HL Deb 28 March 2001 vol 624 cc397-402

11.19 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The circumstances that have given rise to this three-clause Bill are unusual and unexpected. The House will recall that in the previous Session we enacted what is now the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Following consultation with the main political parties, the substantial part of that Act was brought into force on 16th February. For reasons which I shall explain, we now need to suspend the commencement of those provisions of the Act relating to the imprint on election material. That is the one and only purpose of the Bill.

A number of your Lordships have, at one time or other, shared with me the privilege of seeking election to the other place. They will be familiar with a long-standing provision, in Section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, requiring the printer's and publisher's name and address to appear on election publications.

In taking forward the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, we made a number of changes. First, we amended Section 110 itself. We believed, and still believe, that what I shall term the "old Section 110" was not entirely satisfactory. There was some uncertainty about who was the "publisher" of an election leaflet or poster. The provision did not readily operate in the case of material in a non-print format, such as videos and websites. Secondly, the provision did not apply to national advertising promoting a party rather than the individual candidate. It was one of the central purposes of the Bill to bring national party expenditure under control.

Each of those points was addressed in the Act as passed. Paragraph 14 of Schedule 18 to the Act substituted a new Section 110 of the 1983 Act. It replaced a requirement to name the publisher with a requirement to identify the promoter—that is, the person who caused the material to be published—and the person on behalf of whom the material was being published; that is, the candidate or third party as the case may be. In addition to the new Section 110 of the 1983 Act, Section 143 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act introduced similar imprint requirements in respect of national election material. To complete the picture, although it is not directly relevant to this Bill, Section 126 of the Act also introduced imprint requirements in respect of referendum material. Those requirements, too, are in the same terms as the revised Section 110.

In December last year, we consulted the main political parties and the Electoral Commission on the commencement timetable for the Act and, in particular, on those provisions amending the Representation of the People Act 1983. The view was then taken that a number of the amendments to the 1983 Act should be deferred until 1st July so as to allow the parties sufficient time to familiarise both themselves and their prospective candidates with the various changes. But we felt that some of the other provisions, including the Section 110, should be brought into force as soon as possible as part of the package needed for applying the new expenditure control provisions. None of those consulted raised any difficulty in that regard. A commencement order was duly made on 29th January. Among other things the order brought the new Section 110 of the Representation of the People Act and Section 143 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, together with a number of other provisions, into force on 16th February.

Now I come to why we are bringing forward this short Bill. With the benefit of hindsight, the commencement of these two provisions—Section 143 of the Act and the revised Section 110 of the 1983 Act—was premature. By 16th February, parties and prospective candidates were already gearing themselves up for the county council elections on 3rd May and, no doubt, a possible early general election. Many candidates and local parties were either unpacking old campaign literature from their constituency party cellars or sending off to the printers new material for use during the forthcoming campaign or campaigns. Much, if not all, of this material would have had the old "printer and publisher" imprint on it rather than the details now required by the new Section 110. The same story applied to national material which, until February, only had to bear the name and address of the printer, in accordance with an 1869 statute.

As a result, we are faced with the prospect of going into the forthcoming elections with all the main parties, together with thousands of candidates up and down the country, having large stocks of election publications which do not comply with the new imprint requirements. In theory, it would be open for the parties and their candidates to pulp all this material and start again. But I do not believe—and it is clear that the political parties do not believe—that that is a realistic or practical option. The only alternative is primary legislation, and hence this Bill.

While the problem is a significant one for the parties, the proposed remedy is relatively simple and I can explain briefly the thrust of the Bill. Clause 1 suspends the commencement of both Section 143 of the 2000 Act and the new Section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. These two provisions are not repealed. but they are deemed not to have come into force. The natural corollary of this is that the status quo, as at 16th February of this year, is restored. To that end, the old Section 110 is reactivated.

Clause 2 enables Section 143 of the 2000 Act and the new Section 110 of the 1983 Act to be re-commenced by order. Given the history of these provisions, it clearly would not be sensible to do this for a period of months. And in any event, we would wish to consult both with the Electoral Commission and the political parties before any decision is taken.

Clause 3, as well as containing the usual Short Title and extent provisions, includes a saving for any election publication which complies with the new Section 110. The saving will apply during the period beginning 16th February 2001 and ending with the date on which the new Section 110 is brought back into force. In effect, during this "continuation period", local material which complies either with the old or with the new Section 110 would be lawful. It clearly would not be right to penalise any person who, in the period since 16th February, had meticulously arranged matters so as to be able to comply with the new imprint requirements.

It is unfortunate that we have to legislate on this matter a mere four months after the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill received Royal Assent. In doing so, however, we are responding to representations from the two parties opposite, as well as from my own party. The Electoral Commission has also expressed sympathy for the predicament which parties and candidates alike now face.

I believe that in these circumstances the Bill has all-party support and that noble Lords will understand and accept the need to secure its swift passage. Indeed, while not wishing to curtail legitimate debate, I am merely stating the obvious if I say that this Bill can reach the statute book quickly and therefore achieve its purpose only if there is co-operation from all sides of the House. Nominations for the local elections close on 3rd April and both candidates and parties need to know where they stand as soon as possible. To this end. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

11.29 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, one of the catch phrases of Oliver Hardy, in his exchanges with Stan Laurel, must be used in the Home Office more often than in any other Whitehall department. It is, of course, "Here's another fine mess you've got me into".

When the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill was going through this House, the Government moved 665 amendments. One of them, as the Minister said, altered the familiar imprint which all of us whose lives have depended upon elections know so well.

The Home Office never consulted the political parties about this particular change and did not advise the parties of its view of the change until 1st March, some time after the commencement order made it law. The amendment to the Bill which brought in this provision was never discussed at all in the other place because of the operation of the guillotine.

The Home Office guidance of 1st March, a couple of weeks after the provision became law, differed slightly from the advice that my party had received. We can all live with that, but we should have been told it before the provisions were brought into force by the commencement order.

As the Minister said, we are in a situation where all the main parties are now in breach of the law and stand to waste millions of pounds on scrapping the tons of pre-printed material stacked up for the council elections and for the general election—which, I think we can assume from the way in which this measure is being handled and the Motion that we passed earlier today, will definitely be on 3rd May, although I am not asking the Minister to comment on that.

If we pass this measure, I suppose that a small forest of trees will be saved from being turned directly into waste paper. So, in that sense, it is an environmental measure—although I do not think that even this Government would have the cheek to claim it as such.

We can all understand how it happened, but we should recognise that we, the political activists, are the only people who can pass our own "excuse me" Act and secure our own collective immunity from ignorance of the law. Small businesses struggling under the burden of regulations will view us with envy.

The message should be quite plain: there is too much new legislation for anyone to absorb—and nowhere more than in the Home Office. A dozen Acts of Parliament last year; already six Home Office Bills in this truncated Session; two new Second Readings this week and another one on Monday.

I make no apology for making these points because I made them in the debate on the Bill when we discussed the amendment under consideration now. I said: The fact that these huge changes have been made to a comparatively simple part of the Bill emphasises part of the Home Office's problem this year: it has had too many Bills. It has not been able to draft them properly".—[Official Report, 18/10/00: col. 1144.] The Minister mentioned the question of imprints on websites and e-mail, which were also part of the Bill. These are subject to regulations and were supposed last October to be urgent. But I understand that nothing has happened. It would be helpful if the noble Lord could tell us, either today or in writing, whether websites will have to have imprints as anticipated in the coming elections—council or otherwise—and, if so, when we will see the necessary regulations.

I made the point in October that we would need clear regulations and guidance well before the council elections, even if there was not a general election, but I do not think that we have seen anything about them as yet. Many more websites will be used by candidates in this general election. Some of us, including me, had websites at the last election, but more will no doubt have them, and much better ones, this time. The matter was described as urgent in October by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who was taking the provision through., and of course it is all the more urgent now.

This is a nasty little mess, but the Bill is required in order to get us out of it.

11.34 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, last Saturday morning, when I was doing my usual round delivering party literature to my neighbours, it did not occur to me—no doubt it should have done—to check the imprint. I now realise that I may well have been participating in a criminal offence.

Be that as it may, this is an interesting Bill. I am familiar, as we all are, with Acts that contain provision for commencement orders. This is the first occasion on which I have come across a measure that contains a "de-commencement" order.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to the fact that this is an environmental Bill in that it saves vast quantities of newsprint from having to be pulped—a point with which I am sure we all agree. My party has always been very keen on protection of the environment. For that reason, if for no other, I am happy on behalf of my party to welcome the Bill.

11.36 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful for those responses from the noble Lords opposite—although I should attest to the fact that I did not introduce the Bill as an environmental measure. However, as both noble Lords identified, if that gain is one of the effects of the Bill I am happy to have their support in that respect.

I am not sure that the description of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, is quite fair: he said what a fine mess we have got into. Among his many delightful characteristics, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, who is sadly missed, enjoyed Oliver Hardy above every other experience in film. I can almost hear him using the phrase now. So I accept it from the noble Lord in the friendly way in which he presented it. He has obviously identified the fact that we are in a situation that we should very much prefer not to be in.

I accept the noble Lord's point that we have a remedy to hand through the passing of this Bill that would not be so easily achieved in other circumstances. Important though small businesses are, and I attest to that obvious point, political parties and the successful and proper conduct of our democracy probably rate a good deal higher in terms of the needs of the nation. That is why, when we have difficulties such as this which cause all political parties substantial problems, it is proper that we remedy them as early as we are able to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, erred slightly on the side of unfairness: the issue has not arisen as a result of shoddy drafting of the Act or the work of Home Office Ministers in that respect. There is nothing wrong with the drafting of the Act. The problem relates to the timing of the commencement and the impact that it had on parties which had already had election material printed. That is the nature of our difficulty.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. The point that I was trying to make—evidently not clearly enough—was that this matter was introduced as one of over 600 amendments. That is why it was not noticed nearly so much as it would have been had the measure been properly drafted in the first place and had it not required so many amendments.

Before I sit down, perhaps I may say a word about Lord Cocks. I agree with what the noble Lord said. Lord Cocks was a good friend. I knew him well. We served together in another place in our various Whips' offices and had a good deal to do with one another. He was also a constituency neighbour. We shall all miss him a great deal. We shall particularly miss his humour and his company.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I very much appreciate the tenor of those remarks from the noble Lord. I hear what he says about drafting. I believe that he will recognise that the Bill we eventually passed was successfully, properly and accurately drafted as regards this issue. The problem has arisen from the commencement orders.

The noble Lord asked me one particular question about websites. With this measure, we have suspended Section 143 of the 2000 Act and new Section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. We have, therefore, suspended the regulation-making power, so there will be no regulations governing non-print material this side of the May local elections.

I appreciate once again the response of the two noble Lords who have spoken. We are all in a difficult situation. It is recognised that outside people are watching this occasion with very great interest because we are right up against the deadlines for the May local elections. Therefore, we have to move with considerable expedition if we are to remedy what is recognised to be a very real problem. I therefore 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 eighteen minutes before midnight.