HL Deb 12 November 1998 vol 594 cc871-9

5.20 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [The register]:

Lord Goodhartmoved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 10, at end insert—

("(3) The Secretary of State may by order transfer the functions of the registrar under this Act to such body established by statute or the holder of such office so established as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at this stage the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, to use a cricketing analogy which has already been introduced from these Benches, is entitled to claim a tea interval and if not that, at least drinks being brought out by the 12th man. However, I fear that we must go on so I propose to do the best I can at this point, which is to bowl him a gentle long-hop.

In Committee, I moved this amendment to make it clear that the Registrar of Companies is not the appropriate officer to carry out the functions of the registrar of political parties and that an alternative solution would need to be provided within a reasonably short time. I suggested that, in accordance with recommendation 82 of the Neill Committee report on the funding of political parties, it might be appropriate in due course to transfer the functions of the registration of political parties, and perhaps other functions as well such as the hearing of appeals from the decisions of returning officers to the election commission proposed by the Neill Committee.

The noble Lord said that he would look very carefully at the recommendations of the Neill Committee but went no further than that. Since then, there has been a debate on that report in another place. This is a probing amendment. I wonder whether the noble Lord is in a position to say anything further than what he said on the previous occasion. I beg to move.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I have also added my name to the amendment. I intervene merely to add my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, is entitled to what the noble Lord described as the tea interval. I assure the noble Lord and the Deputy Chief Whip that we shall not take very long on this Bill. I imagine that it will be only a matter of minutes before the noble Lord can retire for his tea, or possibly something stronger.

With the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I went to see the noble Lord, Lord Williams, last week and we were extremely grateful for the constructive nature in which he dealt with some of our queries about the Bill, with which we shall deal later. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, when I was offered tea, I wished that I could imitate Dame Edith Evans and say, "Tea!" because we may all want something rather better than that in a moment or two.

I was extremely grateful for the meeting with the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Clement-Jones. It was originally the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and was taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. That was the precursor to the meeting.

I am happy to repeat what I said in Committee. The Government will give careful consideration to the Neill Committee's recommendations that the role of registrar of political parties should be transferred to the electoral commission.

Your Lordships will know that on Monday of this week there was a debate on the Neill Committee report in another place. The Home Secretary said in opening that debate that the case for an electoral commission had been made out and, accordingly, the legislation to implement the main findings of the Neill Report will provide for such a commission to be established.

He went on to say that we needed to give further consideration to the precise functions of the electoral commission. It may well make sense for the commission to take over the role of registrar. We have given our commitment, which I have reiterated now on the Home Secretary's behalf, to establish an electoral commission. I reiterate his commitment to publish the draft Bill before the Summer Recess. I hope that that is of assistance to your Lordships generally.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I welcome the statement which has just been made by the Minister. That takes the matter as far forward as it can reasonably be expected to be taken at this stage. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 [Applications for registration]:

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 17, at end insert—

("( ) Where the constitution of a party establishes a devolved or federal structure, the party may apply for several entries in the register to reflect these arrangements.

( ) Any such entry may specify a different name and a different emblem for each branch of the organisation.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to government Amendments Nos. 3 to 7, 11 and 13 and Amendment No. 8 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. The Minister will remember that in Committee we raised the concern that it was possible to register only one emblem for any particular party in the United Kingdom. That caused some concern to my noble friend Lord Mackay and myself in that, within the Conservative Party, the Scottish Conservatives have a separate emblem from that which is held by the party in England.

I raised that issue with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, when we saw him last week and, again, I was grateful for the fact that he took on board our concerns. Those concerns may apply to other parties in the future if they wish to give a distinctive emblem or logo to the party in other parts of the Kingdom.

The noble Lord very kindly came forward with government amendments which deal with the problem far better than my Amendment No. 2. Therefore, I shall not press that amendment when the time comes because it will obviously be better that we should follow the Government's route.

Since then, it has occurred to my noble friend Lord Mackay and myself, being a Scotsman and an Englishman respectively, that we had forgotten our colleagues in the Principality and that we have three different logos within our party—one for Wales, one for Scotland and one for the remainder of the party within England. I know that noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches have criticised our logo. They may not like it but we do and we have selected it. However, we also find it convenient to have separate logos in the distinct parts of the Kingdom.

Therefore, we are grateful that the Government have been prepared to move and have come forward with an amendment which allows us to have two separate emblems. However, we are keen to extend that to three emblems.

The noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Goodhart, have tabled Amendment No. 8 which would allow three registered emblems to be used. I do not know whether their amendment is effective or whether further work needs to be done. In view of the fact that the Government have had to put forward a number of amendments, I understand that further amendments may be needed in addition to Amendment No. 8. I await the Minister's advice on that.

The Minister has bent over backwards to be generous to us in granting us an extra emblem. I wonder whether he will now look at this particular problem, particularly as he hails from the Principality. Therefore, he will understand the slight which we may be permitting if we were allowed only two emblems. I put it to the noble Lord that, if he could see his way to improving these government amendments still further in trying to deal with our question of a third emblem on Third Reading, we would be most grateful. In my absence, my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish certainly hopes to return to the matter at that stage. In the meantime, I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the Minister for the way in which he heard representations made to him during the course of the Committee stage and for the way in which he has accommodated us on these Benches as regards some of our concerns. It may appear to be slightly cheeky in a sense as this was an area about which we did not appear to be greatly concerned—that is, the matter of emblems and the number of them. Indeed, this matter has effectively arisen for us since that meeting. Nevertheless, it is of concern to us.

As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, pointed out, it was the Welsh dimension which we were not considering at the time. We believe that the Scots have been well catered for in regard to the amendments; indeed, they certainly fit the bill, so to speak. It is the ability of the Welsh to have the potential for their own logo. At present—and perhaps I should not say this—being a federal party officer I am glad to say that we have a corporate identity which holds across the federal party of the Liberal Democrats. It may not do so in the future. In a sense, we are trying to be a little precautionary in this respect.

For the purposes of fighting local elections for the assembly in Wales and for the parliament in Scotland, those parties may wish to adopt their own logo and their own distinctive style. That is certainly a strong possibility for the future. I should like to commend our amendment for three emblems as opposed to two. I can assure the Minister that we shall not return with requests for four, five or six in the future and that this is not one of those unravelling situations. However, there is a real need for this and a real hope that it can be accommodated.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful not only for the tone which both noble Lords have used today but also for the tone of our meeting. Indeed, when they put the problem of Scotland to me at the meeting, the officials, as always in the Home Office, were extremely helpful. When the three of us invited them to consider whether they could redraft the Bill at a very late stage, they immediately cheerfully and willingly said that they could do so. One of the problems is that these logos will become the property of the first stage parties. The first stage applicant parties are those which have at least one seat in the House of Commons. I think that that amounts to nine parties. If one then multiplies nine by three, that will produce 27 emblems which may possibly be bagged at a very early stage.

We were asked specifically to deal with the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish; namely, that the Scottish Conservatives may want a distinctive logo. He told us on the last occasion that that was a lion and we were able to meet that request. It is really a matter of practicality and whether or not this can be done. I am not holding out undue hope, but I shall certainly consider the matter. Time is very tight, not simply for Third Reading but also for the registrar's preparations. I believe that the registrar had already begun to make preparations on the basis of one logo. He is now being invited to cast his mind to two logos. If we are to have three, it will be very difficult with a tight timetable because these provisions must be ready, published and available for public scrutiny in respect of elections which are due to take place as early as May next year.

I am not being difficult; I am simply looking at the practicalities. With that cautionary though not gloomy note, I can certainly undertake to consider the matter to ascertain whether or not we can have an accommodation in this respect. However, I make one plea to noble Lords: please not more than three emblems. Indeed, what about Northern Ireland?

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his typically helpful reply. My only point of clarification is that it would be very unlikely for our Scottish and Welsh parties to apply for separate logos. Therefore, the possibility of trying to scoop the pool with all these logos is remote. Indeed, it is a potential issue and not a current one.

Lord Henley

My Lords, before I withdraw my amendment and allow the government amendments to be moved and, I hope, accepted by the House, perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the Minister for considering the point. It is a very real point for us in that we do have three separate logos and that could cause us considerable embarrassment in deciding the apportionment of two logos between three separate parts of the party. I am most grateful that the noble Lord is at least prepared to consider the matter over the next few days when I imagine that Home Office officials might have their minds on other matters. I appreciate that the time is tight. However, we have at least until next Wednesday to consider these matters.

When speaking to a previous amendment, I gave the Minister notice that I thought it unlikely that I would be present on Third Reading. However, I very much hope that my noble friend Lord Mackay will be. If the Government are not able to bring forward some amendments at that stage, I am sure that my noble friend will wish to return to the matter next Wednesday. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Emblems]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 2, line 18, leave out ("an emblem") and insert ("up to two emblems").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendments Nos. 4 to 6:

Page 2, line 19, after ("section") insert ("in relation to an emblem").

Page 2, line 20, leave out ("the emblem") and insert ("it").

Page 2, line 22, at end insert ("for another party").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 6 [Changes to the register]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 2, line 39, leave out ("a registered emblem,") and insert ("two registered emblems,").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

Clause 10 [Speaker's committee]:

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 9:

Page 4, line 12, at end insert—

("(2) A party whose application under section 3, 5, 6 or 18 is refused may appeal to the committee against the decision of the registrar.

(3) A registered party may appeal to the committee against a decision of the registrar under section 3, 5 or 6 in respect of another party.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, again, this is an amendment which has been brought back in order to hear what the Minister has to say about it. There is concern that there is no appeal process against a decision of the registrar other than by way of an application to the court for judicial review. It is felt that there ought to be some process by which either a party whose name is rejected by the registrar should be able to appeal against that decision or an equal process by which a party which is already registered, or which may be seeking registration, can object to the proposal of the registrar to register another party with a particular name. In those circumstances, I should like to hear what the Minister has to say on the issue. I beg to move.

Lord Henley

My Lords, there is nothing that I wish to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has just said. We also have concerns about there being some appropriate appeal system. We met the Minister and he explained the practical difficulties in the way of doing something on this occasion under the Bill in terms of time. However, he offered us the prospect of some reassurance in that respect. I, too, look forward to hearing the Minister's response on this particular matter.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, I should like to say a few words at this point, especially as I did not have the privilege of being on the "net" of the Front Benches in their discussions with my noble friend the Minister. I also expressed concern at earlier stages of the Bill that there was no appeal process and pointed out that the decisions of the registrar are of tremendous importance over a long period.

I have some queries in regard to Amendments Nos. 9 and 10. For example, on Amendment No. 9, it seems clear to me that it is a committee of MPs because the committee referred to is one which is appointed by the Speaker from Members of Parliament. Alternatively, the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, refers to the Secretary of State establishing a committee, and says: The committee shall consist of seven persons appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, a majority of whom shall not he members of any political party". One might suppose at first sight that a committee appointed by the Speaker would be a committee composed of Members of Parliament. However, to find a group of seven Members of Parliament, the majority of whom do not belong to any political party, may be rather difficult at the present time and indeed at other times. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is referring to a committee which is more broadly based and would include people who are not Members of the House of Commons. However, that is not clear.

In previous discussions on this matter I expressed some concern—as did noble Lords opposite—about the absence of any appeal. I was particularly concerned because of the kind of person the registrar is. With respect to him, an expert on companies appointed by the Department of Trade and Industry is not particularly an expert on the matter we are discussing. Over the next few months he will take decisions on matters on which he can hardly be considered an expert. The only possibility of becoming an expert is by approaching the Speaker's committee for advice. According to my noble friend the Minister, that advice would be expected to be accepted. That is good up to a point.

I would worry less about the absence of an appeal if the electoral commission was in existence now and was taking all these vital decisions as to the registration of political parties for the long term. I hope that the Minister will comment on the absence of an appeal against the registrar under the Bill as it stands. That still disturbs me. While the electoral commission may be a much more satisfactory body—noble Lords opposite have mentioned this—it will not come into existence until later next year when most of the vital decisions may well have been taken on the first round of registration of political parties (those which are represented in the House of Commons) and on the second round, those parties which are not represented in the House of Commons. The electoral commission will therefore come into play when matters have already been determined. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on those worries. I should be most grateful for that reassurance.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we discussed these matters on an earlier occasion. We thought that a number of the points raised were worthy of a fair degree of reflection. As I indicated on the previous occasion, Amendment No. 9 could be circuitous because the registrar is likely to refer the application in the first place to the Speaker's committee if there is any difficulty. The Speaker's committee cannot be an appellate body on its own decision. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, used the phrase, "in the long term". We are tight on the timetable. I believe that as regards the first raft of elections which concern the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish parliament there will not be any real difficulty. We can all anticipate perfectly easily the kind of parties which are likely to stand in an election which is as soon as next May. I take the noble Lord's point about the long term as other parties may develop which would wish to stand in future years.

The proposed new clause in Amendment No. 10 is extremely wide. But it is rather short on detail. I accept entirely that it is tabled on the basis of a probing amendment, as I believe the noble Lord said. I have some sympathy with the reasons for tabling Amendment No. 10. I understand the arguments which were developed on the previous occasion, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. At the moment an appeals machinery would add significant delay to the registration process. Our priority is to get the elections under way with registered parties.

Among the Neill committee's 100 recommendations is included the proposal that an electoral commission should be established and that it should, as I said, assume the role of registrar of political parties. There have not been any decisions on the precise role and remit of the electoral commission but it may well make sense for it to take over the role of registrar. When the commission is set up we shall want to look again at the arrangements for registering political parties. The experience up to and beyond the Welsh and Scottish elections will, of course, form an important part of that consideration. We shall examine in particular—I give this undertaking—whether or not the absence of any appeals machinery has in practice been a cause of disquiet. We shall consider in the light of our findings what additional safeguards, if any, need to be put in place. I hope that is helpful; it is intended to be.

I shall discuss the Speaker's committee because it was mentioned. As I understand the position from the Speaker, she will shortly announce the composition of her committee in the Votes and Proceedings of the other place. She has told the Home Secretary she thinks it is important that the committee should not operate, or appear to operate, on a party political basis. In setting it up she does not therefore intend to take into account in any precise way political balance or geographical spread. Her intention—I think it is a sensible one, if I may say so without disrespect to her—is to appoint senior Members of the House. I hope those comments are helpful. As I said, they are intended to be helpful. If the amendments were intended to be probing amendments, they have perhaps winkled out a pearl or two.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said on this subject. It is certainly clear that problems are most unlikely to occur at the first stage of registration. But, given the ease with which it will be possible to register political parties—one person or organisation may register—there could well be large numbers of people applying to register political parties at the second stage. It is certainly possible that at that stage more serious problems may arise. That being so, I regret the absence of any procedure for an appeal.

I recognise the technical defects of Amendment No. 9. I do not press it as a solution to this problem. I accept that there are serious time constraints involved. Obviously the registration process for parties wishing to compete in the Welsh and Scottish elections must be concluded before it is time for people to submit their nominations. That being so, I accept that it is unrealistic to expect anything further at this stage. I welcomed what the Minister said about the possibility of returning to this matter at a later stage. If legislation is introduced to substitute the electoral commission for the registrar of companies—that seems likely to occur—that will provide a good opportunity to look again at the question of incorporating some kind of appeals process both as regards registration and appealing against the decision of returning officers on whether party descriptions are acceptable. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Clause 18 [Transitional ground for refusal to register]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 5, line 41, leave out ("a registered emblem,") and insert ("an emblem which is already registered for another party,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Amendments of the Parliamentary Elections Rules]:

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 13:

Page 9, line 37, at end insert ("(or, as the case may be, one of the party's registered emblems)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Consequential Amendments and Modifications]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 14:

Page 11, leave out lines 21 to 25.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a purely technical amendment. The paragraph is not needed because the amendment it sought to make to the Scotland Act 1998 was made directly to the Bill itself on Third Reading. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.