HL Deb 18 June 2003 vol 649 cc801-3

2.52 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reject the recommendation of the Electoral Commission to abolish deposits for candidates at parliamentary elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, the Electoral Commission's recommendations on changes to the electoral system, including one option on the abolition of deposits for all elections, in its report, Standing for election in the United Kingdom, were published some two weeks ago. The Government will be giving careful consideration to all these recommendations.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he accept that the purpose of a deposit in respect of parliamentary elections is not simply to provide a disincentive to joke and crank candidates but also to deter extremists who, in the past, at a time when there was no such deposit and when some of us in another place fought for one, were receiving huge publicity at the expense of the state'? Will the Minister look at the recommendation made in 1999 by the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs? Far from suggesting the abolition of the deposit, the committee recommended that it should be put up from £500, the sum established in 1985, to £700 and index linked. Surely that is the right way to proceed. Under no circumstances should the deposit be abolished.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am aware of the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee to increase the deposit to £700. In fact, the vast majority of local authorities, along with the main political parties which responded to the consultation, took the view that the deposit system remained the best and most effective mechanism for ensuring that the integrity of public elections was not undermined by a proliferation of joke or frivolous candidates.

My noble friend Lord Janner has added a further important consideration which should be borne in mind when considering our response—whether the deposit also has an effect on limiting the ability of racist and extremist parties to promote their cause.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the deposit system, since the time when the amounts were greatly increased, has been effective in deterring frivolous candidatures, given that by-elections previously attracted an abundance of candidates more interested in publicity than in Parliament?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, it is always slightly difficult to know how many you would have had if you had not had what you did have. Nevertheless, I believe that that is the view of electoral returning officers and many local authorities who are expert in these matters.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the real inflation-adjusted cost of the deposit today is less than a third of what it was 50 years ago?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord is being modest. I recollect that, when it was introduced in 1918, the deposit stood at £150. If that figure was adjusted in real terms today, it would be £4,000.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, if the Government were to decide to accept the recommendation to eliminate the deposit, could thought be given to increasing the number of assentors required to support a candidate? Currently a proposer, a seconder and eight assentors are required. If the numbers were increased quite substantially, it would demonstrate evidence of local support and avoid the issue of financial compliance. One could even have an each-way bet: either a higher deposit and a lower number of assentors, or a lower deposit and a higher number of assentors demonstrating local support.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am sure that we shall reflect on that point. The Electoral Commission recognised that its recommendation was highly contentious but felt very strongly that it was fair to smaller parties. However, a secondary recommendation was made to retain the deposit system, perhaps to standardise, and perhaps to look at the threshold as well. We shall consider all of these matters in our response.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, given that the deposit is returned on the attainment of just 5 per cent of the vote and that at the last general election no candidate was elected with a declared expenditure below around £3,000, does not the current £500 deposit represent a very small sum? Is the Minister not concerned that removing the deposit would lead to a plethora of frivolous candidates coming forward, to say nothing of extremist and dangerous candidates? Would it not make it much harder for the media to report on the candidates standing for election, leading to a further reduction in turn-out, already at woefully low levels?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I do not believe that I have given the Government's view on how we will respond to the recommendations; nor should I, because that would pre-empt the process of consideration. Nevertheless, the point made by the noble Lord is certainly one that was very well argued by many of those who responded to the Electoral Commission.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not true that people like Screaming Lord Sutch generally added to the gaiety of the nation, taking us slightly away from the overwhelming pomposity of most of those who stand for election? Surely we should not discourage frivolous and joyous people from entering into the rumbustiousness of the people's choice. The people are quite intelligent enough to choose their governments. I cannot think of a case since the year 1900 when they have got it wrong.

Noble Lords


Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am not sure whether that was a self-serving question. Most of us recognise that Screaming Lord Sutch did add something to the quality of life in Britain. The concern is that one would not want several hundred candidates of that type.

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