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Political Parties: Expenditure Limits

Volume 810: debated on Monday 22 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Ministerial Statement by Lord True on 3 December 2020 (HLWS610), what representations they have received in support of their plans to increase the permitted expenditure limits for political parties at general elections; and what will be the uprating in line with inflation for national spending limits.

My Lords, the Government engaged with political parties on spending limits last year. A range of views were received and, following that engagement, we uprated candidate spending limits at local elections in England. We have committed to reviewing candidate and party spending limits at reserved polls this year with a view to uprating them in line with inflation. We will not comment on specific figures until after this planned review has been carried out.

The Minister knows that this Question does not relate to candidate spending or to local election spending. It relates specifically to national election spending. Perhaps I can help him. The figure for inflation since 2000 is approximately 69%. The figures published by the Electoral Commission show that increasing national party expenditure limits would benefit only the Conservative Party across Great Britain. Taking these together with other proposals under consideration, but not widely known, to allow national party spending to be targeted more easily at marginal constituencies, are the Government not now ending any concept of the level playing field in elections?

No, my Lords. I am not certain whether the noble Lord speaks for his party in his Question or in the rather intemperate letter that he sent to the Minister for the Constitution on this matter. Spending limits have been unchanged for national elections since 2000. Failing to update them is actually changing policy by steadily reducing spending limits in real terms.

My Lords, with respect, the Minister did not answer the Question. What representations has he received in support of increasing national spending? Will he now try to answer that Question?

My Lords, I did reply to the Question, saying that we were undertaking a consultation and that a range of views were received from different parties. When the time comes to make an announcement, we will be able to provide more details to the House.

My Lords, given that the friend and family recipients of Covid crony contracts have already poured more than £8 million into Conservative Party coffers, does the Minister acknowledge that this huge increase in permissive spending will encourage more millionaires to think that they can buy government favours, including nomination to this House?

No, my Lords. I strongly disagree; the noble Lord should think carefully before spreading such charges. If one looks at the record of donations that the Liberal Democrats have received, including those from convicted criminals, it is clear that charges of that kind should not be cast in that manner. The Government are reviewing the matter; local election limits were put up by the coalition Government, in which Liberal Democrats served, in 2014.

My Lords, as a party treasurer, I know that in 2000 the cost of a second-class stamp was 19p and it is now 66p. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the rules need to reflect reality? Given that all parties were fined after the 2015 election, there is clearly a need to simplify the rules. Perhaps he might point out to the Liberal Democrats that election spending is not necessarily the only issue: late filing of accounts six months after the 2019 election was also reprehensible.

My Lords, I agree, but I would not want to give the House the impression that the Government do not think that there are matters that need to be addressed and considered. Notional expenditure is obviously one of them. I am grateful for the support that we received from the Labour Party on examining the rules on notional expenditure.

My Lords, as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important for all political parties to look to new priorities for recovery and for meeting the new imperatives of sustainable development. Does the Minister agree that any increase in political funding limits should not unduly disadvantage smaller parties committed to new and necessary forward thinking?

My Lords, I certainly agree that any consideration of electoral law and, indeed, electoral practice needs to reflect on the position of smaller parties. The Government have been considering that specifically in relation to the May elections.

My Lords, have the Government considered introducing a mechanism to allow for the uprating of local and national spending limits for elections and donation-reporting thresholds at arm’s length from Ministers, which would provide protection for the Government and reassurance to others?

My Lords, we think it important to engage with the political parties, and we do so. Obviously, the reporting of donations has to be and is transparent; I strongly agree with the noble Lord on that. That is the situation that obtains presently. So far as his broader question is concerned, I reiterate that cross-party discussion of these matters is important and we appreciate the input of the Labour Party on them.

My Lords, why is £12,000 per constituency with an average of 70,000 electors not sufficient? Why is more money needed? What is it going to be spent on—or is it just that inflation has reached such levels under this Conservative Government that money is absolutely essential?

My Lords, in our judgment, it cannot be right that the limits for parliamentary by-elections have not been updated in more than 20 years. By updating for inflation, as is currently under consideration, the limits would remain in line with the original intent of Parliament in 2000 when they were introduced.

My Lords, this Question reminds me of my time as a political organiser in the 1980s. Of course, campaigning has changed a lot over the last decade or so: President Obama was one of the first politicians to use social media extensively to get elected in 2008. The use of social media, including Facebook, bots, online ads and political consultancies such as the defunct Cambridge Analytica, which accessed 87 million Facebook users, is currently unregulated. How do the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government intend to include social media use and abuse in election spending in the future?

My Lords, the noble Lord touches on an important point in relation to digital campaigning. We have said that we will introduce a digital imprints regime and we published a consultation on the proposed regime in August 2020 that closed in November. We are taking forward a programme of work on electoral integrity that will ensure that it is fit for the modern age. It will address some of the issues to which he referred.

My Lords, is it not time to end the outdated distinction between borough and county constituencies? The latter attract a 50% premium for expenditure purposes per elector. In the age of modern campaigning, when people no longer walk the streets as much as use social media, should we not apply a single formula across every constituency in the United Kingdom?

That is an interesting suggestion. As a former leader of a London borough, I am not sure where I should go in responding to it. It is certainly true that modes of campaigning are changing and may well continue to change. On my noble friend’s specific point, I will take it on advice and refer it to the Minister for the Constitution.

Apologies, my Lords—I will try again. In recent general elections, the wealthiest and largest political parties have used their very generous national party spending limits—in 2019, it was close to £19 million—to cover a variety of non-national costs, including targeting a lot of individual constituencies with generic leaflets, billboards, et cetera. Independent candidates and smaller rising parties do not have this additional spending option. Will the Government be open to consider rebalancing the two types of spending limit in the interests of fairness as well as to prevent swing seats being barraged with messaging? Will they put far tighter limits on individual contributions to political fundraising, so that we do not all get the politics a few people pay for directed towards a small percentage of the population?

My Lords, I have not noticed the Green Party fail to target its efforts on specific constituencies, but the noble Baroness may be able to advise me otherwise. I do not think it would be sensible practice to seek to reduce donations to levels that might be achieved by the least popular parties in the country. The truth is that many individuals—whether trade unionists or others—contribute a great deal of money to the larger parties, and I think their contributions should be welcomed and esteemed.