HL Deb 06 April 1989 vol 505 cc1254-64

7.5 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th February be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall speak also to the Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Expenses) Order 1989. That order may then be moved formally at the end of the debate. Both these instruments deal with increases, to keep pace with the fall in the value of money, in financial limits prescribed by law in relation to elections.

First, they raise the permitted maximum level of a candidate's expenses during an election. The increase for United Kingdom elections is, as always. strictly in line with inflation. The powers of my right honourable friend in respect of European elections are more flexible so that, in that case, it has been possible to apply a degree of rounding and produce a rather tidier figure as hitherto. But the increase applied is still broadly that indicated by the change in the value of money since the last European parliamentary election in 1984.

Secondly, the European parliamentary election order raises the candidate's deposit for the European parliamentary elections from £750 to £1,000. A European parliamentary constituency is approximately eight or nine times the size of a parliamentary one. In 1979 when the deposit was set at £600 the deposit for a Westminster election was £150. Now it is £500.

Restoring the European deposit to its full 1979 value would have meant an in acceptably big increase—£600 in 1979 is the equivalent of nearly £1,200 now—but we felt bound to make some move to arrest its drop in value. The figure of £1,000 now proposed represents a compromise between the £900 indicated by inflation since the last increase and the full £1,200 needed to restore the original value.

The political parties represented in Parliament have been consulted about the proposal to increase these limits, and the aim is to have the increase in place in time for the county council elections in May and the European parliamentary elections in June. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th February be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for explaining these two orders and I need not say much about them. We recognise that changes have to be made in order to keep level with the RPI. As the noble Earl rightly said, in the case of the European elections while I might have jibbed at £1,000 deposit I recognise that each European constituency covers the same area as a large number of parliamentary constituencies.

In referring to the second order dealing with parliamentary and local government expenses, I note that the increase is approximately 7.6 per cent., which is correct as the last change was made in 1987. Therefore, while nobody likes to see increases we recognise the common sense of them and approve the orders.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, this is a shocking proposal to put before the House during the supper break. I have constantly complained about the abuse of the supper break to ask the House to deal with business which, although presumed to be non-controversial, can be acutely controversial. This is certainly an example of that.

We are dealing with a form of taxation on candidature for the European Parliament. I know that in another place these draft regulations were approved without debate, but that shows the conspiracy that exists among the major parties to weaken the position of smaller parties. The aim of a deposit for any election is to act as a deterrent to what are called frivolous candidatures, but some of the most frivolous for our own parliamentary elections are not deterred by the amount of the deposit because they are all rich fanatics.

Here we have not frivolous candidatures but a small party—the Green Party—emerging into becoming a more substantial part of our political life. All the major parties are becoming greener. The Prime Minister is not only stealing the clothes of the Green Party but she is wearing them. That is what other political parties will be doing. The Green Party is the party of the future, and it already has a present in West Germany. The movement throughout the world to save mankind and our planet from destruction will grow in intensity as the peril comes closer.

One can juggle figures about what the deposit should be. However, one must bear in mind that at present, apart from the major parties, the Green Party is the only party contesting the European elections. There were 27 candidates at the last election for the European Parliament who did not represent the parties represented in the other place, and 17 of them were Green Party candidates. That left only 10 to be classified in any way one wishes as frivolous.

To talk about the Green Party as being a frivolous candidate is an insult. Therefore I feel that this is an important matter and I do not believe that the House should approve the regulation. Before I finish, I shall probably object to it. The House is entitled to take notice of what it is asked to do while the rest of our colleagues are having their supper. It is like stealing a march on the workers during the tea break. That is not our way of doing business.

The proposal is to increase the deposit for the European Parliament from £750 to £1,000. It was last increased from £600 to £750 just over two years go. Since the last election, the deposit has been increased from £600 to £750 and now on the eve of the 1989 election it is proposed to increase it to £1,000. I find that objectionable. I do not know what the arguments are in support of doing so. We are playing tricks on our electoral system which is, in itself, a reprehensible assortment of democratic principles and party interests.

The major parties do not want to be challenged by emerging parties. They want to keep them out as long as they can. That is why they are against proportional representation. The idea that one can object to proportional representation on the grounds of any democratic principle is ridiculous. The objection to proportional representation can only be on the ground that the results of proportional representation will, in some way, fail to provide satisfactory stability and strength of government. That is rubbish.

The 25 per cent. increase in the deposit that took place just over two years ago is followed by a 33 per cent. increase in the deposit before an election has even been held on that raised amount. Does everything have to be adjusted for inflation? What is the principle behind that adjustment for inflation? In the Budget, did the Chancellor increase indirect taxation on alcohol and tobacco in line with the fall in the value of money? No, my Lords. He deliberately refrained from doing that. He made beer and tobacco relatively cheaper under the Budget by not touching the level of indirect taxation; and yet when it comes to an election to the European Parliament, oh, yes, we must look at the fall in the value of money!

I am sorry to be talking thus to the noble Earl, Lord Arran. He is a nice man, and it pains me to have to lecture him, but those who accept posts in the Government must expect to carry some ugly babies, and this is one of them. I must address my remarks to the noble Earl but not in a personal capacity or personal spirit. For him to sponsor the regulation with such a brief justification was inadequate.

If we are to deter frivolous candidatures, what have we done about frivolous candidatures for our parliamentary elections? We raised the deposit for parliamentary elections from £150 to £500 some years ago, but we have not considered increasing that deposit to take account of the fall in the value of money. We have left it alone. Why have we left the deposit for our parliamentary elections alone and gone for the deposit for the European elections? Why that disparity of treatment? It may be argued that in 1984 we increased the deposit for our parliamentary elections by a swingeing percentage of well over 100 per cent. and that that will stand for a little time to come; but that was relative to the value of money at the time. We are dealing with relativities all the time.

This regulation will cost the Green Party a lot of money in terms of the resources that it will have to deposit. I am informed that at the rate of £750 the Green Party would currently have to pay a deposit of £58,500. The regulation will increase that deposit by a further £19,500. We say that that is a comparatively small sum, but it is a significant sum for a small party. It can of course be argued that if the party wins the minimum proportion of votes it will get back its money; but in the meantime that money is being held. It has to deposit cash. It is cash that it cannot use for the purposes of the election. In the circumstances, one again sees how that is an imposition on a small and emerging party.

I was on the government-appointed committee on the finances of political parties and when we recommended some measure of state aid we had it in mind that there should be some reimbursement of the actual expenses, up to certain limits, of those who were able to save their deposits. That was an inducement to those who wished to try their adventurous political spirits to go to the election feeling that if they worked hard enough to obtain more than the proportion of votes required to save their deposits they would not only get back their money but they would also get a grant-in-aid on their expenses. There is no grant in aid of the expenses involved here.

This is no small matter. I attach no importance whatever to the behaviour of another place on the regulation because it is the type of thing that can happen when there is no party interest involved in the other place. Those who seek to get a foothold in the parliamentary system are those who find their foot stamped on in this way. It is shameful. I do not belong to the Green Party, or do I? I may. I am not sure. I am liberal in my membership of political parties.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, with a small "I".

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am disposed to fight for causes these days and not for wide, grandiose political purposes. I have been 40 years in that game, and they have been entirely unrewarding. Any party that has its eyes on the salvation of the planet is probably thinking more of the reality of the future than those who are bothering their heads about nuclear bombs, the level of inflation or anything else.

I must champion this small party. After all, the Labour Party was in this position years ago. Most members of the Labour Party do not remember those days. I do; very much so. I was a member of the Labour Party 65 years ago. At that time deposits were being lost all over the place. In many cases the Labour Party felt quite unable to fight election because it knew jolly well that it would lose its deposits. It was a long time before Labour felt confident enough—and then by sharing the risk—to fight every constituency.

The Green Party has decided for the forthcoming European election to fight every one of the 78 seats allotted to this country. This deposit arrangement will therefore create considerable hardship. I see a certain amount of coming and going on the Front Bench opposite, but I am by no means finished yet. Noble Lords ought to wait until they have the whole package of my argument before going to get reinforcements for reply. It has been. suggested, I understand, in formal discussions with the Home Office that one should take into account the value of the increase in the free post. The increase in the free post has no intrinsic value to candidates. They will get free post and have had free post for a long time no matter what the rate of postage. That is relative too. What is constant is the freedom of the post. It is worth no more or no less because the postal rates go up. It happens to be free. It is like fresh air. Every other candidate, whether or not he has the money, will have free post too. That is not an argument. I understand that it was never put on paper. When one goes to see Home Office officials, one finds that they can make all kinds of suggestions as to reasons for doing things which may or may not represent part of the Government's. conclusions. However, the issue has been raised.

I want to know what the Government feel about the effect of the regulation upon the democratic process, or do they employ only statisticians in the Home Office? Do they not have political psychologists or those who understand the meaning of "the representation of the people"? My goodness me! The words "Representation of the People" are stuck at the head of the regulation. It should be "Discouragement of the Representation of the People" at the head of the regulation. Then we should probably get a little nearer the truth.

I am sorry to take up the time that has been allocated to such exotic items on our menu as swordfish steaks and haunches of wild boar, which I am sure are very desirable things to have for supper if you can get there. Why should I be kept out of this? Why should those of us sitting in the Chamber at the present time be excluded from our meal break? I had to go in for a rushed bowl of soup to enable me to stand on my feet. Noble Lords may laugh, but when one is 90 years of age, as I am now, one jolly well needs something to help one to stand on one's feet. If one does not have it in inspiration, one must get it in a bowl of soup. That is what I have done.

I have not finished yet. I know that everybody having supper will think that they ought to be coming back to resume the business of the House, but having handed over their supper break to us here to debate what they are not here to debate themselves, they cannot grumble if, having been given possession of the Chamber, we decline to give it up. If they want to go back into Committee on the Companies Bill, let them find some other accommodation elsewhere. We happen to be in possession, and we are entitled to make the most of it. I am not filibustering. I am retaliating against the impudence of the Government in putting down for the supper break an item which I think is highly controversial and quite unjust. I therefore think that this House should exercise its constitutional instincts, say that it will not have it and ask the Government to think again.

After all, what does the difference between £1,000 and £750 matter to the Government? The answer is nothing at all. What does it mean to frivolous candidatures—nothing at all or very little. Even if donkeys were standing there could not be more than 10 of them. Indeed 17 of the 27 candidatures that were not of political parties already represented in the House of Commons were from the Green Party. I should have expected to see the Liberal and the Social Democrat Benches full in defence of the embryo political party in Britain today. If they have any sense they will go green and greener still. I see a noble Lord rising to go green now.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He will remember that on an earlier occasion we on these Benches divided the House on this very subject in order to protect the rights of minority parties, of which incidentally we do not count ourselves as one. The only noble Lords who voted against the Government on that occasion were members of my party. I suspect that the noble Lord himself joined us. However, as I remember, none of his party came with us on that occasion and we were defeated by a large majority.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the noble Lord's intervention was nearly as long as my speech. I am sure that he will rise to speak in a few minutes and enlarge on that point. I am trying to help him. I am pointing to where the political future of some of our smaller parties lies at the present time.

Perhaps I may return to my main theme. We must ask the noble Earl to tell us more and to be candid about this. Is this just a rule of thumb business? Is it a statistical exercise? Has it been thought of from the point of view of the interests of the candidates concerned? Have the Government looked at it as a proposition in relative justice to political parties? When these increases were first proposed by the Home Office it presumably communicated with all the other political parties but did not communicate with the Green Party.

That is significant. It learnt about it from the same source from which most of us learn about these things. It shows the arrogance of attitudes that can develop towards the small and the relatively weak. The reason why very often there is such malice and authoritarian retaliation in politics is that when those who have been weak become strong they decide to take it out on the people who were their enemies earlier. That is a common factor in the development of historical differences in weight and power.

I do not suggest that the Green Party will come into office in the near future and decide to exterminate the Conservative Party, but at the same time it will feel that it does not owe anything to the establishment—let us call it that—in facilitating its entry into European politics. Nothing that we have done in recent years to help and encourage candidates for election in parliamentary and other elections has made any noticeable contribution to making their efforts more worthwhile. We have somehow regarded standing for election as something which one ought not to do, and therefore we have made it rather more difficult than one probably thinks it ought to be.

We should be encouraging candidates, so far as we can, without penalising those who, despite a considerable endeavour to establish a new line of thought on politics, find that they do not make much of an impression to begin with. I feel that very much in my heart when I see the results of elections where someone in the Green Party or perhaps in some other party representing quite notable causes who has fought an election, gone through all the problems of communication with the public, relying solely upon the free post and having little or no other resources to do it any other way, finally ends up by losing his or her deposit. For those who are not frivolous candidates, that is a great shame. Very often, by trying to stop minority delinquency or irresponsible behaviour one stops worthy people making a first effort to enter into public life. I think that that fact is very much to be deprecated.

I notice that I have now been speaking for only 25 minutes and I think that the supper break will last for a little time yet. I cannot think of any other way in which I can make this protest. There is of course a remedy available in your Lordships' House which is not possessed by another place, but I do not expect any noble Lord to rise and move that this noble Lord be no longer heard. I say that because I have discovered that that is a debatable Motion. In my view a device of that nature will not necessarily save any time. As we know, there are precedents in the House of Commons to deal with honourable Members who speak at great length in order to protest against another matter which would come before that House if they were to stop speaking. Indeed that course of action can be most effective at times; but it cannot be effective tonight, because even if I were to speak all night I would really not have stopped anything very much—except, perhaps, the concluding stages of the Companies Bill.

I am not really given to this form of protest. I can tell noble Lords quite frankly that I do not enjoy it. But what else can I do? I fear that I shall not receive an answer from the noble Earl which will satisfy me. Moreover, I hope that I am not giving any confidences away when I make inquiries. Is it possible for us to divide on these regulations? The information I have received is that we never do. Indeed, that is the trouble with this House; there are so many things that we never do, and no one knows why we never do them. I feel that there are some things which we really ought to do now and again, if only to show our displeasure at what is happening.

Therefore, perhaps I may make an appeal to the noble Earl that the Government should withdraw the regulations and table it for another occasion, at a better time, when those of us who may feel that we wish to test the feeling of the House on the matter can do so with relative peace of mind. It is simply not fair on a noble Lord like myself; indeed, there may be other noble Lords present, and others not present, who feel the same way. We do not always have noble Lords here who feel the same way as we do. Nevertheless, I think that it would be a gesture of goodwill towards the objections to these regulations if that course of action were to be considered.

In my view when a regulation has not even been subject to a word of debate in another place, it should not be dealt with here during the supper break. That is not the way to deal with affirmative resolution procedures in Parliament. I do not think that anyone can justify that at all. Therefore, I must continue with my protest and make a very strong request to the noble Earl, or to his colleague sitting beside him, that the regulations should be withdrawn. Moreover, as I understand it, his colleague is a Government Whip and probably has some baton of authority in his hand which he can wave and say, "All right, we will take the matter another day". I do not care at what hour the matter is put on, just so long as one can follow the normal procedures of the House without feeling guilty about it.

I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is speaking to the noble Lord on the Woolsack. I hope that he is not consulting the noble Lord about moving the resolution that I should no longer be heard. If he is, I warn him that I can also debate that issue at great length. I see that the noble Lord wishes to interrupt me again.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I must stress that I was not consulting the noble Lord on the Woolsack with any suggestion other than that it would be interesting to see what would happen if the noble Lord were to continue with his protest until 9.30 tomorrow morning. At that time some 57 noble Lords, most of them barristers, will enter the Chamber and occupy it for most of the day. Indeed, that would be a sight worth seeing.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I think that an attempt is being made to undermine my confidence and make me feel a little guilty.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, that will be the day!

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am protesting because the business is being taken at this time. If it were tabled for another time, it would not be necessary to make these reproaches. Moreover, I do not see any battery of legal luminaries in the Chamber at the present time; indeed they are entitled to their supper like everyone else—except us. Therefore we are bound to feel some consideration for them.

I am quite sure that there is a limit to the patience of noble Lords, however few there are, and I really should not pursue my objections to the point of being somewhat ridiculous. However, I have spoken for 31 minutes in the House before, but that has been when I have had a very lengthy discourse to present for the consideration of noble Lords. Nevertheless, I soon learnt that if one speaks for over, say, 17 minutes, one has to be jolly good in what one is saying and how one says it in order to hold the attention of the House. Indeed if there was no one present in the Chamber, except noble Lords on both of the Front Benches, I believe that I could hold the attention of the House for a very long time to come. In fact, I am not quite sure that I cannot hold it already.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, if my noble friend would be kind enough to give way, I should be most grateful. I wish to make but a brief comment on the matter. I think that he is putting forward a very powerful case. However, in fairness to the Front Bench, I think that the main point at issue—and I say this quite seriously—is that the increase in expenses is being made because of inflation. I know that my noble friend has dealt with that point, but I rise to put this particular question to him. It seems to me that he is really saying that he is in favour of a reduction in the deposit. That is his argument as I see it, because he is not allowing for inflation. If that is the case then his argument is quite legitimate. However, I think that he is ignoring the fact that the matter was not debated in another place because Members there felt that it was a self-evident case. Indeed, I presume that is why so few noble Lords are present this evening. Will my noble friend comment on the main point which I have just made?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I shall be very glad to comment on that point. I fully understand my noble friend's argument and at least from that angle there may be some justification for what we are doing. That is probably why in another place—and in this Chamber too—for that matter—Members may feel that this matter is almost part of the indexing of certain elements in our affairs. However, I draw attention again to the fact that nothing is being done at present to raise the amount of the deposit for parliamentary elections here. That is left where it was put. In 1985 the deposit at home was put up from £150 to £500. That was a big increase, but it had been £150 for years and years right back to my time, and I was elected 40 years ago. If I am right it was £150 then, and it remained £150 until 1984.

When it was put up it had to be jumped up. It was, from £150 to £500, but it was £500 in 1985. No adjustment has been made on that, and presumably we shall go into the next general election with it still being £500, but the European figure has been raised since the last election two years ago when the increase was made from £600 to £750. There has been no general election for the European Parliament since then. That one is coming on now, and it is jumped up from £750 to £1,000 just before the election.

This is quite extraordinary as an exercise in dealing with the European election deposit alone, and I find it difficult. If you look at the level of the deposit for parliamentary elections here alongside the deposit for the European Parliament at the same time, there is no justification for raising the deposit for Europe now while leaving the deposit for parliamentary elections alone. It depends on what premise one is going to base the logic of the matter.

I am sure my noble friend is friendlily disposed towards me and I am grateful to him for his intervention. I am sorry that I am having to persist as I do, and I do not want to put any further strain on the patience of noble Lords opposite. I like both of them on the Bench opposite, and I know it upsets them to see me behaving like this. Our personal relationships in this House are so pleasant and so agreeable that they make life worth living, and yet all of us have a political and parliamentary duty, and sometimes it is painful and sometimes it is even unpleasant.

Anyway, here we are. I have said my piece. Despite the fact that the Government have put me in this position at the present time I cannot divide the House without pulling everybody out of the dining rooms and dragging them in here, probably failing to get tellers, so that they go back feeling that this fellow Houghton is just playing fast and loose with the convenience of this place. We have a term for that, but it does not happen to be a parliamentary one.

I do not like to be put in that position, but I am being put in that position and I must object to that too. That is why I say we should take business of this kind when we can act freely. Do not take it when we are inhibited by the innate courtesy of this House from disturbing the convenience of large numbers of Members at present enjoying their supper break, so that we cannot divide the House on a matter which at least to me is of considerable importance. I thank noble Lords for keeping their seats for so long.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, if I may I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his quick, straightforward and courteous acceptance of these two orders. Secondly, it is always a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in his place, as it is tonight. He has apologised for keeping us from our boar heads and soup and I shall do my best not to keep your Lordships from your pudding as well. However, it would be discourteous if I were not to answer the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, although I can assure noble Lords that I shall not be as long as he was in making his points.

To take his two most important points, first as regards the European deposit, we accept that the European parliamentary elections have so far been free from frivolity or disruption by candidates. Some of this freedom may have been due to the level of the deposit, but probably more to the lack of attention paid to these elections by the media. However, the European Parliament has, in the context of the forthcoming elections, been conducting a vigorous campaign to catch the attention of the media, and it seems likely that this year's European elections will attract far greater public interest than earlier ones. If so, only a higher deposit would protect serious candidates from the attentions of the frivolous or maverick candidates with whom many members had to contend at the general election.

The Government wish to proceed as far as possible by consensus when changing electoral law. We know that some other parties would prefer not to see an increase in the deposit, and because of that we are not proposing an increase that would secure the original 1979 value, but there is a strong case for some increase which reflects the erosion in the deposit value. It is important to maintain the principle of raising the deposit from time to time so that we never again face the difficulties that arose with the deposit at parliamentary elections, which, until 1985, had not been increased since 1918, a point brought out by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton.

As regards the increase in Westminster deposits, the Euro deposit was originally set at four times the Westminster deposit, whereas Euro constituencies are on average nine times the size of Westminster ones. As a consequence of the size of Euro constituencies, the free postage concession will, if fully used, be worth at least £50,000. We are aware that there may be a need to raise the Westminster deposit to maintain its value in due course, and we shall of course continue to monitor that situation and keep it in mind.

I suspect that whatever I say the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is not necessarily going to agree with it. Nevertheless, I thank him for the passion and conviction that he always conveys in your Lordships' House. I commend these regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.