Motion to Approve
My Lords, in coming to the Dispatch Box for the first time to answer for the Cabinet Office, if the House will allow me, I want to place on record my appreciation of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. His charm, urbanity and liberal mind won the affection of everyone in the House, and in doing business his openness, intelligence and sense of duty won the respect of the House. If I can do half as good a job as he did, I will have tried to serve the House well.
The health of our democracy depends on elections being accessible and fair for voters and those seeking election. Last February, an important step forward was taken towards ensuring disabled candidates standing elections share a level playing field and are treated fairly. The election expenses exclusion order made sure that expenses incurred as a result of a candidate’s disability would no longer count towards their limit on election spending when taking part in UK-wide elections, including parliamentary general elections.
This instrument will prevent disability-related expenses having to be counted as part of a disabled candidate’s election spending limit in a police and crime commissioner election. PCCs should be as reflective as possible of the diverse communities that they serve and to whom they are accountable. We must make sure that the process of standing in any election does not itself unfairly impact upon disabled people and make them less likely to stand for election.
That is why, through this instrument, we are seeking to help remove one potential barrier that might prevent disabled people running to be a police and crime commissioner and represent their community. The instrument will insert disability-related expenses into Part 2 of Schedule 7 to the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012, which set out the general exclusions from the spending limits of candidates standing at PCC elections. The result will be that reasonably incurred disability-related expenditure will not form part of a disabled candidate’s expenses and will therefore not contribute to their spending limits.
The instrument also brings forward changes to election forms so that they are clearer to voters about when a PCC has been given the power to undertake fire and rescue authority functions, which currently applies in only four authorities. This will make sure that, in most places, all relevant election forms better inform voters about the scope of the functions of the PCC being elected.
We have consulted on this instrument with the Electoral Commission, there has been cross-government collaboration between the departments involved and all the consulted stakeholders have been supportive of the proposals. The Parliamentary Parties Panel has also been informed that the changes are being brought forward. It is a panel that, as noble Lords will know, meets on a quarterly basis to discuss electoral issues, consisting of representatives of each of the parties that have two or more MPs. We believe it is vital that the instrument is in place as soon as possible so that these changes are effective during the preparations for and the build-up to the PCC elections, which next come on 7 May. That is why the instrument will come into force the day after it is made.
The Electoral Commission released guidance in January of this year for the upcoming May PCC elections that included information on the exemption being brought forward today. This should ensure that candidates can take note of the exemption in reasonable time before the election.
By providing a more level playing field for disabled people standing for PCC elections, and giving voters clearer information about what powers they are voting a PCC candidate to take on, this instrument builds on the wider work the Government are undertaking to support our democracy and make elections more accessible to voters and candidates alike. The changes may seem a little administrative and technical in nature, but I am sure noble Lords will agree that their application in the real world for local democracy will be actual and tangible, and I know that they will be appreciated by some people. I commend this instrument to the House.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord True, to his position as Minister. I am sure we will have some humorous debates. I am sure they will be lively and I fear that some of them will be very controversial, but this evening’s debate is not really a controversial one, because I am sure that nobody in this House will think that anyone who is disadvantaged by disability should have to bear the additional costs of personal expenses arising from their disability counting against any limit on campaign expenditure.
I am not sure it is really enough to say that, if they have these additional costs, they should not count against the limit if they have the funds. The question really is: how could they be helped to have the funds to make sure that they can compete on a level playing field? My first question to the Minister in his new position is: what is the Government’s current attitude towards helping disabled candidates stand for election? We have experience of the Access to Elected Office Fund and the EnAble Fund, but I understand that, after 31 March, there will be no funding from a government source to help disabled people to stand in these or any future elections.
Overall, as the Minister outlined, the changes proposed to election regulations are really common sense, but the need to make these minor changes highlights the way that we need to codify and modernise all our election laws, as recommended by the Law Commissions some years ago. What can he tell us about the Government’s current attitude towards codifying and modernising the whole range of election laws? The Law Commissions have done much of the work on this; they say that there are so many different pieces of legislation and there have been so many new elections since that legislation was drafted that we need to look at this issue as a whole, instead of, as I fear we will, looking at each individual bit of legislation. The danger will be that, as we look at each individual bit of legislation and potential reforms, the accusation may be made in this House that legislation is brought forward for particular parts of election law that favour a particular party that is in government and not parties that are not in government. Surely it would be better to follow the advice of the Law Commissions and look at all our election law in the round, codify it properly, modernise it and make sure we proceed on a fair basis.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his place. I have watched him on the Back Benches over a number of years and wondered when his day would come; it has finally come and I congratulate him.
Article 2(3) of the order
“adds to that list of matters reasonably incurred expenditure by or on behalf of a disabled candidate that is reasonably attributable to the candidate’s disability.”
I understand that, in law, the word “reasonable” is very expensive and can lead to court cases, contests and arguments with officials about what constitutes reasonableness. I wonder whether we can have some explanation. To give an example, who will decide what is reasonable? Could it be that, if a person is in receipt of a benefit relating to disability, that in itself would lead to a qualification? Could it be simply a personal statement, where somebody says, “I am disabled”, or a doctor’s note saying that the person is sufficiently disabled? The word “reasonable” always worries me when I see it in law and I just wonder if we can hear a little more. We have a former Lord Chancellor here who smiles when I suggest that it is an expensive word—perhaps he would like to intervene to tell us what he believes would be the construct in this particular case.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord True, to the Dispatch Box today. I congratulate him on his appointment and I wish him well with his new responsibilities. I look forward to the many debates we will have over the coming weeks and months. I also very much agree with his comments about the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who I enjoyed working with very much and who is always worth listening to.
I have no issue whatever with the order before us today. A number of points have been raised, which I support, and I look forward to the noble Lord’s response. It is right that we ensure that candidates with a disability are able to stand for election so that we can ensure that our elected officials and officers reflect the people that they represent. I am very happy to support the order to ensure that expenditure related to a candidate’s disability does not come out of the election expenditure limit.
I follow on from the point that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made. I have mentioned it many times before and, every time, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, would agree with me. I would say, “Our election law is not fit for purpose,” and he would say, “I agree entirely.” We had a number of meetings—the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy all came along—and discussed these things. Everyone agrees that our election law is not fit for purpose and we have to sort it out.
One good thing about the election result is that this Government have been in office now for four or five years. They are not worried about what is going on at the other end, so they have plenty of time to look at this properly. We have to sort out election law; it is not fit for purpose. It was created for analogue elections; we now have digital elections, and we really must sort this out. I implore the noble Lord, when he goes back to his officials in the Cabinet Office, to tell his colleagues that they should use the fact that they have a majority in the other place to make sure that we can quickly, but also calmly, get to a situation where we can revise our electoral law to ensure that when people are elected, the law around the elections is fit for purpose and does what it is supposed to do. Having said that, I fully support the order before the House today.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their kind comments. Having heard the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, say that we may be having some controversial and lively debates in the future, perhaps I should fix those comments in aspic so that I can save them and later bring them out of the fridge. But I respect tremendously each of the noble Lords who spoke, and I am very grateful for their comments.
On the EnAble Fund and its continuation, there is a point that the political parties have to accept their own responsibility to encourage disabled candidates to stand, as parties do. In terms of helping disabled people, every part of society has its contribution to make, and that must include political parties. The EnAble Fund was designed as an interim measure to allow political parties time to put in place support themselves. We are not reiterating the fact that political parties have a place. The Government are considering what support they might provide to succeed the current EnAble Fund, which I acknowledge is running out. The disability unit is currently considering options in connection with the national strategy for disabled people, which is due to be published later this year, so I can give the noble Lord some encouragement on that. But I reiterate that this applies to all political parties, and that they all deserve praise for what they are doing to encourage disabled candidates.
In the general points made by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Kennedy of Southwark—who was elected a councillor on the same day as I was in 1986; we have tramped our parallel ways while serving our parties since then, and it is very nice to see him opposite—they both asked more broadly about what the Government were going to do to deal with electoral law. On my first outing at the Dispatch Box, I am not going to rise as a trout to those particular flies, but I will take note of what both noble Lords said and will take that back to colleagues.
On the question that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, raised about the word “reasonable”, I am not going to tread too far into that area for obvious reasons, having spent some years throwing darts at the person on the Front Bench from behind. With a former Lord Chancellor behind, I am not going to have a long go at it. But it is true that the draft order does not define what a “reasonable” election expense is. There is an argument that trying to provide an exhaustive list of such expenses would potentially narrow the scope of application and could exclude some disability-related expenses that have not been listed.
The order gives some examples of the kind of thing that might be applied, but the Government want to ensure that the order exempts all—I must not use the “r” word that the noble Lord mentioned—disability election expenses that it can. I can give him further details of how the system actually works, but there is, first of all, a process of examination of the case and, secondly, obviously anybody who infringes electoral law in any form faces the risk of penalties thereafter. There is a balance, in that there is a right of confidentiality: some people wish to have some confidence about their disability and that also has to be taken into account. The reason there is no list of particular cases is that if something were inadvertently omitted it would be excluded from scope. I hope that that answers the question of the noble Lord, and if he would like any more information, I am sure we could provide it. If there are no more questions, I will thank noble Lords who have taken part.
The Government appreciate the unity on this matter. The instrument makes an important if small change to the electoral system. It can only be a good thing for local democratic representation and accountability: we all want to see more participation in that. Having made those points and tried to answer the questions, and having acknowledged the kindly comments, I commend the order to the House.
House adjourned at 7.16 pm.