Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)
I rise to introduce this Adjournment debate on an issue that should be, and I think will be, of interest to all Members of the House—perhaps unexpectedly and by surprise in future years if the law is not changed. I declare not an interest, but a long-standing personal friendship with one of the individuals to whom I shall refer—Mr Phil Woolas, the former Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, who is nowadays something of an expert on election petitions and their impact.
There has been a long history of election petitions over the past 400 years, but since 1604 there has not been much change in this respect in Parliament and therefore in this country. There has been a fundamental weakness in how the law has been consolidated in 1983 and since then. As is well recognised, the Electoral Commission has been privy to cross-party discussions—one could even call them negotiations—on such matters. In a helpful advice note, the commission said of the legal basis for challenging the result of an election:
“There was broad support for a review of the current legal basis for challenging the results of an election. The general”—
“consensus was that the process was antiquated, not user-friendly and that reform of the process was needed.”
Similarly, on the rather minor issue of the correction of procedural errors, it states:
“If the Returning Officer concludes that the wrong person was declared ‘duly’ elected because of a procedural mistake, he or she currently has no powers to correct the error beyond advising the affected candidate to lodge an election petition.”
That is clearly nonsense and an anomaly that needs to be rectified in law.
Petitions on minor but important issues that do not affect the result do not occur. In essence, those issues disappear. One cannot challenge a precise wrong within the process without a full election petition. We should have a system that allows candidates or third parties to point to errors that do not affect the outcome without involving the principle or requiring the potential expense of attempting to remove an elected Member. Any candidate or third party with a rational interest should have the power to point to something that has been done that is anomalous, wrong or mistaken, such as errors that are made in the process by a local authority or a returning officer. The inability to do so in the current system, other than by an exchange of correspondence, is a weakness that undermines our system of democracy.
We now get on to the much bigger issue of costs and surety. Given the nature of political argument and the often heated debates within election campaigns, it needs to be difficult for losing candidates to put in petitions that could be deemed frivolous. If it is too easy to put in an election petition and every candidate puts one in, perhaps because they have lost by a few votes and are looking for an excuse to overturn the result, it clearly does not suit Parliament and democracy. That must be balanced against the potential risks of costs should one put in a petition. It should not be only those with significant wealth, and who might be able to meet adverse costs, who should feel confident about putting in an election petition if there is a wrong that requires righting. There is an imbalance within the process that needs to be rebalanced. We must allow genuine petitions to go forward without encouraging reckless or frivolous petitions that are not genuine, and the ability to take forward a petition must not rely on finance.
The problem of costs was compounded recently by a case involving local election petitions in Slough. This is not a party political point, so I will not even mention the parties involved. The key issue is the principle. One of the major parties ended up with a councillor in prison. The other party, which brought the case, sought to have its costs awarded when it won the case. However, the party whose councillor was in prison dropped the candidate. It was up to the party that won in court potentially to bankrupt the individual. Clearly there needs to be a better system than that. I put it to the Minister that what is needed is a provision to allow election courts a wider remit in awarding costs and in deciding who should meet them. In particular, if a party defends the case, or aids and abets the defence, there should be the possibility of costs in part or whole being awarded against that party rather than necessarily against the individual. I do not think the continuation of the Slough example will serve any of the political parties in this country in future.
A case that, perhaps remarkably, has not been discussed in the House before is that of Mr Phil Woolas, who was a Member of the House and was elected at the last general election. I think it is reasonably fair to say that he was a widely respected Member on both sides of the House. Of course, he is no longer a Member, and indeed he cannot stand in any election for three years. I am not questioning the judgment that was made; I am questioning the process and its weaknesses and inflexibility. I think it will be helpful if I quote part of the conclusion of the judgment made by the two judges who sat on the election court. They stated:
“In our judgment to say that a person has sought the electoral support of persons who advocate extreme violence, in particular to his personal opponent, clearly attacks his personal character or conduct.
It suggests that he is willing to condone threats of violence in pursuit of personal advantage.
Having considered the evidence which was adduced in court we are sure that these statements were untrue. We are also sure that the respondent had no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true.”
One of the anomalies in the current law is the question of what is “personal character and conduct”. The previous time there was an electoral petition on the matter was the North Louth case in 1911. However, unless the law is changed, there is a danger in the era of the modern media that because one such case has been taken, many such cases could be taken. From looking at the publicity and propaganda that there have been, I think it is factually accurate to say that there have been worse in recent elections from all three main parties than in the case of Mr Woolas, and the candidates in question have won. Indeed, there is a significant question of how we determine the facts of a case. Others have raised that matter, and it was part of the appeal that was attempted. However, before I come to it, there is a point that has never been raised that I will raise for the first time.
I am aware that the leaflets that caused offence were not written by Mr Woolas. He never made great play of the fact that he did not write them, but I put it to the House that less honourable politicians may well have used that as a basis of defence, although not necessarily successfully. They might have said that somebody else wrote the publicity. The question is where the sanctions should be applied. Should they be solely applied to the candidate?
Clearly the candidate needs to take responsibility for their publicity, but the reason that question rings so true to me is that in 1997, I was sent by the Labour party to oversee the last five days of the campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth of Mr Phil Woolas. I wrote the leaflets in the last five days, and Mr Woolas, as a good candidate, was not consulted on them at any stage.
In the parlance of the Labour party agents—it is no different among the other major parties—candidates have been known for decades as “LNs”—legal necessities. My leaflets were beyond reproach, but if they had not been, who would have been responsible? Would it have been the writer of the leaflets, the legal agent appointed by the candidate, or the candidate? It seems to me that some flexibility of sanctions is needed in the law, to take that question into account. The matter could be further complicated, of course, if leaflets were put out jointly with local election candidates, potentially involving two agents and different candidates.
It seems to me that there is a fundamental weakness in the law. In essence, the question available to the election court, as demonstrated in the case of Mr Woolas, is yes or no, guilty or not guilty. If guilty, the sanction must be the ultimate one of striking out. No other option was available in Mr Woolas’s case. There was no option of looking to see whether the leaflets influenced the campaign. Therefore, a leaflet that is written but never distributed—a copy could be obtained—could be used to overturn an election result.
There is a second principle: there is no right of appeal—the press coverage at the time of Mr Woolas’s case perhaps confused that. The Fiona Jones case in 1999 was a criminal prosecution. Because of that, she successfully appealed and was reinstated as a Member of Parliament. In the civil case against Mr Woolas, no appeal was possible, as was recognised when he attempted a judicial review, and therefore it was not possible to look at the statements of fact as determined by the election court judges. Natural justice in any other place dictates that there should be an appeal. A murderer of the worst kind has a right of appeal, and yet a parliamentarian who has lost his seat because of an election court ruling—as others could—does not. That anomaly needs to be changed. It was changed in relation to criminal cases because of the Fiona Jones case, but it was left out of the 1983 consolidation Act.
It is essential that the Government move quickly to change that before lots of similar cases are brought to attempt to change results. I put it to the House that in the internet era, there is a greater possibility of more cases being brought, because there are more outlets for things being stated as part of a campaign. The candidate— rightly and honourably—must accept ownership of those things, but he might not have direct control of them during the campaign. I put it to the Minister that we are all at risk.
My final point to the Minister is a separate one that relates to my election. I estimate that a wealthy benefactor in the other place, Lord Ashcroft, put in £250,000 to try to win my seat in the election, and he did so quite legally. Many photographs of the then Leader of the Opposition, the now Prime Minister, were sent by direct mail. One household received 29 direct mails, and mine received six. It was a waste of money—it may have increased my vote—but there is an unfairness in the system. If I had £250,000 to spend, I think I could increase my majority.
That also needs to be looked at. A review of fairness, honesty and integrity in elections is imperative—a review that does not excuse certain behaviour or give candidates of any party anywhere to run; and that allows honourable, fair and just campaigns and outcomes; but that leaves fair, just and reasonable remedies for those who wish to challenge them. The internet, e-mail, texting and Twitter age dictates that the Government must introduce legislation to change the foundation of electoral law in the UK, which is described by Roger Morris and David Monks, in “Running Elections 2003”, as
“Victorian in construction and tone”.
We need to modernise, and for all our sakes, we need to do so quickly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing the debate. It is not the first time we have heard from him this evening, but no less the worse for that.
The Government want to improve public confidence in all aspects of our electoral system. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it is important that the conduct of all elections to this House, and to local authorities and the European Parliament, are beyond reproach. I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that we want elections to be decided through the ballot box and not in the courts, but some remedies should be available to deal with cases of corrupt or illegal practices by candidates or agents. There should be clear and robust mechanisms for challenging the results of elections, and he is right to say that they should include appropriate, proportionate and accessible safeguards. The Government’s view is that that is the case under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
The hon. Gentleman raised several issues of cost, including the overall cost, and made a specific point about a court’s ability to apportion costs. My understanding is that courts have a wide discretion under section 154 of the Act to apportion costs. He raised a specific case that I will endeavour to look at after the debate and consider what he said in the light of it.
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about proportionality. Although there may be technical reasons why a returning officer may have declared a particular result, revoking the election of somebody is a significant step and should not be done lightly. Although the hon. Gentleman suggested cases in which it might be considered only an administrative matter, if we think a little more about it we realise that those of us who have been elected would not want our elections to be overturned by some relatively straightforward process. It should be difficult to overturn an election, and we need to strike a balance in the level of proportionality.
Notwithstanding the relatively recent case of Phil Woolas, it is also worth saying that the election petition device—certainly for parliamentary elections—is rare. There have only been seven petitions issued against the results of UK parliamentary elections since 1997, and only two of those have been successful. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that it would not be healthy if we had regular challenges.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned appeals. The High Court in the Woolas case confirmed that section 144 of the 1983 Act said that decisions of the electoral courts were final insofar as matters of fact were concerned. The hon. Gentleman was right about that, but I do not agree that that was a misconsolidation of the 1983 Act. If he goes back to the 1868 Act—I will not go as far back as the 400 years that he suggested—he will see that it was also clear that matters of fact were final decisions that the election court could take. In the Woolas case, the High Court made it clear that the decisions about the application of the law were judicially reviewable—
I shall come on to that point in a moment. I just wished to make the distinction clear between matters of fact and the application of the law, which—to be fair—the hon. Gentleman did. The High Court made it clear that it was possible for judicial review of how the election court had applied the law.
On the basis of that decision, I do not think that the law needs to be changed to clarify the decision that matters of law can be appealed, although there was confusion in the reports of the case about whether Phil Woolas was appealing or requesting judicial review.
It is for Members to weigh up the issues, taking into account the hon. Gentleman’s point that we never know when we might be the subject of one these petitions. However, we must balance against that the need for a level of speed in the process. When Phil Woolas sought a judicial review, the High Court concluded on the justification for finality on fact:
“Election petitions must be determined with urgency. Finality in the determination is of great importance for not only must the electors have a representative in Parliament, but in times when majorities are small, the absence of a Member can be significant.”
A balance needs to be struck in this process between getting the right decision and getting it quite speedily. He raised several points about that matter. The Government keep it under review, but at the moment we are not persuaded by his arguments.
At the end of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman raised a more general issue about party funding. He will know that the coalition Government have made a commitment to deal with party funding—hopefully, on a consensual basis. We are waiting for the Committee on Standards in Public Life to publish its report. The committee might make proposals that we can take as a basis for conversations between the parties and that might deal with some of the issues he has raised. He also made a point about the danger of political arguments being used to try to overturn elections. I think that the High Court made clear the distinction between false statements of fact about a candidate’s personal character or conduct and their political or public position—a statement had to be one or the other, but could not be both. Members when approving literature and others when thinking about challenging us should bear it in mind that it is not about running off to court every time someone says something about someone’s political position.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about things that get authorised by us. The legislation makes it clear that candidates should be liable to have their election voided only if they or their election agents—not lots of other people, but specifically they or their election agents—have authorised or consented to those illegal practices. That should ensure that election candidates and their election agents are careful about what they authorise and approve the spending of money on. They should perhaps be careful not to delegate that responsibility to others. It is not the case that anybody involved in a campaign can put out pieces of paper—if they are not approved by the candidate or election agent, they cannot lead to what happened in the case of Mr Woolas.
In conclusion, the Government agree that there should be proportionate and accessible procedures for challenging elections. We will keep the current position under review, and I will consider the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, particularly on costs, and come back to him one way or the other.
Question put and agreed to.