HL Deb 05 November 1998 vol 594 cc420-9

(" .—(1) The Secretary of State shall, from time to time, issue guidance to returning officers on the exercise of their powers under rule 6A (nomination papers: name of registered political party) of Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 ("the 1983 Act"), as inserted by paragraph 2 of Schedule 2 to this Act.

(2) Before issuing any guidance under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall take into account information, which he shall cause to be collected from time to time for the purposes of this subsection, about the extent to which returning officers are applying their discretion under rule 6A of Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act in a manner which is consistent both over time and between different areas of the United Kingdom.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is very similar to one tabled by the Conservative Party in Committee in another place. I hope that Members of the Committee on the Conservative Benches may support this amendment.

It seems to us—and certainly it is the view taken by electoral officers who will be responsible for running the elections—that guidance is needed from the Home Office for returning officers in those circumstances. Considerable discretion is being exercised by them and we cannot see why there should not be specific provision for such guidelines to be provided to them. In many respects, this will be new territory for them. The electoral officers association pointed out a number of flaws in the rules. Without wishing to become involved in the minutiae of the detail, it is clear that there will be interpretation issues which returning officers will wish to test.

It seems to me that many problems would be obviated for the future if the Home Office produced suitable guidelines for those returning officers. I beg to move.

Lord Henley

I offer my support for this amendment. This is the only occasion on which the Liberal Democrats have allowed me to join with them in adding my name to an amendment. It may be that because my name has been misspelt, it has slipped under their guard. It may be that they mistook me for my late father, a Liberal of some standing. I do not know. The simple fact is that they have allowed me in, and I am very grateful for that.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

We believe that Amendment No. 21 is unnecessary. The Secretary of State is able to issue guidance without any need for statutory authority. The new clause is a shade confused but that is perhaps not the heart of what I can say, which may be of benefit.

I can tell the noble Lord that we have been discussing with representatives of returning officers what information it would be appropriate to make available to assist returning officers to make their decisions under new rule 6A; how to collate the information; how to promulgate it; and when and how often to do so. Therefore, we have been having those discussions. I hope that that is genuinely helpful to the Committee. Copies of any guidance which my right honourable friend issues to returning officers on this matter will be placed in the Library. Therefore, I hope that I have met the purpose which the noble Lord's amendment sought to achieve.

Lord Clement-Jones

I thank the Minister for that reply. On the basis that he is saying that guidelines will be issued, I shall withdraw the amendment. That is what I understood him to be saying and if that is so, I shall withdraw the amendment and look forward to seeing those guidelines.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 14 and 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 [First transitional stage]:

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 22:

Page 5, line 17, leave out from ("least") to ("at") in line 18 and insert ("two Members of the House of Commons who have taken their seats in that House belong").

The noble Lord said: Again, this is a probing amendment but I may wish to take the matter further depending on the response that I receive from the Minister.

At present, as I understand it, only parties with at least one Member of the House of Commons will be eligible to register during the transitional period. First, that excludes parties which are not there—and I shall deal with them on Amendment No. 23. However, as regards Amendment No. 22, I seek only to pose two questions.

First, does it mean that Mr. Martin Bell, an independent Member, could register himself as a party, should he have the one other friend that he needs, as I understand it from an earlier response? Secondly, what is the position of Members of the House of Commons who have not taken their seats? I refer to Sinn Fein which has two elected Members of the Westminster Parliament but because they do not recognise its authority, they have never taken their seats. Will it be possible for them to register in the earlier phase or do they have to be Members of the House of Commons who have taken their seats in that House as our amendment sets out? I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart

On Amendment No. 22, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, seems to be following the opposite course from that which he proposes in Amendment No. 23. The effect of Amendment No. 22 would be to exclude members of Sinn Fein on the grounds that they have not taken their seats and to exclude—I think it is called—the United Kingdom Unionist Party and Mr. Robert McCartney who is undoubtedly the representative of a party but is its only representative in another place.

On the other hand, Amendment No. 23 would let in everybody including, as I understand it, the Monster Raving Loony Party, who has at least one elected representative on one council somewhere. Indeed, it would let in people on parish councils for the first stage registration process. It seems to me that in saying you have to have one MP to qualify for the first stage registration process the Government have got it about right.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

There are three individual Members without a major party label who would be excluded from registration: Martin Bell, the Independent Member for Tatton; Tommy Graham, the Member for West Renfrewshire, who has been expelled from the parliamentary Labour Party; and Robert McCartney, the United Kingdom Unionist, who is the Member in the other place for North Down. Martin Bell can register at the moment, and if he wishes to stand again for another Parliament—as he said he did not—then he ought to be able to register, or so it seems to us.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, is quite right, because his amendment would not only extend the number from one to two or more Members but it also includes the words: who have taken their seats …". That would mean that Sinn Fein would not be able to register if this amendment were accepted; nor would Robert McCartney. Whether or not one agrees with Robert McCartney in all his views, it seems to me that it would be unjust to exclude him by increasing the number from one to two. We see no virtue in excluding those two parties from the first stage. In fact Robert McCartney, if I may speak personally, makes an interesting and individualistic contribution to the affairs not only of Northern Ireland but of Westminster generally.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Henley

I am very grateful for that explanation from the noble Lord. Perhaps I might explain to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that there a number of occasions when one puts down contradictory amendments. There is nothing odd about that. One is simply probing, and it is a useful device to seek from the Government the appropriate responses. I quite accept that Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 attack the issue from rather different points of view. However, in a moment I shall be withdrawing Amendment No. 22 and moving on to Amendment No. 23, and I hope to explain to the Committee the ideas that lie behind that amendment. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 22.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 23:

Page 5, line 18, at end insert (", or (ii) represented by a Member of Parliament, an elected member of a local authority, an elected Member of the European Parliament, or an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 23, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, kindly pointed out, is slightly contradictory of Amendment No. 22. I rather regret the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, because by means of this amendment I want to take your Lordships back to the Maastricht Treaty of some years ago. I note the look of enthusiasm on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn!

I should like to refer him to Article 138A of the Maastricht Treaty, with which I imagine the noble Lord will be most familiar. It reads as follows: Political parties at European level are important as a factor for integration within the Union. They contribute to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union. I think it is important that this Bill contributes towards that process to which we signed up in the Maastricht Treaty. The purpose of my amendment, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, explained, it would also allow people such as the Monster Raving Loony Party to register in the first stage, was to bring in such bodies as the Greens or, for that matter, European parties represented in the European Parliament but not in our own Parliament. I appreciate that obviously they can register at the second stage. However, it seems to me that when we have signed up to the Maastricht Treaty, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and others might think of the process, this Bill ought to go along with the spirit of that treaty. To exclude the Greens, a party represented in the German Government, seems to me somewhat odd at this stage. I wonder, therefore, whether the noble Lord would be able to give us some assurance of his willingness to accept some changes on these lines to allow us to comply with the Maastricht Treaty and the obligations we signed up to there. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I think we are compliant with our treaty obligations, not least with Article 138A. I take it this is simply a probing amendment, as the earlier contradictory amendment was.

The first transitional phase for registration applies to parties represented in the House of Commons and we think that is reasonable, but to extend it to include the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in particular local authorities, would greatly increase the number of parties to be registered in the first transitional phase, which is only a six week period, and would put intolerable pressure on the registrar at that time. After all, a party which registers at the second stage, if it uses a name by which it has become known, is likely to be able to register that name and continue to use it, even if it is similar to a name used by a party represented in the House of Commons. On an earlier occasion I gave the illustration that people will be able to distinguish as voters between the Labour Party and Mr. Scargill's Socialist Labour Party.

We think we have got this about right. To extend it as widely as the noble Lord's amendment suggests would place an intolerable burden on the registrar for a fairly short period of time for these first elections, which are due in May of next year.

Lord Henley

I accept the arguments which have been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. My knowledge and understanding of the Maastricht Treaty is not as great as some people's, but it may be that I should ask the Minister's noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington to have a further look at that treaty between now and the next stage to see whether it is a matter to which we could return.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I beseech the noble Lord not to do that!

Lord Henley

I just offer it as a suggestion in the interests of your Lordships, and I have noted the noble Lord's reaction. I have my copy of the Maastricht Treaty here and I will study it a little further myself, and possibly seek a little advice from the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Transitional ground for refusal to register]:

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 agreed to.

Clause 20 [Orders and regulations]:

[Amendments Nos. 25 and 26 not moved.]

Clause 20 agreed to.

Clauses 21 to 26 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Applications for Registration]:

[Amendments Nos. 27 to 37 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Amendments of the Parliamentary Elections Rules]:

[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 39:

Page 9, line 17, at end insert—

("(1A) A nomination paper may not refer to a candidate by a name which has been adopted by that candidate in substitution for a name previously used by him and which is likely to lead voters to confuse the candidate with a candidate representing a registered political party.").

The noble Lord said: This provision seeks to amend the election rules to ensure that the mischief that we have seen on a number of occasions is firmly put to rights. It is not perhaps on the scale of Calais, but on Liberal Democrat hearts is firmly engraved the experience that we had—as we heard on Second Reading from both myself and my noble friend Lord Goodhart—at the Hillhead by-election when Roy Harold Jenkins stood against the former leader of my party in this House, Roy Harris Jenkins. That caused enormous problems, but because it was a by-election we were able to throw our full weight behind the noble Lord—now my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead—and get across the message to the electorate in all kinds of outlandish and perhaps not so outlandish ways. Again, we heard about some of those ways at Second Reading.

Similarly, at the last general election candidates were intervening in elections—for instance, against Sir Nicholas Lyell in Bedfordshire North East, Mr. Rod Richards in Clwyd West and Miss Alice Mahon in Halifax. On those occasions they were able to rely on the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, in particular Section 115(2)(b) which provides, that, A person shall be guilty of undue influence [and thereby of corrupt practice] if … by any fraudulent device or contrivance, he impedes or prevents the free exercise of the franchise of an elector". That seems to be somewhat serendipitous. In the case of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead the court did not decide in his favour. But a different court and a different set of judges, perhaps by coincidence, agreed on each of the three occasions I mentioned at the last general election and granted injunctions.

We believe that it is almost as important that there should be no ambiguity about the candidates as it is that there should be no ambiguity about the political party for which people are voting. We cannot see why an amendment such as this to the election rules should not be added to the Bill in a fairly painless way. This is something which, in a sense, goes hand in glove with the registration of political parties. It means that in future there would be no ambiguity whatever for a member of the electorate voting for candidate and party. That must be desirable. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I understand the noble Lord's point but this is not the way to deal with it. In fact, I do not see how this test could work in practice. Mischievous officials have given me a brief to read out, which I do without comment: how will the returning officer know whether the candidate calling himself, for example, Gareth Williams, has always used that name or adopted it only recently?

The answer derives from the discussion we had to which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, earlier contributed. The real safeguard here is the party registered name together with the emblem. That will provide the safeguards required.

In response to the noble Lord's specific point concerning Sir Nicholas Lyell, he will recall that Sir Nicholas Lyell was able to obtain speedy relief from the court and the false Sir Nicholas Lyell was not allowed to stand under the bogus name.

The emblem therefore and the registered party name offer a decent safeguard. That is one reason why an emblem is important. On the basis of that explanation I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Clement-Jones

I thank the Minister for that reply. It does not go any part of the way towards accepting my case. But I understand why he would not wish to accept the case, and accept that the drafting of the amendment may not be perfect. However, the principle involved—as regards seeking to make sure that the electorate is not confused and, in a sense, firing the second barrel of a specific solution to electoral confusion—is desirable. We may well come back with some rather more tightly drafted provision at a later stage, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 40:

Page 9, line 24, at end insert—

("6B. No nomination of a candidate which purports to be made on behalf of a registered party shall be accepted as valid unless the relevant nomination paper is accompanied by a certificate signed by the party's registered nominating officer to the effect that the candidate is entitled to use a description identifying him with the party.

6C. The party's registered nominating officer shall not refuse the nomination of a candidate who has been selected in the manner set out in the party's constitution.

6D. A copy of each party's constitution shall be deposited with the registrar."").

The noble Lord said: We come now to the last group of amendments. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, coming in ready to continue with her debate the minute we conclude our deliberations at Committee stage.

At Second Reading I expressed some concerns in relation to Schedule 2 in that it concentrated all the power of the party machinery in central hands. It could mean that an individual, or the individual described in Schedule 2—the registered nominating officer—could refuse to register people of whom he did not approve.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, did not accept my fears and said that these matters could be dealt with by the internal constitution of the political party; and I accept that point. However, my amendment seeks to deliver safeguards by including the constitution, and making sure that a copy of each party's constitution shall be deposited with the registrar. New rules 6C and 6D indicate that, first, the party's registered nominating officer will not be able to refuse the nomination of a candidate who has been selected in the manner set out in the party's constitution. I hope that will deal with the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. New rule 6D makes clear that, A copy of each party's constitution shall be deposited with the registrar". It makes it clear to the registrar that the rules have been complied with.

This is a genuine concern. A number of people are worried that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the party machinery by means of a Bill of this sort; and the same is true of the extension that we are seeing, in one way or another, into proportional representation. By its nature that increases the power of the party machinery. Schedule 2, and in particular new rule 6A in paragraph 2, is a strong example of that. It requires a degree of amendment to deal with the concerns that I put forward. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones

I wish to intervene briefly because I realise that we are coming to the end of Committee stage. But that does not make this amendment any less important. We on these Benches support this amendment and the spirit behind it.

I take on board much of what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said in relation to the potential over-centralisation of the parties. List systems of the kind being introduced into the European elections, and the Welsh, Scottish and other elections in the future, will inevitably put more power into the hands of political parties. It is therefore incumbent on us to make sure that those political parties behave themselves.

It is possible for the returning officer to look behind the nomination paper to make sure that due process was gone through for that candidate to be on that nomination paper. We therefore support the spirit behind the amendment and hope that something along those lines can be incorporated in the Bill. It will add to the transparency and proper process of it.

The Earl of Stockton

I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Henley, particularly new rules 6C and 6D. I declare an interest as a potential candidate for the European Parliament who has yet to be nominated. While I am absolutely convinced that my own party is happy to accept the broad range of politicals on the European issue, I would hate to think that others less generous may choose to weed out those selected by due process within their political party and so not include them. It is a necessary control on the inherent centralising tendency in the Bill, and I hope that the Government will see their way to bringing back something at a later stage to cover the point if they cannot agree to my noble friend's amendment.

7 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for the explanations given, not least by the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, about the thinking behind this proposal. I come back to the stance we adopted on Second Reading. Essentially, this is a technical measure, principally designed to facilitate new systems of elections to the Scottish parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the European Parliament. It involves putting forward party lists. In that context we have provided for the registration of party names, the registration of emblems and the other benefits already discussed.

The Bill does not attempt to interfere, nor do I believe that it should, in the internal organisation of political parties. Issues such as how a party selects its candidates internally have no place in the Bill. It is entirely a matter for a party whether it organises itself on a constituency basis and, if so, what degree of autonomy the individual constituency association should have in the selection of candidates. I submit that parties are entitled to determine their own constitution and rules for the selection of candidates. It is not for the registrar or the returning officers to police internal party arrangements. If a candidate has been selected properly, I do not see why a nominating officer should be able to block the nomination of that candidate. Therefore, we see no place in the Bill for this amendment. We developed the theme yesterday—unfortunately unsuccessfully, as I remember—that the electoral system is quite different from the internal party mechanism which varies from party to party in the way party members choose their candidates.

Fairly recent experience demonstrates that if a party does not abide by its own constitution and rules in the selection of candidates, a disappointed, disaffected or wronged candidate will have ready recourse to the courts. It is not for the registrar to police internal party arrangements. My objection to the amendment comes down to that simple proposition.

Lord Henley

I find the Minister's response somewhat disappointing. It is in line with most of his responses today. There has been little indication that he is prepared to move on any aspects of the Bill. I suspect he is under very strong riding instructions to get the Bill through unamended in any way at all. The noble Lord smiles. I do not know what to interpret from that smile.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Like a sphinx.

Lord Henley

The noble Lord suggests a sphinx. I shall interpret it as I wish in due course. However, we shall come back to this matter at a later stage. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, just as I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Stockton. It is something, along with the appeals process, that we shall have to come back to at the next stage of the Bill. In the presence of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, the Deputy Chief Whip, I say that we shall probably have a slightly more exciting Report stage than Committee stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 41 to 43 not moved.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Remaining schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the early completion of the Registration of Political Parties Bill means that the time available for this evening's Unstarred Question is no longer limited to the one hour dinner adjournment. The debate can now run for a maximum of one and a half hours allowing all speakers a maximum of 12 minutes in which to make their speeches. However, I am sure that noble Lords would be grateful if those noble Lords who have prepared shorter speeches would not extend them.

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