HL Deb 08 October 1998 vol 593 cc659-92

8.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. We have the pleasure of looking forward to two maiden speeches, even if it is a little late in the evening, with, I am afraid, rather a sparse House.

This is a technical, but nevertheless important, measure. For the first time the provisions of the Bill allow party names to be registered and party emblems to be shown on ballot papers. It also deals with the problem, which is significant, of misleading candidates' descriptions.

The Bill seeks to establish a voluntary system of registration for political parties. We would expect any serious party intending to put forward candidates at an election to register, for the following reasons among others: first, a registered party will be able to protect its name from use by unauthorised candidates on the ballot paper at elections. Secondly, only a registered party will be able to put forward lists of candidates for the new system of election to the Scottish parliament, the assembly for Wales and, in Great Britain, the new regional list system of election to the European Parliament. Thirdly, only a registered party will be able to have the party's emblem printed alongside the candidate's name on the ballot papers. Fourthly, only a registered party will be eligible to be offered an election broadcast. Unregistered parties will not be allowed to have the benefit of party political broadcasts.

I emphasise that the way a party is to be organised, how it selects candidates and what its aims and objectives are to be, all remain for each party to determine individually in accordance with its own rules or constitution. Any organisation, large or small, will be able to register provided that it intends to contest an election.

The key condition for inclusion upon the register is that a party plans to put forward one or more candidates at a relevant election. This includes parliamentary and local government elections, as well as elections to the Scottish parliament, national assembly for Wales, the new Northern Ireland assembly and the European Parliament. This is an important part of our programme of constitutional reform. We need to have a register of political parties so that lists of candidates all representing the same party can be put forward for election to the additional member seats in the Scottish parliament and national assembly for Wales and the regional list seats for the European Parliament. Those, as your Lordships' know are to be allocated on the basis of each party's share of the vote in the region concerned. We want the system to work fairly. We therefore need a simple, effective system to ensure that the voters and the returning officers are both clear which list of candidates is put forward by each party.

I know from our earlier discussions that your Lordships were keen to see the details of the registration scheme which will be needed for the new systems. We discussed them on numerous earlier occasions. This Bill will enable the register to be established in good time for the elections in May 1999 for the Scottish parliament and the national assembly for Wales, and in June of next year for the European Parliament.

The Bill provides for a register of political parties to be maintained by the existing Registrar of Companies for England and Wales. It makes sense to base the register on an existing organisation which has been tried and tested. I think all will agree that it gives a highly efficient service, both to companies wanting to register and to members of the public seeking information from the register. The register, which will apply to political parties throughout the United Kingdom, I am sure your Lordships will agree, should be maintained at Companies House, which, happily, is located in Wales.

Before a party can be registered, the registrar will have to satisfy himself that its name is not likely to be confused with a name already registered. Therefore the Bill protects not only the registered name of the political party but also any other name which might be confused with a registered party. If the "Conservative Party" is registered, the registrar could refuse to allow another party to register the name "Tory Party" in case it was confused with the present Conservative Party.

The name of a registered party will have to be six words or less in order to meet the existing rules governing the candidate's description on nomination and ballot papers. The Bill provides that the party's name should not be obscene or offensive and must not include words which would be otherwise unlawful, for instance an incitement to racial hatred.

Your Lordships will have seen the order-making power at Clause 3(1)(f) to allow any word or expression to be prohibited. There is no conspiracy lurking here. It simply enables the power to be taken to prevent certain words—for instance "Royal"—from being used in the title of a party. That is the point of that. It will also help to ensure that certain words, such as "Independent" or "Residents Association", are not registered by a single party to prevent them being widely used by individual candidates. One would be able to have the "Brighton and Hove Residents Association" as well as, for instance, the "West Sussex Residents Association".

Each party is required to provide the names of two responsible officers as registered leader and registered nominating officer. They will be responsible for authorising any changes to the registered details of the party. The nominating officer is to be responsible for authorising the use of the party's name by candidates at elections. He can do so personally or by authorising someone to act on his behalf.

The parties will need to confirm their registration annually in order that the register is kept up to date. There will be a fee set by order for both initial registration and annual confirmation. We anticipate that should be of the order of £150 for initial registration because we do not wish to disable small parties by setting the charge too high.

Parties will be able to register an emblem which, for the first time, may be shown on the ballot paper next to the candidate's name. If one looks at Schedule 2 one sees an illustration of the sort of emblem that might be wanted. If one looks at ballot papers in other countries, certainly in some countries in Africa, one can see that—doubtless initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Russell—we can have a good deal of philosophical and historical fun in deciding what emblems might or might not be appropriate for certain parties of various esoteric origin. I leave that for another day. I should not have stirred the noble Earl into life. I stress that those are simply illustrations.

There will be two transitional stages for registration, each to last six weeks. The first transitional stage applies to all parties which have at least one Member in the House of Commons. The second to apply to any other party but will require the registrar to defer registration until the end of the period so that if there are competing claims the registrar can come to his conclusion in respect of the same or similar party names or emblems. In making a decision at the end of the first or second stage, the registrar will be able to take account of the history of parties with competing claims.

He will be able to register parties with similar names where there is a precedent for such names. The obvious example, which we have discussed at some length, is the various parties in Northern Ireland. Understandably—one might say legitimately—although they all have different structures and different views, they all wish to include the word "unionist" in their names. We think that is reasonable.

The Bill is not intended to prevent existing bona fide parties from registering. If the Labour Party is registered in the first stage, it would seem reasonable to allow the Socialist Labour Party to register as such in the second stage. If the Liberal Democrat Party is registered in the first stage the Liberal Party—which I am told is separate and distinct—could register in the second stage.

If there is doubt, Clause 10 allows the registrar, before deciding an application, to seek advice from a committee of Members of the House of Commons appointed for that purpose by the Speaker. This is important because the committee will ensure that the registrar has the benefit of expert advice on difficult or contentious cases. Once the two transitional phases are complete, then any application to register a new party will be considered simply on its own merits.

Party political broadcasts are dealt with in Clause 14. As I indicated a moment ago, any party which is not registered will not be able to benefit from the opportunity of having a party political broadcast. This does not affect the existing arrangements. In particular, it will not entitle registered parties to broadcasts.

Schedule 2 to the Bill amends the parliamentary election rules to prevent nomination papers including a candidate describing himself with the name of a registered party or any description which is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with that party unless the nominating officer of that party has authorised the use of the party's name. Returning officers will be provided with a full copy of the register so that they know which party names and emblems are registered. Guidance will be circulated in good time—most likely in February or March 1999.

There has been a problem from which parties have suffered and about which they have had reasonable cause to complain. I refer to the problem of misleading candidates' descriptions, which have no serious part to play in any election. As long ago as 1994 a candidate used the description "Literal Democrat" and apparently misled several thousand voters into voting for him in the European parliamentary election, in the mistaken belief that he was a Liberal Democrat. More recently, candidates with no formal connection with any of the parties concerned have used the label "New Labour", "Conversative" or "Conservatory Party". This Bill will return some sense and fairness to our system, which is intended to be a truly democratic system and not one open to abuse. It is anomalous that candidates have in the past used clearly misleading labels.

The Bill is about improving the fairness and transparency of our democratic process. For the first time it will enable a registered party's emblem to be printed on the ballot paper. That ought to help voters to distinguish as clearly as possible between the candidates. It will protect the names of genuine political parties and therefore reaffirm and underpin the integrity of the political process. I hope your Lordships will see that the Bill is a positive step forward in improving our processes. I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

8.32 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in saying how much I look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and my noble friend Lord Freeman. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for his clear and, dare I say it, very brief introduction of this important Bill and in doing so offer my rather belated congratulations to him on his well-deserved promotion both within his own department, the Home Office, and within the House last July. I was what they call spending time with my family—I was literally spending time with my family at the time—and therefore I was not able to offer my congratulations to the noble Lord. I do so now.

This is the ninth government Bill with which the noble Lord has been involved this Session, the eighth government Bill that he has introduced and the seventh government Bill that has emanated from the Home Office. I trust very much that it is the last government Bill that emanates from the Home Office this Session; perhaps we can have something of a reprieve next Session.

I believe this Bill, if it is not a contradiction in terms, to be both timely and also somewhat belated. Without the Bill it would be impossible for the Government to foist upon us the proportional representation systems which they are bringing in with the Scotland Bill, which we discussed earlier today, the Government of Wales Act, and the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, to which we return some time next week. The Bill should have come before the House considerably earlier. I still find it extraordinary that another place was put in the position of having to discuss all three of the Bills I mentioned without any sight of this Bill. We even had the Second Reading of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill before we had sight of this Bill. It was only on the insistence of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and myself—I can assure the noble Lord that my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish hopes to be involved with this Bill at the Committee stage—that the Government agreed to delay the Committee stage of that Bill until after the publication of this Bill.

The Bill is timely in that I understand that we are shortly—perhaps the noble Lord can let us know when "shortly" will be—to see the results of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and his colleagues who looked into the possible alternatives to our current electoral system or systems, alternatives which I understand are to be proportional. All of us on this side of the House, and I dare say noble Lords in all parts of the House, very much look forward to seeing that report. I presume that its publication will scotch the rumours that it is to recommend a system known as the alternative vote plus.

We all know that the alternative vote system is not in any way proportional and can produce what some people would describe as quite bizarre results. The noble Lord would be the first to agree that the present Government's majority in another place at the last election would have been even greater with the alternative vote. I think the noble Lord will agree that that would have been scarcely proportional. What AV plus would have produced, I do not know. I doubt whether it would have produced something that anyone could describe as proportional.

At this stage all I can say is that we look forward to the report. We look forward to the ensuing debate and we very much look forward to the Government's response, about which, again, there have been some very interesting rumours. It is tempting to comment on those at this stage but perhaps I can save my remarks for the actual moment of publication. I also look forward to the comments of the Liberal Democrat Party on the Government's treatment of the report. I prefer to await the Government's response, my own party's response and the response of the Liberal Democrats.

As my right honourable friend Sir Norman Fowler made clear in another place, we will not oppose the Bill. We are prepared to give it at least one cheer in its aim of preventing confusion. We can all cite examples of confusion being caused deliberately by certain candidates—a problem that all parties have faced. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, cited the example of a candidate standing as a Literal Democrat. It is a matter that should to be addressed. But the problem is whether the Bill will succeed in so doing. We shall be exploring that in considerably greater detail at a later stage but I should like to give just one example.

The Bill does not deal directly with the problem of candidates who adopt misleading names intentionally, names that are likely to confuse voters. In another place the example of my former colleague, Rod Richards, of Clwyd West, was quoted. David Neal, who did not even change his name by deed poll, gave the returning officer a nomination form filled in under the name of Rod Richard. He dropped the letter "s" so that he would appear above the real Rod Richards on the ballot paper and called himself the Conservatory candidate, something to which the noble Lord referred. Upon judicial review, David Neal was told that he could not stand as Rod Richard, but he was able to stand as the Conservatory candidate and gained nearly 600 votes, which was something in the order of a third of the majority of the successful Labour candidate.

The problem of changing names without resorting to deed poll needs to be addressed. The problem is not covered by the Bill. In addition, the Bill would not prevent candidates using terms that might cause confusion with registered parties in their election literature. It regulates only the use of names on the ballot paper. That is something we wish to come back to at a later stage.

I do not accept that the Bill makes it more difficult for political parties to be confused. There is no similar provision for individuals. That will be left to the existing processes: either the returning officer or the courts. I think we should be aware of dangers arising out of that. In particular there is the danger that if legislation closes the door on political party deception, then all attempts will move to personal candidate deception.

The second point I should like to touch on—we shall no doubt come to many more during this debate and later—relates to returning officers. The Bill is intended to set general rules to prevent the public being deceived but history shows that different returning officers have made different interpretations of the law and have also shown a different level of readiness to take any action at all. We have heard of many occasions when they have been reluctant to make adjudications. A great deal of discretion remains in the hands of returning officers. Obviously I would not want to question in any way the ability of returning officers. In the main they display a very high standard of integrity and professionalism. Occasionally, however, some very controversial decisions have to be made. One can make the point that there is a very real danger of an increase in the use of judicial review. Again, that is something we need to consider to ensure that returning officers adopt a common policy throughout the country.

Clause 10 mentions a Speaker's committee, a very innovative process whereby a committee of MPs will be set up to advise a registrar on aspects of the registration process. The committee will obviously have a very important role. It is something which is both untried and untested; yet a huge responsibility will rest upon its members and upon the registrar. The outcome of whole elections may come to depend on it. We would welcome some further advice from the Government as to exactly what the role of such a committee will be and also what its relationship will be with the registrar. As I understand it, the registrar "may" seek advice. There is no need for him to do so or indeed to accept the advice of the committee.

It is a very serious matter of concern that there is an absence of an appeals process from the registrar's decision. It is an absence in both directions. For example, the registrar grants an application for inclusion in the register unless the proposed registered name would be likely to result in the party being confused by the voters with the party already registered. What recourse does an applicant have if a name or symbol is rejected by the registrar? There is at present no specific mechanism on the face of the Bill for appealing against the registrar's decision, so I presume that the only possible channel would be one of judicial review, an obviously costly and very time consuming process.

A matter of equal importance has to be addressed. There is no mechanism for those registered parties who wish to appeal against the inclusion of others by the registrar which they, the already-registered party, think might be confused with them. That is why it is important to get over the point that there should be some mechanism of appeal, as I put it, both ways.

The next area of concern arises out of the additional member system. What happens if political parties which are likely to receive a few additional members—for example, in Scotland or Wales where one particular party might do well under the first-past-the-post system and therefore would be unlikely to receive those additional members—decides to create or foster a surrogate party? What can be done to prevent such a situation arising? I am aware of undertakings given by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to, I believe, my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish during the passage of the Government of Wales Bill where he made clear that the Labour Party would not indulge in such practices. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for having given that assurance which, however, he could only give on behalf of the Labour Party. Obviously, the Government cannot give an assurance for all parties. We need to know how the potential for that abuse can be prevented.

We are concerned by comments made at Second Reading in another place by the Home Office Minister, Mr. George Howarth, when he pointed out that the registrar will not be empowered to refuse a registration application merely because he or she believes a party to be a bogus one, set up purely for the purpose of manipulating the electoral system. At that stage the Minister tried to give some assurances that the media would save us all from such deceptions. He argued that any party set up as an alter ego party to try to win additional members would be exposed by the media. He felt sure that the voters would seek to punish such a party.

The problem is that there could still be some members of the public who would not be aware of the deception and would be tricked into casting their votes for the alter ego party. That is something to which we must return in Committee. And, again, I have to say that assurances given by an individual Minister will not be enough. Obviously, a Minister can only give assurances on behalf of his party and not, for example, on behalf of my party should it wish to indulge in such activities, or on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

We are also told by the Minister that the Bill is purely voluntary and no one needs to register. I believe that to say it is voluntary is largely academic. A party which decided not to register would not be able to benefit, as the noble Lord told us, from political broadcasts or assistance with the costs of security at party political conferences. I have just returned from Bournemouth and no doubt the noble Lord has just made his last visit for some considerable time to Blackpool if I understand the intentions of the noble Lord's party aright. The noble Lord will know just how expensive those operations are. I think that he will join me in paying tribute to the police in those respective constabularies for all that they do; but it is a very expensive job and obviously every party would like assistance in meeting the cost. Also that party would not be able to put forward candidates for election, for instance, to the Scottish parliament or the assembly of Wales, or even to the European Parliament, let alone anything that the Jenkins Commission might come up with and which the Government might or might not try to foist on us for elections to another place. From that point of view, to say that it is voluntary is to some extent somewhat misleading.

There are also fairly important implications based on the fact that fees will be charged not for registration, as I understand it, but for alteration—I refer to Clause 6(7)—and for annual re-registration, which is dealt with in Clause 7(3)(c). The noble Lord, in introducing the Bill, assured us that fees would be charged for registration in fact. I should be grateful to have clarification when he comes to respond. Perhaps he can tell me where that appears in the Bill.

I presume the fees will be relatively modest. The noble Lord gave the assurance that he was thinking of a figure in the region of £150. I accept that that is a very modest fee, particularly for the major parties; in fact, it is a relatively modest fee for any party. But the Secretary of State has the power in the Bill to set those fees and the power to vary them. That is subject only to the negative resolution procedure. I hope that the question of fees, their levels and whether the negative resolution procedure is appropriate in setting them can be looked at extremely carefully. In particular, I hope that it will be looked at by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee when it examines that and the other delegated powers to which the noble Lord referred; namely, the powers which the Secretary of State gives himself to prohibit and allow certain words.

The last point I wish to touch upon—I apologise to the House for taking up considerably more time than the Minister did, but this is an important Bill—is the massive centralising power that the Bill gives to parties to nominate candidates. When one looks at paragraph 2 of Schedule 2, one sees that a nomination paper may include only the name of the candidate's party if the returning officer receives a certificate from the particular registered nominating officer of that party. That clearly concentrates all power in the central hands of the party machinery. That may be desired by a great many in the central halls of the parties but I suggest that it is not desirable. No longer will it be possible for a local branch or association to choose a candidate who is not to the liking of their central party office. In effect, it forces all parties—my party and the Liberal Democrats—to follow the Labour Party down the path which it opened up so that it is possible to expel or ruthlessly and efficiently remove any dissident. The treatment of the Strasbourg Four in the European Parliament recently is a timely reminder of that. I make it clear that in the Conservative Party we do not welcome that power and I am sure that that applies also to the Liberal Democrats.

We have made clear that we shall not oppose the Bill. However, we do not consider it satisfactory. It is part of a jigsaw of changes to the constitution which are ill-thought-out and being introduced in a piecemeal manner. We shall subject the Bill, as we have all the others we have seen throughout the year, to proper and thorough scrutiny. I assure the noble Lord that we shall seek changes where necessary. As always, I look forward to an interesting and possibly prolonged Committee stage and beyond.

8.52 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, this is a Bill which the Liberal Democrat Party warmly welcomes. It is a Bill of some constitutional significance. It is not the first Bill which refers in some way to political parties but, in all previous statutes where there has been a reference to political parties, that reference has been minor or incidental, such as, for example, the section in the Inheritance Tax Act 1984 which exempts gifts to political parties from inheritance tax.

This is the first Bill which is concerned with the role of parties in the political process. That makes it something of considerable importance. It is perhaps surprising that that is the case given that parties are clearly essential to all democratic systems. In the United Kingdom, I think it is correct to say—and if I am wrong my noble friend Lord Russell will correct me—that organised and structured national parties with permanent staff and headquarters go back as far as the third quarter of the 19th century. In saying that, I bear in mind the decision of the Court of Appeal in 1981 in the case of The Conservative and Unionist Central Office v. Burrell, where the Court of Appeal held that the Conservative Party did not in fact exist. The decision that the party did not exist seemed odd in 1981 but perhaps nowadays it is beginning to seem a little more credible.

The Government originally proposed that the registration of political parties should be part of a wider Bill which was giving effect to their manifesto commitments to require the disclosure of donations of more than £5,000 to political parties and the prohibition on foreign donations.

The Neill Committee, of which I am a member, asked for the postponement of legislation relating to donations until the conclusion of the study of party funding which the Government had asked it to undertake. Obviously, I cannot speak of the impact which the committee's report may have on the proposals in this Bill or vice versa. But it may well be that the report will be published before the next stage of this Bill is reached and can therefore be taken into account in the debate on this Bill in Committee.

I turn to the substance. The first and most important effect of the Bill is, as the Minister pointed out, that registration will be necessary for a party wishing to promote a party list in a list-based election. The European parliamentary elections will be completely list-based. Elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the proposed London assembly will be partially list-based. From these Benches we have welcomed proportional representation for those elections. It is no secret that we should have preferred the single transferable vote to anything involving a list system but we welcome any system which, as the list system does, produces a result more proportional to the actual votes than does first-past-the-post. Therefore, as registration is a practical necessity where there is a list system, we are strongly in its favour.

We welcome also the fact that the registration will be an administrative act which requires no merits test for registration other than an intention to nominate at least one candidate. Indeed, it does not prevent an unregistered party from contesting an election. We accept that the registrar of companies is at present the best choice as the registrar of political parties. Indeed, the companies legislation contains comparable prohibitions on unsuitable names. In the longer term, however, it may be that some more appropriate body will appear to take over the responsibility for registering political parties, which in some ways does not sit very happily with the role of the registrar of companies.

We welcome the restriction of party political broadcasts to registered parties. We have some criticisms of detail which we shall take up in Committee, some of which have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, although we do not agree with all his comments on the Bill. First, there is no provision for anyone to object to the registration of a name. One party may wish to challenge the name which another party wishes to adopt. There could be two parties which wish to register with closely similar names. There should be a right for each of them to be heard on the other's application.

There is also the possibility of nuisance applications by people wanting to claim a prior right to a name which another group may wish reasonably to claim in the future. That is something which has happened on many occasions in connection with trademarks.

Secondly, the Bill contains no provision for appeal against a refusal to register a party with a particular name or for an appeal by an aggrieved party against the registration of the name of another. Under Clause 10, the registrar can consult the Speaker's Committee. But that is not an appeal nor, in any event, would the Speaker's Committee be an appropriate body to which to make an appeal. The registrar's decision is subject to judicial review but that is not in any sense a true appeal. The registrar's decision can be set aside only if it is irrational or made contrary to law. We want to see a proper appeals system in connection with the registration of parties.

Also, we seek clarification on the rights of regional parties which are component parts of a party operating throughout Great Britain to register with a regional name. The Liberal Democrats are a federal party. The Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are separate parties but they are also component parts of.the federal party. Can the Scottish Liberal Democrats register under that name while the federal party registers as the Liberal Democrat party?

A debate at Committee stage in another place suggested that parties could register with separate regional names but not, for some reason, with separate regional emblems. I have to say that I have found considerable difficulty in extracting this conclusion from a study of the Bill. I should like to hear confirmation of what the Government believe the position to be.

I should say in passing that we would not oppose the provision in Schedule 2 to which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred, to require a certificate from a nominating officer. The independence conferred by the right of selection by constituency parties or constituency associations is a matter which can and should be protected by the internal constitution of the party itself. That is indeed the case with my party.

The second purpose of the Bill is to prevent, as the Minister pointed out, the use of misleading party descriptions on the ballot paper. That, of course, is welcome, particularly as we are the party which has most clearly suffered from this abuse in the past. The activities of Mr. Richard Huggett plainly deprived us of victory in Devon in the 1994 European election, when Mr. Huggett, otherwise entirely unknown, stood as a "Literal Democrat" and won 10,000 votes in an election which the Liberal Democrat candidate lost by 700. That deprived not only him of his seat in the European Parliament but the voters of Devon of representation in the European Parliament by the candidate who should have been elected to represent them. Mr. Huggett, I may say, also nearly deprived us of Winchester in the 1997 general election, where he was allowed to stand under the name of "Top Choice Liberal Democrat". Indeed, he indirectly forced us into the subsequent by-election though the outcome of that by-election can, I am glad to say, be described as modestly satisfactory.

Between 1948 and 1969 descriptions on the ballot paper were not allowed. The end of that ban was due in part, I believe, as I recall to a Liberal candidate called Frank Davis who changed his middle name to "Liberal" and therefore appeared on the ballot paper as "Davis, Frank Liberal" thereby pointing out the absurdity of denying the right to give a description. Therefore, in 1969, the right to put a description on the ballot paper was restored. Some candidates, I am sorry to say, have been confused by the use of the word "description", with the result that over the years some candidates have appeared from time to time on the ballot papers to be standing for the Retired Estate Agents party or the Housewives Party.

In recent years, there has been increasing use of confusing party labels, as instanced by Mr. Huggett. That is plainly an abuse of the democratic process and it is right that it should be stopped.

In this, as in the question of registration of political parties, we should look at some of the detail. Should there be some kind of right of appeal from a returning officer who allows or refuses to allow an allegedly confusing description? It plainly cannot be an ordinary court hearing because the election timetable means that any decision would have to be given within 24 hours or at most 48 hours of the challenge being made. But can some appeal process be provided? It should, if possible, because otherwise a potentially important issue will be left to the sole and final decision of the returning officer.

Should candidates be forbidden to use a confusing description on their election literature as well as on a ballot paper? As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, suggested, should there be restrictions on candidates who adopt confusing names? I remember that in the Hillhead by-election in 1982, which was won by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, another candidate adopted the name of Roy Jenkins. My wife had to stand outside the polling station on polling day wearing a sandwich board saying, "The real Roy Jenkins is No. 5 on the ballot". I am glad to say that that did not deter her from continuing her political career. She went on in the 1983 and 1987 elections to contest the Kettering constituency against the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, whose maiden speech I look forward to hearing shortly. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones.

The Government have taken the view that it is not necessary to prevent the adoption of another candidate's name because the pretender will not be able to use a party description or emblem. I must say that I am not so sure about that. I think it is a matter that we should consider again at Committee stage.

However, these are points which, while of some importance, are also relatively minor. I strongly welcome the fundamentals of the Bill and look forward to its appearance on the statute book soon.

9.5 p.m.

Lord Freeman

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and my noble friend Lord Henley for their welcoming remarks. I support the principle of this Bill and welcome it. It is a pleasure to make a maiden speech in this House in a debate which is clearly non-partisan. This speech is no less daunting than my maiden speech in another place some 15 years ago, although I have to tell your Lordships that the attendance in your Lordships' House tonight is approximately five times what it was in another place. I am grateful for that but I suspect that rather more people—in other words, my former constituents—would have read my contributions in the other place than will read mine tonight.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. It was indeed a pleasure to contest on the hustings against his lady wife. I enjoyed the experience greatly. I only regret the passing of the party for which she stood. I declare an interest tonight because I have some responsibility for encouraging and selecting for my own party parliamentary candidates to stand for the European Parliament and for the Westminster Parliament from England and Wales. Therefore I have a particular interest in this Bill and its implications in part for the success of candidates that we seek to enter public life. As Professor Crick, a distinguished member of the Labour Party, once wrote in the early 1950s—and I think he was right—politics is a noble profession and we should encourage more men and women to enter that profession and to remove impediments to it.

While serving in an elected capacity in the other House and as a Minister I had occasion a number of times to be literally "hauled over the coals" by your Lordships' House, both in terms of listening to debates on privatisation measures—particularly the Railways Act 1993—and also attending before committees of your Lordships' House. I always believed that that was a painful but necessary experience because, as a Member of the other place, I always had great respect for the proceedings of your Lordships' Chamber in terms of the care and attention to detail and, in general, the non-partisan approach to legislation. That is an essential part of the constitution and one which we should not forego.

This legislation, in all practical terms, will have only a relatively modest effect. As both Front Benches indicated, it does not affect the use of confusing names or name changes to contest elections; it relates only to parties. Not in all cases will difficult names of those standing be avoided. However, the prevention of candidates deliberately passing themselves off, unfairly, to the democratic process by using a party name that deliberately seeks to undermine other candidates should be prevented and I welcome that, albeit at the margin.

I welcome it for two simple reasons. First, it is plainly obvious to those who stand for elected office that, by and large, people vote for parties and not for people. I regret that, but if one studies the results of the general election of 1997 it will be noted that on a regional basis the swing against my party was amazingly uniform. There were one or two exceptions, but it proves the case that we should be concerned about protecting the good name of democratic parties. People often identify their loyalty with parties and not with individuals.

The second reason—I believe I share this view with my opposite number in the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party and indeed other parties that contest elections in the United Kingdom—is that it is becoming more difficult to persuade experienced men and women, particularly those with experience of business and public life, to stand for elected office. Anything we can do to remove unfairness at the margin we must welcome, and I welcome it very much indeed.

I have two concerns. One is triggered by this Bill and is not on the face of it; that is, that it is clearly necessary to introduce these provisions now in good time for the European elections. I did not support the introduction of proportional representation for the European elections, but that matters not tonight. Nor did I support the use of the closed list system rather than the open list system. I simply point out that with a closed list system, where the elector is only invited to vote for the party and not the individual, it will be difficult to motivate candidates who are placed low down on the party list to fight the good fight. They cannot achieve individual recognition in the same way that a candidate fighting a Westminster seat can by measuring his or her vote against their predecessor.

My specific anxiety in relation to this Bill—it may be idiosyncratic; it is certainly personal and I do not speak on behalf of the Conservative Party—is the wider use, if that happens to be the case, of logos. It is unnecessary and confusing. They will change over time. I believe in the good old-fashioned description.

I conclude by asking one question of the Minister and perhaps he will be kind enough to respond in writing if necessary. In studying the proceedings in the other place, I could not conclusively understand whether the use of the term "an Independent Labour", "an Independent Conservative", "an Independent Liberal Democrat", description would be permitted by the returning officer. In winding up the Second Reading debate in the other place Mr. Howarth, the Minister, did not address that point. And in studying the proceedings in Committee in the other place, I am not sure that I was able to obtain an answer. I shall be grateful for clarification.

All parties have suffered in the past in the same way by deliberately unfair passing off. If we believe in parliamentary democracy, we should support this Bill.

9.12 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House it gives me great pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, on his maiden speech, to which I listened with great interest. He may not be aware that I first heard his name many years ago when he stood for Don Valley in 1979. I was then working in the Yorkshire office of the Labour Party and obviously we were very interested in opposition candidates.

We also have another in common. I, too, am involved in the selection of candidates for my political party, and perhaps we could compare notes at some point as to how we do it. There is no doubt that the noble Lord's wide experience in the other place—for 11 out of his 14 years there he was a Minister or a Cabinet Minister—will be valuable to the debates in your Lordships' House. Not only shall we benefit from his expertise; he also brings with him a reputation for being approachable and willing to assist others if he can do so, a characteristic which fits well with the style and tone of your Lordships' House. I am sure that we all look forward to his future contributions to our debates. I welcome him.

Perhaps I should first declare an interest as a member of the Jenkins Commission. I have no intention whatsoever of referring either to the commission or to anything to do with voting systems. I shall speak strictly to the Bill, as I see it, because I have long believed that the only way in which we could get rid of spoiler candidates would be to have registration of political parties. In the past there have been debates in your Lordships' House in which that point has been raised, but for all sorts of reasons it was not possible to achieve it at that time.

The Bill is long overdue. I believe that for far too long there has been the pretence that although political parties are the mainstay of our democratic process they do not need to be acknowledged in law. I firmly believe that they should be acknowledged in law and that that is the only way in which they can be monitored so that we can make sure that they follow the law absolutely.

The Bill is overdue also because it is 30 years since the first attempt to get the registration of political parties on the statute books. It was in November 1968 that my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, then the Home Secretary, announced plans for a system of central registration of political descriptions and controlling their use in order to stop deception. Misleading electors is not a new practice but, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, it has been increasing in recent years. That Bill failed and instead we ended up with a simple change to the RPA allowing a six-word description on the ballot paper. That was a positive development because it recognised the role of political parties in elections for the first time. I remember that it caused some consternation at the time lest that happen. However, it failed to answer the fundamental problem of spoiler candidates whose sole aim is to mislead the voters and possibly skew the result of an election.

Since that time there have been numerous discussions and many hours of consultation, and many ingenious schemes have been proposed for dealing with such individuals, but registration was not on the agenda. As I have said, it has always seemed obvious to me that registration is the only way to solve the problem. That is my main reason for supporting the Bill, although I have some reservations about detail. At last we have a Bill that to a substantial degree will eliminate the ability of such candidates to confuse.

Although the Bill has been introduced primarily to deal with the lists of candidates representing the same party in elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and European elections, the Bill goes much wider in preserving the integrity of the electoral process by interrelating the two issues of the registration of political parties and the elimination of misleading descriptions. The Bill will cover all elections—that is most important—and not just those for which the Bill was primarily devised.

If one goes back into history, one can list at great length the names of spoiler candidates. There were many in the 1997 election. Their aim was, as I said, to upset the electoral process. Under the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn said, the registrar at Companies House will be responsible for making sure that the name being registered cannot be confused with a name already registered. That should eliminate descriptions such as the "Literal Democrats", the "Alternative Liberal Democrats", the "Anti-Sleaze Labour", the "Labour Change", the "Labour Conservatives", the "Conservatories", "New Labour" and so on. However, there may still be confusion when unregistered candidates seek to use names similar to those of registered candidates. As other speakers have said, the Bill does not deal directly with candidates using misleading names by impersonating real political figures—the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, was quoted—or changing their name by deed poll to that of another candidate.

At the last election the courts granted a number of injunctions against such spoiler candidates. In Halifax my honourable friend, Alice Mahon, faced a male candidate who had changed his name to "Alice Mahon" and in that instance an injunction was obtained to prevent him standing under that name.

In another case, the appeal in the courts failed as the statement of persons nominated had already been published. There was no doubt that the legal representatives of all the political parties found great difficulty because of the little time that was available to take legal action. I therefore ask my noble friend whether there are any plans to extend the election timetable or make provision to allow time for such legal action to be taken.

I do not wish to sound defeatist, but, to use a cliché, we do know that as one loophole closes another one opens. As has been said, at the next election there could be more attempts at personal candidate deception. I hope that in any future legislation consideration will be given to eradicating this aspect of misleading descriptions, without the need for redress to the courts. That could be simply done by making registration compulsory.

In the meantime, the responsibility for determining the validity of a nomination paper lies with the individual returning officers. Having worked closely over the years with many returning officers, I have absolute faith in their judgment. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, it is important that there is a uniform policy throughout the country. It would be most inappropriate for there to be any inconsistency in the use of names on ballot papers in different parts of the country. In line with the recently published report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, entitled Electoral Law and Administration, I believe that returning officers need stronger guidance than is provided for in the Bill as to whether particular descriptions should be allowed. I hope that such guidance will be available.

I turn now to the actual ballot paper, about which I have two points to make. The criteria for defining the six words on the ballot paper are welcome. Clause 3(1)(d) and (f) in particular make it clear that the description must not be obscene, offensive or unlawful. I would be grateful for an assurance that the latter includes incitement to racial hatred.

It has been suggested that the use of emblems on ballot papers is bizarre and patronising and might confuse electors. I have to say that I disagree with the noble Lord opposite. I believe that to make those comments is like standing a good idea on its head. Emblems will help to reduce confusion and they will certainly not appear bizarre to those electors for whom English is not their first language, nor will they appear bizarre to those people who have poor vision.

While I have indicated that, in principle, I am fully supportive of the Bill, there are some aspects which I hope will be developed in the future—perhaps, in time, in another Bill. In particular, I believe that there is a need to strengthen the criteria for registration, to define a political party and to allow a right of appeal. On the criteria for registration, rather than just using the name of two responsible officers, this could be tightened up by parties having to have a specified number of members and produce a constitution as evidence of existence. That would not prevent independent candidates standing.

However, my main concern is that there is no appeals structure. While the registrar, after examining all the evidence, can, when in doubt, seek guidance from the special Speaker's Committee—guidance which, I believe, he or she must accept—a third party has no right of involvement in the registration process either to make representations to or raise objections with the registrar, other than through a judicial review. I believe that that needs serious examination. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will indicate in his reply that the procedure is sufficiently protective of the political parties. I hope that he is right and that I have unnecessary fears.

I have one last point of query which is allied to but not directly related to the Bill. I am a long-time advocate of the establishment of an electoral commission. I am sure that my noble friend is aware of the increasing pressure for such a body to be established. Although our elections in this country are free and fairly conducted, the rules governing their administration and conduct are dated, inefficient, complex and involve too many statutory bodies. This Bill adds to that list by Companies House taking on the responsibility for the registration process. It would be considerably simpler for this job to be transferred to an electoral commission, bringing it together with the conduct of elections and all that that entails—the financing of political parties, it is to be hoped. I trust that we can look forward to having an electoral commission in the future.

In conclusion, I find it difficult to believe that any democrat could object to the principles behind the Bill, or wish to delay its progress. I am pleased that there is unanimity across the political parties to support the principle of the Bill. For far too long spoiler candidates have been able to violate our democracy. This Bill is needed to protect not only political parties and candidates but the electors, who genuinely treasure their right to vote. It should not be possible for them to be deceived by candidates standing under fraudulent or rogue party names.

Having said that, I believe a distinction has to be made between the more eccentric candidates and others with more sinister intentions to deceive. I hope that we shall not be so rigid as to remove a tradition we have in this country of having not entirely serious candidates such as the late Bill Boakes, or the Monster Raving Loony Party and Screaming Lord Sutch. I hope that even under this Bill we shall retain an element of fun in our elections.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the debate tonight. I take courage from seeing familiar faces on the Benches all around me and in front of me. I suppose it is probably presumptuous for one maiden speaker to congratulate another but I very much agree with many of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, particularly as regards the proceedings of this House. I have always admired the rational, expert and at times non-partisan quality of the debates in this House. Although I am very much in favour of reform, I hope that whatever shape that takes the new Chamber will replicate that quality of debate.

Since I arrived in the House I have taken particular pleasure in the warmth of the welcome I have received from friends and colleagues on all Benches of the House. Ahead of reform I also very much welcome the unusual experience of being introduced on the same day that my cousin, the noble Lord, Lord Lovat, took his seat.

As I shall speak mainly on health matters in future, perhaps I should explain why I have decided to make my maiden speech in today's debate. In July, at the time I was introduced, I had the great pleasure of being accosted in a very friendly fashion by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Having reminded me at first that he was still only the third senior by age in this House he asked me extremely directly, "So what is your claim to fame"? I had to confess a long and disreputable history of working as a voluntary party officer, first as chairman of the Liberal Party taking it through to merger with the SDP, and then for the Liberal Democrats. In that time I have been involved in a number of election campaigns where our candidates frankly would have benefited greatly from the provisions of this Bill, had it been in existence.

Therefore, in general terms I very much welcome the provisions of the Bill which I am quite confident will do much to eliminate electoral confusion. I also very much welcome the underlying reason for the Bill, which is the introduction of proportional representation list systems for Scotland, Wales and the European elections. I commend the Government for fulfilling those aspects of the Cook MacLennan agreement with the Liberal Democrats. I hope that the Government will continue to honour the agreement with an early referendum on the Jenkins Commission's conclusions.

Perhaps my worst experience as a party campaigner was when I was the director of the Liberal Democrats' European election campaign in 1994. I dare say that we shall hear the same anecdotes throughout the evening in different versions. This involved the Devon and Plymouth East constituency which was a very winnable seat for us. A Mr. Richard Huggett intervened, calling himself a "Literal Democrat". We were unsuccessful in legal action to prevent his candidature and Mr. Huggett went on to take 10,000 votes, with our candidate—now Adrian Sanders who is the MP for Torbay—losing by some 700 votes. This was a manifestly unjust result and in consequence the Liberal Democrats gained two rather than three European Parliament seats at the 1994 elections.

Subsequently Richard Huggett re-emerged during the general election at Winchester. This time he stood as Top Choice For Parliament Liberal Democrat. Again we were completely powerless to stop him. At the general election last year he took 600 votes. As a result the Liberal Democrat candidate, Mark Oaten, won by only 2 votes and the result was challenged, leading to a subsequent by-election. I am glad to say that Mark Oaten won the by-election convincingly with a 21,000 majority, despite the fact that Mr. Huggett stood again as a Literal Democrat. With this Bill that could not have happened since the returning officer would have refused the use of the name Literal Democrat and Top Choice Liberal Democrat as being too similar to that of a registered party.

The Bill of course does have some flaws. They were mentioned by a number of speakers. The power of the central party machine is potentially increased. The registrar cannot look behind the party nominating officer to see whether a party has a constitution and whether it is being observed. There is no right of appeal, simply a possible reference by the registrar to a Speaker's Committee. There is no change in the electoral timetable for nominations. There is not enough time for challenge and due consideration by returning officers to representations about party titles used by unregistered candidates.

Considerable discretion is placed on returning officers. Provision for guidelines is needed to ensure consistency of decisions about when the rules are being broken by a candidate for an unregistered party. There will otherwise be a great many challenges to the decisions of returning officers. After all, in many cases the use of the word "independent" by itself will prove controversial.

Above all, there are no provisions to ban the adoption of misleading surnames. At the last general election Sir Nicholas Lyell in Bedfordshire North East, Rod Richards in Clwyd West and Alice Mahon in Halifax were able to obtain injunctions. But there is no guarantee that the courts will not revert to the harsher line taken when my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was a candidate in the Hillhead by-election and was faced with a rival candidate who had changed his name to Roy Harold Jenkins. Needless to say, we made sure, not only by means of sandwich boards, that we reminded the electorate that our candidate was called Roy Harris Jenkins. That type of intervention by rogue candidates can be crucial when the margins of victory are small.

We should celebrate above all the fact that the Bill of itself will not disturb the great British tradition of weird and wonderful party names at elections. Screaming Lord Sutch may have temporarily hung up his top hat and leopard-skin tights at the last election. He was, as noble Lords will recall, famous for asking: "Why is there only one monopolies commission?" (That was specially for the noble Lord, Lord Borrie.)

The last general election had a larger than usual crop of outlandish party names. We had the General Election All Night Party; the Common Sense Sick of Politicians Party; the Green Referendum Lawless Naturally Street Party; the Happiness Stan's Freedom to Party Party; and the Mongolian Barbecue Great Place to Party Party. My favourite name in any election was that of a candidate at the Crosby by-election, fought by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby. There was a "Monty Python" candidate. He called himself Tarquin Fintimlinbin-whinbimlim-Bus Stop F'tang F'tang Olé Biscuit-Barrel!

I do not think that any of those names will be endangered under the new legislation although your Lordships may have mixed feelings on that. I thank noble Lords for their attention and patience. I look forward to playing a full part in the proceedings of this House in the future.

9.33 p.m.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, after that performance I have no difficulty at all in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on his competent and confident maiden speech. I have had the good fortune to know the noble Lord from a time before either of us was in this House. I have known him as a solicitor, and as active in various parts of industry, retailing and television and voluntary organisations. He has chosen to make his maiden speech not on those sorts of matters, or indeed on questions of health, on which I gather we shall hear him speak in the future, but on the subject of party-political organisation. That, too, is appropriate. As he indicated during the course of his speech, he was chairman of the Liberal Party in the 1980s and played a major part in the difficult organisational matter of merging the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party some 10 years ago. It is therefore appropriate that the noble Lord should give us the benefit of his thoughts. It was a most felicitous speech, and we look forward to hearing the noble Lord speak on this and many other subjects—not only on health, I trust—in times to come.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned a number of the more interesting names and descriptions given to candidates at the 1997 general election. He will no doubt know that The Times Guide to the House of Commons for the last general election named 13 major political parties and about 140 minor parties. In fact, I think The Times went slightly overboard because it is a little fanciful to describe as "parties" some of the more imaginative ego-trip descriptions adopted by various candidates. Their imagination within the confines of six words was quite outstanding in many cases, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, indicated. But I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and others am happy that this country's democratic tolerance of one person parties and parties with minuscule membership, which is reinforced by the very modest deposit of £500 for elections to the House of Commons, is not removed by the Bill. The Bill introduces registration of political parties, for the reasons that the Minister gave, but registration of a party requires no minimum number of members and is not compulsory for a party putting forward candidates for election to the House of Commons, for local government or for the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

I hope I have not got it wrong, but, when the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, asked the question of the Minister, I felt like interrupting and saying that my understanding is that certainly the word "independent" tout court or the word "independent" attached to such words as "Liberal" or "Conservative" is, and will continue to be, permitted.

I welcome the purpose and approach of the Bill. In particular, I welcome the opportunity which is being taken to deal with the problem of deceiving the electorate by candidates using party labels closely similar to the names of existing parties. Several have mentioned the case of Mr. Huggett, the so-called "Literal Democrat".

If I read correctly the new election rules set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill, such a description as "Literal Democrat" on a nomination paper would be disallowed because it is likely to lead voters to associate candidates with a registered political party. I am sure I may assume that the Liberal Democrats will be a registered party.

I have one doubt, which I should be glad if the Minister could dispel, as to whether the provision in the election rules is open to abuse by the so-called registered nominating officer of the registered party. Suppose a candidate in a Scottish constituency wanted to describe himself not as an "Independent Conservative" but as a "Scottish Conservative" and stand in opposition to the official Conservative Party candidate. Conservative Party officials might want to stop him using that description. It could be argued that some voters might be misled into thinking that someone describing himself as a "Scottish Conservative" might in some ways be associated with the official Conservative Party. On the other hand, it might be argued that, far from being misled, many voters might think that a candidate described as a Scottish Conservative wanted to put clear blue water between himself and the party that had done so lamentably in the 1997 general election. I hope that, in trying to interpret the election rule in Schedule 2, the returning officer would say that the description was not "likely"—the objective test in Schedule 2—to associate the candidate with the official Conservative Party.

The Minister will know that Charter 88, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and others, are concerned that the power given to returning officers may mean that the decision to accept or reject nomination papers may differ across the country. Can the Minister say whether the government advice, which I understand is to be given to returning officers, will be able to ensure the adequate consistency which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, was concerned about?

There is an important related provision in Clause 3 whereby the registrar may refuse an application to register a political party if in his opinion—it is a subjective test—the party proposes to register a name that is likely to result in it being confused with a party that is already registered.

Clause 1 provides that the registrar is the same person as the registrar of companies under the Companies Act. I sensed a willingness of the part of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, to go along with that, but with some reluctance. It is a matter of convenience that an existing official, the registrar of companies, who is concerned to ensure the legitimacy of company names, should deal also with the registration of political parties. I have a suspicion, born of painful experience, that if an existing agency of government is given an additional statutory task rather than a new agency being created, the Treasury is likely to assume that little will be needed in the way of further resources.

I have other doubts. For example, the registrar of companies is accountable to the Department of Trade and Industry. Is he to be accountable also to the Home Office? Will the complaints adjudicator for Companies House—an old friend of mine, Mr. William Thomas, a solicitor, does the job very well—also have jurisdiction in the registrar's new field of activity with regard to the names of political parties? What is to be the relationship between the large numbers of returning officers up and down the country in individual constituencies and the registrar? All of them face similar problems of potentially confusing names of political parties.

The fundamental question is: why is the election rule test in Schedule 2 expressed in objective terms, whereas the test in Clause 3 is expressed in subjective terms? Under Clause 3 the registrar has to determine whether the name proposed is, in his opinion, likely to be confused in the minds of voters with a party that is already registered. That may not be an easy task. When the Minister opened the debate—I noted his remarks—he suggested that it was perhaps not too difficult to differentiate between the Liberal Democrat Party and the Liberal Party. The Liberal Democrat Party with at least one Member in the House of Commons has the advantage under Clause 16 of being able to make a first stage application. The Liberal Party, following the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in the mid-1980s, was relaunched by those members of the old Liberal Party who rejected the merger with the SDP. That party has no representation in the House of Commons and will not be able to register until the second stage, under Clause 17.

Although I shall not quote the words of the Minister, for the benefit of Hansard I give the appropriate references. In Standing Committee A on 18th June at cols. 21 and 24 the Minister made a number of noises in which he suggested that in the view of the Government both the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrat Party would be entitled to be registered. I am left in some doubt because of the reference in Clause 3 to the registrar's opinion. As yet he has not given any opinion. Perhaps the Liberal Party can rely on the Minister's words in the House of Commons on a Pepper v. Hart basis, to the effect that the registrar should refuse to register a name only if there is likely to be a substantial amount of confusion, as distinct from a small amount of confusion, in the minds of voters.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept what appears to me to be the case: that in determining the registrar's opinion, the statement by the Government cannot operate on a Pepper v. Hart basis. It must be merely a statement of what they regard as being likely to be a registrar's opinion.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, I suspect that the opinion of the noble Lord is correct. Shall we await what the Minister says on the subject?

The fact that the operation of Clause 3 depends on the opinion of the registrar is particularly important. As several Members of your Lordships' House have already indicated, there is no appeal from his decision, although under Clause 10 he may seek advice from a committee of the House of Commons appointed by the Speaker.

The possibilities of judicial review, to which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred in his speech, are narrow possibilities where the registrar's decision is unlawful or perverse. But apart from that, I think I may say, at least as a generalisation, that the registrar seems to be very much in this field a law unto himself.

In the House of Commons the Minister said that if the registrar sought the view of the Speaker's Committee he would be expected to follow the advice he was given. However, nothing in the Bill requires him to do that, or indeed requires him to give reasons for not doing that.

I have a number of queries, as I have indicated. By and large I agree with the purposes of the Bill. In contrast to one or two Members opposite, I wish the Bill a not too lengthy Committee stage and a speedy passage on to the statute book.

9.46 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, it is my pleasure to offer my congratulations to two notable maiden speakers. Both of them are people to whom I have had the pleasure of listening on many previous occasions so it is no surprise to me to discover that they are both highly skilled and highly effective speakers. Perhaps I may say that I have never heard either of them speak as well as they did today. In both cases that is a tribute to the vital ability to rise to the big occasion; and I hope also perhaps a tribute to this House about which they both spoke with so much generosity. I look forward to hearing both of them on many future occasions.

I must declare a non-pecuniary interest as president of the Electoral Reform Society, by which I am in part advised. In welcoming the Bill I speak on behalf of the society, my party and myself; and between those three capacities I am happy to enjoy a complete Trinitarian unity.

I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said about the recognition of political parties. They are a vital part of the electoral process and that recognition was long overdue. The absence of that recognition in our previous law underlines the point which cannot too often be reiterated: that our existing system of representation in all its main outlines pre-dates the existence of political parties. It is therefore not surprising if it needs in some particulars to be brought up to date.

Clearly the Bill is necessary to any system of proportional representation. I support it for that reason. I support it for the reason of avoiding misleading candidatures. I have nothing to add to what has been said on that.

On the matter of emblems, I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said. We have possibly as many as 10 per cent. of illiterates in this country. Sad though it is to say it, one must recognise it. Those people have rights which they often have difficulty in recognising. Therefore I agree strongly with what she said.

I agree with what has been said in every quarter of the House about the necessity of appeal. I hope the Minister has heard that pretty well unanimous message. I also agree about the use of misleading names. I have two further examples of that. The example that first brought the matter to my attention was, I think, the general election of 1970. A candidate appeared in the constituency of Huyton having changed his name by deed poll to James Harold Wilson. That candidate was not elected. But there can have been no possible motive for that change save the motive of trying to mislead the electors.

The other case was in the European elections of 1994. A candidate for Surrey changed his name by deed poll to John Major. Had that candidate done just a little bit better, my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood would have been elected to the European Parliament. Although it would have given me pleasure to have her elected to the European Parliament, it would have given neither me nor her any pleasure to see her elected as a result of such a misleading piece of activity. There is a real mischief here and I hope that the Government will address it.

I am most concerned about the family tribal names of the basic political groups; the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, in the case of the Scottish Conservatives. A power is being created here. It is a necessary power, but wherever we have a power we have the possibility that it might be abused. That needs to be considered.

It is my understanding that it is not the intention of the Government that the basic tribal political names—Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat—should be monopolised. But, of course, a party system is a living thing. It is not set in tablets of stone and like other living things it occasionally tends to increase and multiply.

Political parties since 1679 have divided on many occasions. We have here what I believe we should regard as two contradictory obligations which should be balanced against each other in the manner made familiar by the European Convention on Human Rights. One is the need to avoid misleading and the other is the need to recognise the political animal that is being created. I take, for example, the case of the Liberal Unionists in times gone by. For the accurate identification of what those people were, it was essential to include both the name "Liberal" and the name "Unionist" in their title.

I know that the Minister will say that this is a matter for the registrar and I understand that perfectly well. But, for the avoidance of doubt and for the information of the registrar, I would find it very helpful if he would say that it is not the intention of Parliament that these names should be monopolised and that the need to understand the nature of the party will be balanced against the need to avoid misleading the electors. If he can say that now, he will save us a little time in Committee and I shall be most grateful to him.

9.52 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, when a Bill has all-party support, normally one does not scrutinise it too carefully. However, when a Bill is designed to protect the major parties from what is regarded as unfair competition, especially by people using the electoral process, is there not a duty on us to scrutinise it more carefully when it appears that the established parties are carving the system up between themselves?

It is important to distinguish between attempts to mislead and issues of public interest. One recalls how the late Guy Barnett won the South Dorset by-election because of the intervention of Sir Piers Debenham on an anti-Common Market platform; and how my noble friend Lord Mishcon was frustrated at Gravesend by the candidacy of Sir Richard Acland on an anti-nuclear platform.

While recognising that there is a problem, I remember with affection and amusement the candidatures of Buckethead and Tarquin Biscuit Barrel, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, whose speech I much enjoyed, as I did that of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. Perhaps I may tell the House that Biscuit Barrel was the cousin of a former Labour MP. I am very strongly tempted to blurt the name out to the House, but in deference to my former colleague I had better not do so!

It is noticeable that the Home Office has pushed in a piece about party political broadcasting. I firmly believe that this is not the way to tackle this subject. This kind of problem has always been conducted through agreement and negotiation with the broadcasters. If the subject is merely slipped into legislation, without fair comment, would this not be taken as a precedent for further legal moves in this field? The democratic process should be as free from constraints as possible.

There is an element of picking and choosing about this Bill which reflects on the problems which arise when the big parties collude with each other. In another place during the Second Reading, the Minister in charge of the Bill, in commending a register for political parties, said, that it was the means to combat deliberate attempts cynically to mislead electors". When I hear the phrase "cynically to mislead electors", I think of this as the activity of the party spin doctors.

On 7th March 1996, during the proceedings of the Broadcasting Bill (at cols. 515 and 516 of the Official Report), I explained to noble Lords from my experiences as both Chief Whip and Vice-Chairman of the BBC how various measures had had to be put in place to curb the activities of the spin doctors pushing to influence the positioning and content of news programmes. There is no sign in this Bill that the major parties even recognise that this problem exists.

During the proceedings in another place there was frequent discussion at all stages about the use and misuse of generic words, of which one of the most frequently quoted was "independent". The point was not pursued to any conclusion. I feel that this was a great pity because the misuse of this type of word is very easy and very misleading.

I would like to give a particular example in some detail because it is particularly relevant at the present time. I refer to the Independent Commission on the Voting System. I have undertaken a lot of work on this and I would like to pay tribute to the sixth form students of Bacon's College, Southwark. They have helped in sorting and collating the material.

This supposedly independent commission, anxious to be available to the general public and to consult as widely as possible, has its offices on the top floors of Clive House—the Home Office Passport Office—and its staff are paid by the taxpayer. One wonders about the rent arrangements. There is no sign at the entrance indicating the presence of the independent commission. When someone was sent round, she was told that she could not visit the office without an appointment. When I rang directory enquiries for the independent commission's telephone number, it was not listed. Only after I had asked a Parliamentary Question about this matter was the number supplied to directory enquiries. It is said that the telephone number is available on the website. This implies that the independent commission is indifferent to the large part of the population which does not have access to the Internet.

People asking for information about the electoral system are referred to the home page of the Electoral Reform Society. Surely this organisation has a massive vested interest in the whole subject.

How, may I ask, is the public being consulted? The independent commission has conducted a series of regional meetings. On 24th June this year, during the Committee stage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that there had been an "overwhelmingly favourable" reaction of these meetings. I drew attention to the average attendance of 80 and said this represented 0.0000625 per cent. of the electorate. Even this figure is doubtful.

At the recent Labour Party Conference I collected the annual review for 1997–1998 of the Electoral Reform Society. There I see that, apart from society members writing to the commission, a large number have also attended the Independent Commission's hearings to present their arguments for change and in particular STV". In other words, the meetings have been packed.

Imagine my surprise when I see that the president is the noble Earl, Lord Russell, as he has just told us. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell your Lordships whether these electoral reform zealots went to more than one meeting and whether we had a stage army moving around the country. I am sure that the noble Earl will be pleased to clarify these points.

Attending the Church House, London, meeting, I saw Electoral Reform Society leaflets being given out at the doors without any restraint by the organisers. Even more remarkably, the Electoral Reform Society's annual review goes on to say that the society's relationship with the independent commission was not confined to the preparation of papers but that it was pleased to assist the commission staff in their research.

The independent commission also used focus groups. This was done between 7th and 9th June 1998 with six groups, three in the Midlands and three in the South East, each comprising between seven and eight people. It is bewildering that large and important sections of the country were totally ignored. Presumably the independent commission, with middle England consulted and satisfied, felt that the views of the Labour heartlands could be ignored.

This evidently inappropriate relationship with the Electoral Reform Society has been compounded by the association of the members of the independent commission with the Constitution Unit. This was exposed in the Answer to my Question on 29th July 1998 (at col. WA74 of the Official Report).

May I point out that, on 13th March 1997, I asked this House whether the grant by the Pilgrim Trust to the Constitution Unit was compatible with the Pilgrim Trust's status as a registered charity. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, strongly defended the action and alleged that the implication that the Constitution Unit was politically motivated was a malign fantasy, which he claimed I was prone to. The facts are, I feel, that there has been a serious misuse of charitable money not only with the Constitution Unit but also by Demos and the IPPR.

Rather than go into elaborate details, I will rest my case on a quotation from a book recommended by the independent commission for background reading, called Making Votes Count by Martin Linton and Mary Southcott. Martin Linton is now the MP for Battersea, and a frequent speaker on electoral reform, but he completely blows the gaff on page 110 of Making Votes Count. He says that the Plant Commission was wound up in December 1993 even though its work was still not complete. Your Lordships may remember that the Plant Commission was set up as a Labour Party body to study electoral reform. He goes on to say that the work of the Plant Commission was taken up by the Institute of Public Policy Research, which is a registered charity, and then by the Constitution Unit when it was established in 1995, directed by Robert Hazell. It is interesting to note that in the IPPR annual report this year a commercial subsidiary has now been set up—the Public Policy Research Associates. It would not be surprising if the Charity Commission had been around suggesting that something should be done before the balloon went up.

The Constitution Unit also compromised itself when it serviced the Labour-Liberal Democrat Joint Working Party which prepared the joint manifesto programme on constitutional reform for the 1997 general election. One wonders about the question of independence when the Charter 88 "parliamentary brier of September 1998 refers to, talks have taken place recently between Downing Street and Lord Jenkins". I have spent some time on this example. But it is my firm belief that the British people are in danger of being made fools of through the sloppy use of words like "independent", particularly on an issue such as this. Is this not far more serious than any number of Biscuit Barrels? The Bill is not up to the job. I hope it can be improved.

10.2 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his usual grace and courtesy in his opening remarks and I add my own tribute to the two notable maiden speeches which we heard this evening. Both of the contributors will now have realised at least two things with perhaps a chilling heart: first, if one puts down one's name, one has to wait until the end; and, secondly, if one waits until the end, one realises that not every part of every speech is necessarily relevant to the topic under discussion.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked specifically whether there would be a monopoly on certain names. The answer is no. As the noble Earl said, it is a matter eventually for the registrar, advised as necessary—this is an important constitutional innovation and quite a subtle one—by the Speaker's committee. We see no reason at all why the Liberal Party should not be allowed to register as well as the Liberal Democrat Party. There is no reason why the Labour Party should not register as well as Socialist Labour. I again give my example of our colleagues in Northern Ireland. There is the Democratic Unionist Party, the Official Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party and, if I remember rightly, the UK Unionist Party. All those parties, particularly in an electorate which happens to be rather well-informed about topics of present political importance, were capable of being distinguished and did not attempt to mislead the electorate; nor, I think, did any of them want to.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that assurance, which gives me 90 per cent. of what I wanted. Will the Minister go just that little bit further and say that it is his understanding that this principle will be extended to parties gathered out of the body of the original political tribes in future? Take, for example, those who in local elections are now describing themselves as Real Labour: would they be allowed to register themselves under that name?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, this is the third lesson that the noble Lords who have just made their maiden speeches need to bear in mind. When the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is at his most seductive you know perfectly well that he is about to lead you into a trap from which there is no escape in this world. I think it is fair to say that it is not for me to pre-judge the different functions that the registrar needs to perform and also the functions of the returning officer. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, is quite right. The tests are different, but that is because the functions are different, and I will develop that in a moment or two. In principle, what is wanted here is that parties who want to register shall pass the tests alluded to and which I set out myself in Clause 3. That is a different operation and it is approached upon a different basis from the work of the returning officer, who has to decide in a particular instance whether or not representations made on a ballot paper are likely to mislead the electorate.

It is quite a different activity qualitatively, and that is why the test is different. One or two questions have been raised which have nothing to do with this particular matter but which are nevertheless of importance and I ought to deal with them. First, is this a cloak for further centralisation of bureaucracy within the existing parties? No. This has no bearing on that at all. There is the fact that two designated officers will be required by an established political party if they wish to have the benefits of registration—and that is voluntary. They must have two officers, in that case, to carry out their statutory functions. However, the choice of those officers is entirely a matter for the political party in question.

It may well be that Plaid Cymru or the SNP have different internal constitutional arrangements from, for instance, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. One example is that the Conservative Party has recently been altering its internal arrangements and constitutional relationships, as has the Labour Party. However, those matters have nothing at all to do with this Bill and this is not a plot or a collusion to safeguard the larger political parties. I think it was suggested that this was some sort of conspiracy—I believe that was the general thrust of the earlier part of the observations of my noble friend Lord Cocks—and that it was to prevent unfair competition vis-à-vis the larger parties. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What we want are fair elections, and this has nothing to do with competition between the larger parties. It is to ensure that the electorate themselves are dealt with fairly and properly and are not being misled. I personally always welcomed the candidacy of people like Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party. In fact, almost single-handedly he brought about the demise of the SDP, because your Lordships will not have overlooked the fact that it was just immediately after Screaming Lord Sutch beat the SDP in a by-election that the SDP thought it might be time to hang up their boots while they still had a pair capable of being worn.

I remember another marvellous example of someone who put himself forward as the leader of the Alternative Elvis Party and his manifesto only had one platform plank. It was—I commend it to your Lordships—that anyone giving the name Barry Manilow at Heathrow Airport ought to be arrested and detained for a period not longer than nine months.

We are all capable of enjoying these things—they are all fun—as long as they do not mislead, but it is very important—and I entirely take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman—that, if one wants people to stand for office in public life by the route of public election, they should be satisfied that their efforts will be fairly treated. If one has the Literal Democrat, there is a strong argument for saying that the electorate will not be fairly treated: nor will the candidates.

A number of your Lordships have given examples, which I will not repeat, of attempts to mislead by means of bogus names which are either identical or very similar to the name of a more prominently known candidate like Sir Nicholas Lyell. The law dealt with all those things perfectly adequately. There was an injunction in the Lyell case and also in the Alice Mahon case. We do not need any provisions here, on the basis that if it is not broke it is not always necessary to fix it: in fact quite the opposite.

The question of appeals has been raised. We do not want a legalistic, over-formalistic regime. We are giving a discretion to the registrar in Clause 3 to reach his conclusion. In any difficult or contentious case or case of delicacy, particularly in the early stages, we would expect that he would feel it a sensible obligation upon him—not statutory but in his own discretion—to go to the Speaker's committee. I am certain that the registrar would welcome the assistance that such a committee can give.

It is extremely important—and this may echo a theme put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman—that one should have a full and proper regard for the democratic chamber. Its members have a democratic validity which we do not have. It seems to me that the Speaker's committee is quite a thoughtful advance on something which might otherwise be too legalistic.

In answer to my noble friend Lady Gould, there are no present plans to extend the period of the election campaign.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, asked why there was a different test in Clause 3 and Schedule 2. I have answered that. He made the valid point, if I may say so without presumption, which was made also by other noble Lords, that one should take great care about the guidelines which I mentioned in introducing this matter, giving the indicative timetable of February/March of next year. I am extremely grateful for what your Lordships have said about the nature of the guidelines which may be published. I do not guarantee your Lordships even 90 per cent. satisfaction but I assure noble Lords that all those observations will be borne carefully in mind.

My noble friend Lady Gould also asked a question about race hatred. It seems to me to be undoubted that if there were a matter which was likely to engender race hatred or incitement to race hatred, it would not be proper for the registrar to grant an application, because Clause 3(1)(c) requires him to refuse an application by a party if any of the material is offensive or obscene. That does not seem to me to be capable of doubt in the context of our present society, and indeed our recent legislation, and so I hope I am able to satisfy her on that. I stress that those matters will eventually be for the registrar, subject of course to the discipline of judicial review. That is important. He has a discretion but it must be exercised sparingly in accordance with legal principles.

I was asked when the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, is going to report; whether he is going to say anything about an electoral commission and, if the answer to either of those questions were "within a couple of weeks or so" and "yes" or "no" to an electoral commission, how I could support any of those propositions? I shall leave those questions for the appropriate day when we have sight, which I do not have now, of what are the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and whether or not they include an electoral commission. It is outside the ambit of what we are dealing with this evening.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised a specific question about where one could find the legal basis for charging any fee of any sort. I indicated that the thinking was that there should be an initial registration fee of £150, a confirmation fee of £25—that is, the annual confirmation fee—and, if a change were sought again, that a charge would be made in the order of £25. One finds the fee-levying power in Schedule 1, which states: An application for inclusion in the register … must be accompanied by any fee prescribed by order made by the Secretary of State". I quite take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that, if one puts one's eye only to Clause 6(7), that refers to amendment. But the initial power is in the place to which I have invited your Lordships' attention.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am not an expert in drafting but, in terms of trying to produce something that is easy for people to understand, it seems to me most odd that the powers given to the Secretary of State for charging fees for alterations or the annual re-registration should be in the main part of the Bill and the power for the first and most important fee should be contained in the schedule. I do not know whether there is any explanation for that. If there is, perhaps the noble Lord will let me know.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the first question that the noble Lord put to me was that he could not find the power in the Bill at all. It is there and it is put there conveniently because there are many details and descriptions which are traditionally, and I think appropriately, found in schedules rather than in the body of the Bill. There is nothing in my experience that is novel about that.

There was a specific question raised about the line of responsibility between the registrar, because, of course, he acts as a Companies House registrar, and whether or not the Companies House complaints system would bite upon his work in that area. No, that is a separate capacity. His functions and responsibilities are as set out in the Bill. They do not relate to his functions and lines of accountability as registrar of companies and Companies House. He is dealing with different questions and therefore his responsibility is on the statutory basis in the Bill, not on any other basis.

There was a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about regional parties. A party will only be able to register one name and one emblem but it seems to me that if there was a Liberal Democrat standing in Scotland, he would be able to apply to describe himself as the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate. I see no difficulty about that.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, what is the position where, as Liberal Democrats, we have Scottish and Welsh parties which are separate, unincorporated associations although they are also component parts of the Liberal Democrat party as a whole? Would the Scottish Liberal Democrat party, for example, be entitled to register under that name concurrently with the party in Britain as a whole being entitled to register itself as the Liberal Democrats?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, obviously, I am not determining these issues and I have to be cautious. I think the answer to that question is no, for the purposes of registration, but for the purposes of description on the nomination and ballot paper it seems to me that there would be no prohibition against someone in Scotland who was a member of the Liberal Democratic Party—and, it may be, as the noble Lord says, the Scottish Liberal Democratic Party—so describing himself. In other words, registration and the content of the ballot paper are quite different. One of the reasons for that is that if parties were allowed to register as a regional variance we could run into the alter-ego party scenario mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I shall spend a few moments on that because we have trod this particular ground quite vigorously, if not fruitfully, over the years.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I seem to remember that there was some years ago a separate party set up which called itself the Scottish Labour Party although it was not part of the Labour Party. If so, would it be possible for the Labour Party to object to registration, and, if not, would that not cause difficulty for, let us say, a Labour Party candidate in Scotland who wished to emphasise his Scottishness by describing himself as Scottish Labour?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for that question and suggestion. It seems to me that those are exactly the points one is giving to the registrar to come to his determination upon. That is why we have the two-stage system. He has to take into account recent political history. It seems to me that if there were a completely independent organisation trying to call itself the Scottish Labour Party, it might well not succeed in being registered and when it came to a ballot paper the returning officer might well come to the conclusion that that was capable of misleading or, to use the phrase in the Bill, was likely to mislead. Those decisions obviously are within the discretion, first, of the registrar and, secondly, of the returning officer in the usual way.

I do not see why someone, subject to the safeguards of the statutory regimes which we provide, should not seek to call himself "Independent Labour", "Independent" or "Unofficial Conservative". He will not be able to have, without registration, the official logo. It is a matter then for the returning officer to scrutinise the particular form of ballot and description to see whether it is likely to mislead.

One will have problems at the edges: there are no two ways about it. I do not know of any system that will be perfect. What I am respectfully suggesting is that this is a significant advance on what we presently have.

I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the Bill. If there are improvements that can be sensibly made consistent with the scheme of it, I would wish to give them every consideration. For present purposes I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past ten o'clock.