Motion to Approve
My Lords, the election expenses exclusion order brought forward today aims to make significant improvements to the electoral framework. The order proposes that expenses that are reasonably attributable to a candidate’s disability, and which are reasonably incurred, are excluded from a candidate’s electoral spending limits.
Examples of such expenses include, but are not limited to, British Sign Language interpretation for hearing-impaired candidates, the transcription of campaign material into Braille for visually impaired candidates and specialist equipment. This order will also exclude expenses funded from grants provided through the Government’s interim EnAble Fund for Elected Office from electoral spending limits. This £250,000 interim fund will support disabled candidates and help cover disability-related expenses that people might face when seeking elected office, such as those I have listed.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the diversity of the United Kingdom is sufficiently represented in public office. Around one in five of the UK population has a disability, but disabled people remain insufficiently represented in our Parliaments, Assemblies and councils. The proposed changes will help to create a level playing field between candidates with disabilities and candidates without disabilities, enhancing equality of opportunity.
Alongside the proposals put forward today, I will remind the House of the other work being taken on to increase the number of disabled people in public office. This includes the review by my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond into opening public appointments to disabled people. We welcome his report’s recommendations, which suggest improvements across each of the key points of the appointment process, from the data the Government hold to attracting applicants, the application process and interviews and assessments. We are confident that the recommendations will enable the Government to understand better the issue, improve the disability data we hold for public appointees and pinpoint effective approaches to increasing the proportion of disabled public appointees. We are currently assessing how these recommendations might be implemented.
The order brought before the House today has a wide remit of application. It will apply UK-wide to all UK parliamentary elections, including by-elections. In England, the order will also apply to local government elections, Mayor of London elections, London Assembly elections, mayoral elections and combined authority mayoral elections. In Northern Ireland, it will apply to Northern Ireland Assembly elections. I can tell noble Lords that the Government plan to lay a second statutory instrument this year to widen the application of this provision to police and crime commissioner elections across England and Wales.
I will turn briefly to the detail of the proposed changes. The election expenses exclusion order excludes expenses that are reasonably attributable to a candidate’s disability and which are reasonably incurred, by substituting a new paragraph 7(a) in Part 2 of Schedule 4A to the Representation of the People Act 1983. Part 2 of Schedule 4A to that Act sets out a list of matters that are “excluded” from being “election expenses” and therefore are not taken into account when calculating a candidate’s electoral spending limits. This ensures parity with electoral spending limits for non-party campaigners. Schedule 8A to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 excludes reasonable expenses incurred that are reasonably attributable to an individual’s disability from electoral spending limits of non-party campaigners.
I would like to allay concerns about whether the change will require candidates to disclose any disability. It will not. There will be no legal obligation for candidates to report their disability-related expenses. Candidates can declare these expenses if they wish so to do. I would also like to allay concerns that this exclusion could be misused by individuals who want to manipulate their electoral spending limits. The provisions are clear: this exclusion can be used only for expenses that are reasonably incurred and reasonably attributable to a candidate’s disability. Any breach of the spending rules for candidates can be referred to the police and prosecutors for investigation. The order will not give candidates with a disability an advantage. Its purpose is to create a level playing field in respect of electoral spending limits, so that candidates with a disability are not disadvantaged by that disability in standing for election.
We have consulted on the elections expenses exclusion order with the Electoral Commission, the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Office. There has been cross-government collaboration between the Cabinet Office and the Government Equalities Office. All the consulted stakeholders have been supportive of the proposals. We have also kept the Parliamentary Parties Panel informed of the position with the order.
On a final point, I would like to highlight that it is important that the order is in place as soon as possible so that it can apply at the local government elections in England on 2 May. This order will therefore come into force on the day after the day on which it is made. I commend this order to the House.
I thank the Minister for explaining this order and I want to record that I agree with it. It is entirely appropriate that any disability-related expenses in elections should be exempt from spending limits, on principle. That is because it helps disabled candidates to stand for election on equal terms with others. I noted the Minister’s comments about some objections that may have been raised on some of the details—but none is more important than the overall principle of equality of opportunity.
My Lords, I am very happy to give the order my full support. I was glad that the noble Lord mentioned the political parties panel, because I was going to ask him about it. There is no mention of political parties at all in the consultation referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum. I know that the noble Lord mentioned it in his contribution, because I was going to ask him about it. The bodies listed in the Explanatory Memorandum do not pay election expenses and do not fill out election returns. I am glad that he covered that point. It is important that we keep the political parties informed on all these matters. They can often inform the Government’s thinking in a positive and helpful way. Since the noble Lord answered my question, that is fine. I am very happy to support the order.
I will be very brief, so do not worry. Paragraph 14.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the EnAble Fund for Elected Office having,
“robust checks and balances in place to ensure that grants are allocated to eligible applicants”.
It then sets out the process to ensure that happens, because, obviously, public money is being expended. However, in the case we are discussing here, I will quote paragraph 14.1:
“There are no plans to monitor or review the statutory instrument … monitoring or reviewing of the statutory instrument is difficult to implement and unnecessary”.
The Minister referred in his contribution to “reasonably incurred” and “reasonably attributable”. Whenever I see “reasonably” I always think of the courts. What happens if there is a challenge on the basis that an expense has not been “reasonably incurred” or “reasonably attributable” and therefore should have been declared as part of the base limit? What happens in the event that that is breached?
My Lords, I obviously spoke too soon when I said I had had a reasonably easy ride. I am grateful to noble Lords for their broad support for the measure. On the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as I said, we are extending an exemption that already applies to non-party campaigners to those standing for public office. I am not aware that the existing exemption for non-party campaigners has given rise to the difficulties he presents, but he asked about the precautions we are taking to make sure that this is not abused. The EnAble Fund for Elected Office has robust checks and balances in place. There is an initial triage process—a meeting with the applicant, in person where possible. During these checks, applicants will be asked to confirm that they have a disability that necessitates reasonable adjustments to enable them to stand for election. In addition, applicants intending to stand for election will undergo a verification process to ensure that their intention to stand is genuine.
A risk confronts anybody who stands for elected office and misuses the expenses regime, as we discussed yesterday: they stand to be disqualified if they have not incurred expenditure reasonably. Those definitions, as I think I said, are already on the statute book in relation to non-party campaigners. I do not think that there has been any difficulty.