HL Deb 24 October 2000 vol 618 cc219-24

(".—(1) Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (no election expenses to be incurred by persons other than candidate, election agent or persons authorised by him) shall be amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (1)(ii) (exception for expenses not exceeding £5 in aggregate incurred by individual backer or disparager), for "not exceeding in the aggregate the sum of £5 which may be incurred by an individual and are not incurred in pursuance of a plan suggested by or concerted with others," there shall be substituted "incurred by any person which do not exceed in the aggregate the permitted sum (and are not incurred by that person as part of a concerted plan of action),".

(3) After subsection (1) there shall be inserted— (1ZA) For the purposes of subsection (1)(ii) above, "the permitted sum" means—

  1. (a) in respect of a candidate at a parliamentary election, £500;
  2. (b) in respect of a candidate at a local government election, £50 together with an additional 0.5p for every entry in the register of local government electors for the electoral area in question as it has effect on the last day for publication of notice of the election;
and expenses shall be regarded as incurred by a person "as part of a concerted plan of action" if they are incurred by that person in pursuance of any plan or other arrangement whereby that person and one or more other persons are to incur, with a view to promoting or procuring the election of the same candidate, expenses which (disregarding subsection (1)(ii)) fall within subsection (1) above.

(4) At the end of subsection (1A) there shall be added "; and in the application of subsection (1ZA) above in relation to such an election the reference to the same candidate includes a reference to all or any of the candidates of the same registered political party."

(5) Subsections (1B) and (1C) (special provision for Greater London Authority elections) shall be omitted.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 252A, 259N, 322D and 322N. Amendment No. 250F is an important addition to the Bill. It amends Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which is concerned with election expenditure by persons other than a candidate or an election agent—that is, expenditure by third parties. Under the provisions of Section 75 as it stands, a third party may spend no more than £5 either promoting or denigrating a candidate at an election.

The £5 limitation on third party expenditure has been held by the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Bowman v the United Kingdom to be tantamount to a total ban and as such constituted an unjustifiable restriction on a person's right to freedom of expression. I could tell the Committee the facts of that case, but I am not going to unless I am specifically asked to do so. It was not the principle of the limit that offended against Article 10, but the particular limit of £5.

The Neill committee considered at some length the implications of the judgment. I shall quote part of paragraph 10.64 of the report which states, We suggest for consideration by the Government that the amended figure to be inserted in section 75(1)(ii) should be more than £100 and should be of the order of £500. We believe that this would provide an allowance sufficient to cover, for example, the production and distribution of a leaflet throughout a constituency or the publication of an advertisement in a local newspaper". In its recommendation no. 54, the committee came down even more firmly in favour of a third party limit of £500. Accordingly, we have adopted that figure for parliamentary elections. We believe that it is too high for local government elections. New subsection (1ZA) of Section 75 therefore provides that for such elections the limit shall be £50 together with an additional 0.5 pence for every elector. This formula will result in limits for local government elections ranging from about £51 for the smallest ward which is in Chiltern District Council, having fewer than 200 electors, to £180 for the largest ward with over 25,000 electors. That is the Mossborough ward in Sheffield.

I can deal with the details as regards the Greater London Authority Act 1999. By removing the two subsections, the general formula of £50 plus 0.5 pence per elector will apply instead of the present subsections. That would produce a limit for London mayoral elections of about £25,000 which was in fact the figure that applied to the first mayoral election in May of this year.

I should emphasise that it would continue to be an offence for a third party to incur election expenses as part of a concerted plan of action with others. The new limits on third party expenditure would be undermined if a number of individuals or organisations in a constituency could each pool their £500 in order to achieve the required result. Such concerted action could well distort the electoral process.

With the agreement of the Scottish Executive and Parliament, the revised limits will apply to local government elections in Scotland as well as to those in England and Wales. Ordinarily, it would be a matter for the Scottish Parliament to legislate in respect of the third party limit for local government elections in that country. The Scottish Parliament has agreed that, exceptionally, it would be appropriate for the UK Parliament to legislate in respect of this devolved matter given the need to make Section 75 ECHR compliant as soon as possible.

I turn to the second proposed new clause in the group (Amendment No. 252A). This would amend Section 76A of the 1983 Act. Section 76A enables the Secretary of State by statutory instrument to vary the various monetary limits relating to election expenses set out in the 1983 Act, but such variations may only be to the extent necessary to take account of changes in the value of money; in other words, to keep pace with inflation. From time to time more significant variation may be justified; the £5 limit in Section 75 being a case in point. The revised Section 76A will enable above inflation increases, or indeed reductions, in the monetary limits to be made on the recommendation of the electoral commission. A similar approach is adopted in Clause 145 in respect of the various monetary limits set out in the Bill and fits in with the wider role of the electoral commission in keeping electoral law under review.

The other amendments in this group are essentially consequential. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I very much welcome the proposed new clause. On Second Reading some of us expressed concern that the draft Bill contained such a clause but that it was omitted from the final Bill. At that time the Minister indicated that the Government would bring forward such a measure. Since Second Reading enormous amounts of money have been spent in the Ayr by-election and £1 million on the referendum in Scotland on Section 28. The proposed new clause is therefore particularly important. We should not deny the right of people to intervene in elections or referendums, even if we sometimes do not agree with what they say. They have the democratic right to intervene. I believe that the balance of £500 is about right, provided that we address the problems of abuse, as the Bill does. It is absolutely essential that there is no possibility of a large number of people each adding their permitted expenditure to a common pot. As that objective has been achieved, I am sure that we shall all welcome the proposed new clause.

Clause 126 [Financial limits applying to candidates' election expenses]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 250G: Page 78, leave out lines 21 to 24 and insert ("or on behalf of a candidate at an election").

The noble Lord said: This group contains 28 government amendments. I know that the Committee will have studied each one with some care. Therefore, I do not intend to go through each one, or, indeed any of them, but to tell the Committee what their effects are.

This group of amendments makes a number of changes to the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 2000. They are in large part concerned with the regulation of candidates' election expenses and essentially they simply follow on from the existing provisions of the Bill. If any Member of the Committee has any specific questions on any of the amendments, I shall be happy to try to answer them. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The noble Lord will be delighted to hear that I do not intend to quiz him on each amendment. However, someone has drawn my attention to a problem which may arise as a result of some of the proposed changes. However, I shall wait until I see them in the reprinted Bill. Then I may either mention them or write to the noble Lord.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 250H: Page 78, line 31, leave out from ("by") to ("must") in line 33 and insert ("or on behalf of any of those candidates").

Lord Rennard moved Amendment No. 251: Page 79, line 6, leave out ("£100,000") and insert ("£75,000").

The noble Lord said: This amendment seeks to reduce the limit proposed for spending in parliamentary by-elections from £100,000 to £75,000. The proposed limit of £100,000 originated in the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill. I understand that the proposal was based on a BBC report of Mr Michael Crick who said that there was convincing evidence of overspending by major parties in parliamentary by-elections and that sums approaching £100,000 might have been spent by some parties in by-elections immediately prior to the previous general election campaign.

However, it seems to me that political parties have been treating the issue of spending limits in parliamentary by-elections rather as some motorists treat speeding limits. However, if traffic is regularly spotted travelling at 50 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone, on the basis of the kind of proposal put forward in the Bill, the response would be to introduce a 100-mph speed limit to ensure that no one breached it. I believe that such a measure would be excessive.

A limit of £75,000 in parliamentary by-elections seems sufficient to me. I believe that I can substantiate that as that figure is more than twice the sum spent by the Liberal Democrats in winning the Romsey parliamentary by-election in May of this year. A £100,000 constituency limit in a parliamentary by-election, compared with the £8,000 or so constituency limit in a general election, is just too great a gulf to justify with the argument that by-elections are national campaigns. It would be somewhat perplexing for the electorate to have a parliamentary by-election, in which perhaps £100,000 is spent by each of the parties, and then a few weeks later a general election campaign in the same constituency in which only about £8,000 can be spent by each of the parties.

As regards the £100,000 limit proposed for constituencies, if one were to aggregate it for all the constituencies across the UK, it would amount to a general election expense limit of between £64 million and £65 million. That is far in excess of the £20 million limit proposed for general election expenditure by the Neill committee. Why, then, is the £100,000 limit proposed? The Minister in another place, Mr Paddy Tipping, said, If we are honest, there is no real rationale. One simply has to take a stab at the matter and I invite my honourable friends to take a stab at what is in the Bill".

As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has pointed out on many occasions during the Committee stage of the Bill, we are a revising Chamber. Let us therefore suggest that this total be revised and invite the Government to take a further stab at the matter. In due course the electoral commission may make recommendations, but there may be important parliamentary by-elections before it has time to consider the matter. Let us consider doubling the existing limits before we consider trebling them. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I drag myself to my feet on this issue simply to congratulate the Liberal Front Bench on breaking a vow of silence that I thought was turning them into Trappist monks. As regards being a revising Chamber, it is a good job that the revising Chamber is not dependent on Liberal Democrat intervention on this Bill as we would be doing little revision. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The Minister has little to say except to acknowledge that the Bill as drafted gives effect to one of the Neill committee's recommendations. The Government wish to adhere to the figure proposed by the Neill committee. If there were cross-party consensus on the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, we might reconsider our view. However, as the noble Lord has recognised, this matter may be reviewed by the commission. At this stage we resist the amendment and stick with what we have.

Lord Rennard

I thank the Minister for those comments. I note that the electoral commission may consider the matter. I believe that it should, given the wide disparity between the sum of £8,000 in regard to a general election and the sum of £ 100,000 in regard to a parliamentary by-election. I hope that the electoral commission will consider the matter seriously. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 252 not moved.]

Clause 126, as amended, agreed to.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 252A: After Clause 126, insert the following new clause—