question that I wish to ask the noble Viscount.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, we welcome this change in the expenses limit. I think it is a very important facet of fairness in our elections that these limits are there, but they should be realistic and brought up to date from time to time. Again, like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I feel that there is increasing worry on these Benches about the amount of money which is spent at the national level in a fairly unrestrained way. In comparison with the United States of America, we are fortunate in this country in that we get free television and radio time, and on the whole the press does its best to obtain a reasonable balance of views, though this is less true in the popular press than it is on television. This in particular, is a source of worry to parties such as ours, which depend very much on the money which comes from their own supporters rather than from large organisations.

We should hate to find ourselves moving towards the position that certainly exists in the United States today, where unless one is a millionaire one cannot stand for office. The unrestrained spending of money at the national level distorts what is an extremely good provision at the local level. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the question which was posed in another place and which was repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, today.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff, for welcoming the order and for giving me the opportunity to put the Government's view on the possible control of the national expenditure by political parties at general elections, a question which, as has been said, was also raised in another place when the order was debated on 18th February.

The matter was looked at during the passage of the Representation of the People Bill last year. We concluded, however, that the present lack of control over expenditure on political advertising did not appear to place minority parties at a serious disadvantage. The system of party election broadcasts helps to ensure that each of the parties gets fair television coverage, and we have no evidence that large sums of money spent on advertising automatically persuades more voters to vote for a particular party. We also think that there would be practical problems in imposing and enforcing controls of that kind without fundamental changes to electoral law, including perhaps the compulsory registration of all political parties. We therefore at present have no plans to amend the Representation of the People Acts in that way.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, if the Government do not think that national advertising has any advantage and effect, what on earth do they do it for? It is done on a large scale by the party opposite.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I do not think that I can answer that question. All I can say is that according to psephologists, the money spent by the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1983 was much less than that spent by the Labour Party, yet it managed to poll almost as many votes.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, there is another obvious reason for that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.