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Elections and Referendums: Spending Rules

Volume 782: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for reviewing legislation concerning spending rules in elections and referendums.

My Lords, we are considering carefully the conclusions and recommendations of a number of relevant reports on election and referendum spending, including the Electoral Commission’s reports on elections held in 2015 and 2016, and on the EU referendum. While investigations by the police and the Electoral Commission are ongoing, it would not be appropriate for the Government to come to any conclusions.

My Lords, reports by the investigative journalist Michael Crick and by the Daily Mirror and others suggest that it was possible at the last general election for political parties to spend several hundred thousand pounds within individual constituencies in order to change the outcome of the election within those seats and avoid previously enforced legislation which prevented the purchasing of particular seats. The defence against this charge is that the law is ambiguous about what is local and what is national spending. If so, should not the law be changed to prevent abuse of the democratic process in this way?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for the way he put that question. He will understand that I cannot respond to the particular instances that have now been referred to the police and prosecution authorities. The legislation—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act—sought to make a distinction between national spending on the one hand and constituency spending on the other. As I said a few moments ago, I think it makes sense to wait until the investigations by the Electoral Commission and the police are completed. Then, of course, we should stand back and look at the legislation to see whether we need greater clarity for all political parties in interpreting how that distinction should be made.

I welcome what my noble friend just said on this particular convoluted collection of legislation. The process of conducting elections has moved on dramatically over the last 20 years. In reality, the law in all its guises has been in need of reform throughout that period. May I also make a quick reference to the third Question on the Order Paper, and say that that may include treating?

I am grateful to my noble friend. He is right to say that there are a number of reports—the report from Sir Eric Pickles on fraud in local elections, the report from my noble friend Lord Hodgson on third-party campaigning, and the interim report of the Law Commission—which have an impact on the legislation on elections. As I said a few moments ago, it makes sense to stand back, look at all the recommendations and, in consultation with the Electoral Commission and all the political parties, see how best to take this forward in order to restore public confidence in the democratic system.

Recently, during the consideration of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the Minister told the House about the willingness of the Government to look at areas where agreement can be reached and incremental changes agreed. Can the Minister update us further in this regard, and will he look at involving those Members of the House who can bring valuable experience to those discussions?

Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who took part in that debate on 10 March on the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. At the end of that debate, I indicated that the Government were anxious to see if there was a consensus on some of the measures that might be brought forward. I indicated that the Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore, was anxious to meet noble Lords who took part in that debate to see whether we can take incremental reforms forward on a cross-party basis.

My Lords, again I thank the Minister for taking this initiative to make sure that these discussions do take place and then fulfil, of course, the promise in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. I remind him that during that debate on 10 March I made specific reference to some of the discrepancies in referendum election expenses, to which he referred just now, because of course those are not subject to the difficulties that might occur with those matters that are possibly going to go before the courts. He will have seen the report from the Electoral Commission yesterday, which has some very good recommendations for looking at some of these issues. Will he confirm that that could be part of the discussion that is due to take place shortly?

The noble Lord is quite right to refer to the recent report on the referendum by the Electoral Commission, which recommended that some of the provisions made for the recent referendum should be incorporated into PPERA—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act—and would cover all referendums. The report came out only yesterday. He will understand that consideration is at an early stage. But it is perfectly possible to take those recommendations forward on a separate track.

Will it be possible at some time in one or other of all these inquiries to look at the scale of the spending of public money by the BBC and the gross bias which has been evident to anybody who has listened to its programmes?

I take this opportunity to wish my noble friend many happy returns of the day. The issue he raised falls outwith my remit. I think we are debating the BBC later today and it may be that with this advance notice, my noble friend Lord Ashton may be able to provide more details on the specific question that has been raised.

Does my noble friend feel that enough is being done in schools to familiarise our young people with the full range of electoral issues, particularly in the light of the Institute for Digital Democracy’s recent recommendation that political education might become compulsory?

It is important that those of us in public life, whether Members of this House or the other House, take the initiative in visiting schools, colleges and universities in order to encourage people to take an interest in public life and joining our democratic system, and explaining some of the parameters. I know that down the other end Mr Speaker has taken a number of initiatives to bring more schoolchildren in to the Palace of Westminster to expose them to the political process. I think everyone in this and the other House has a role to play in encouraging the next generation to take part in the democratic process.

My Lords, while we are on referendums, does the Minister agree that a large number of the public were surprised that a decision of such constitutional importance was taken by a simple majority? Is there no precedent in Parliament for it to be altered through legislation?

The noble Earl may remember that during the passage of the relevant legislation amendments were tabled to secure certain thresholds in turnout and majorities, and I think those amendments were defeated after a debate.