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Representation Of The People

Volume 116: debated on Monday 11 May 1987

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11.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I beg to move,

That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 7th May, be approved.
If the House approves the draft order, the effect will be to enable all candidates at the coming general election to increase their expenditure by 4 per cent. over existing limits. In practical terms, it will mean that spending limits in county and borough constituencies with, for example, 60,000 electors will be increased from £5,460 and £4,920 to £5,650 and £5,110 respectively.

In addition, the draft order will, if approved, increase the limits for local government elections in Great Britain, for certain elections to the City of London and for elections to ILEA and for elections by liverymen in common hall, whoever they may be.

The draft order, which was laid before the House on 7 May, is brought forward under the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Sections 76(A) and 197(3) enable my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to vary limits on spending in parliamentary and local government elections by an amount necessary to take account of changes in the value of money which have occurred since the date when such limits were first fixed.

The statute does not empower my right hon. Friend to increase spending limits by more than that necessary to preserve the real value of the limit. The procedure prescribed by the Act is for the change to be made by order which is subject to affirmative resolution.

The current limits for parliamentary and local government elections, excluding ILEA elections, were fixed by the Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order on 1 March 1986. Since that time prices have risen by 4 per cent. Consequently there has arisen a general expectation that spending limits at the forthcoming general election would be increased by 4 per cent. This is a response to that.

A similar rate of increase will apply to ward elections in the City of London. However, a different rate of increase—5·6 per cent.—will apply to ILEA elections and to elections by liverymen in common hall. This will reflect the increase in prices that has occurred since 16 July 1985.[Interruption.] I hear hon. Members urging me to "hurry up", and hurry up I will. I hope that the changes will be acceptable to the House on the ground that they will enable us all to fight a more effective campaign.

11.56 pm

It has been left uncommonly late to bring this order before the House, but it is right that is should be brought.

I have a question for the Minister which I know he will not feel obliged to answer. As the order increases the sums that candidates may spend, will he tell us where we will get the money'? We on these Benches have less ready access to funds than Conservative Members.

More seriously, I hope that one day a Home Office Minister will propose some limits on the national spending of parties, not candidates. This is a Polo order: there is a hole in the middle. Although we constrain the spending, of individual candidates, we have no control over the spending of national parties, urging people to vote for them. That must be a hole in the provisions we make under the Act because it is inherently unfair. Even the United States, which does not always follow our procedures, has such controls, and rightly.

We must pay attention to that because it undermines what we rightly and jointly do about the spending of individual candidates, if national parties with access to various war chests can book poster spaces and sites. It is a serious point, and I do not expect the Minister to respond to it, but I want it on the record because we should give it urgent attention.

12 midnight

I hope that the Minister will respond to one or two of the points that have been made, to which I should like to add my own.

Although it is sensible to have introduced this order and to index-link election expense limits in line with inflation I do not think that the order is wide enough. Although it is useful in terms of the immediate general election for the candidate to know that he or she can afford the cost of preparing three of four newsletters or election addresses to go out to their constituents, it will be difficult for some in certain parts of the country to stay within that limit and fight the sort of campaign that they would wish. One of the reasons for that is that there is a difference in weighting between the south-east and parts of the north. Printing costs are more expensive in some parts of the country than others. Those matters should be looked at.

There are other aspects of the way in which the election expense law works on which this order falls short. For instance, some parties are able to get special concessions from printers, which are then given in lieu of donations and sometimes work is done in-house. There are many examples of that.

Many hon. Members, including myself, have worked as election agents in Parliamentary and local elections. The worry of staying within election limits is something that haunts all election agents. I know that candidates always believe that they win elections and that agents are thought to lose them. The candidate gets the glory and the agent often gets a lot of the blame. There is an awful lot of worry associated with being an election agent and I should like to see tighter guidelines and detailed parameters drawn up to help agents who are trying to organise election campaigns.

We must look at other issues, of which endorsements is one. I understand that the Socialist group of the European Parliament is distributing endorsements in some constituencies that are paid for by European Parliament funds. I wonder whether that kind of endorsement will appear on people's election addresses and expenses. If not, why not, and will it be covered by the order?

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) raised the issue of national expenditure, which clearly promotes the cause of a candidate in the seat that the candidate is fighting, yet that does not have to be taken into account when drawing up the election returns that are ultimately submitted to the returning officer. One only has to think back to the 1983 election to see how vast the discrepancies between the different parties have become. The Conservative party at the last general election spent £3,558,000, of which some £62,000 was in grants to constituency campaigns. That made an effective total outside the limitation election expenses of £3,496,000. By far the largest item of expenditure of the Conservative party was advertising, much of which was in the newspapers and on hoardings. We all saw the Saatchi and Saatchi campaigns and remember the "Labour isn't working" posters. That cost the Conservative party some £2,568,000, which was not entered on individual election expenses. While we can limit the expenditure of an individual candidate to £5,650, no limit is placed on what Conservative party central office can spend on these massive advertising campaigns.

As to the Labour party, the position is not much different. It spent some £2,057,000, of which £305,000 went to local campaigns, making an unlimited total spent nationally of some £1,752,000. Expenditure on advertising by the labour party comprised £878,000 within that total. Again, that money did not have to appear on individual candidates' election expenses.

The Liberal party—I make no complaint about this because we did not have the same amount of funds—spent about £120,000, plus a donation of £245,000 from the Joseph Rowntree social service trust, of which £140,000 was earmarked for Liberal candidates. The central unlimited total was, therefore, about £225,000. That money did not have to be shown on election expense returns either.

Clearly there are major discrepancies between what parties can spend nationally and what must be shown on the election returns. It is a very unsatisfactory system, which means that some parties are more equal than others when they start at the firing line, as we are doing today. It means that those with money bags can go out and try to buy votes in a way that many of us thought went out with the Reform Act. There is also the implication that, purely because of its access to money, a party can fight a campaign which allows it to put its policies across in a more effective way than other parties, which do not have access to the same resources, although they may have exactly the same share of the popular vote.

We have a five-five-five equal share of time on television and radio during the forthcoming campaign——

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting away from the order before the House, which deals specifically with the maximum amount of expenses. He must confine himself to that.

You are quite right, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In conclusion, the order is a useful small measure to help agents and candidates budget for the forthcoming election campaign but in the future we must surely turn our minds to a system of state financing, which may be the only way to ensure equality among political parties in the way in which they run their affairs and to ensure that they are not in hock to the paymasters who seem to call the tune at present.

12.6 am

I must confess that I find the bellyaching of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) singularly unattractive. He began by complaining that the alliance did not have enough money to embark on a national campaign last time around. He spoke of the Liberal party having about a quarter of a million pounds, but he neglected to say that between them the alliance parties, if such they be, spent between £1·4 million and £1·5 million. It might have been more helpful if he had given the House the correct figure.[Interruption.] It is no use the hon. Gentleman waving his hands in a deprecatory way. He should have given the correct figure, but he did not.

The problem arose only in 1974 when one party started the programme of national campaigns in the Daily Express at a cost of £25,000. And which party was that? It was the Liberal party. Yet now the Liberals come whining to the House making the kind of unattractive speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. It is worse than that. "Oh dear," said the hon. Gentleman, "the limits are not high enough—we shall not be able to buy the kind of campaign that we want and our agents will have difficulty keeping within the spending limits." It seems that it is, after all, rather a rich party, committed to buying a campaign.

No, the hon. Gentleman will have to listen for a change. When I examined the figures I also discovered that in the constituencies that they won the Liberals spent 87 per cent. of the maximum allowed, which was the highest spending of any of the parties. The complaints of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill are therefore unattractive and should not have been made.

Question put and agreed to.

Representation Of The People


That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 7th May, be approved.

Statutory Instruments &C

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c).

Northern Ireland


That the draft Occupiers' Liability (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 2nd April, he approved.—[Mr. Portillo.]

Question agreed to.