To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the merits of providing greater clarity in legislation about what constitutes (1) constituency expenditure on behalf of a candidate and (2) national expenditure on behalf of a party, following the verdict of R v Mackinlay, Gray and Little.
My Lords, the Government believe that the law governing elections should be clear and operate effectively. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission on new codes of practice for election expenses. These will be informed by the issues that arose in the recent case, including the question that was referred to the Supreme Court. In the first instance, this will provide greater clarity for those taking part in our democratic process.
Since the judgments of the Supreme Court and the Southwark Crown Court confirmed that many of the common practices in recent general elections were illegal, saying, “We did not know that it was against the law to classify expenditure targeted at an individual constituency as national expenditure”—thereby trying to avoid the constituency expenditure limits—will no longer be a strong defence in court. In those talks with the Electoral Commission and the parties, will the Minister seek not just clarity in the law and improved guidance but to uphold properly the principle of a level playing field in constituency campaigning, so that it is not possible for one party to seek to buy a seat in Parliament?
I entirely agree with the principle that the noble Lord has just enunciated. I was looking at the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883, which enshrined the principle to which he referred. The preamble states that,
“if its provisions are honestly carried out, the length of a man’s purse will not, as now, be such an important factor”.
I am afraid that a woman’s purse did not get a mention, it being 1883. The text continued,
“and the way will be opened for many men of talent, with small means, to take part in the government of the country, who have been hitherto deterred from seeking a seat in the House of Commons by the great expense which a contest entails”.
That principle is timeless, even if the language may not be.
That is why, in my Answer, I said that in the first instance, the code of practice will provide greater clarity for those taking part in our democratic process. At the meeting attended by the noble Lord and six other noble Lords yesterday, the point was made that there may be some inconsistency in the primary legislation, which may need addressing. What I have said does not preclude a more radical look at primary legislation, as the noble Lord suggested.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the primary threat to the integrity of elections in this country is not because of failure by the political parties but because of anonymous online targeting of our fellow citizens, whereby people cannot trace the source of funds or what is happening? What do the Government plan to do about that?
The noble Baroness raises a valid point. The Electoral Commission produced a report last year, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters, which had recommendations along the lines suggested by the noble Baroness. The DCMS Select Committee in another place is looking at exactly this issue, and when we have its report, we will see whether fresh legislation is needed in order to provide greater transparency on who is paying for what.
First, I declare a personal interest, in that I know well all three individuals named in the Question. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in seeking clarification, particularly in relation to the upcoming local elections on 2 May. There is uncertainty for both candidates and agents. Will the Electoral Commission and other bodies urgently seek to provide as much clarification as possible, so that, where possible, that element of uncertainty is removed?
My noble friend raises a good point. The recent guidance by the Electoral Commission was issued before we had the judgment of the Southwark court. Certainly, the commission might see whether that guidance might be updated to help candidates and agents in the light of the judgment of the Supreme Court and the Southwark case.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is vital to retain a robustly independent Electoral Commission with political input but with a majority of independent members, and that we never return to the bad old days when the rules were decided by the party which formed the Government in the House of Commons?
Yes. Before we had the Electoral Commission many of its responsibilities were discharged by the Home Office, which was, of course, run by political animals; namely, Ministers. It enhances confidence in the democratic process to have an independent commission, such as the Electoral Commission, in charge of the rules. We have no intention of departing from the principles which underpin the Electoral Commission. I think I am right in saying, as the Opposition spokesman at the time, that my party supported its establishment.
It is within my recollection that at the beginning of the coalition Government, when all public bodies were put under scrutiny, the Electoral Commission was asked to reduce its core expenditure by 30% in real terms—a very substantial target—so it had to make economies. I hope that, like all public bodies, it will seek efficiencies in every way possible. I note from its most recent annual report and accounts that it underspent by just over £1 million last year, and that money was returned to the taxpayer.