HL Deb 06 March 2000 vol 610 cc840-6


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have debated this matter before. The matter of the free mailshot has been disposed of and I hope we can deal briefly with the matter in question in relation to this order.

The draft order prescribes the maximum amounts for the election expenses of candidates, their agents and third parties in elections for mayor of London and the London assembly. In my opinion the draft order is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The draft order sets out three separate limits: for mayoral candidates, assembly constituency candidates, and for parties and independent candidates contesting the London-wide list, reflecting the GLA's unique voting systems. Those limits are £420,000 per mayoral candidate; £35,000 per candidate contesting an assembly constituency; and £330,000 per party or independent candidate contesting the London-wide list.

As I said, we consulted political parties on our proposals in December 1999. We listened carefully to the points they raised about the level of the limits and, in the light of that consultation, reduced significantly the mayoral and London-wide list limits from the levels that we originally proposed—namely, £990,000 and £495,000 respectively—because consultees considered them too high and likely to disadvantage smaller parties. The limits provide for a more level playing field for candidates while allowing them the freedom to put their message across to the electorate.

The limits can be broadly compared to expenses limits in other relevant regimes. The expenses limits for mayoral candidates and for parties and independent candidates contesting the London-wide list are broadly derived from the figure of £30,000 per parliamentary constituency used in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which is presently before another place, as the building block for calculating the national spending limits for political parties. The assembly constituency limit is broadly equivalent to the sum of parliamentary constituency limits within an assembly constituency area. The limits are enough to enable candidates and parties to fight effective campaigns at either the London-wide or constituency level, while not allowing their spending to become unacceptably high.

When the order comes into force, GLA candidates and parties contesting the London-wide list will not be permitted to spend more than the relevant prescribed limit in respect of their election expenses. Election expenses are defined in the Representation of the People Act 1983 as, whether before, during or after an election, on account of or in respect of the conduct and management of the election".

Spending before 14th December 1999—the date when the relevant provisions in the GLA Act were commenced—is not caught by the provisions of the Representation of the People Act and hence would not, in our view, count toward the limit. I want to take this opportunity to clarify that a mayoral candidate's contribution of up to £10,000 towards the cost of printing the booklet referred to in our earlier discussion will count as an election expense on the part of that candidate.

Noble Lords may wonder whether, in the light of the decision to produce the booklet, explained so eloquently and modestly earlier today by my noble friend Lord Bassam, to the appreciation of the House, we should perhaps adjust downwards the election expenses limits for mayoral candidates. After all, their literature will be delivered to every elector at a pretty cheap rate. However, on balance I believe that it could be unfair to do so, given that we are where we are. Candidates have known about our proposed expenses levels for some time. Their spending since 14th December—the date when the relevant sections of the GLA Act were commenced—would count against those limits. We could be accused, with some justice, of moving the goalposts if we altered them now. I believe it is right to leave them for this election and look again at the issue before the next Greater London elections.

Article 2 of the order prescribes the maximum expenditure which a person other than a candidate, his agent or persons authorised by the agent—that is, a third party—may incur at such elections. The limits are set at £25,000 per third party supporting or opposing mayoral candidates; £25,000 per third party supporting or opposing London-wide list candidates, including independents; and £1,800 per third party supporting or opposing an assembly constituency candidate.

Some comment has been made on those limits and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee drew attention to them. The limits are derived from the formula we intend to bring forward by amendment to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill to limit third-party spending in local elections. Concern has been expressed that the limits are too high. They are indeed high compared with the current £5 limit set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983, but the main reason for drawing those levels is that they are justified; and they justify my earlier contention that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. They are justified also in the light of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Bowman case. The court ruled that the £5 limit constituted an unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression.

With that explanation, I commend the order to the House. I trust that we shall have a constructive debate about the matters that are set out in it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint committee].—(Lord Whitty.)

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, until half an hour ago the Minister probably thought that, apart from a bit of justified teasing on the subject of the candidates for mayor of London, and on election addresses being posted free, this order would be plain sailing. However, as the Minister almost said, there is unfinished business—indeed, business previously unmentioned in your Lordships' House—to which the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (not, with respect, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee) on which I have the honour to serve, drew attention in its 10th report. It is most unusual for the committee to draw the attention of both Houses to matters incorporated in an affirmative instrument. Indeed, I cannot recall it happening during the time that I have served on that body.

The subject of my attention is embodied in Article 2 of the order and relates to what are known as third parties' expenses. As Article 2 helpfully explains, those may by law be, incurred by a person other than a candidate, agent. or person authorised by an agent". and the latter are covered by not ungenerous monetary limits of their own. Were this order not to be passed tonight, the third-party limit would remain at £5, as the Minister said. I accept that that amount is a little mean in this day and age, hearing in mind that the original purpose was, for example, to buy canvassers a round of drinks or some buns for a picnic while canvassing. I have no objection to the limit being raised to a reasonable figure. However, as the Joint Committee pointed out, it is a mega leap from £5 to the mammoth amount of £25,000 embodied in Regulation 2 in connection with the mayoral election. The amount would not be quite so large in relation to an election of a constituency or a member of the London Assembly, but, nonetheless, £1,800 and £25,000 respectively are significant amounts, especially when added to the candidates' and agents' expenses that are referred to in Regulation 3 for the same series of elections.

I bend over backwards not to be a conspiracy theorist, but what are the Government up to? In my experience, the members of the Joint Committee never take it into their own heads to report on orders; they always ask the relevant government department a question or two first. The Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on this occasion was asked the same question and the reasoned reply is printed in the tenth report. I will summarise those reasons.

Firstly, the law needed changing because of the Bowman case, which held that the £5 limit violated Article 10 of the ECHR Convention as it was a restriction on the freedom of expression. This is all well and good, but noble Lords will probably agree that an increase from £5 to £25,000 was somewhat excessive insurance against being found guilty again by the court for the same reason.

Secondly, the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its fifth report recommended a limit on third-party expenditure at parliamentary elections of £500. Obviously, we are not dealing here with parliamentary elections but I would have been happy to go along with that limit for the London elections; but the Government have gone into overkill again.

The last reason is the most obvious reason. The Minister said that the £5 would be replaced by new limits on third-party spending if the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which is currently at Committee stage in another place, is enacted. We are being asked to increase the London limits exponentially, on the basis of law that is not yet on the statute book, and which, in that respect at least, may never get there. It is no use the Department saying that the proposed national limit of £739,000 for expenditure by third parties in England is some 10 times the maximum expenditure limit for third parties during the Greater London Authority elections. None of these reasons appear to hold water, or the bath is not big enough to hold this enormous increase.

The Minister has the ability to pacify me, if he will be good enough to do so. Can he explain who the third parties are likely to be? Would an advocate of Mr Livingstone or Screaming Lord Sutch, were he still alive—both of whom are unlikely to have agents—qualify? Would an ordinary canvasser qualify? Can a candidate have more than one such supporter? If that is the case, the total amount for the London mayor would rapidly approach half a million pounds, which is a large amount of money that would have to be found from somewhere.

How is this extra money to be policed? Practically anyone could tell if I had spent over £5; it is much more difficult to show that I have spent £1,800 or £25,000.

Can the Minister give me confidence that the Government are not conjuring up yet another rod for their devolutionary back?

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but I should like to intervene briefly. I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and I was a member at the time when the committee recommended a substantial increase in the limit on third-party spending. I think I should explain how we arrived at that recommendation and how the figure came to be calculated.

The problem was that the United Kingdom lost the Bowman case before the European Court of Human Rights, in which Mrs Bowman had spent money on circulars to the electors of the constituency of Halifax, to explain to them on behalf of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child the views of the various candidates on abortion. Clearly, this was directed against the sitting Member of Parliament, Alice Mahon.

The European Court held that a limit of £5, which effectively prevented any circulation of material at all, was unreasonable. It was accepted therefore that the United Kingdom had to change its laws to recognise that third parties—that is, those who are not supporting a particular candidate but who are raising particular issues—must be allowed a reasonable sum of money to make their case to the electors.

The figure that we thought was appropriate for parliamentary constituencies was £500, that being approximately the cost of printing a leaflet which could then be distributed by volunteers around the constituency. As an extension to that, we applied broadly a figure of 5 per cent for third parties at all elections: that for the national elections, where we proposed a limit of £20 million, came to a figure of £1 million; and third-party campaigns—for example, the campaign by UNISON before the last election in favour of the minimum wage. We thought that 5 per cent was broadly appropriate, and the figures for third-party spending in the London elections are not significantly out of line with that proposal from the committee on Standards in Public Life. The members of the committee have not had an opportunity to consider these proposals, but they are in line with our views on election procedures generally.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The noble Lord is correct in saying that that was the reference. On the other hand, I can correct the noble Lord: if we do not pass a spending limit today, there will be no spending limit in relation to the GLA, because the Act does not apply that limit but requires a different limit to be substituted by order: if we do not substitute an order, there is no limit.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has helpfully set out the background to the decision made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I can understand the reasons for the hesitation and the indication that third parties should not intervene to this degree in elections. However, it is considerably less than proportionate to the proposal by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for £500 per constituency. There are 74 constituencies in the Greater London area, and therefore that would be a higher figure. Likewise, the £25,000 maximum relates to 5 million electors. We have looked into this matter at great length: to print a single sheet for 5 million electors would cost at least £60,000. We have to bear in mind, in that context, that it does not seem to be an unreasonably restrictive limit on third party interventions, which for the most part will probably be single-issue campaigns or single interest group campaigns. Given the Bowman judgment, we feel that we need to put a realistic figure into this delegated legislation to meet the concerns that have been expressed.

I hope that, with that explanation, your Lordships will feel able to agree the order.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. With the leave of the House, perhaps I may ask, before the Minister sits down, whether this is only directed at campaigning leaflets or whether other people can take advantage of these large amounts of money.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure to what "other people" the noble Lord refers. These are leaflets paid for by third parties; there is no public expenditure involved. It is a question of expenditure up to £25,000. I agree that an enforcement issue arises, but an enforcement issue in relation to candidate's expenditure arises also. That could well be addressed by similar means.

The third parties may be single-issue groups, small businesses, campaign groups or people interested in any individual issue. If the question relates to whether it is a leaflet campaign material, in a physical sense, or whether it is activity, then the provision applies to everything. It is £25,000 worth of intervention in the campaign.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, sits down, is it correct that the position will be that anybody who spends money in support of a specific candidate without the authority of the agent will be committing an offence? There is no possibility, therefore, of third-party spending being used to support a campaign in favour of a specific candidate; it can only be used by single-issue groups or others raising specific subjects rather than those supporting specific candidates.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, in general terms. As in the example which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, spelt out of the Bowman case, there are implications as to which candidate one is for and which candidate one is against.

On Question, Motion agreed to.