Skip to main content

Electoral Commission: Referendums and Elections Spending

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 23 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the powers available to the Electoral Commission to deal with breaches of spending rules for referendums and elections.

My Lords, the Government are considering recommendations from the Electoral Commission on whether it should be granted more powers. Political parties vary considerably in size and professionalism, so regulation should be proportionate and not undermine local democracy or discourage engagement. We are also reviewing the commission’s report Digital Campaigning, the Information Commissioner’s recommendations on the use of data in politics and the DCMS Select Committee’s inquiry on fake news.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful Answer as usual, but has he seen that the fines imposed on Vote Leave and Darren Grimes by the Electoral Commission have been upheld in the courts? Given that their misdemeanours have resulted in the paralysis of the Government for three years and our moving towards a disastrous no-deal Brexit, surely the Electoral Commission should have more powers to send people to jail and to declare such fraudulent referenda null and void.

The Electoral Commission’s annual report for 2017-18 shows that it issued £126,625 in fines and penalties. Penalties were imposed in 86 cases, £30,000 being the highest charged to any one party, with a further two of over £10,000. As the noble Lord will know, for more serious criminal offences the Electoral Commission can refer the matter to the police and to the National Crime Agency—which it has done—and if anyone is convicted, then the maximum fine is unlimited. So the potential exists to go above the Electoral Commission’s powers. I do not accept his suggestion that we should rerun the referendum, which resulted in a 1.3 million majority of one side over the other. We should accept it; and I do not accept that it has led to the total paralysis of the Government.

My Lords, this is the fourth Question that the Minister has answered in this general area during the past week. Although his Answers are detailed and useful, they do not seem to reflect the urgency of the issues. We cannot sit here saying, “Oh, there are consultations and consideration of these problems going on”, because we may face a referendum or election before many of us would wish. We would not wish that election or referendum to be corrupted, as is possible with the range of regulatory powers that our Electoral Commission and our Advertising Standards Authority have.

I accept what the noble Baroness has just said. As I said earlier, were there to be another referendum, there would have to be primary legislation as there was with the last referendum. Noble Lords would have the opportunity to change the law if they felt it was defective in the way that the noble Baroness has indicated. On the other matters, we are taking action. We issued a document earlier this month on the intimidation of voters and candidates, and we are taking action on digital imprints. We are making progress on a number of key issues to uphold the integrity of our electoral system.

My Lords, my noble friend has said several times that there is a little bit of spare time to do things. This is such an important issue, and as we have his guarantee that the Government are not suffering total—though perhaps partial—paralysis, can we please have a debate when we come back on this general issue which affects us all?

I notice the impassive face of my noble friend the Chief Whip, who of course has great influence on what issues we discuss. He will have heard my noble friend’s suggestion, and I know that he will want to discuss it through the usual channels.

My Lords, the Minister said that political parties “vary considerably”. Their finances also vary considerably, and one of the structural problems in British politics is that the Conservative Party is now able centrally to raise so much more finance than any of the other parties. I recognise—as a member of a party which has activists under the age of 50 and is therefore able to deliver its own leaflets without having to pay others to do so—that it needs some of this. But is it not urgent that financing that comes into the centre of the Conservative Party should be carefully examined to eliminate those large donations that come from people who are not domiciled in the United Kingdom or are not British citizens? Is it not also urgent that the rules be tightened to allow central spending to be directed to particular constituencies and thus get round the limitations on constituency campaign funding?

On the last point that the noble Lord raised, there was a court case relevant to this. The Electoral Commission is now in the process of issuing guidance which will give clarity to what scores against the local candidate’s expenditure and what should score against the party’s national expenditure. I hope the noble Lord welcomes that. I was relieved to hear that my party now finds it so much easier to raise money than any other party; this will come as welcome news to the party treasurer. So far as donations to the party are concerned, my party tries to stick rigorously to the rules—as I am sure all parties do. If an impermissible donation is presented, we are obliged to return it within 30 days.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for offering yesterday to speak to the Minister for the Constitution to seek another meeting to discuss these important matters further. Could the noble Lord also consider the need for a thorough review of the powers, functions and purpose of the Electoral Commission? Maybe that could be part of our future discussions.

Following our exchange yesterday, I have been in touch with the Minister for the Constitution and he has agreed to the meeting that was discussed. It took me 24 hours to agree to that proposition; the noble Lord may think he is on a roll when it comes to the second one. So far as that is concerned, the Government have regular contact with the Electoral Commission on a range of issues, including its powers, and we keep those matters under review.

My Lords, in his contacts with the Electoral Commission, could my noble friend encourage it to consider the issue of collusion between trade unions and the Labour Party in campaigning in general elections? Expenditure made by trade unions in campaigning should be accounted for as part of the Labour Party’s contribution.

The Electoral Commission will have heard the suggestion from my noble friend, which aroused some excitement on the Benches opposite. I am sure that all political parties want to abide by the law, and declare donations as appropriate.