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Representation Of The People Bill

Volume 928: debated on Monday 14 March 1977

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Order for Second Reading read.

10 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As hon. Members will know—although Ministers are supposed to forget about it—county council elections in England and Wales are due to be held on Thursday 5th May. Elections to the Greater London Council are to take place on the same day. District council elections in Scotland are to take place on 3rd May and in Northern Ireland on 18th May.

The limits on expenditure by candidates at local elections in Great Britain are laid down by Section 64 (2) of the Representation of the People Act 1949, as amended. The reason for having such limits on candidates' expenses is primarily to ensure that all candidates and all parties can fight on equal terms and without undue expense. The limits for local elections have been raised twice since 1949 to take account of the fall in the value of money. For example, they were raised by the Representation of the People Act 1969 and, except for the limits for elections to the Greater London Council, by the Representation of the People (No. 2) Act 1974.

The Government have received many representations from many quarters that the limits have been overtaken by inflation and that unless they are raised they will present serious difficulties to candidates at the forthcoming local government elections. We therefore consulted the main political parties and the local authority associations on the basis of a proposal to raise the existing limits to take account of the decline in the value of money since April 1974, when the Representation of the People (No. 2) Act 1974 received Royal Assent. That is the basis of the Bill.

The GLC election expenses limits have not been raised since the Representation of the People Act 1969. That was because when they were considered in 1974 they were thought to be adequate and did not need to be adjusted. We have therefore considered that it is right to raise the expenses limits for the GLC elections on the same basis as for the other authorities to compensate for the decline in money values since 1974.

There is almost unanimous agreement for the Government's proposals. That does not mean that the present arrangements are necessarily ideal. There are other ways in which calculations can be made. The present basis, however, was considered by the Speaker's Conference in 1965, and that conference made no recommendation that altered the principle—namely, that there should be a lump sum to take account of expenses that did not vary with the size of the electoral area while adding a variable amount which increased the limit according to the size of the electorate.

Although we recognise that there may be some other differences of principle, we believe that it is right in general terms to set up a new Speaker's Conference to consider that, amongst other things. The Bill is an emergency action to ease the situation that will occur in May unless action is taken.

I now turn to the provisions of the Bill. They lend themselves to a brief summary. The limit on a GLC candidate is £200 plus 5p for every four entries on the register. That is to be raised to £320 as the lump sum with an additional 2p for every entry on the register. That is 60 per cent. increase. The new figure has the incidental effect of making it slightly easier to calculate the maximum lump sum that may be spent.

Clause 1(1) of the Bill raises the limit at any other local government election in Great Britain. It raises to £72 the standard amount in each area, together with 1½p for every entry on the register. This is slightly less than the 60 per cent. laid down for the GLC elections. It has the advantage of simplifying the formula and only slightly reduces the amount which would be 1·6p per elector. These latter limits apply to county and district elections in England and Wales, community council elections in Wales, and parish council elections in England. The limit also applies in the regional, island area and district council elections in Scotland.

I have not so far referred to the limit on candidates' election expenses in the City of London. It has been customary to keep these in line with limits applying elsewhere, and that is done by Clause 1(2).

Clause 1(3) deals with candidates' expenses in Northern Ireland elections. Its effect is to bring them into line with those for local elections generally in Great Britain. Hitherto the limits on candidates' expenses have been set under Northern Ireland legislation, but in practice they have never exceeded the limits laid down for Great Britain. Provision has been made in the Northern Ireland (Local Elections) Order 1977 to raise the limits in Northern Ireland to those laid down under existing legislation for Great Britain.

Since the Order in Council which contained this provision also contained a number of other vital matters for the 18th May elections, it was not possible to hold back the legislation on expenses or to anticipate what will be done in the Bill. To ensure that the limits in Northern Ireland remain in line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom, we have had to resort to the unusual practice of revoking Article 7.1 of the 1977 order. In the circumstances of this particular case, however, I am sure that the House will readily agree that that is the right thing to do, and it will ensure that there is equality and justice for the conduct of the elections in Northern Ireland on 18th May.

In short, therefore, the Bill is presented with a wide degree of all-party support here. Its basic reason is the urgent necessity to make sure that the election campaigns are adequately financed, and that is why I hope that the House will give the Bill a speedy Second Reading.

10.7 p.m.

The Opposition are happy to support this modest Bill. We agree, of course, that with the increased cost of paper, envelopes, postage, printing, and the hiring of rooms and halls, the existing limits are clearly unrealistic. It is right that there should be limits, but it is difficult to run a proper election campaign on a very tight budget, and these increases will afford flexibility both to candidates and agents.

The Minister of State knows that my party would have preferred that the figures should take account of the difficulties of small wards. After all, the costs per elector are much more in a ward of, say, 500 electors than of 5,000, particularly when it comes to printing costs. We accept the proposal as reasonable, however, and we think that the increases are about right.

Let me draw attention to one point. It is a pity that, whilst taking account of inflation as it affects Section 64, the Minister has not taken the opportunity to amend similarly Section 61(2), which reads:
"Every payment made by an election agent in respect of any election expenses shall, except where less than forty shillings, be vouched for by a bill stating the particulars and by a receipt."
The Bill takes account of inflationary movements since 1969. That figure of 40s. originally appeared in the 1949 Act. Bearing in mind that receipts are now relatively rarely given, and certainly not for particularly small amounts, and bearing in mind the amount of paper work involved in accounting for quite trifling sums, I wonder whether the opportunity might be taken to amend this section.

I would have thought that if £2 was an appropriate figure in 1969, a substantially higher figure would be needed now. No doubt the Minister's right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury can advise a revised figure. I would have thought a minimum of £5, but perhaps £10 or £15 would have brought the section into line.

The Opposition have no wish whatsoever to delay the Bill. We are anxious to expedite it so that it can complete its passage and receive the Royal Assent before the May elections, as the Minister indicated. But between now and Committee stage will the Minister look into the possibility of adding a further brief clause effecting the modest amendment that I have advocated? I should be very willing to put down my own new clause by Committee stage, but I suspect that the drafting of the Minister's Department would be a little more accurate than mine.

I refer to one other apparent anomaly in the law which particularly concerns local government elections but not parliamentary elections. It is quite obvious that in wards and districts represented by two or three councillors an agent may represent two or three candidates. The election addresses and other literature may relate to all three and meetings are held to promote the cause of all three, and at the end of the day there is one lot of election expenses whether there is one candidate or three. But the agent finds that he cannot submit composite returns of election expenses. He has to split every election expense into three, obtain three separate receipts for every cost incurred, and so on.

If one return covering all the candidates for whom the agent acts were acceptable, I cannot think that that would upset any principle on which electoral law is based, but it would certainly make life easier for election agents, a body of men and women on whom we rely strongly and for whom we all have a special respect. I have no wish to press the point at this stage, but I hope that it will be considered.

I also hope that we may very soon have a Speaker's Conference. If I interpret the Minister's remarks aright, I think that that appears to be the case. I hope that the conference will consider the expenses of candidates at parliamentary elections. There are several features that need to be looked into, not least that a candidate's personal expenses have to count towards the maximum allowable figure. I wish the Bill well and ask my hon. Friends to support it.

10.12 p.m.

In former times I would not have considered it appropriate to make a contribution to the debate, but I have found in the past two years that if one is present and does not say anything it will be assumed that one is not here.

I am well aware of the sanctimonious humbug from Scottish Members from other parties who hold up their hands in horror if there is no Scottish National Party Member here. Now it is my turn to say that none of them is here either. [Interruption.] I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have always regarded you as being removed from the hurly-burly of political battle and the expressions indulged in by other hon. Members.

My party welcomes this modest increase in expenses. It is obviously necessary to limit expenses in elections, because some parties draw their funds from trade unions, others could draw apparently unlimited expenses from big business and from the wealthy, and others draw their expenses from the widow's mite and other modest contributions from our supporters.

The widow's mite. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about Sir Hugh Fraser?"] There is only one real widow amongst them all, compared with the millionaires to be found in much larger numbers on the other sides.

It is necessary to provide for election expenses, otherwise candidates would not be able to give their message to the electorate. It is equally necessary to take account of inflation and increases in the cost of paper. That is a good reason why there ought to be more planting of trees in this country, to provide more paper much less expensively.

It is very pleasant to have a short Bill to consider at this time of night, so I shall keep my remarks short and to the point. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[ Mr. Ashton.]

Committee tomorrow.