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Electoral Spending Limits: Wales

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will encourage the Electoral Commission to review electoral spending limits in Wales.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chair of a constituency party in Wales.

My Lords, it is for the Electoral Commission, as an independent body, to decide whether to review spending limits for candidates, political parties and third-party campaigners at elections in Wales. Spending limits can be amended only in secondary legislation, in line with inflation or on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission. The type of expenses that count towards a spending limit are set out in primary legislation but could be amended in secondary legislation.

I thank the noble Lord. In many constituencies in Wales, all political parties communicate with their electorate using bilingual literature, reflecting respect for both languages of Wales and allowing voters to access information in the language of their choice. The cost of the larger paper size required together with translation costs, although happily borne by local parties, sees some constituencies sailing perilously close to the spending limits. Will the Minister encourage the commission to introduce an allowance to reflect these extra costs?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. She may know that the Electoral Commission has recommended exactly what she has just proposed; namely, that the costs associated with translating from Welsh into English or vice versa should be exempted from the limits on candidates and political parties. As from next year, under the Wales Act, responsibility for taking this forward for elections to the Welsh Assembly and local elections in Wales will rest with the Welsh Assembly, which will be able to do exactly what the noble Baroness has outlined. Parliamentary elections in Wales are a reserved matter but, as I say, the Government are broadly sympathetic to these recommendations. The next scheduled parliamentary election is not until 2022—

We hope that between now and then there will be a suitable legislative vehicle to take this reform forward.

My Lords, there is a desperate need for the law in its entirety around elections to be reviewed, reformed and consolidated. With the advances in technology, among other things, the law has not kept pace with change. Does the noble Lord agree with that point and, if so, will he impress on others in government that, despite other pressures, this really is something for which the Government should find parliamentary time?

There is indeed a broad view that our election law is fragmented, at times unclear and, as the noble Lord said, does not always reflect modern changes in communication. We are working with the Law Commission and other interested bodies, such as the Electoral Commission, to see whether we can streamline and clarify our electoral system, but we need to find the legislative time to take these reforms forward.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. He will recognise that on this timetable, elections to the National Assembly for Wales are likely to take place ahead of the Westminster elections. Does he accept that common sense dictates that there should be some form of common approach to these costs, otherwise those organising elections in constituencies could easily get confused between one set of rules for a National Assembly election and another set of rules for Westminster? Can he ensure that co-ordination takes place?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question, not least because it was in English rather than in Welsh. The proposals would exempt the costs of translation from a candidate’s limits and I see no reason at all why the approach taken by the Welsh Assembly, if it goes down that road, and the approach taken by the UK Parliament, if it does so as well, should not be aligned so that there is no confusion among the candidates over what the rules are.

My Lords, given the enormous costs of the Electoral Commission, would my noble friend encourage it to review its own spending limits and levels? The last time I looked, the cost of the Electoral Commission was as much as half that of the entire cost of the Royal Family.

I am not quite sure where my noble friend is taking me with that question. The cost of the Electoral Commission is roughly £30 million a year. Like all public bodies at a time of downward pressure on public expenditure, it should seek economies in the way it runs its operations, but it has an important role to play in monitoring the health of our democracy and, where necessary, in enforcing the law on elections.

My Lords, in India, with 800 million voters in elections, the electoral commission is all-powerful during elections. It runs elections over a period of three weeks, using electronic voting in a very rigorous manner. Why can we not catch up with that over here? Secondly, as a businessman, if I advertise my brand and I make a statement that is not true, the Advertising Standards Authority asks me to pull it down straightaway. The Electoral Commission is toothless and does not seem to have any power over misstatements in elections, such as £350 million on the side of a bus. Will the Minister tell us why?

On the first point, I think my party is committed to continuing to allow people to vote by pencil on a ballot paper. If one were to introduce electronic voting at the same time, there would of course be the extra costs of running two systems in parallel. At the moment, we are not committed to doing that. We are interested in pilot schemes, however, for example on voter identification. On the second point, I am not sure that the Advertising Standards Authority or, indeed, the Electoral Commission would like to get drawn into the heat of party-political battles during a general election.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very encouraging response. It will encourage support for the Welsh language at general election times and others. If we can have this, it will show that we accept that bilingualism is not an easy thing and that it costs, but that the Government are totally behind the Welsh language and its continuance.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 was passed by a Conservative Government. We remain committed to it and it ensures that in Wales the Welsh language and the English language have equal status.

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the report of the Law Commission. When does he expect the Government to respond to the commission’s recommendations? Is it soon, shortly or in due course?

It is more likely to be “in due course” than the other options but it is not quite as simple as that. We have not only the recommendations of the Law Commission but my noble friend Lord Hodgson’s report on third-party campaigning and the report of Sir Eric Pickles on electoral fraud. It makes sense to look at them in the round along with the sensible recommendations from the Law Commission. It is not quite as straightforward as the noble Lord might have implied.