Report (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Constitution Cttee, 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st and 27th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Clause 15: Strategy and policy statement
45: Clause 15, leave out Clause 15
It is a very strange thing but, quite by accident—I promise it is by accident—I happen to have my copy of the Bill open at a part I have not really studied, called “Undue Influence”. Suddenly I find myself thinking, “What a very good thing to prevent that happening in this Bill.”
I have addressed your Lordships on a number of occasions about the Bill, particularly these clauses, including Clause 15, which we are discussing now. Noble Lords have listened with patience and courtesy and I have listened to the Minister with great patience. I regret that I am unconvinced by what he has said in the House so I intend to seek the opinion of the House at the end of this debate, but I intend to be brief.
I really do not think that anyone in your Lordships’ House can have the slightest doubt about the constitutional imperative that the Electoral Commission should be politically independent—independent of all political influence, whether direct or indirect, over the electoral process. If anyone disagrees with that, would they please say so? Any possibility that the party in government may have influence over the electoral process should be rejected.
Clauses 15 and 16 are repugnant to that foundational principle. They require the commission to have regard, at the very lowest, to pay close attention to the strategy and policy principles, and to follow the guidance, of the Government of the day. The importance of this feature of the language, which is tucked away but needs emphasis, is that the Electoral Commission will exercise its responsibilities in relation to the strategy and policy statement to enable Her Majesty’s Government to meet those priorities. If we rephrase that, it says that the Electoral Commission must enable the strategic and policy priorities of the Government to be met. That does not sound like independence. These are directive provisions. The word “duty” is used, imposing unequivocal statutory obligations on the commission that will govern—or, if not govern, will certainly influence —its own performance of its responsibility, and perhaps, dare I say it, is meant to influence it.
The commission, which everyone agrees—so far, at any rate—should be independent of government, is to be subject to a statutory duty to enable the Government to achieve their priorities: that is to say, their priorities, strategies and guidance to the extent that they relate to the electoral system. That is what the Bill says. This proposal came out of the blue without reference, consultation or, astonishingly—to me, at any rate, as someone who does not have a political background—for a proposal that has a constitutional impact, without cross-party discussion of any kind.
There is a problem with the Electoral Commission, as I have heard from all sides: it does not work as well as it should; it is inefficient; it does not do this, it does do this and it was wrong to do that. I have heard them all. Fine, but this proposal is not an answer to that problem. I simply ask us all to think: if this proposal had been included in the original Bill in 2000, outrage would have been expressed on all sides of the House of Commons. That is the problem.
What protections are we being offered? Before the Secretary of State produces the statement with his priorities and strategies, he must consult—not have anyone’s agreement or consent, but consult. He must consult the Electoral Commission. Fine, but the Electoral Commission can give us some evidence of how the consultation process is likely to be treated. It made a submission proposing that these clauses should not be applied. Okay, one might say that the Electoral Commission is biased, but I have seen nothing to suggest that the Secretary of State took any notice whatever of what it said.
The second group to be consulted is the Speaker’s Committee, a body which includes two government Ministers. I know that there are other members, including Back-Benchers; there are a total of nine members, but two are government Ministers. That is described in a system I come from as someone being a judge in his own cause. More important, perhaps, is that the power of checking whether the Electoral Commission has followed the guidance and strategy, and so on, is vested in the Speaker’s Committee. In other words, the judgment on the Electoral Commission is being made by a body which includes two government Ministers.
The third group to be addressed was the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, or PACAC, a cross-party committee of the House. The consultation process has now been changed; I understand that the removal followed a recent machinery of government change, and it is now the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. However, when this Bill was first promulgated, PACAC was the consultee. I shall return to PACAC in a moment, but it responded in the most unequivocal language after a close analysis of the whole of these provisions by suggesting that they should not be included in the Bill. For this purpose, I shall come back to it. Is there any evidence to suggest that the Government took the slightest bit of notice of that recommendation by a unanimous, cross-party House of Commons committee? Not that I have seen or that has been drawn to my attention.
What is this protective system? It is a consultation process, but there is nothing in statute requiring the Secretary of State to pay attention. No doubt they will be read; no doubt somebody will read them to the Minister and he will discuss them, but there is absolutely nothing in the Bill which says that the Minister must attend to the committee and that it should at least have some power to say that this is wrong. As it is, we end up with a situation in which the protection system is simply this: the Secretary of State asks these three bodies, they tell him what they like and then he does what he thinks. That is the full extent —apart from, ultimately, the provision coming to Parliament—of the protection given against what looks like, as I have submitted to your Lordships, something completely repugnant to the independence of the Electoral Commission.
It gets worse. There is a review provision, not dealing with typos and so on, but there the consultation process is reduced to one body. I do not think that three are very impressive but three are more important than one, and exactly the same position applies. Ultimately this has to be seen as the most important concern. A quinquennial review is required. In fact, a review can take place at any time: after an election or after a new Government have been put in power. Whenever it takes place, the powers that are currently being invested in the Secretary of State with this Government will be invested—and one day it will happen—in the Secretary of State chosen by a Labour Government.
What will the consequence of that be? Naturally enough, the Secretary of State will look at the way the powers have been exercised by the party formerly in power. He or she will decide that that is not agreeable, or appropriate, or has not worked. Suddenly, we will have a new system—a new statement—with new strategies, priorities and guidance being issued by the new Government to the same Electoral Commission. I do not know; it is a very strange independent body that can be tossed around like a football. That is what it comes to.
I come back to PACAC, because PACAC, having ceased to be a consultee under this process, nevertheless wrote to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, urging the Government to accept this amendment, as it had recommended in the first place. A few words from that report sum up everything that I want to say today. It rejects the purported government explanation to justify these clauses. It said it was “extremely concerned” about the potential impact of these provisions, and concluded:
“The risk inherent in these provisions is evident for all to see. This is an unacceptable risk to the functioning of our democracy”.
That is a cross-party view in the other place and of course I agree with it. I urge the House that we should protect the Electoral Commission from this proposed newly minted augmentation of executive power. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble and learned Lord in his amendments, to which I have added my name. We have a cross-party understanding, I believe, that, whatever their intentions, the Government have got this wrong. When the House has the kind of unanimity that it has in relation to the Electoral Commission’s powers and the strategy and policy statement process, it is incumbent on any Government to listen and to learn.
The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in his dignified and honourable resignation from the Front Bench—I believe we unanimously regret that he felt he needed to resign—said in his resignation letter that we have to take into account how others see us.
The noble and learned Lord referred to the legislation in 2000. I was a Member of the Cabinet at the time. We had a majority of 179. We could have pushed anything through, but the outrage which would have emerged universally across our media, as well as from the Benches opposite, would have driven us back inevitably to a situation where we would have had to think again. I ask the Government, with less than half that majority, to think again. It is not what might be intended, it is how that intention might be perceived—as well as the real outcome. There is the potential for a Trojan horse to lead us down a path which could be regretted at length as part of our constitution. Crucially, this will be seen from outside the country in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, perceived in relation to the rule of law.
Gideon Rachman from the Financial Times has written a book called The Age of The Strongman. In it, like many others who have written on this subject, he poses the real and present challenge of the international democratic process being undermined by the clash between the strong autocratic leadership of those outside the democratic fold; those within the purview of the democratic fold who are leading their nations into autocracy and the diktat of the centre; and the participative democratic world, which involves people being listened to, not just in parliaments but across the nations, and taken notice of.
I am afraid to say that the clauses with which we are dealing this afternoon are a measure of a Government who have not understood that they should be on the side of the participative democratic processes which defend us against the creeping autocracy we see internationally at the moment. It is as serious as that. The Electoral Commission and the electorate as a whole, who were polled over the weekend, have demonstrated their concern. Most people will not understand the detail of the Electoral Commission—why would they? However, they do understand when a Government start to believe that their party and their place in government are one and the same thing—they are not.
I tried to put this across in recent legislation in other areas of public policy. The Government govern for the nation as a whole; they do not govern for a particular political party. Of course, they will want to implement their manifesto and the mandate they have been given by the electorate. By the way, there is no mandate at all on this; there is no suggestion, as there has been in other parts of the Bill, that the Government had indicated, in their manifesto and during the election, that they wished to deal with the Electoral Commission in this way. There have been suggestions from one or two Members of this House at Second Reading and at Committee that somehow the Electoral Commission attracted the notice of the Government—or the Conservative Party, I should say—in terms of what happened in the 2016 referendum. This was backed up by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox; I was sat next to her at the time, and it was a rather half-hearted effort to defend the Government on this particular set of clauses.
There is no argument for it; there is no problem, as the noble and learned Lord explained. What we have is a solution in pursuit of a problem which does not really exist. Fundamentally, we have a vision and message going out from this legislation that will be rued by us all if we do not get this right. I have a very simple appeal to the Government: take these amendments and accept them when they go back to the Commons tomorrow; withdraw the proposal because it does not have support anywhere in this House, in the other House, other than the three-line Whip, or across the country; and allow us to unify on consulting properly on whatever perceived problems the Government—or the Conservative Party—Labour, the Lib Dems or the Cross Benches might have about the operation of the Electoral Commission. Consult properly, undertake this in a democratic fashion, understand how we are seen as a country and get it right.
I ask the Government to please understand this afternoon that some of us, at least, will go to the wire on this one. So let us be prepared to go into next week if we have to, to ensure that we defend our democratic processes and practices. If we do not, somewhere in years to come, someone should ask each of us, “Where were you? What did you do? Did you understand what you were passing? Were you in favour of it? If you were not, why did you not vote against it?”
My Lords, I will make three brief points in support of the amendments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. The first follows a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who has just made a forceful speech. As my noble friend Lord Cormack mentioned in an earlier debate, I was my party’s spokesman and I was in the shadow Cabinet of William Hague, now my noble friend Lord Hague, when the Bill establishing the Electoral Commission went through. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, implied, had the Blair Government sought to include these two clauses in that Bill, my party would have strongly opposed that. They conflict with the recommendation of the Neill commission’s report that
“An Election Commission in a democracy like ours could not function properly, or indeed at all, unless it were scrupulously impartial and believed to be so by everyone seriously involved and by the public at large.”
If it was right for my party to oppose those clauses then, it is right to oppose them today.
Secondly, I respectfully disagree with the argument in defence of the Government’s position put forward by my noble friend the Minister on March 10:
“It is entirely appropriate for the Government and Parliament to provide a steer on electoral policy … By increasing policy emphasis on electoral integrity … the Government are seeking to prevent interference in our democracy from fraud, foreign money and hostile state actors.”—[Official Report, 10/3/22; col. 1643.]
It is not the Electoral Commission that requires a steer, for example, on the importance of protecting our democracy from foreign money; it is the Government. The steer that my noble friend described—the statutory requirement to
“have regard to the statement”—
should be in precisely the opposite direction to the one in the Bill.
My third and final reason is related to the first. I have left the Government five times, which is more than anyone else in the Chamber—even the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. Once was at the request of the electorate in 1997 and three times were, sadly, at the request of the then Prime Minister, but the last was of my own volition, one month after the current Prime Minister took office, when he illegally prorogued Parliament. That was the first of a number of steps that injure out democratic institutions—in that case the House of Commons. It was followed by the failure to defend the judiciary from the “Enemies of the People” attack by the Daily Mail, the attempted interference with the verdict on Owen Paterson, the resignation of the Prime Minister’s independent adviser Alex Allan—instead of the Home Secretary—and the evident disregard, shown from time to time, for the role of your Lordships’ House and the Ministerial Code. These clauses are another step in the same direction; they are disrespectful of the ground rules of our constitution, and they should not be in the Bill.
My Lords, we have heard three splendid speeches, and I intend to be very brief. I will pick up on a comment made by my noble friend Lord Blunkett, who is of course quite right that the public will not be interested or involved in the details of this legislation. But I have no doubt whatever that they have an acute sense of fairness. In Committee, I suggested that, for the Government to give instructions to the Electoral Commission is akin to a party in a football match—one of the two teams—giving instructions and guidance to the referee prior to the match. I do not think that anyone in Britain would think that that was a fair situation. I do not think that anyone could seriously contend that that is not what would happen if these two clauses become law.
What I find particularly persuasive is that this letter from the Electoral Commission, which many of us have, is, unsurprisingly, signed by every single member bar the Conservative nominee—I make no criticism of the fact that he did not sign it, but it was signed by everyone else. It argues against these two clauses. As they say,
“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement – enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission – is inconsistent with the role”
of an “independent electoral commission”. If anyone is wavering on this, just substitute the words “Conservative Party” for “Government”. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and I strongly support political parties; I have been in one all my life and I would go as far as to say that they are the lifeblood of our democracy. I do not regard as superior human beings those people who have not joined political parties. If we substitute the word “Government” with “Conservative Party”—because of course Governments consist, in the main, of one political party—it reads as follows: “It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement – enabling the Conservative Party to guide the work of the Commission – is inconsistent with the role of an independent electoral commission.” Is there anyone here who could possibly dispute that statement? Forgetting about the Government for a moment, for one political party in a contested situation—which is precisely what elections are, which is why they can get fraught and need adjudicators—to give an instruction to the referee, or the Electoral Commission in this case, is clearly inconsistent and unacceptable as part of our electoral procedures. I urge everyone to see the fairness of that argument and to support the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to support the amendment put forward by the noble and learned Lord, which has, if I may say so, attracted very wide support on all Benches of this House.
Others have already identified some of the aspects of Clause 15 that are truly objectionable, so I will not go into any great detail, save to say that, on any view, the powers given to the Secretary of State are very extensive. They are, as has been said by a number of your Lordships, designed to make the commission an implementer of government policy. The requirement on the Government to consult is extraordinarily limited, and the obligation on the commission to report compliance will expose the commission to the cry “Enemies of the People”, as happened in 2016 when the judges held that Brexit required the consent of Parliament. I might remember, too, that the Lord Chancellor of the day did not push back on that criticism. I acknowledge that the substantive statement is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, but I also point out that, in the House of Commons at least, that will be the subject of the most strenuous whipping. In any event, of course, the statutory instrument procedure is not subject to amendment.
I have been in public life for 40 years—not as long as my noble friend Lord Cormack, but perhaps long enough—and I have come to a very settled conclusion: if you give powers to the Executive or to officials, in time they are certain to be abused or misused. That will certainly happen. As my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham—I have known him for over 60 years—rightly pointed out, the present Prime Minister illegally thought to prorogue Parliament. I am told by reading the newspapers that, at this moment, the Government are thinking of simply abrogating the Northern Ireland protocol—a treaty obligation to which the Prime Minister signed up very recently and on which, at the time, he incorrectly stated that it did not create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
As has been rightly said, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, election law is extraordinarily sensitive. I for one am not prepared to give powers to a Government that, if used, misused or abused, will certainly damage yet further the respect for our democratic institutions. It is for that reason that if, as I hope, the noble and learned Lord moves to test the opinion of the House, I shall support him.
My Lords, I would like to join in on all these comments about the Prime Minister’s failings, but I just do not think there is time in this debate.
I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and will obviously support the amendments, but before I speak to those specifically, I hope noble Lords will not mind if I speak briefly about what we are facing this week—and possibly next week—because the Government have created a legislative deadlock. This was not the fault of your Lordships’ House; it was the fault of the Government, and if this legislation is not passed in the next few days, it falls completely. I have no problem with that—I would like to see it all fall—but the fact is that that probably is not a position your Lordships’ House can take. However, we can obtain very significant concessions from the Government. They will not want to lose all these Bills, and this is an opportunity for us to throw out the worst bits of the legislation that we have all argued about over the past few months.
I make a plea to the Labour Front Bench and the Cross-Benchers that we maintain the maximum amount of toughness in the face of what the Government are trying to push through this House. We should not fumble this opportunity to improve Bills that we have tried to improve, only for almost all those amendments to be ripped out by the other place. So, I am looking forward to today. I have sat here and listened to the speeches with a real smile on my face; it has been wonderful.
Amendments 45 and 46 are a perfect example of why we should not back down. We have to insist that we will not pass the Bill if Clauses 15 and 16 remain in it. The Electoral Commission, as we have heard, said it best, and I agree. It says that the proposals are
“inconsistent with the role that an independent commission plays in a healthy democratic system.”
This Government are trying to reduce the amount of democracy we have in Britain, and that is a terrible failing for a democratically elected Government.
The Greens are very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for leading on these essential amendments. I am sure he is going to carry the House with him, and we will obviously vote for them again and again—as many times as it takes to force the Government to drop them or lose the Bill entirely.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I frequently do not agree with her; today, I most certainly do and I think, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, this is one that we take to the wire, because this is completely unacceptable in a Bill of this nature. In no circumstances could I possibly condone the Bill if it goes forward with these clauses in it.
As I was listening this afternoon to some excellent speeches, I thought of those famous words of Acton: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I am afraid we are in danger of our Government being corrupted. I use those words deliberately and slowly, but it is a real risk, because the arrogance that we see from this Government—my noble friend Lord Hailsham referred to this—is something that, in my 52 years in Parliament, I have not seen before. Coupled with it is a disinclination to disagree agreeably, and in a democracy it is very important to be able to do that.
For a Government to take these powers to themselves is something up with which we should not put. I referred to this in previous debates, at Second Reading and in Committee. We have here a potential seizure of power that, as my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham said, we would not have countenanced from the Labour Government, with their massive majority, 22 years ago, when he and I—he was leading—were dealing from the Front Bench with the Bill that established the Electoral Commission.
Of course, there are things wrong with the Electoral Commission. If they are so very wrong, if would not have been a dishonest thing to say that we will abolish it. I would not have favoured that, but to say that we will subvert it—that we will place ourselves in a position where we can undermine it—is an arrogance that defies belief. We just cannot have this in a Parliament, and the trouble is that if a sea change happens, it tends to stay.
One of the reasons why your Lordships’ House has such an excessive legislative burden on its shoulders is that in 1998, the then Labour Government—I was talking to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about this this morning —provoked by some Conservatives who kept Labour up late night after late night, decided that every Bill would be timetabled. When the Conservative spokesman said, “We, of course, will reverse this”, we all thought that that was absolutely right. And when Conservatives came into government, did they? No, because it was convenient for government. But the result of that convenience for government has created a situation where legislation is not scrutinised in the other place, hence the excessive workload in your Lordships’ House.
We should beware of going down slippery slopes. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has performed a signal service in putting down these two amendments. I believe it is our duty, it is incumbent upon us, to curb that arrogance of power and to make sure that these clauses are deleted from the Bill, or that the Bill—for all that it contains some things that are entirely acceptable —falls. That is the ultimatum we must place before the Government, and I hope they will see sense.
I thank the noble Lord for giving me a turn.
The case for removing these two clauses has been very powerfully made already and my point is a very simple one which will not take very long. These two clauses, if they remain in the Bill, will put in the hands of a successor Government the essential tools to immediately deliver the very first task set out in the autocrat’s playbook, which is, when you take power, make sure you keep it. In the UK, that means making sure that you have the Electoral Commission under your thumb.
I have only one question for the Minister. Taking him fully at his word that this Government would never in a million years use these powers to distort the actions of the Electoral Commission or to raise the bar for opposition candidates or opposition parties in any future election, what happens when the million years is up? What happens when another Government, less imbued with the deep ethical principles so clearly exhibited by the present Administration, less scrupulous about fair play and with less commitment to truth and accuracy, take office? Can the Minister say to your Lordships, in all honesty, that it will be safe to put these clauses on the statute book, just waiting for that ruthless successor Government to exploit? It could be an ultra-left Government with little regard for constitutional conventions, balancing the books or protecting industry from red tape, and perhaps ready to repudiate international treaties, undermining all those Conservative values that the Minister espouses so much.
Does the Minister think it is safe to leave these clauses in the Bill? I have seen the noble Lord in action. I do not believe that he is either so naive or so short-sighted as to believe it would be safe to do so, and it would not be in the long-term interests of the Conservative Party for these clauses to be in the Bill. I, my noble friends and other noble Lords all around the House have powerfully expressed the view that we are ready to help him get off the hook and to take these two clauses out of the Bill.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and to the House, for having pushed him so rudely.
When one sees the way the tide of opinion is flowing strongly, it is very easy to think that it is best to keep one’s head down and not provide a cautionary word about being careful what we wish for in taking these amendments through—should the House so decide. I note and appreciate the concerns expressed in powerful speeches this afternoon. These are replicated in the briefing from the Electoral Commission referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Several letters in the correspondence columns of the broadsheets have carried an equivalent message.
I also recognise that the drafting of parts of these clauses can best be described as uncompromising. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to this, though I think he was slightly dismissive about the consultation processes provided for in Clause 15, in new Sections 4C and 4D. He pointed out that the procedures for scrutinising secondary legislation are proving increasingly inadequate and ineffective for modern conditions. He knows that I agree with him. I am pleased to be able to tell him and the House that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, will publish a further end of term report at the end of this week. This will give grist to his mill—and indeed to mine.
Among the concerns raised is the use of what can be described as tertiary legislation. I spoke to the noble and learned Lord in advance of this debate, so he knows broadly what I shall say about creating bodies over which there is absolutely no parliamentary control but which, none the less, have powers that concern some of the most fundamental aspects of our society. One recent example is the College of Policing, an independent body able to introduce regulations and codes that affect every one of us.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra have made common cause in attacking this. I entirely support them. To come to the point, I am not yet convinced that, if these two amendments were agreed, we would not be creating another body equivalent to the College of Policing, but this time for electoral purposes—an equally important part of our national life.
Am I enthusiastic about Clauses 15 and 16? Not at all, but I recognise that there is some parliamentary involvement and approval in this process. If these amendments were accepted, the Electoral Commission—with all the criticisms that have been made of it, fairly or unfairly—would float free from any even minor scrutiny or accountability. In my view, this would be even less desirable.
I wish to make two points about these amendments. I do so in the hope—but not the expectation—that noble Lords who have set their faces against these clauses will look at them in a more favourable light.
First, all public bodies must be accountable, whether they are independent regulators or carrying out other kinds of function. This should not be a controversial statement. The role of the Speaker’s Committee, as set out in PPERA, with its focus on budgets and plans rather than outcomes and actions, provides a weak accountability framework. Indeed, the report on election fraud from my noble friend Lord Pickles, who I am glad to see in his place, found it ineffective. Clauses 15 and 16 beef up the Speaker’s Committee so that it can hold the Electoral Commission to account on the basis of the policy and strategy statement, remembering, of course, that that statement is not just the creature of government and must be consulted on and approved by Parliament. Anyone who opposes Clauses 15 and 16 really should explain how they would ensure that the Electoral Commission will be properly accountable, because the current arrangements are simply not fit for purpose.
Secondly, there is a myth that the strategy and policy statement is a de facto power of direction or involves giving instructions—I think that was the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—to the Electoral Commission. Clause 15 could not be clearer. There is no obligation on the commission to follow the statement. There is no alteration of the core duties and obligations set out in PPERA. The commission’s only duty is to have regard to the statement and report annually on what it has done in consequence of it. That report might, in theory, say that it has done nothing in consequence of the statement, but given the generally bland nature of these policy and strategy statements, I think that would be unlikely.
The opponents of these clauses, however, say that the strategy and policy statements will influence the Electoral Commission, with the implication that influence is always malign. I believe that the independence of the Electoral Commission is founded in the independence of the thought and integrity of the commissioners themselves, and those commissioners are not appointed by the Government. Genuinely independent commissioners will do what they think is necessary in accordance with their statutory obligations, and they will do that whatever the Government tell them to do. The commissioners are the first line of defence against undue influence. Influence can be a positive thing, too. I hope noble Lords would have no problem if, for example, a statement influenced the commission to focus on important issues such as those that arose in relation to Tower Hamlets. I remind noble Lords that the Electoral Commission did not cover itself in glory when first encountering the issues there. I urge noble Lords not to support these amendments.
My Lords, I shall cover two or three points. I shall not go into detail about some of my concerns about the Electoral Commission, except to make a limited comment about difficulties I have at the moment. I will start by referring to comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, earlier in relation to referees. I wear my rugby referee’s tie with pride today because it is an indication of the impartiality one is required to have under all circumstances. No player or spectator ever accused me of not being impartial. They may have accused me of being incompetent, and did so volubly from the touchline, but they did not accuse me of not being impartial.
I must disagree with both my noble friends Lord Hodgson and Lady Noakes. As far as I am concerned, there are ways of dealing with the problems of the Electoral Commission. As I think many Members know, I have had more problems and more dealings with the Electoral Commission over the last 12 months than virtually anybody in this Chamber—and, my godfathers, does it not drive you barmy? I have sympathy with the Government because they are trying to tackle the problem. All I shall say on my latest difficulty, which has been running for four or five days, is: will the Electoral Commission please look at itself rather than passing to others the responsibility for policing matters—administering elections and the like? This problem has run since 2013 to my full knowledge. It keeps saying that other people need to deal with these matters but it does not look at itself.
These clauses are not a way of tackling the problems that I and others have faced with the Electoral Commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, in effect, they tell us that the home team at a rugby match shall have the right to speak to the referee and tell him how he will referee that game. I am sorry, but I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: if you are giving guidance, however softly and subtly you do it, you are influencing the Electoral Commission and not giving others that opportunity to influence it in the same way. We need to look at the way that the commissioners are appointed, and we may need to look at the way that other organisations around it operate, but the one thing we do not need to do is to tie the commission to guidance from the Government.
The only part of the comments I made when we debated this matter previously that I want to repeat is that I have had the pleasure—or difficulty, for that matter —of being on a panel abroad looking at international elections. That is a process which many Members of this House have participated in. I want the honour— I use “honour” deliberately—of being able to say to other countries, “Look at what we do. Follow that as closely as possible, because that is the best way to run your elections”. However, with these two clauses in the Bill, I am afraid that I could not do that.
My Lords, my name is on these amendments. We have had a very powerful debate from all sides of the House, and I suggest that we now ought to move towards the Minister’s response.
I remind the Minister of the constitutional context we are in and of his responsibilities as, in effect, the only member of the Government with responsibility for the constitution and constitutional propriety. Noble Lords may not be fully aware that, since the last reshuffle, there is no longer any Minister within the Government who has been given the specific responsibility of being Minister for the Constitution. The responsibility for this Bill has been moved from the Cabinet Office to the department for levelling up, communities, local government and various other things which provide a very extensive portfolio for Michael Gove. That leaves the Minister in some ways stranded, but in other ways he is the only member of the Government—apart from the Prime Minister himself—who specifically has responsibility for constitutional propriety among his major responsibilities.
The Minister will be well aware that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, referred to issues of constitutional principle in his resignation letter and that, before him, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, also resigned on a matter of constitutional principle. I hope that the Minister will address the constitutional propriety of these two clauses in winding up. After all, we are in a wider constitutional crisis, both domestically—I have referred to the context of that—and internationally, given what is happening in Ukraine and the growth of autocracies around the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, who sadly is not in his place, addressed Britain’s constitutional crisis in his article in the Times last Wednesday. He reminded his readers:
“The British constitution, because it is unwritten, is particularly vulnerable to its limitations being resisted at the top of government … It is the responsibility of parliamentarians, and in particular Conservative ones, to insist”
that constitutional rules and conventions are followed. I welcome the reaffirmation made by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, of the Conservative Party’s proud tradition as the constitutional party—from Burke through successive Salisburys to the noble Viscount’s father, Lord Hailsham—and I regret our current Government’s failure to maintain fully that tradition.
I invite the Minister to explain to the House how he considers these proposals to be compatible with Conservative principles of limited government and parliamentary sovereignty. If he cannot reconcile the tried and tested principles of Conservatism—about which he has often spoken eloquently—with these proposals, he should accept that they should be removed.
My Lords, we very much welcome these amendments. We thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for tabling them and for his excellent and clear introduction on his concerns about the implications of leaving these clauses in the Bill. I will be brief, as he and many other noble Lords made excellent speeches today.
We have made it extremely clear on previous stages of the Bill’s consideration that we are extremely concerned about its intention to make provisions for a power to designate a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission, drafted by government. As other noble Lords have said, this would allow political interference in the regulation of our elections and calls into question the independence of the Electoral Commission from government and political control. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. It is a dangerous precedent. If we look at similar democracies such as Canada, New Zealand or Australia, there is always a complete separation between government and the electoral commission. It is essential that our regulatory framework strikes the right balance between upholding the independence of the Electoral Commission and ensuring it is properly scrutinised and held to account. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, made some good points about the fact that we need to look at how it operates, but this is absolutely not the way to go about it.
I remind those noble Lords who have said that this is not of any concern that new Section 4B(2) in Clause 15 says that:
“The Commission must have regard to the statement when carrying out their functions”—
“must”, not “may”. That is what really concerns us. We have had many excellent speeches, so I urge the Minister to listen very carefully to what has been said in the defence of our democracy. That is what we are talking about. We fully support these amendments and urge other noble Lords to do the same when this is put to the House.
My Lords, I have not detected universal enthusiasm for these clauses in the debate, but I will seek to persuade your Lordships that they should remain. Of course, in remaining, one of the things they do is provide a basis for further discussion.
Your Lordships’ House is a revising Chamber, but we do not have here amendments to revise. These amendments would simply remove clauses on the basis of arguments which, in my submission, are exaggerated in their concerns, although I understand and share the concerns for democratic responsibility and respect. We have even heard several threats to kill the whole Bill. I must remind noble Lords that this is a Bill that prevents election fraud and abuse; introduces the first controls on digital campaigning; cracks down in many ways on foreign spending; and improves the integrity of postal voting. These are matters which have wide assent across the Chamber and across both Houses. It would not be wise or proportionate for your Lordships to consider killing those proposals on the basis of this particular issue.
Would my noble friend accept that if the Government withdraw these clauses, on which there is a great deal of opposition, the Bill will go through? Several of us have said that it has many excellent features. We do not want to kill the Bill, but we do want to remove this anti-democratic element from it.
My Lords, I can only respond to the language I heard in the debate and, of course, that will lie in Hansard. Of course I listen to the range of concerns set out by your Lordships. The main concern that I hear, and understand, is about the potential impact on the independence of the Electoral Commission.
I stated in Committee, and I do so again now, that the Government’s proposals take a proportionate approach to reforming the accountability of the commission to Parliament, which some who have spoken have admitted could be reviewed, while respecting its operational independence. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and others that it is vital we have an independent regulator that commands trust across the political spectrum.
By the way, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, asked would I worry if the Labour Party had such powers on the statute book. I remind your Lordships that the Labour Party is a great constitutional party, and I would trust it to use the responsibilities and powers that it had in an appropriate manner.
In previous debates, parliamentarians across both Houses identified areas of concern with the commission’s work. My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts spoke to this. Under the existing accountability framework, in practice, parliamentarians are limited in their ability to scrutinise and hold the commission effectively accountable. The report by my noble friend Lord Pickles, whom I am pleased to see in his place, obviously alluded to certain issues that he felt had not been fully addressed. These measures will seek to remedy this by providing guidance, as approved by Parliament, for the commission to consider in the exercise of its functions, and by giving the Speaker’s Committee an enhanced role in holding the commission to account in how it has performed its duties in relation to the proposed statement.
It has been suggested, several times, that the “duty to have regard” to the strategy and policy statement placed on the commission in Clause 15 will weaken its independence and give Ministers the power to direct it. The Government strongly reject this characterisation of the measures. The Electoral Commission will remain operationally independent and governed by its Electoral Commissioners as a result of this measure, after as before. This duty does not allow the Government to direct the work of the commission, nor does it undermine the commission’s other statutory duties.
I wonder, given what the Minister has just said, whether he could explain the purpose of new Section 13ZA, on the examination of the duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement, which states:
“The Speaker’s Committee may examine the performance by the Commission of the Commission’s duty under section 4B(2) (duty to have regard to strategy and policy statement).”
What is the purpose of having the ability to examine the commitment to the policy statement? What would the Government do if it found that “have regard” had not been sufficient?
My Lords, I say to the noble Baroness that it is not a power to direct. The Speaker’s Committee is not a government institution; it is part of the architecture that is there, and has been there, to oversee the work of the commission. That was inherent in previous legislation; this legislation seeks to improve its ability to do so. What the legislation means is that when carrying out its functions, yes, the commission will be asked to consider the statement, but weigh it up against any other relative considerations.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, knows the respect I have for him. I have enjoyed discussing this matter with him and no doubt may again if he has his way in your Lordships’ House today, which I hope he will not, but our contention is that there are a number of safeguarding provisions around parliamentary approval and consultation built into Clause 15. I outlined that at length in previous debates and will not repeat it here. I believe, notwithstanding the noble and learned Lord’s remarks, that those safeguarding provisions should reassure those who have expressed concerns about strategy and policy statements being drafted by future Governments that may have ill intent.
The statement will set out guidance and principles. We have published an illustrative example, which is hardly the most threatening document ever published in the history of mankind. We ask that the commission have regard to that statement in the discharge of its functions. The statement will provide the commission with a clear articulation of principles and priorities, approved by Parliament, as it is reasonable for Parliament to do, to have regard to when going about its work, particularly in areas where primary legislation is not explicit and the commission is exercising the significant discretion it is afforded in terms of activity, priorities, and approach. My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts made some important remarks on what he described as tertiary legislative powers.
Under these proposals, Parliament will have an important role in debating and scrutinising the content of the statement, which in turn will influence how the commission exercises its discretion. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, doubted the adequacy of the provision for statutory consultation set out in Clause 15, but I do not agree that a statutory consultation process for the statement is nugatory. The provisions state that the Secretary of State must review and consider submissions from all statutory consultees before submitting a new statement for parliamentary approval. Furthermore, any new or revised statement will be subject to approval of the UK Parliament, thus ensuring that the Government consider parliamentarians’ views and that Parliament has the final say over whether any statement takes effect.
The proposed removal of Clause 16 is also put to your Lordships. It was noted in Committee that the Electoral Commission is already accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee—this again takes up the point made by the noble Baroness. However, the Speaker’s Committee’s existing remit is narrowly restricted to overseeing the commission’s finances, its five-year corporate plan, and the appointment of Electoral Commissioners. The purpose of Clause 16 is to expand this remit to enable the Speaker’s Committee to perform a scrutiny function similar to that of parliamentary Select Committees. As the noble and learned Lord acknowledged, that committee does not have an inbuilt government majority. By allowing the Speaker’s Committee to scrutinise the commission’s activities in light of its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement, we will give the UK Parliament the tools to effectively review the commission and hold it accountable.
My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the Speaker’s Committee is sui generis. Obviously, it has senior representation from political parties in the House of Commons. I have enormous respect and affection for the noble Lord. It is not reasonable to impugn the integrity of a Speaker’s Committee and I do not think that he was doing so—
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord rose. I had started to make it clear that I was not making any such proposal. The analogy I was using is just a mechanism in terms of the way that the committee will be able to conduct its reviews, effectively holding the commission accountable on a broader range of its activities than is currently allowed in law. As I sought to explain to your Lordships, that remit is currently narrowly restricted.
For the reasons that I have set out, I urge that my noble friends and noble Lords across the House oppose the amendments put forward by the noble and learned Lord, and that Clauses 15 and 16 stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has participated, including those Members of the House who do not agree with me. It is fun to listen to alternative arguments.
I have just a couple of points to make. The problem with these clauses is that they were inserted without any kind of discussion. When constitutional issues are being addressed, and when, in particular, the independence of the Electoral Commission and its performance are being addressed, surely, of all things, that is something for cross-party discussion, and it is for the cross-parties to make up their minds how to make the Electoral Commission do its job and perform its function better than it has. That is a matter for Parliament: I am not going to advance different solutions to this, but the problem is that nobody has asked anybody else. That is why I describe this proposal as “new minted”. It is “new minted”, and that is one of its problems.
The other problem is with the phrase “must have regard to”. I “must have regard” to everything the Minister says. I am going to listen to it; I am going to be influenced by it. I might not feel quite as strongly as I did against him—I do not know—but the point is that you have to have regard to the statement by the Minister of the Government’s strategies, priorities and guidance, and that would influence any body of people, however independent-minded they are and wish to be. That, surely, is the point of this legislation. The Government want the commission to be influenced by the strategy and priorities paper.
If the Electoral Commission says, “Well, we have seen what the Minister has to say. We have read the statement and we think it’s a load of rubbish”, what happens then? Apart from anything else, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will be briefed on a judicial review by the Government that the Electoral Commission was not exercising its powers correctly, and he would probably win. As I have told noble Lords before, he never won a single case in front of me; and as I have also told noble Lords before, on every occasion when he appealed, he won.
I would just add, on a serious note, that the noble and learned Lord makes an absolutely correct point. If the Electoral Commission said, “We do not agree with this document and we are not going to follow it”, there would be a real danger of judicial review. There would be a real danger, in particular, because this document would have the approval of Parliament, it having been whipped through.
Clause 16: Examination of duty to have regard to strategy and policy statement
46: Clause 16, leave out Clause 16
Amendment 46 agreed.
Clause 19: Notional expenditure: use of property etc on behalf of candidates and others
47: Clause 19, page 29, line 24, leave out “a local government election in Scotland or Wales” and insert “an election in Scotland or Wales under the local government Act”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 10, line 33.
Amendment 47 agreed.
48: Clause 19, leave out Clause 19
My Lords, after a long debate on a substantive issue, this will probably be a rather shorter, more technical debate. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, from the Labour Front Bench, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, from the Greens, for supporting the amendment to delete Clause 19 in Committee. I am also grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, and his team for engaging on this issue of accounting for election expenditure in constituencies. The Government’s position appears to be that no change in law is proposed. I therefore think that Clause 19 is unnecessary. The Government say that it is about clarification, but I think this has been provided by the courts and that guidance from the Electoral Commission—provided it remains independent—should suffice.
The Government blame confusion about the rules for election spending in constituencies for the prosecution of the Conservative candidate, the Conservative agent and a senior Conservative HQ staff member following the campaign in South Thanet during the 2015 general election. However, it does not address the widespread concern after that election that the basic principles of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883, which first provided a level playing field in constituency election campaigns, were being subverted in that election.
The origins of Clause 19 are in a Private Member’s Bill introduced by that Conservative candidate in that election and which the Electoral Commission advised
“would risk allowing parties to spend what they like (subject to their national limits) on promoting their candidates in key marginal seats”.
I think the clause is unnecessary because Southwark Crown Court acquitted the candidate and the agent, maintaining the simple principle that they could not be held responsible for what they were not responsible. But the Conservative campaign headquarters was held to be responsible for massive overspending in support of the Conservative candidate and a senior party official received a significant sentence.
Today, I seek significant assurances from the Minister that what is described as a clarification is not an attempt to make legal what was deemed illegal by Southwark Crown Court. Parliament must not be seen to give a nod and a wink to reversing the principle of the level playing field in constituency campaigns—a principle that was reaffirmed in the Representation of the People Act 1983. In his judgment on the case at Southwark Crown Court, Mr Justice Edis said that the existing law
“exists to ensure a level playing field and also to limit the extent to which the electorate can be manipulated by costly and sophisticated systems designed to spread a message on behalf of a candidate in a Parliamentary election.”
If we are to accept Clause 19, I would like the Minister to confirm that we are not supporting any change to that principle.
Two years ago, the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, confirmed that the Government accepted that the principle of a level playing field, as set out in the original 1883 legislation, is “timeless”. Is this still the Government’s policy? Do they accept the conclusions of Southwark Crown Court, which tested election law on these issues, or do they seek to overturn the decision about what was found to be illegal? Depending on the Minister’s response, I may wish to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
I do not have much to add to the noble Lord’s contribution. We support his contention that this is an unnecessary clause. I agree that the principle is one that we should completely reaffirm, as the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, did in a previous debate. We need the assurances from the Minister. If he is unable to give the assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, seeks, we will support him if he decides to divide the House.
My Lords, as noble Lords will know, Clause 19 is there to clarify the law on benefits in kind and make it clear that candidates need to report only benefits in kind that they have actually used or which they or their election agent have directed, authorised or encouraged someone else to use on their behalf. We had some discussion on this in Committee, as the noble Lord acknowledges. This was already widely understood to be true, prior to the Supreme Court judgment in R v Mackinlay and others. The Supreme Court judgment has led to concerns that candidates and agents could be responsible for spending they had not consented to or were unaware of or not involved in. This is an unacceptable situation and risks a chilling effect on people willing to put themselves forward as candidates and agents.
The noble Lord has been so kind as to refer to the positive engagement we had and I thank him for his continued interest in and engagement on the topic. In response to some of the concerns he raised, including those raised again today, I am happy to provide clarity on the government position. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked two specific questions and I can say to him that the Government are absolutely committed to the long-standing principle of a level playing field for general election campaigns, whether in campaigning being carried out at constituency level or nationally. The noble Lord referred to a statement made by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham in 2019 when agreeing with the importance of the principle of a level playing field in relation to spending at elections. The Government maintain the commitment my noble friend gave; nothing in the Bill seeks to undermine that principle.
The proposals in the Bill will not change the fundamental principle that party spending in support of a particular candidate in a local area falls to be recorded as candidate spending against the local limit. Instead, the clauses bring forward changes seeking to maintain the level playing field by ensuring that all candidates and agents across the political spectrum are clear and confident in their legal responsibilities. Clause 19 also makes an equivalent amendment to the same rules for other types of campaigners, such as political parties and third-party campaigners, to ensure that the rules are consistent. We believe that these changes will bring much-needed reassurance and clarity to candidates and their agents on the rules which apply to notional expenditure for reserved elections. In combination with expanded statutory guidance—which we will discuss shortly—from the Electoral Commission on this matter provided for in Clause 20, this measure will support compliance with the rules and ensure that those wishing to participate in public life can feel confident doing so, clear in their obligations.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked a further and very specific question. I can say to him that the Government are not acting in response to the judgment of Southwark Crown Court in 2019 in relation to campaigning in South Thanet in 2015. However, the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2018 related specifically to the consideration of a particular point of law and concluded that there was no requirement for authorisation in Section 90(3) of the 2000 Act, which was contrary to the understanding of many and led to concerns about what expenses could potentially be incurred on a candidate’s behalf even without their knowledge. As a result, there have been calls from across the political spectrum for clarification of those rules. A cross-party committee of MPs, PACAC and the Law Commission have called for clarity on the rules in recent reports. The changes enacted by the Bill will only clarify the law so that it can be commonly understood. As I said, any uncertainty could lead to a democratic chilling effect, with candidates and election agents, who are often volunteers and fearful of their personal circumstances, unwilling to expose themselves to risk.
Finally, it is important to note that Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already prohibits “local” third-party spending over £700 which has not been “authorised in writing”; therefore, it requires specific authorisation. Where such spending is authorised by a candidate, the candidate must also report on the spending incurred by the third party. If a third party, which could include a political party, spends over that threshold without authorisation, an offence has been committed. The Elections Bill does not alter this. Where a third party, including a political party, has provided property, goods and services free of charge or at a discount, or has made use of property, this must be recorded as a notional expense.
I can assure the noble Lord on those points that we are absolutely committed to the assurance my noble friend gave and that we are not acting in response to the judgment of Southwark Crown Court in 2019 in relation to 2015 and the issues of uncertainty that have arisen. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will accept those assurances and be ready to withdraw his amendment that would remove this clause from the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for those warm words and his reassurance, and for his engagement and that of his officials on this important issue of election law. We have certainly made great progress on the issue since we began discussing what may happen in relation to notional expenditure and the original Private Member’s Bill, but I take from everything that he says, when he refers to clarification following the Supreme Court judgment, that any court in future would say that nothing in this clause should be taken as a change in the law.
I remain unconvinced that it is necessary but I am pleased that the Minister, in his correspondence, particularly that to all Members of the House on 4 April—if I may paraphrase slightly what he said—made it clear that there is no get out of jail free card for a candidate or agent who encourages excessive spending in a constituency and simply relies on the claim not to have authorised it. The word “encouraging” is quite significant in how that may be taken in a court in future should there be controversy over election expenses. It means that there cannot be a nod and a wink to expenditure in the cause of winning a constituency without accepting that such expenditure must be specifically authorised, to a £700 limit, for a third party. An election agent who told their HQ that they were delivering a leaflet with the local volunteers over the weekend so it would be convenient if two coachloads of paid activists could come on Wednesday and Thursday would certainly be encouraging illegal spending, as would providing them with maps and assisting them with their dining and hotel arrangements when they came to canvass or deliver in the constituency.
In my view, it remains a loophole that we must examine at another time that parties can post huge quantities of direct mail to a constituency aimed at influencing the vote there but claim that it is nothing to do with the local candidate. However, given that the Electoral Commission should retain its independence to advise on such matters, and that such advice could again be evidence in court, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 48 withdrawn.
Clause 20: Codes of practice on expenses
49: Clause 20, page 31, line 20, leave out “or paragraph 3(7) of Schedule 8A”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, which leaves out the reference to an order under paragraph 3(7) of Schedule 8A to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (in the inserted paragraph (aa) for section 156(3) of that Act), is consequential on the new Clause that Lord Hodgson is seeking to insert after Clause 27.
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 54 and 56. Amendments 49 and 54 are paving amendments, and the bulk of what I want to say relates to Amendment 56.
The role of a Back-Bencher moving amendments is to spend a great deal of one’s time pushing on doors that are firmly shut and remain so. But every now and then a door opens and one staggers into the room off-balance with surprise, and so it is today. It is therefore right that I should begin by thanking the Minister and the Bill team for the way they have responded to Amendment 54, which I tabled in Committee and has now expanded to this group of amendments. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is not in his place, for again putting his name to an amendment in this revised group.
I do not intend to repeat my remarks except to say that the amendment is intended to address head-on the so-called chilling effect on third-party campaigning resulting from the provisions of the 2014 Act. At the heart of that problem is what is known as the “intent test”. The wording in the Act catches for regulatory purpose any activity that
“can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election”.
The decision on which actions or activities cross the line lies with the Electoral Commission. I make it clear that the commission has gone out of its way since the passage of the 2014 Act to reassure third-party campaigners about how it intends to implement these provisions, but we are here today scrutinising primary legislation and we want to future-proof it as far as possible. That includes future-proofing it from a future Electoral Commission that may adopt a less collaborative approach than the current one.
The answer is to introduce a series of statutory codes that have the following advantages: first, they require the Electoral Commission to undertake the intellectual heavy lifting needed to produce a code giving clarity and certainty to third-party campaigners; secondly, they give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise and approve the initial codes and any revisions thereto; and, thirdly, they give third-party campaigners the knowledge that compliance with the code provides a statutory defence.
Although the intent test is by some distance the most important aspect of third-party campaigning in need of a statutory code, other areas would usefully benefit from similar treatment. The amendment as drafted provides for that. The new amendment differs from the earlier one in only three ways. Two areas arise from the conventions of parliamentary drafting—that to identify specific issues or bodies risks diminishing the importance of others. So, the references in the earlier amendment to a code to define “the public” and to include civil society groups among those who have to be consulted are omitted. However, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will shortly be able to say on the Floor of the House that those omissions do not reflect any diminution in their relevance or importance. The only other change in drafting is to deal with the particular position of the devolved Administrations.
I end by thanking all those who have thrown their weight behind making these changes and, last but not least, my noble friend the Minister and the Bill team. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise briefly to welcome and support the noble Lord. Throughout the stages of the Bill, I have repeatedly welcomed some of his contributions, particularly in relation to third-party campaigning and creating the certainty and clarity that they need to ensure that the chilling effect does not have a huge impact on our democracy. I very much welcome this, and I welcome the principle that the code of practice provides that necessary parliamentary scrutiny. We welcome these amendments.
My Lords, one of the charming aspects of your Lordships’ House is that when a Minister is being chided for not listening to the House it is rammed to the gills but when the Government make a concession there are not quite so many here. None the less, I thank not only my noble friend Lord Hodgson but colleagues in other parts of the House who have made this case, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is not in his place for perfectly understandable reasons.
The amendment would create a new clause in the Bill which would remove a permissive power that allowed the Electoral Commission to prepare a code of practice, and instead, as your Lordships have asked, replace it with a requirement on the Electoral Commission to produce such a code of conduct. It also specifies the scope of the code, sets out the consultation process and procedure for the code, and creates a defence for third parties who are charged with offences under Part 6 of PPERA. It also makes the necessary consequential amendments to Clauses 20 and 25.
As my noble friend kindly acknowledged, in Committee I promised to consider his suggestions on a code of practice for third-party campaigners. He made his arguments in good faith, on the basis of great experience and genuinely reflecting the opinions of the sector. As he acknowledged, my officials and I have since met him and concluded that these changes are necessary and important for third-party campaigners.
The new statutory guidance—I do not know whether it will come to be called “the Hodgson guidance”—will provide certainty for third-party campaigners on how to comply with the rules relating to third-party campaigning. The amendment provides for the guidance to be comprehensive, and I say to my noble friend that it is our hope that this will address the term “the public” used in Part 1 of Schedule 8A on qualifying expenses.
The amendment requires the commission to consult the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, as in our earlier proposals on the strategy document. It also requires the commission to consult such other persons as the commission considers appropriate. As part of the statutory consultation, the Government would certainly expect a cross-section of civil society groups to be consulted; I can give my noble friend that assurance.
I am pleased to confirm that the Government are fully supportive of these three amendments, and I very much hope that your Lordships will support my noble friend.
Amendment 49 agreed.
Clause 21: Authorised persons not required to pay expenses through election agent
50: Clause 21, page 31, line 30, leave out “a local government election in Wales” and insert “an election in Wales under the local government Act”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 10, line 33.
Amendment 50 agreed.
Clause 22: Declaration of assets and liabilities to be provided on application for registration
51: Clause 22, page 32, line 14, leave out “party’s assets/liabilities figure does not exceed £500” and insert “assets/liabilities condition is met in relation to the party”
Member’s explanatory statement
The amendments to Clause 22 in the name of Baroness Noakes ensure that the reporting threshold for section 28(3D) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (declaration of assets and liabilities to be provided on application for registration) is expressed in terms that are consistent with accounting practice.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 51 I will also speak to Amendments 52 and 53 in this group, and I can be brief. The amendments are technical and, I hope, non-contentious, especially as my noble friend Lord True has added his name to them.
In Committee, when we were debating what is now Clause 22, I asked the Minister about the wording of the new subsections (3B) and (3C) in Section 28 of PPERA. This exempts small parties from the new requirement to make a declaration of assets and liabilities when they register. The threshold has been set at £500, which is in line with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, which recommended it be set by reference to assets or liabilities. The Bill added another reference point: assets plus liabilities. Being a very old-fashioned accountant, adding assets and liabilities together did not make any sense to me.
Since Committee, I have had very constructive exchanges with my noble friend the Minister and his officials, and the outcome of that is the three amendments in this group. In effect, the amendments say that the small-parties threshold is now expressed as £500 for either assets or liabilities. It does this by saying that a small political party has to meet an assets/liabilities condition, which is defined in proposed new subsection (3C), in Amendment 53, as being met only if both assets and liabilities do not exceed £500.
I am grateful to the Government for facilitating this small change to the Bill in the interests of good accounting practice. I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, to highlight the importance that provisions relating to electoral law are consistent with accounting practice. I know that the noble Baroness speaks with great experience and expertise in this area, having served as the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, as well as holding various senior positions in the accounting and finance area.
Specifically, these amendments focus on the registration of parties and the declaration of assets in relation to this process. It is crucial that the individuals and groups participating in elections are fully transparent in their practices—a point which these Benches have consistently raised during debates on amendments in previous stages of the Bill.
I hope the Minister can provide assurances that PPERA and other legislation governing political activities are already consistent with accounting practice, but I would also appreciate if she could use this opportunity to provide a more general update on how the evolving governance of accountancy and reporting will relate to political finances.
Finally, the Minister will be aware that the Financial Reporting Council is preparing to transition to become the audit, reporting and governance authority. Can she confirm whether the Government expect the new authority to play any role in overseeing finances relating to elections? I look forward to assurances from the Minister.
My Lords, Amendments 51, 52 and 53 were tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, whom I thank for sharing her considerable expertise in and knowledge of this topic. Her constructive engagement with the Bill, particularly this clause, has been gratefully received in order to ensure that the law works effectively and as intended.
Asset declarations upon registration as a political party is an important matter. In answer to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in Committee, I say that this measure was recommended by the Electoral Commission in its 2013 and 2018 reports—A Regulatory Review of the UK’s Party and Election Finance Laws, and Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters. This led to the Committee on Standards in Public Life making the very same recommendation in its 2021 report Regulating Election Finance.
Clause 22 introduces provisions that will require new political parties to declare whether they have assets or liabilities in excess of £500 when they register with the Electoral Commission as a political party. Those with assets or liabilities in excess of £500 will be required to give a record of them as part of their registration. This will provide an increased level of transparency regarding a political party’s financial position at the point of registration. As part of the registration process, new political parties are not currently required to submit a declaration of the assets they own or liabilities they have. This information only becomes available in their first annual statement of accounts, published on the Electoral Commission’s website, which may be up to 18 months after registration.
The central policy aim of Clause 22 is to ensure greater transparency regarding the financial situation of new political parties. It is my and the Government’s view that my noble friend Lady Noakes’s technical amendments make this clearer and easier to understand for political parties registering with the Electoral Commission. These amendments will remove the requirement to add together the assets and liabilities, therefore bringing this clause into line with the more standard accounting practices that my noble friend has shared with us. I will read Hansard tomorrow and make sure that the noble Lord has a written answer to the questions that he asked. Therefore, I am pleased to say that the Government support this amendment, and I urge the noble Lords to do so too.
Amendment 51 agreed.
Amendments 52 and 53
52: Clause 22, page 32, line 17, leave out “party’s assets/liabilities figure exceeds £500” and insert “assets/liabilities condition is not met in relation to the party”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in the name of Baroness Noakes at page 32, line 14.
53: Clause 22, page 32, leave out lines 19 to 25 and insert—
“(3C) The assets/liabilities condition is met in relation to a party if—(a) the total value of the party’s assets does not exceed £500, and(b) the total amount of the party’s liabilities does not exceed £500.”Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement to the amendment in the name of Baroness Noakes at page 32, line 14.
Amendments 52 and 53 agreed.
Clause 25: Restriction on which third parties may incur controlled expenditure
54: Clause 25, page 35, leave out lines 27 to 35
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, to leave out subsection (6) of the inserted section 89A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, is consequential on the new Clause that Lord Hodgson is seeking to insert after Clause 27.
Amendment 54 agreed.
Clause 26: Third parties capable of giving notification for purposes of Part 6 of PPERA
55: Clause 26, page 36, line 34, at end insert—
“(10) An order under subsection (9)(b) or (c) may be made only where the order gives effect to a recommendation of the Commission.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes the power to remove or vary entries in the list of categories of third party that may be recognised for the purposes of Part 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 exercisable only on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission.
My Lords, Clause 26 allows the Secretary of State to lay legislation before Parliament to amend the list of eligible categories of third-party campaigners in PPERA 2000. As we discussed at earlier stages, this is necessary in instances where, for example, legitimate categories not currently on the list emerge in the future. Without it, they would be significantly restricted in their ability to campaign if they could not be added to the list quickly. We consider the power to remove and vary entries equally as necessary in ensuring that the list of categories remains accurate. Any order, regardless of whether it adds, varies or removes categories, will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny by both Houses, via the affirmative resolution procedure.
However, the Government have listened carefully to, and taken note of, concerns raised by noble Lords during debates, by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its recent report and by representatives from civil society organisations in recent meetings. In recognition of the strength of feeling on this issue, which I understand, I have therefore tabled an amendment that would mean that any order to remove or vary the description of a category of third-party campaigner can only—I emphasise “only”—be made where it gives effect to a recommendation of the Electoral Commission. This Electoral Commission lock will provide the necessary safeguard against any future Government potentially seeking to misuse this clause. I hope that noble Lords will recognise that the Government are earnestly seeking to reassure those concerned by this clause, and that they will support this amendment.
I now turn to Amendment 57, tabled in my name, which seeks to remove Clause 28, on
“Joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties”.
Again, I have very carefully considered concerns expressed in this House and the other place that this clause might have unintended consequences—they would have been unintended—which were feared to include consequences for the historic relationship between the Labour Party and some trade unions. I thank noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite for raising this topic and for their very constructive approach during our discussions. I also thank the Trade Union Congress and the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation for their advocacy and engagement on this matter.
I have a deep respect for the historic relationship between political parties and trade unions—although, not wishing to spoil the atmosphere, I venture to remind noble Lords opposite that few Conservative Governments would ever have been elected without the votes and support of many trade unionists. However, the measures on joint campaigning in the Bill were not in any way designed to threaten that relationship or disproportionately impact any particular group. Despite my best efforts to reassure and accelerate the speech-making of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, there remained deep concerns about unintended consequences, and as such the Government have tabled this amendment seeking to remove this clause from the Bill.
I therefore urge noble Lords to support my amendments, and I beg to move Amendment 55.
My Lords, I will be very brief again. I accept that, in Committee, I went on at length about this issue, although I did not repeat that later on. I accept that the noble Lord has entered into some proper consultation with the TUC and TULO. I welcome those meetings, and I certainly welcome the letter he wrote to both Frances O’Grady and Mick Whelan. It was welcomed particularly in reference to Clause 26—not only the reassurance that this will come from the Electoral Commission, but that there will be proper parliamentary scrutiny. So I very much welcome the Minister’s response and the fact that this House has been able to influence him in removing a clause from the Bill. I thank him very much.
Amendment 55 agreed.
56: After Clause 27, insert the following new Clause—
“Code of practice on controls relating to third parties
(1) After section 100 of PPERA insert—“Code of practice relating to controlled expenditure100A Code of practice on controlled expenditure(1) The Commission must prepare a code of practice about the operation of this Part in relation to a reserved regulated period.(2) The code must in particular set out—(a) guidance on the kinds of expenses which do, or do not, fall within Part 1 of Schedule 8A (qualifying expenses);(b) guidance on determining whether the condition in section 85(2)(b) (promoting or procuring electoral success) is met in relation to expenditure;(c) guidance on determining whether anything provided to or for the use of a third party falls to be dealt with in accordance with section 86 (notional controlled expenditure) or with section 95 and Schedule 11 (donations);(d) examples of when expenditure falls to be dealt with in accordance with section 94(6) (expenditure of a third party in pursuance of an arrangement with one or more other third parties);(e) guidance about the operation of sections 94D to 94H (targeted controlled expenditure).(3) The Commission may from time to time revise the code.(4) In exercising their functions under this Part, the Commission must have regard to the code.(5) It is a defence for a third party charged with an offence under any provision of this Part, where the offence relates to expenditure incurred or treated as incurred by a third party during a reserved regulated period, to show—(a) that the code, in the form for the time being issued under section 100B, was complied with by the third party in determining whether the expenditure is controlled expenditure for the purposes of this Part, and(b) that the offence would not have been committed on the basis of the controlled expenditure as determined in accordance with the code.(6) In this section, “reserved regulated period” means a period in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 (regulated periods for parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly).(7) Section 100B sets out consultation and procedural requirements relating to the code or any revised code.100B Code of practice: consultation and procedural requirements(1) The Commission must consult the following on a draft of a code under section 100A—(a) the Speaker’s Committee;(b) the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee;(c) such other persons as the Commission consider appropriate.(2) After the Commission have carried out the consultation required by subsection (1), they must—(a) make whatever modifications to the draft code the Commission consider necessary in light of responses to the consultation, and(b) submit the draft to the Secretary of State for approval by the Secretary of State.(3) The Secretary of State may approve a draft code either without modifications or with such modifications as the Secretary of State may determine. (4) Once the Secretary of State has approved a draft code, the Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a copy of the draft, whether—(a) in its original form, or(b) in a form which incorporates any modifications determined under subsection (3).(5) If the draft code incorporates any such modifications, the Secretary of State must at the same time lay before each House a statement of the Secretary of State’s reasons for making them.(6) If, within the 40-day period, either House resolves not to approve the draft, the Secretary of State must take no further steps in relation to the draft code.(7) Subsection (6) does not prevent a new draft code from being laid before Parliament.(8) If no resolution of the kind mentioned in subsection (6) is made within the 40-day period—(a) the Secretary of State must issue the code in the form of the draft laid before Parliament,(b) the Commission must arrange for the code to be published in such manner as they consider appropriate, and(c) the code comes into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.(9) References in this section (other than in subsection (1)) to a code or draft code include a revised code or draft revised code.(10) In this section, “the 40-day period”, in relation to a draft code, means—(a) if the draft is laid before one House on a day later than the day on which it is laid before the other House, the period of 40 days beginning with the later of the two days, and(b) in any other case, the period of 40 days beginning with the day on which the draft is laid before each House, no account being taken of any period during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than four days.(11) If the name of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee is changed, the reference in subsection (1)(b) to that Committee is to be read (subject to subsection (12)) as a reference to the Committee by its new name.(12) If the functions of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee at the passing of this Act with respect to electoral matters (or functions corresponding substantially to such matters) become functions of a different committee of the House of Commons, the reference in subsection (1)(b) to that Committee is to be read as a reference to the committee which for the time being has those functions.”(2) In section 156 of PPERA (orders and regulations), in subsection (3), before paragraph (a) insert—“(za) an order under section 100B(8);”.(3) In Schedule 8A to PPERA (controlled expenditure: qualifying expenses), in paragraph 3, after sub-paragraph (10) insert— “(11) This paragraph does not apply in relation to expenses incurred during a period in relation to which any limit is imposed by paragraph 3, 7, 9, 10 or 11 of Schedule 10 (regulated periods for parliamentary general elections or general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly) (see sections 100A and 100B as regards expenses incurred during such a period).””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Electoral Commission to publish a code of practice on the operation of Part 6 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (which deals with controlled expenditure of third parties). The code of practice would not apply for the purposes of elections to the Scottish Parliament or Senedd Cymru.
Amendment 56 agreed.
Clause 28: Joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties
57: Clause 28, leave out Clause 28
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would leave out Clause 28 (joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties).
Amendment 57 agreed.
Clause 40: Requirement to include information with electronic material
58: Clause 40, page 50, line 33, leave out “reasonably practicable” and insert “possible”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment replaces “if it is not reasonably practicable to comply” with “if it is not possible to comply” to ensure that the majority of electronic material is within scope of the bill’s intentions.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 58 and speak to Amendments 60, 61, 62 and 65. The amendments in my name in this group closely resemble those I tabled in Committee and that I spoke to comprehensively then. They all relate to digital election campaign content, and I will not repeat the arguments I made for them at any length today. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Parkinson, the Bill team and officials from DCMS and DLUHC for meeting with me after Committee, and for what could perhaps be called a moderately enlightening discussion.
Through these amendments, I have been pursuing four aspects of digital campaigning. First, clear guidance on digital imprints is represented by Amendment 58. I have been assured that the Scottish provisions in law—and hence their guidance—are not nearly as prescriptive as those set out in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will give his assurance that the current interpretation of the Bill means that statutory guidance from the Electoral Commission—when it comes forward—will require the imprint in almost every circumstance to be on the image or post, unlike in Scotland. It is really only on platforms such as Twitter, where there is a character limit, that it can be considered not to be practicable to put the full imprint. In addition, I hope he will confirm there will be an expectation that the forwarding of posts will require either the full original imprint to be included or a new imprint to be placed on the material. There will also, I understand, be rules put in place for when and how long material must be retained for inspection.
Secondly, banning foreign actors is sought by Amendment 61. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord True, prayed in aid the new £700 limit and the imprint requirements at our meeting at Committee stage, but neither of them addressed the loopholes which will still exist where multiple identities can be created. This is where both Ministers’ statements were inadequate. The new amendment no longer covers British overseas electors, so I hope the Ministers come up with better assurances in this area. There is some consolation in the provision to review the operation of the Bill, but it is important at this stage—at this stage, not later—to take a view whether they are sufficiently watertight as regards foreign actors. This is an area where the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life advocated much stronger controls.
Thirdly, Amendment 62 would require promoters to establish advert libraries for digital campaign adverts placed, while Amendment 60 would require detailed information about expenditure on digital campaign material. Here, the main government argument seems to be that the social media platforms that take political advertising—i.e. not Twitter—are keeping libraries already and are different in character, so it would be inappropriate to have a one-size-fits-all regulation. But at the same time, the noble Lord, Lord True, sought to assure me that several important recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Electoral Commission, including those relating to advert libraries and more detailed information on invoices, are still under consideration by the Government. Given the timing of the introduction of this Elections Bill, surely it is high time for the Government to have made a clear decision. What is the state of play here, in terms of a decision having been made on those recommendations?
The fourth area is that of misinformation and disinformation, starting with my Amendment 65 to criminalise false statements about election integrity, which is designed to see what direction the Government are planning to take. As I outlined in Committee, a whole host of Select Committees and the Committee on Standards in Public Life have made recommendations in this area. This has particular relevance in the context of the Ukraine invasion and Russian behaviour in the digital space for many years now. As former President Obama said in a recent interview with The Atlantic magazine,
“if you ask me what I’m most concerned about when I think back to towards the end of my presidency… that is the degree to which information, disinformation, misinformation was being weaponized. And we saw it. But I think I underestimated the degree to which democracies were as vulnerable to it as they were, including ours”.
And the director of GCHQ, Sir Jeremy Fleming, made a strong point about values in his recent speech in Australia. As he said,
“we must make sure that we stay true to our values, those that have made our systems and democracies so successful and will do so in the future too”.
A recent Ofcom study has revealed that 30% of UK adults who go online are unsure about or do not even consider the truthfulness of online information. A further 6%—around one in every 20 internet users—believe everything they see online.
There is, of course, crossover with the Online Safety Bill. I was grateful for the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, at our meeting, where he gave some assurance about the operation of the Bill and the powers of Ofcom regarding the design features of social media platforms and the way that their algorithms amplify misinformation and disinformation; about the adoption of the Law Commission proposals for a new offence of false communication; and about the workings of the counter-disinformation unit together with the Defending Democracy programme and the so-called Election Cell—which I was assured was not as opaque as it seems.
I do not expect the Minister to promise amendments ahead of the Online Safety Bill coming to this House, but I hope he will demonstrate a strong awareness of the importance of this aspect of digital campaigning. We will obviously return to this subject when the OSB comes into this House later in the year.
All that said, it is clear that in many of these areas the guidance and review of an independent Electoral Commission is going to be critical together with parliamentary oversight. Responsibility for elections has now transferred to DLUHC from the Cabinet Office but it is no more acceptable for the Secretary of State for Levelling Up to set the policy and priorities for the Electoral Commission than it is for the Cabinet Office.
Given the risk of skewing our political system in favour of the incumbent Government, it is all the more important we hold fast when the issue which we determined in the first group today comes back to this House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have an amendment in this group—Amendment 59, previously tabled in Committee as Amendment 45B. The purpose of the amendment is very simple: it aims to increase transparency about third party campaigning by inserting this new clause, “Disclosure of status as a recognised third party”.
It is not concerned with the question of the imprints on electronic or printed material, which are, essentially, transitory—they come and go—and which are the target of the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, to which the Minister will reply in a minute. It is much simpler than that. It focuses solely on the homepage or the website, if it has one, of a registered third party campaigning organisation. If the amendment were accepted, the homepage of that registered organisation would be required to carry a statement along the lines of “XYZ”—the name of the campaigning organisation—“is a registered third party campaigner under Part 6 of PPERA 2000”, or similar wording.
The purpose behind the amendment is to ensure that individual members of the public viewing the website of a particular organisation are unequivocally, and at all times, made aware that the organisation is an active political campaigner. I have never suggested that this is going to bring about any radical change, but by increasing transparency about who is doing what to whom, it follows the direction of travel that the Government have said underlies the Bill.
In his reply in Committee, my noble friend the Minister was rather encouraging when he said:
“On the specific amendment of my noble friend, while the Government entirely agree with the principle that the public should clearly be able to identify recognised third parties, I can reassure the noble Lord that the current rules, supplemented by new rules in the Bill, will provide for that.”—[Official Report, 17/3/22; col. 477.]
He went on to say he wanted to go away to consider it further and asked whether I would withdraw my amendment, which I duly did.
At that point, my noble friend took the trouble to write to me. By this stage, I am afraid his remarks were rather less encouraging. He went on to say in his letter on 4 April:
“I … wanted to reiterate the Government’s position on your proposal to require registered third parties to disclose their registered status on a prominent place on their website, where they have a website … The Government entirely agrees it is right that third-party groups campaigning at elections should be transparent and clearly identifiable. Registered third party campaigners are already … listed on the Electoral Commission’s website, and the Elections Bill will introduce further requirements to ensure that any UK-based group spending over £10,000 registers with the regulator.”
If noble Lords read and consider that carefully, the outcome is quite different from that which would be achieved if my amendment were implemented. Yes, there will be rules about imprints on digital material, which might be strengthened by the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, if they were accepted, but unless a member of the public is visiting the organisation’s website because he or she has just received some imprinted material with a digital imprint on it, there will be no way of knowing whether or not the organisation in question is a registered third-party campaigner.
Yet we know that most people’s first contact with an organisation is via a website; indeed, my noble friend said as much in his reply to this debate in Committee. In these circumstances, the only way for a member of the general public to find out whether an organisation is a registered third-party campaigner will be to visit and search the list on the Electoral Commission website. The idea that people will do this is fanciful, because the default option for the casual inquirer is that the organisation would not be registered—why would they think otherwise?
The experts, with an interest in these electoral matters, will of course know about this and will search appropriately, but it is not the cognoscenti that we are trying to protect; it is the ordinary man or woman in the street. One sentence—just one sentence—on the organisation’s home page will solve the problem. Those who are concerned can then go on to the Electoral Commission website and search for more details. Those who are not interested can just carry on anyway. It does not result in a big administrative burden; it is not a big ask; it will help inform the general public about third-party campaigning, and I therefore hope that the Government will see the value and purpose of Amendment 59, which goes with the flow of the Bill.
My Lords, we had a lengthy debate on this in Committee and I accepted what the noble Baroness the Minister said at the time, that actually the requirements in the current law will be strong enough to ensure that the principle that we all want—greater transparency—will be applied. Certainly, I accepted that and understood it, because I think we all shared the concern that “reasonably practicable to comply” could be a huge loophole and she assured us that that would not be the case. We also discussed in Committee the fact that the industry itself, the online industry, had produced the means to ensure greater transparency. I made reference to the Adobe briefing, which I think is really important. I think we are all at one in terms of what is required.
On the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, I agree with him completely that it is again providing the means to ensure greater transparency. Certainly, from these Benches, we support his amendment and if he decides to divide the House, we will support him.
My Lords, the Elections Bill, let us not forget, will introduce one of the most comprehensive digital imprint regimes operating in the world today and I submit to your Lordships that whatever shortcomings they may feel, or however much further they want to o’erleap the ambitions of the Government, these proposals are about increasing transparency for voters and empowering them to make informed decisions about the material they see online. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, there is much agreement on that point, but we cannot, I fear, support Amendments 58, 60 and 62 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, because they do not, in our submission, strike the right balance between increasing transparency and proportionate regulation of campaigning, while Amendments 61 and 65 would be highly difficult to enforce and would risk unduly stifling online campaigning and free speech, although I concede to the noble Lord that this matter will be further debated in the Online Safety Bill.
Regarding Amendment 58, it will not always be practical to display the imprint as part of the digital material itself; for example, as noble Lords have said, in a text-based tweet, where there is a strict character limit. This amendment would not give campaigners the limited, yet crucial, level of flexibility afforded by the Government’s regime and would thus risk unreasonably hampering their ability to campaign on some digital platforms. The above reflects the carefully considered and pragmatic approach we have sought to adopt. I know the noble Lord’s concerns; I appreciated the discussion we had and I understood where he was coming from. The perceived permissiveness of the guidance surrounding the Scottish digital imprints regime, in so far as it created a perceived loophole, was worrying him. I am pleased to confirm on the record here, as I said privately, that our regime will not operate in the same way.
The digital imprint regime that applies at elections in Scotland does not specify requirements regarding the location of the imprint, which is why the Electoral Commission’s guidance in Scotland was not prescriptive in this respect. However, our new regime does provide the necessary specifics on the rules regarding the location of the imprint. Campaigners will be required to ensure that their imprints are displayed as part of the material. Only when this is not reasonably practicable—this touches on my noble friend’s amendment—may the imprint be located elsewhere, but it must still be directly accessible from the campaigning material. Those who do not comply will be committing an offence. Furthermore, the statutory guidance we are proposing as part of our regime will provide practical directions to campaigners on how to follow the rules, including regarding the location of the imprint. This guidance will be subject to parliamentary approval, meaning that parliamentarians will be able to ensure that it provides sufficient clarity for campaigners to comply with the rules. I hope the noble Lord will be reassured by those points.
On Amendment 60, candidates and registered campaigners already have to detail their election spending in their returns and provide invoices for payments over a certain amount, including in relation to digital campaigning. These are then made available for public scrutiny. The Government have explained that this requirement on campaigners to submit more detailed invoices or receipts about digital activity would need to be looked at carefully, as the detail provided is determined by the suppliers themselves, not the recipient. It could therefore prove difficult and burdensome for campaigners to comply with these additional requirements.
Similarly, Amendment 62 would require all campaigners promoting paid political advertising, and not the online platforms, to maintain a library of those advertisements, with specified information, for at least 10 years. I understand where the noble Lord is coming from, but we have explained that in our view this risks adding an unreasonable burden on campaigners, particularly smaller groups that rely on volunteers, or groups that are established only for the lifetime of a particular campaign. It is also not clear that there is a sufficient case for regulation in relation to political advert libraries, given, as the noble Lord acknowledged, that major platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube already make available libraries of political advertising that they host.
My response to Amendment 61 will focus on paid-for political advertising, as defined by Clauses 41 and 42, rather than other electronic material, as defined by Clauses 43 and 44, given that other electronic material is relevant only to UK-based entities anyway, with the exception of registered overseas electors who have also registered as third-party campaigners. The Government agree with the principle that there should be strict limitations on ineligible entities overseas spending money campaigning during UK elections, including on digital advertising.
Clause 25 will already remove the scope for any legal spending by foreign or otherwise ineligible third-party campaigners above a £700 de minimis limit. This is a huge reduction, given that those same actors can currently spend up to £20,000 legally during the regulated period in England, or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Further to this, by requiring an imprint on all paid-for electronic campaigning material, regardless of where in the world it comes from, the digital imprint regime will already greatly improve transparency of political advertising from overseas actors. For any material that is published in breach of the imprint rules, the enforcement authorities are able to require the relevant social media platform to take down the material.
Strict controls on spending and clear transparency about origin are essential. But I cannot agree to a fast-considered and potentially disproportionate blanket ban on all political material from foreign actors within scope of the digital imprint regime. We would need again to examine carefully the implications and practicalities of enforcement and restrictions on freedom of speech to avoid any risk of unintended consequences.
I turn to Amendment 65. The Government remain concerned that this amendment includes no reference to intent and that the proposed new clause, as drafted, could criminalise unintentionally false statements. It could, therefore, be very broadly applied. It could also discourage people from raising any legitimate concerns for fear of a statement being considered false. This offence could potentially provide broad powers to clamp down on anyone who expresses genuine concerns about the process of an election. Overall, we believe that this clause could have unintended but potentially severe implications for freedom of speech.
I reassure the noble Lord that the Government take electoral disinformation and misinformation very seriously, but we believe that these are best addressed through non-legislative measures, such as the counter-disinformation unit to which the noble Lord referred and which was explained during our debate in Committee. Any regulation must be balanced with the need to protect freedom of expression and the legitimate public debate which is crucial to a thriving democracy.
The response on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is one of disappointment, but I thank him for his amendments. I hope that I have brought some clarity to the questions raised. I hope he feels able to withdraw Amendment 58, although I acknowledge that he will pursue certain matters on another Bill.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 59, tabled by my noble friend Lord Hodgson. The Government entirely agree that it is right that third-party groups campaigning at elections should be transparent and clearly identifiable. This is why the digital imprints regime will require recognised third-party campaigners to declare who they are when promoting relevant online campaigning material to the public, including but not limited to their websites. Where third-party campaigners use their websites to campaign, as defined by Clause 43, an imprint will be required. Promoters will be required to ensure that the imprint—or access to it—is retained as part of the material, if it is moved on. Where promoters comply with the digital imprint rules by adding an imprint in material displayed on their website, the imprint will be visible for as long as the material is available to the public online and remains in scope of the rules.
I know that my noble friend is not convinced that it is sufficient that third-party campaigners are already publicly listed on the Electoral Commission’s website. We believe that the current rules, supplemented by the new digital imprint rules, will provide increased transparency and identify recognised third parties. There are specific problems about the construction of this amendment, which I have discussed with my noble friend. As currently drafted, the amendment would create a new offence but does not specify a penalty for its commission or any statutory defences against the charge. Further, and I am sure this is entirely inadvertent, the amendment is drafted such that any website owned and operated by a recognised third-party campaigner—for example, a large charity which might have many different websites—would be captured, even if it were unrelated to the campaigning activities for which the third party is registered. It could lead to a disproportionate application of criminal liability. These proposals would need further discussion with third-party campaigners and potential enforcement authorities. Digital regulation is a complex area. Few have thought about it more than either the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, or my noble friend. But these digital imprint provisions were consulted on publicly—twice.
My noble friend is not entirely enamoured of the letter I wrote to him recently to assure him that the Government will continue to keep the transparency of digital campaigning under review. I underline this commitment. I assure my noble friend and the House that I will ask my officials to engage with the Electoral Commission to consider whether my noble friend’s proposal could be included as best practice for third-party campaigners, which the House has agreed to secure, in the commission’s guidance.
With these assurances, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will feel reassured to some degree by the clarifications that I have been able to give and withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and for engaging rather more carefully with the arguments this time around than the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, did with her script in Committee. It was important to address some of these issues. The Minister’s reply was disappointing but expected. He used the word “disappointing” as well.
For a moment, I thought that his speech on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was going to have a “not invented here” quality. Actually, it was a game of two halves. Suddenly, the clouds seemed to part slightly. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is used to being given assurances from the Front Bench. He will, no doubt, pursue them.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his remarks. Of course, transparency is the essence of what the principle within digital campaigning should be. The Minister’s clarification on the imprint aspect was helpful. The position is different from that in Scotland. I hope that this will be followed up in the statutory guidance to which he referred.
I am disappointed that the Government seem to be torn between saying that the other transparency provisions for advert libraries and invoices are disproportionate yet, at the same time, they are still considering the proposals from the Electoral Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They are taking an awfully long time to consider these aspects. Obviously, we differ as to whether or not they would be an unreasonable burden on campaigners.
There is a clear difference between what the Minister and the Government seem to be saying about the practicalities of enforcing the strict limits on foreign expenditure and the concerns of the Intelligence and Security Committee. This is not the place to pursue either this or the aspect of electoral misinformation. I was trying to draw out the Minister’s intentions about misinformation and disinformation. It was helpful to have some indication that the Government see the Online Safety Bill as a way of dealing with some of the systemic aspects of misinformation on social media platforms. We will return to this when the Online Safety Bill comes before us in the autumn. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 58 withdrawn.
59: After Clause 46, insert the following new Clause—
“Disclosure of status as a recognised third party
(1) Section 89 of PPERA (Register of notifications for purposes of section 88) is amended as follows.(2) At end of heading insert “and third party disclosure of registered status”.(3) After subsection (4) insert—“(5) During a period in which a notification under section 88 is in effect and the Commission has entered details of the notification on the register in accordance with this section, a third party shall disclose its status as a recognised third party in a prominent place on the homepage of its website.(6) For the purposes of subsection (5), a reference to a third party's “website” means any part of a website relating to that third party which that third party has caused or authorised to appear.(7) Subsection (5) shall not apply where a third party does not have a website within the meaning of subsection (6).(8) A person commits an offence if, without reasonable excuse, they contravene subsection (5).””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires registered non-party campaigners to disclose their status as such on a prominent place on their websites, so as to increase transparency for the public.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I am disappointed by my noble friend’s response. His support in principle has been lost in a series of technical issues. Instead of seeing how we could make this happen, he has fallen back on “penalty not specified” and “technical problems”. This is a shame, bearing in mind that this is about transparency. Its purpose is simple. It does not impose any significant bureaucratic burden on anybody anywhere. He has given a fig leaf, a quarter of a loaf, a few slices of bread in his undertaking to make sure that the Electoral Commission is brought into play in looking at this whole problem. This is so that we do not have a situation where people could pop on and off the website: when they are issuing digital imprinted material they put their name on the website and when they are not doing so they take it away again so people cannot see whether they are campaigners or not.
I hope my noble friend will make sure the feet of the Electoral Commission are held to the fire on that. I am not about gesture Divisions so, with that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 59.
My Lords, it is not possible to withdraw at this point; I must technically put the question. No one has thereafter to vote for it if they do not wish to do so.
The question is open now, so the noble Lord may withdraw if he wishes.
Amendment 59 withdrawn.
Amendments 60 to 62 not moved.
63: After Clause 60, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Section 54 (permissible donors) of PPERA is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (2)(a), after “register” insert “at the time at which the donation is made, but not an individual so registered as an overseas elector”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would prevent overseas electors donating to political parties in the UK.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support. This amendment would prevent overseas electors donating to political parties in the UK. We had quite a debate about this in Committee so I will not go over all the points, but I want to talk about the reasons behind our concerns and to raise a few key things.
We are concerned that the change to remove the 15-year limit on registering overseas electors creates a loophole in donation law that would allow wealthy donors unlimited access to our democracy and the opportunity for unprecedentedly large donations. We do not believe that foreign donors should be allowed to financially influence our democratic processes; that right should be reserved for citizens who actually live in this country. The Electoral Commission recommended introducing new duties on parties to enhance due diligence and risk assessment of donations based on existing money laundering regulations, which would protect parties and build confidence among voters, so that sources of party funding would be thoroughly and properly scrutinised.
We are therefore disappointed that the Bill does nothing about this and does not bring in what is urgently needed—an effective regulatory and enforcement regime to ensure that foreign money and dark money cannot enter our political system through donations to political parties. We have tabled Amendment 63 to protect our democracy from this foreign money, which we know is already impacting our politics. Concerns about how our democracy is being influenced by malign foreign influences has been highlighted already in the Russia report. That was debated at length in Committee, so I will not go into that any further, but it provides a clear example and concern.
Our fear is that the Government have, potentially inadvertently, created a system vulnerable to overseas interference. It allows a person to call up any or every local authority to say they were resident in the area 30 or 40 years ago with pretty flimsy proof and then be able to be registered and donate enormous sums of money. That is our key concern. When this was debated in Committee, the Minister said that if you have the right to vote, you should have the right to donate. Although I understand entirely the principle behind this, it does not address our very real concerns. If I am not satisfied by the Minister’s response that there is genuine recognition of this concern and that action will be taken by the Government to stop this potential foreign influence on our elections and political parties, I will wish to divide the House.
My Lords, my name is on Amendment 63. I strongly support it and I trust the House will give it its support. The absence of any detail from the Government on how they will implement the idea of overseas votes for life is quite remarkable. There is nothing on how they would check the bona fides of expatriates claiming to be citizens and to have lived in particular UK constituencies, perhaps half a century ago, in contrast to the proposals to tighten domestic identity checks. There is nothing on new measures for getting ballots out to these new voters and returning them in the span of our short campaigns. From the hundreds of messages I have had from expatriate voters, that is one of the issues about which they are most concerned: how difficult it is to get the ballots out or get them back. There is nothing on the current distribution of overseas voters in constituencies or how the expansion might affect the current balance of our constituencies in terms of size and the equalisation of the numbers of voters in each. The Government do not know what the current distribution of voters by constituency is—at least, the Minister did not when I submitted the Written Question to him—or how overseas voters are distributed by overseas countries or how many would be likely to register.
In these circumstances, one has to conclude that the Government’s main objective in extending expatriate votes for life is to tap wealthy donors who long ago moved abroad to avoid paying UK tax to increase the structural advantages from which the Conservatives already benefit in funding electoral campaigns. All the amendments in this group address the huge question of how to maintain a level playing field in the financing of political campaigns. This is one of the many issues on which the Bill falls short. Noble Lords will recall that the Committee on Standards in Public Life published a substantial report on political finance last summer, just two days after the Government had published the Elections Bill. The Government have made no effort since then to incorporate its proposals into the Bill, in spite of introducing a number of other significant amendments.
We all recognise that uncontrolled flows of money into political campaigns can unbalance and corrupt democratic politics. We see the extent to which American politics has become the plaything of the super-rich. Noble Lords may have noted that in the last three months of 2019, in the run-up to our last general election, two-thirds of the money reported by the Electoral Commission to have been contributed to UK parties flowed to the Conservatives. Quite possibly, as much again flowed to the think tanks of the right, including from non-UK citizens in the USA and non-democratic states. We are drifting closer to the American situation, with the difference that only one of our major parties has easy access to large-scale donors.
As other amendments in this group suggest, we need a broader review of political funding than the Bill permits. Amendment 63 thus offers a stop-gap measure. Those who have moved to Monaco, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or Caribbean tax havens to avoid paying UK tax should not be permitted to bias our domestic politics by funding political campaigns. Yes, we should allow them to vote as citizens. But we have learned from flows of money from Russia and right-wing foundations in the USA that the buying of influence over British politics from overseas undermines the level playing field that democratic campaigns depend on and that I hope the Minister still supports. It also corrodes trust in the integrity of our democratic process. I regard Amendment 63 as an important stop-gap measure until, perhaps, a different Government tackle the question of political finance and its regulation. I hope the House will support it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. They have already very clearly outlined Amendment 63, to which I attached my name, so in the interests of time, I will comment just on Amendments 66 and 68 in my name. These are advances, derivations or different approaches that arose from the debate we had on these issues in Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, just said, I would not necessarily suggest that these are the complete answer—although Amendment 68 certainly takes us in the direction that he referred to of reviewing our current situation—but they are an attempt to raise the issues and continue the debate from Committee.
I begin by noting—I owe this to the Forbes website—that a superyacht costs on average about $275 million. I cannot personally attest to that, but we can take it as a ballpark figure to start with; of course, there are probably quite a few going second hand at the moment, which might make them a bit cheaper. This is a demonstration of the fact that, in our current economic system, with the corruption and extractivism, we have people in the world who have access to massive sums of money. Amendment 63 and most of the debate around this have focused very much on foreign influence. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about bringing influence over our democratic politics. But what my Amendments 66 and 68 do is ask: why should any individual, wherever they reside, have that kind of influence over our democratic politics?
If we look at what a typical political party—one of the two largest parties, or perhaps particularly the party that draws the most funds, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said—spends on a general election, it is about 10% of the cost of a superyacht. It is not quite small change down the back of the sofa for the oligarchs, but it is not a really large amount of money. I asked in Committee what would happen if one of our existing political parties or a new political party drew all its funding from one source—one highly questionable source or any source at all. For example, we have just had the French election, and the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, who got more than 40% of the vote, got a very large loan from a Hungarian bank linked to President Putin. If noble Lords want to see how this plays out in Australian politics, they might like to look at the role of Clive Palmer in the election going on now, since I raised that issue in Committee.
This amendment developed from the Committee work. Of course, we do not have exact parallels to the two examples I have just cited in the UK, although I note, looking back over the past decade or so, that in the run-up to the 2010 election, Lord Ashcroft donated about 20% of the money that the Conservative Party spent in preparing for and running that election campaign. In 2021, the Conservative mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, received about 40% of his funding from the same source. I am not in any way casting aspersions on those cases; I am merely asking what happens to our politics when one person is hugely influential and a party is dependent on that one person.
Amendment 66 is an attempt to say that there should be a limit on how much one person can influence a political party. I came up with the figure of 5%, which I think is a reasonable estimate. This was debated at some length with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who is not in his place today. He said that he would go away and think about whether one person should be able to donate 100% of the cost of an election campaign for a party or major character. I give notice to the Minister that I raise that question again. The noble Earl said he would go away and reflect on what the maximum percentage should be; maybe the Government do not think my 5% figure is right, but do they really believe that 100% of the funding for a political party’s campaign for a general election should be able to come from one source? Maybe they think it should be 50% or 25%. I give the Minister fair warning that if I do not get an answer to that, I will be bouncing back up again. I am sure that, if they engage with Amendment 66, the Government are likely to say that this might be drafted differently. I have attempted to address some of the main issues. I will not push this to a vote. I do not believe that I have necessarily found all the answers here, but there is a really important question that needs to be asked about whether we should limit anyone’s, not just foreign residents’, percentage of influence over our parties.
Some will say that we have rules about declaring donations and, providing they are followed—your Lordships’ House did its best earlier to keep an independent Electoral Commission overseeing that—voters can use that information to influence their choice. However, even if it is all open and transparent, voters have many reasons to make the choices that they do. Elections do need to be funded, which is why I have put down Amendment 68, which would require a 12-month consultation on public funding of political parties. This very much draws on the amendment the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, tabled in Committee and on which, unfortunately, due to the hour, we did not have time to have a full debate. None the less, the noble Lord put forward—as he has again in an amended form here—a proposal for how to do this and get state funding of political parties. We could have lots of debates about the nature of that and the way it should be done, so rather than do that, I have put down this amendment for a review.
I will stop there, but I remind the Minister that I will be asking him if he thinks that 100% of the funding for a campaign should be able to come from one source.
My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment, although I do not think it goes to the source of the problem. The source of the problem is the massive increase in the electorate contained within this Bill. We know from the impact assessment and I know from written replies I have had from the Minister that it increases the electoral roll of people living abroad—many of whom have lived abroad for decades—from around 1 million to 3.3 million, an increase of 2.3 million names. I remind the House that these will overwhelmingly be people who have lived abroad for more than 15 years—for many, 50 or 60 years —and who have no reasonable expectation of ever returning to this country. The Bill makes it easier for this registration to persist as, once on the register, names now remain for three years as opposed to one year previously, and you can get on the electoral roll by the process of attestation—in other words, providing you can get someone to attest that you lived at 22 Station Road 60 years ago, even though 22 Station Road has been demolished and you have not been back since, and that you are a bona fide former resident of the United Kingdom.
To me, that is wrong in principle, but I shall also apply it at a constituency level—the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, raised this and I can give him some of the answer. Under the present system, with the 15-year rule on residence that is allowed, in London and Westminster, 2.43% of voters at the last election were overseas voters. Let us assume that that increases by three, once these 2.3 million are added to the register. You could then have constituencies in the United Kingdom with 6,000 or 7,000 voters in an electorate of 73,000 who have no obvious connection whatsoever with the constituency in which they are voting. That, it seems to me, is wrong.
Whatever your view is, the absolute basis of our electoral system—which I cherish; I have to be controversial here by saying I am a powerful supporter of first past the post and single-member constituencies—is that representation, for a general election, is based on where you live. That is a very good basis for registration and voting, it seems to me. But, no, we are going to add 2.3 million people to the register who never lived in the country—not in recent memory.
In order to do this, the Government are spending some £15 million. I wish that they would show the same anxiety and commitment on making sure that people resident within the United Kingdom and not on the register at present were added instead of spending £15 million on getting people to vote in individual constituencies—possible decisively, affecting the result—who simply do not live in the area.
I am very sorry that this Bill has extended the period of residence from 15 years to life. I hope that the Minister can improve on his answer when I raised this before; he asked what on earth is the basis for objecting to supporting a 15-year rule, which says that—I quote him loosely—if you have been abroad for 15 years, you can vote in an election, but if you have been abroad for 15 years and a day, you cannot vote in an election. That really is a thin argument; he really can do better than that. That applies to any boundary—why do we say people can vote at 18 but not at 17 and 364 days? We can all find numerous examples of how people draw boundaries.
The problem of overseas voting—and here I find myself agreeing with the Green Party, which I do not on every occasion—is that with the possibility of this initial problem, which is that you can vote however long you have been away from the country, you can also now provide funds for parties. It means, as has already been said, that, in theory, a party could be almost entirely financed by people living abroad with no intention of returning to the United Kingdom or of living with the consequences of their vote. That is the other crucial element in our democracy: you live to see the consequences of your vote. People who voted Conservative—I hope a lot of them vote Labour at the next election—bear some responsibility for what is happening in the country at the moment. It is not the same responsibility as the Minister, of course, but they have some responsibility. Of course, if you live abroad, vote from abroad, remain abroad and intend to remain abroad, then you do not live with the consequences of your vote.
I very much regret that, somehow or other, this massive extension of the franchise is in this Bill, without any compensating extension of the franchise for people in this country who are not on the electoral roll. I have seen no sensible, adequate defence of it so far. I am sure that the Minister will do his best, which he is bound to do, but we have made a step in our democracy that violates the principle of representation by place of residence and adds the problem of enabling parties to be massively financed by people living and working permanently abroad.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lords who have already spoken. I will speak briefly about Amendment 67. This amendment would require the Secretary of State to establish an independent committee to report on the creation of what I call a foundation for democracy, whose sole aim is to prevent the rich and corporations from directly funding political parties and hijacking the political system. Private money in our political system is a cancer, and the issue has not really been adequately addressed by this Bill.
In 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln visualised democracy as a
“government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Some 160 years later, that remains elusive—we are light years away from it. Yes, people vote, but political power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of those who can fund political parties and get favour in return. Their preferences are prioritised.
If we had a Government of the people and for the people, we would not have millions using food banks to make ends meet, even though they work full-time. We would not have 14.5 million people, including 4.3 million children, living below the poverty line. We would not have 3 million people suffering from malnutrition and undernutrition, of whom about 1.3 million are retirees. We would not have a situation where the poorest 10% of households pay 47.6% of their income in direct and indirect taxes, while the richest 10% pay only 33.5% of their income in direct and indirect taxes. None of this suggests that we have a Government of the people and for the people.
The phrase “political donations”, which has been used throughout this debate, is a misnomer. Corporations and the rich do not make donations; they make an investment, and they want a return on that investment. That is usually in the form of poor laws and poor law enforcement. Does anyone know how many banks have been prosecuted for banking frauds? Why has the Lloyds bank fraud, going back to 2005, still not been investigated? Why is it that no accountancy firm that has sold unlawful tax avoidance schemes—that is what the judges have said—has yet been investigated and prosecuted? It is because we do not in fact have Governments that are closer to the masses. Party funders have the inside track to Ministers and policymakers. They get the private phone numbers of Prime Ministers and then, on the phone, Prime Ministers tell them, “Yes, we promise there will be no tax increase if you conduct business in the UK”—as Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Sir James Dyson.
Big accounting firms could not get into the public sector audit market because the Audit Commission did not think that they were up to the task. So they campaigned for the removal of the Audit Commission and contributed extensively to the Conservative Party. Hey presto—the Conservative Party decided to kill off the Audit Commission through the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. Big accounting firms are now raking in fees of more than £100 million a year from local authority audits. That is the investment that they made, and it paid off.
Private funding of political parties is destructive. Political parties are now addicted to corporate money for their election campaigns. Trade unions have had to join this kind of nuclear war as well, but of course they do not have sufficient resources to match those of corporations. Ministers and party leaders are more likely to have lunches, dinners and meetings with corporate grandees than with the victims of corporate abuses. I cannot recall a Minister meeting victims of banking frauds or those suffering the abuses of the insolvency industry. I am told that around £50,000 enables the wealthy to buy a seat at a party conference dinner table with senior members of the Cabinet and so that they can burn their ears and suggest what kind of favours they need. I cannot remember Ministers sharing dinner tables with homeless persons, a pensioner who is freezing to death or those queuing for food banks. They simply cannot afford to enter that kind of a bargain or that market. So we do not have a citizen-led democracy; its possibilities are increasingly stymied by political parties selling themselves to the highest bidder, regardless of the adverse consequences for the people. Urgent action is needed to build democracy and remove the corrosive effect of private money from politics.
Some would like to ban corporations and rich individuals from funding political parties altogether, but banning things becomes difficult. No doubt those who are addicted to funding the political parties would say it is a violation of their democratic right, or some right, to fund political parties. These people would always find ways of getting around the laws. We need to think of smarter ways of dealing with this.
My amendment advances an alternative approach. Under this, there would be absolutely no ban on political contributions: anyone from anywhere in the world would be able to donate money. However, no political party would directly receive a penny from these individuals. All the money would go directly to this foundation for democracy, which would be under the control of the Electoral Commission. Then, at regular intervals—it could be monthly—the foundation would allocate the money to political parties on the basis of a formula based upon their share of the vote in local, regional and national elections and party membership. So, if a party improves the quality of life for the people and therefore has higher membership or a higher share of the vote, it would get more resources. Parties like to compete on ideas, so this policy would say, “Go ahead: compete and persuade people to see what good you can do for them.”
Many corporations have obviously got used to buying political influence, and they will not be happy about such a proposal. They may cease funding the political parties. If that is what they do, we will know that they were in it only so that they could get political advantages and that there was absolutely no other reason. Perhaps at that point, we may also begin to consider other alternatives, some of which have been mooted, such as capping political donations.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his observation. I am sure that members of the public would be quite interested to note that when an alternative proposal is put forward, it is called a “diatribe”. That kind of confinement of alternative, competing discourses to negative spaces does not do any good. But the message I want to get across is that there is a corrosive element at the heart of our democracy that can be dealt with only by ending the receipt of any private money by any political party.
My Lords, the purpose of Report is to report back on things that were inadequately dealt with in Committee. Amendment 69, which I am speaking to, was inadequately dealt with in Committee. We had a debate and a very unsatisfactory answer, so I want to return to it—not at the same length as in Committee, but nevertheless in some detail that might make for uncomfortable listening for different parties in the House.
The idea is for risk assessment and due diligence policies to be used to control and look at procedures on political donations. What is the problem? Dirty money in the UK leaves parties exposed to malign influence, risks fostering dependence on the proceeds of crime and other dubious funds, and undermines the integrity of the electoral system. PPERA does not require UK political parties to run anti-money laundering checks on donors. In fact, there are no indications that parties do robust checks on the source of donations, nor that parties reject donations after such checks have been made. As the UK’s anti-money laundering framework has been progressively tightened over the last decade—I pay tribute to the current Government on this issue, as I have done before—political parties’ minimal checks have become an increasingly glaring anomaly. Examples from the media suggest that if parties check the source of donations at all, they are inadequate and fail to prevent the flow of tainted money into UK politics.
The Electoral Commission has argued since 2018 that risk management principles from anti-money laundering checks by businesses could apply to election finance. In July 2021, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that parties have anti-money laundering style procedures to determine the true source of donations.
How would Amendment 69 address the problem? It would update PPERA to require parties to develop and publish reasonable and proportionate risk-based policies for identifying the true source of donations above £7,500—we are not looking at small donations here. Parties would need to have reasonable and proportionate risk assessment and due diligence controls and procedures in respect of those policies, as provided for in a statutory instrument. For any donation or an aggregate amount exceeding £7,500, parties would need to undertake enhanced due diligence checks, with a simplified process thereafter. Donors giving over £7,500 would need to declare whether their business is in a high-risk sector, which is defined in the amendment, and whether they have been under formal investigation or convicted of certain offences. Parties would need to include a statement of risk management in their annual accounts identifying that.
What have the parties done about due diligence checks on donations? The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report, Regulating Election Finance, identified broad support for exploring anti-money laundering style regulations from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Scottish National Party. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed that there was merit in exploring this style of regulations but that it would be important to think about how the process would work and the administrative workload involved. The Conservative Party told the Committee on Standards in Public Life that it thought that current regulations for donations were sufficient.
In their response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendation that parties should have procedures in place for the true source of donations, the Government said that
“it is very important to balance the need for parties and other campaigners to generate funds against the cost of actually carrying out checks on donations, to ensure they come from permissible sources. We think the current rules are proportionate and achieve this balance.”
When a version of Amendment 69 was debated in Committee—it was rather longer; it is still long but it has been tightened up a bit—the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said that
“all we can do is keep the rules under review. I am suggesting that in this particular area, the balance is about right.”—[Official Report, 28/3/22; col. 1378.]
Let us look at the balance: due diligence checks would be a relatively low administrative workload. If due diligence checks had been required on donations above £7,500 in 2021, the Liberal Democrats would have conducted checks on just 11% of donors, or 72 donations out of 642; Labour on 25%, or 133 out of 536; the Greens on 29.2%, or 19 out of 65; and the SNP on 63%, or seven out of 11. This means that, at most, Labour would have had to do checks on one donation every 2.7 days over the course of a year, and the Liberal Democrats would have had to do one check every five days. Obviously, because some donations come from the same donor, it would probably be less frequent than that.
Now we come to the Conservatives; no wonder we get complaints from the Tory Benches about what is being said. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but that was a very unfortunate intervention. The Conservatives would have checked 51.5% of donors— 457 donations out of a total of 887 were of £7,500 or more. Of course, this reflects their greater resources, with donations of almost £19 million in 2021—around double what Labour received.
I have three examples of potentially suspect donations. I gave a lot more in Committee, and I stand by them all; they are all there on the record. All major political parties have accepted potentially suspect donations from individuals and companies that were under investigation or later found to be involved in economic crime. The media has reported on a catalogue of such donations, with Spotlight on Corruption providing most of the information. The Conservatives received £2 million in cash donations from Lycamobile, a company whose premises were raided by French authorities in 2016 on suspicion of money laundering, leading to the arrest of the company’s directors. Despite evidence emerging in 2015 that Lycamobile employees were dropping off rucksacks full of cash at post offices across London, the party took a further £587,000 from the company until July 2017.
Labour, of course, had its hands dirtied with the Hinduja brothers. A £1 million donation was made in 1998, at the same time as one of them was attempting to obtain a British passport. At the time the gift was accepted, the brothers were under investigation in India for paying commissions into Swiss bank accounts as part of alleged kickbacks in a major arms deal between India and Sweden, in the Bofors gun scandal.
The Liberal Democrats, of course, have a famous example, which goes back a long time—I am not sure whether there is a more recent one. In 2005, they accepted an infamous £2.4 million from the fraudster Michael Brown and declined to pay it back after it emerged that the money had been stolen. Mr Brown later said that he regretted the donation; he thought that the Liberal Democrats should not have accepted it.
Those are just three examples but the point is simple. There ought to be a requirement. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is where I rest my case, in a way; it has been absolutely clear about this. There is a strong case for requiring parties to make these checks. Businesses have to do it, and rightly so. The checks, as I have shown, are not onerous, with a £7,500 limit. I would not argue if the limit were £10,000, but I would not go beyond that. The fact is that it is not onerous on the parties. There is plenty of evidence that requires us to see that these checks take place, so that tainted, dirty money does not come into British politics. The Minister will have to have a much better answer than the noble Earl, Lord Howe, had; otherwise, I might push this.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I really need to add very little to what he has said. It is very difficult to see why there should be opposition to a requirement that political parties should have
“a reasonable and proportionate risk-based policy for identifying the true source of donations.”
The Government’s answer to this, which the noble Earl, Lord Howe, gave in Committee, is that there has to be a balance. It is clear, however, that where the balance is now is not satisfactory, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, there have been a series of donations to all political parties that have been not to the credit of the parties, not good for their reputations and not good for the reputation for cleanliness of our politics.
As I understand the position, the Government have not ruled out acting on the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but regard this as a complicated matter—perhaps it is—and need more time to work on it. If the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, seeks to test the opinion of the House, I will support him. I would be gratefully comforted, however, if not only the Minister but the spokespeople for the other political parties said tonight that they duly take this issue seriously and regard donations from foreign sources and people who want to influence our politics in an unhealthy way as a growing danger to our politics. If the spokespeople for the parties and the Government will say that they take this seriously, and the Government do not rule out acting on the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life in due course, I will be very comforted.
My Lords, I was thinking that others would wish to intervene, but that does not appear to be the case.
These are important amendments, but I shall not encourage anyone to think that the Government will accept them. The context is a shared concern about dirty money, a phrase that the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, used. I do not think any Government have been stronger in response to the Russian invasion, or in bearing down on oligarchs, than this Government. However, following our robust debate in Committee, I am pleased that we are again returning to this important issue of political donations. I do listen to contributions of noble Lords and these debates will certainly serve as a key reference point for the Government as they keep rules on political donations under review, to ensure that they continue to provide an effective safeguard that protects the integrity of our political system. In that context, the Bill bears down very heavily on foreign donations and makes them much harder.
Turing to the specific amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, Amendment 63 would remove the rights of overseas electors to make political donations. Amendment 69B would place a £7,500 limit on any donation or series of donations from overseas electors. I fear that many will not be surprised when I reiterate that the Government cannot support these amendments, as we intend to uphold the long-standing principle, first introduced by the Committee on Standards in Public Life itself in 1998, that if you are eligible to vote for a party, you are also eligible to donate to that party. These amendments would overturn that principle by removing the right of overseas electors to donate. Overseas electors are British citizens who have the right to vote and, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, the Labour Party has acknowledged that for many years. They are reasonable participants in our democracy. Furthermore, due to the interaction of Amendment 69B and the existing legislation, there would be no provision for either the return of donations exceeding the £7,500 threshold or the reporting of such donations to the Electoral Commission. This leaves a significant gap, which means that the amendment would simply not have the intended impact.
The Government do not support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, to which I listened carefully. It was fair for him to set out his case because he wishes to establish an independent committee to report on the creation of a foundation for democracy. The concept here, however, which is where agreement falls away, is that he submits that this body should be responsible for collecting all donations made to registered political parties and mandatorily allocating them based on membership and vote share at certain elections. The Government can find no justification for this amendment and believe it would place unreasonable restrictions on an individual’s freedom to donate to the political party of their choosing. It would go against the fundamental principle of allowing members of the public to get involved in our democracy by giving their support, be it at the ballot box, via a cup of coffee or via donations, to any party or parties that they choose.
Moreover, this proposal would risk disproportionately penalising smaller parties, which may not have such high levels of membership and vote share as the larger parties, but form an integral part of our democracy. Indeed, it is not clear to me how any new parties would emerge under the noble Lord’s system, as they would not be able to fundraise for themselves and would therefore struggle to get their message out to the public to encourage members to join and voters to support them in the future. The Government are therefore simply not convinced that there is a demand or evidence to support the noble Lord’s radical idea; nor do we think it necessary to establish an independent committee to come to this conclusion. Should other parliamentarians share the noble Lord’s view, the existing framework of parliamentary committees obviously provides an ideal place to consider the proposal further, so I urge the noble Lord not to press his amendment.
Next, I turn to Amendments 66 and 68, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, which address a similar theme. Amendment 66 would seek to cap donations that any one individual or organisation can make to a political party to 5% of that party’s maximum campaign expenditure limit at the preceding election. This cap would apply to all donors, whether individuals or organisations, such as trade unions for example. What effect would it have on a large trade union donation?
Amendment 68 would require the Government to publish a report on proposals to establish state funding of political parties and limitations on private donations. In essence, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are seeking the Government’s views on these two fundamental principles. I will underline our position.
First, fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. Consequently, there is no cap on political donations to parties, candidates and other types of campaigner but, instead, strict limits on what they can spend on regulated campaign activity during elections. These maintain a level playing field in elections. In particular, the noble Baroness’s amendment has the potential to create a very uneven and complicated playing field. Under the proposal, each political party will have different amounts it can fundraise, given that spending limits are calculated according to the number of constituencies it contests. New political parties in particular, again, would be affected and this change could encourage quite unnatural growth, whereby new parties are incentivised to contest seats they have no intention of winning to give them a more competitive funding limit in the next cycle. I will not be drawn on what percentage of a party’s overall donation might be permitted because the Government simply do not accept that there should be such a percentage figure.
Secondly, there is absolutely no public support for expanding the level of public funding already available to political parties. The Government are not going to go down that road.
Finally, I wish to address Amendment 69, retabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. This would introduce requirements, as he said, for registered parties to carry out risk assessments and due-diligence checks on donations. Only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations and there are strict rules requiring companies making donations to be both incorporated and carrying out business in the UK. Parties must check that companies meet these criteria. It is also an offence to circumvent the rules through proxy donors—for example, an impermissible donor seeking to make a donation through a company that is itself a permissible donor. Political parties must already report all donations over a certain value to the Electoral Commission, which are then published online for public scrutiny.
The Government have heard the concerns that donors may seek to evade the rules and, in principle, the point of strengthening the system to provide greater levels of assurance on the sources of donations to ensure they are permissible and legitimate is important. Indeed, the Government recently published, ahead of introducing necessary legislation, the Corporate Transparency and Register Reform White Paper.
Reforms to Companies House will deliver more reliably accurate information on the companies register by introducing mandatory identity verification for people who manage or control companies and other UK-registered entities, providing greater powers for Companies House to query and challenge the information it receives, and introducing more effective investigation and enforcement powers for Companies House. This, in combination with a new power for the Companies House registrar proactively to pass on relevant information to law enforcement and other public and regulatory bodies, including the Electoral Commission, will indirectly support the enforcement of the rules on donations by providing greater confidence in the accuracy of the data held at Companies House, including when seeking information on UK-registered companies and other UK-registered entities that have made political donations.
The Government have not dismissed the fact that this is a significant area, which is why we are instituting these reforms to corporate transparency, but for the reasons I have outlined to the House on various amendments, I urge that noble Lords consider not pressing their amendments.
Before the Minister sits down, may I confirm what he said? I wrote down his words: “The Government do not accept that there should be a percentage limit.” On the percentage of contribution from one person or organisation to a political party’s campaign, would the Minister confirm that the Government believe it appropriate for 100% of the funding for a political party’s campaign to come from one source or organisation?
My Lords, again, I think that is a false question. In our democracy an independent person is entitled to stand in a constituency, for a cause that he or she believes in, and may choose to fund that campaign. Nobody else may want to give any money. That would be an example of 100% funding of a campaign by a small campaign or individual. There are complexities here, and the fundamental position to stand on is that in free democracy, people should be able to make a contribution of whatever sort they choose, provided it is permissible and legal.
My Lords, it has been very clear from the debate we have just had and the other amendments that have been discussed, as well as my Amendment 63, that there are some really broad concerns about political donations, electoral finance and the procedures and systems that underpin and manage this. I urge the Government to take away those concerns more broadly and consider how they may be addressed in the future.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, I thought I had made it really clear, both in Committee and in my opening remarks today, that we are very concerned about the potential for dirty money infiltrating and influencing our political system. If I was not clear, I am very happy to confirm that we do have those very deep concerns.
I thank the Minister for his very detailed response, but I disagree with him that the Bill makes it harder to make overseas donations. Instead, our concern is that part of removing the 15-year limit actually makes it easier for people from foreign locations to donate to our political system. We are concerned that often it allows very wealthy donors unlimited access to our democracy, through what we could see to be unprecedentedly large donations. That is our big concern with this and why we have put this amendment forward. To avoid that kind of outside influence in our democracy, the right to make those kinds of donations should be reserved for citizens actually living in this country.
As I say, I thank the Minister for his detailed response, but do not believe he has addressed the real concerns expressed by us and other Members who have taken part in the debate. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House on my Amendment 63.
64: After Clause 60, insert the following new Clause—
“Review and consolidation of electoral law
Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a timetable for undertaking a wholesale review and consolidation of electoral law.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would implement a recommendation of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its report on the Elections Bill.
My Lords, our Amendment 64 looks to bring in one of the recommendations that came from PACAC around the consolidation of electoral law. The Elections Bill makes substantial changes to electoral law, but it does not tackle something that has been fundamentally and widely recognised: the need to consolidate the existing voluminous and fragmented body of electoral law. Amendment 64 aims to address this.
PACAC has done a number of reports on electoral law. In 2019, Electoral Law: The Urgent Need for Review noted that even the most professional agents can worry about falling foul of electoral law and the complexity that it currently contains, and that this provides serious risks and difficulties for electoral administrators. PACAC has been recommending for some time now that the Government should look at prioritising non-controversial consolidation of electoral law that can command cross-party support. Much of this would have cross-party support because we all recognise that this needs sorting out. Once that consolidation has been achieved, the Government should proceed to evaluate the effectiveness of electoral law more generally to see where we could bring in further reforms to make it more straightforward for those involved in it to manage.
I am aware that the Government agree in principle that electoral law needs consolidation but at the moment consider that there are more immediate challenges outside of the structures, which presumably is what much of the basis of the Bill before us is looking at. We agree with PACAC that electoral law needs looking at. It needs consolidating and, in many areas, it needs simplifying. We have tabled this amendment to ask the Government to look very seriously at this recommendation and to take some action on it, if not now then as soon as is practically possible.
My Lords, I was delighted to sign this and could see from the Minister’s face that he was thoroughly in agreement that it is a very good move. It is a constructive suggestion of something that desperately needs doing. We are rushing to pass legislation in this final week or fortnight of the parliamentary Session, but this is an early request to the Government to include an election law consolidation Bill in the coming Queen’s Speech. It would be very practical and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, said, it would have cross-party support, so it would be a rather nice note to start the new parliamentary term on.
A lot of the groundwork has been laid already. The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee produced a report on this in 2019 and the Law Commission has done extensive work as well, which culminated in a 207-page report with 106 recommendations. That sounds a very practical document. The recommendations include consolidating and modernising our election law, which is currently spread across 55 Acts of Parliament and over 200 other pieces of legislation, most of which are derived from centuries-old rules and regulations.
Modern electoral rules would make the administration of elections more straightforward and more accessible to the public. Better democracy is better for everyone, as we have been saying all afternoon, but this will be particularly important for independent candidates and smaller parties, because at the moment they are navigating a minefield. There is always a risk of innocent mistakes.
I hope that the Minister will respond very positively to this and that we can look forward to supporting him wholeheartedly on a Bill in the next Session.
My Lords, I support this amendment. It is about as modest as it could be without doing anything. It is saying that there should be a review over the next 12 months, at which point the Minister should publish a timetable for undertaking a wholesale review and consolidation of electoral law. A senior civil servant commissioned with producing an amendment which kicked something into the long grass could hardly have come up with something better, so I very much hope that the Minister can accept.
Picking up one point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, made, the core of this is the complexity of existing legislation. It is not even that it fits together like a neat jigsaw. It is several different jigsaws which must be made to fit together to produce certainty by those who are conducting elections or participating in elections.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that he has explained that what to some of us look like extremely threatening changes to the law proposed in the Bill have been described by him as simply clarification where things were uncertain or unclear or where people had come to different conflicting conclusions. That is the situation we are facing as far as all the legislation governing elections is concerned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has already referred to the Law Commission’s report. The work is there; it is ready. The Electoral Commission, in its briefing to noble Lords this week, talked about the complexity and difficulties for campaigners, candidates and their agents in finding their way through the current forest of legislation and the difficulties that electoral registration officers have in interpreting how each bit might apply in particular circumstances. The fact is that, as amended or not, the Bill is adding another layer—a different jigsaw—with overlapping patterns and places which will make it more confusing to get through.
I notice that the Minister several times said, “Don’t forget that a lot of the people conducting elections are volunteers.” He did not add that, in many cases and particularly for agents, they are not volunteers at all; they have to be press-ganged into doing a very difficult and challenging job. They surely deserve to have a simple playbook in front of them which incorporates all the legislation that they are expected to have regard to and to take account of.
Having said “have regard to”, that was a key phrase in our earlier discussion. The difference between “consulting” and what the outcome of that might be and “having regard to” and what the outcome of that might be is central here. PACAC has produced a report which I would like the Minister to have regard to. CSPL has produced recommendations about consolidating electoral law, which I would like the Minister to have regard to. The Law Commission has produced a draft set of proposals, which I would like the Minister to have regard to. I do not want him to consult on all this; I want him to have regard to it and to get on with it.
In default of that, I strongly support Amendment 64, which gives him an escape hatch from confronting the issue I have put in front of him. All we are asking for is that, over the next 12 months, he draws up a timetable for undertaking a wholesale review and consolidation of electoral law. It could hardly be a lighter-touch amendment seeking to see this legislation consolidated as it should have been a long time ago. I hope that in the interests of clarification, which the Minister is so keen on, and in the interests of having regard to advice, he will proceed by accepting this amendment and taking a small step forward to improving the lot of agents and candidates across the country.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 64, so ably moved by my noble friend. It is an inoffensive amendment. The reason I rise is to say that I look forward to the Minister’s reply, because in my bones I feel that the answer we are going to hear from the Dispatch Box opposite is that there is a reason why the Government cannot accept it. I look forward to hearing what that reason or reasons may be, because one would be hard put to object to anything so inoffensive; it does not even have a timetable. Nevertheless, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, the Government agree in principle that there is a strong case for the consolidation of electoral law, and we have noted the interest expressed in this Chamber and in the recent PACAC report. However, as previously noted in Committee, we must acknowledge that the process of consolidating electoral law will be a long-term project that will take significant consideration and policy development. It is not something to rush, and it is not something for which the Government should commit to firm deadlines in a timetable at this stage.
The changes brought forward by the Elections Bill are part of a large programme of work, which will include secondary legislation and practical implementation matters. As such, it is the Government’s view that the implementation of this work should first be completed before work on the consolidation of electoral law can begin. For this reason, the Government cannot support this amendment.
My Lords, I always do my very best to be inoffensive, so it is nice to know that my amendment has been appreciated. It is good to hear from the Minister that the Government in principle support what we are trying to achieve with it. This may take a long time and it may be complicated, but it will be very worth while in the end and I encourage the Government not to throw this away and to keep it as something to be done in the near future, if possible. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 64 withdrawn.
Amendments 65 to 69 not moved.
69A: After Clause 60, insert the following new Clause—
Within the period of 3 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must make an order under section 43 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 so as to bring section 10 of that Act (non-resident donors etc) into force.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to bring the provisions of section 10 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, relating to non-resident donors, into force within 3 months of this Act being passed.
My Lords, this amendment was not tabled in Committee. This is the first time we have looked at it. It addresses recent concerns that have been raised around non-dom status and donations from non-doms. I thought it was important that this was acknowledged during our discussions on the Bill.
The Labour Party believes that non-dom status should be abolished. We have recently made that very clear. We believe that there should instead be a modern scheme for people who are genuinely living in the UK for short periods. We want to address the fact that we can have small group of high-income people who live in the UK and are able to access non-dom status. We do not believe that they should be able to continue to avoid paying UK tax on their overseas income for up to 15 years, as is currently possible with the system we have at the moment.
We believe we should look at the systems in other countries and put in place something similar that is suitable for our country. For example, Japan, France and Canada have much better systems in place, where genuinely temporary residents who are here for short periods would not pay tax on overseas income gains, but that would not be possible for those who are here much longer.
This would bring about a clear, simple system. If we look at what we are doing at the moment, the rules are around 200 years old. It also means that the domicile is passed down through people’s fathers. It seems extraordinary that we still work by those laws. Surely it needs to be properly looked at and considered. I understand that HMRC has to use four complicated flow charts just to determine someone’s domicile. We have been talking about simplifying electoral law; this is something else that clearly needs looking at and simplifying.
We think that a temporary tax regime for residents would work. It would provide some tax advantages, but only for short periods of time, unlike the way the system is at the moment. Fundamentally, we believe that if you make your home in Britain long-term, you should pay tax here on all your income.
We are also concerned that the current system prevents non-doms investing their foreign income in the UK, as bringing it here means that it then becomes liable for UK tax, so there is no advantage for them to do so. That means that non-doms who earn income in tax havens and other low-tax jurisdictions would face a large financial penalty if they attempted to bring that income here to the UK. We do not believe that this is good for business; we should be encouraging more investment in the UK through these wealthy people.
We are aware that the Government have a business investment relief scheme which is intended to fix this, but we do not believe that it is working properly. The latest figures show that less than 1% of non-doms invest their overseas income in the UK in any given year, and that cannot be good for UK business. In addition, if we made these changes, it would bring us into line with other major economies. The UK is one of the only large economies which has these arrangements. As I have said before, France and Canada, for example, have different regimes, as does Germany.
This issue needs serious consideration. The Government need to address it and the Elections Bill provides an opportunity to do so. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response. However, because this is such an important matter and it needs to be dealt with, if I do not hear from the Minister serious ways in which it can be addressed, I will consider testing the opinion of the House.
My Lords, elections and donations are about choice. People who have non-dom status choose not to pay their tax here and, while they have this status, they live abroad for more than nine months of the year. The fundamental question raised by this amendment is: should they be able to donate the perhaps millions of pounds which they save in taxes by being non-doms to a political party, for example, which might want to preserve that beneficial tax status for them? In other words, we might connect the two principles of being able to give millions to a party and benefit by not paying millions which other people might consider are owed in taxes.
There are a number of occasions in our debates when we say that what we are doing is asking the other place to think again. However, we are not, on this principle, asking the other place or even this House to think again. The legislation which said that non-doms should not be able to donate to political parties was passed by both Houses in 2009. So we are not asking anyone to think again; we are simply asking for the legislation, passed with the approval of both Houses, to be implemented. Since 2010, various excuses have been put forward as to why this has been supposedly difficult or impractical, even though it was approved by Parliament. Essentially, the excuse provided is that the HMRC says, “Well, all tax issues are confidential, so you can’t implement this”. However, a form of declaration accompanying any donation, saying, “I am not a non-dom, so I am entitled to donate”, might well suffice and fit the bill. If you were making a false declaration, that could be an offence.
However, I do not really accept the HMRC’s argument—or rather, the Government’s argument put forward on behalf of the HMRC. For example, when Parliament said that if you are a higher-rate taxpayer, you should not benefit from child benefit—which I think was a fair measure—you needed to sign a declaration to the HMRC saying, “Someone in this household pays a higher rate of tax, so I can’t receive child benefit”. Why, therefore, can you not sign a declaration saying, “Someone in this household is a non-dom and therefore cannot donate to a political party”?
This debate is really about some of the fundamental parts of the Bill. The extension of the right to vote beyond 15 years is not really going to extend voting rights for very many people. For the reasons I outlined at Second Reading and will not go through again, the postal vote system, needed by most people who vote overseas, is so slow that very few votes would count in a general election. However, through this Bill the ability to donate unlimited amounts of money is being extended to a lot of people, including non-doms. A little earlier today, when discussing a technical aspect of the Bill, the Minister kindly confirmed that the Government’s position is very much to maintain a level playing field at local constituency level and nationally. However, I do not believe that this is happening. This extension of the right to vote is more about the right to donate, and should not be applied to non-doms.
In December 2020, the Government said that they wanted to increase the national expenditure limits for political parties in a general election “in line with inflation”. In 2000, Parliament agreed that there should be a level playing field between the main parties in elections. The principle was very much that it had to be a level playing field, not that each of the parties should be able to spend up to £20 million. If we increase that £20 million limit, or thereabouts, by the rate of inflation since 2000, that is a 79% increase. Therefore, the national expenditure limit, if increased in line with inflation since 2000, would go up for the Conservative Party, for example, from almost £20 million to almost £36 million. Where is that extra £16 million going to come from? Much of it will come from overseas donors, many of whom are non-doms. I do not think that this appeals to the British sense of fair play, and it should not happen.
My Lords, I fear that I am not going to be able to allow the noble Baroness to remain in her seat for the rest of the evening. The Government cannot agree to these provisions, which seek to bring into practice a provision from the 2009 Act regarding donations from non-resident donors. Noble Lords will recall that in Committee, my noble friend Lord Howe replied to the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, on this same uncommenced provision.
The Government’s position on the matter remains unchanged, but it is important briefly to place on record the reasons why. The Government have no current plans to bring into force the uncommenced provision, Section 10, regarding donations from non-resident donors. It would be extremely difficult to make the provision work, as the Electoral Commission warned in 2009 when the Bill was going through Parliament. The coalition Government, in which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was influential, did not implement it between 2010 and 2015. The fundamental issue is that it is not workable, given that an individual’s tax status is subject legally to confidentiality. It would therefore be difficult or even impossible for the Electoral Commission, political parties, which would face fines for this, and other campaigners accurately to determine whether a donor met the test set out in Section 10.
I acknowledge that the Labour Party has come forward. I do not wish to get into a debate about the Labour Party’s fiscal proposals—that is slightly outside the scope of the Bill—but I know that Sir Keir will send a thank you letter to the noble Baroness for having raised this issue. Our principle, basically, is that taxation is not the basis of enfranchisement in the UK. As a British citizen is able to vote in an election for a political party, they should be able to donate, subject to requirements for transparency in donations, which we have discussed. There is also a precedent whereby those who do not pay income tax rightly remain entitled to vote. A lot of low-paid people do not pay income tax, but they have a legitimate right to vote. I know that perceptions differ on this issue. I remind the House that on two occasions, in 2009 and 2013, the Electoral Commission warned about the practical implications of the policy. For these reasons, and because of the duty of confidentiality in taxation, which would have to be overridden by other legislation, the Government cannot support the noble Baroness’s amendment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his support and for his excellent speech. I thank the Minister for his response, although I am sure he will not be surprised to hear that it is not a response that I am particularly happy with or happy to accept. This issue has concerned a lot of people in recent weeks and months, and the Government need to take the position of non-dom status very seriously and look at it again. On that basis, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Amendment 69B not moved.
69C: Before Clause 61, insert the following new Clause—
“Review of operation of Act
(1) The Secretary of State must, within the review period—(a) prepare a report on the operation of this Act,(b) publish the report, and(c) lay a copy of the report before Parliament.(2) In subsection (1), “the review period” is the period—(a) beginning with the fourth anniversary of the day on which this Act is passed, and(b) ending with the fifth anniversary of that day.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to prepare, publish and lay before Parliament a review of the operation of this legislation, not less than 4 and not more than 5 years after it receives Royal Assent.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 69D. I believe both amendments are significant to the House and I hope it will reflect on their importance, because I know there are aspects of the Bill that have concerned Members on all sides of the House. The amendment establishes a statutory duty for post-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, something that has been asked for, certainly by the noble Baroness opposite.
We had believed, and I maintain, that it is standard practice to conduct post-legislative scrutiny of Acts following Royal Assent, but we have listened to the strength of interest in guaranteeing that scrutiny takes place which will go across the Bill and we have tabled this amendment requiring the Secretary of State to prepare, publish and lay before Parliament a review of the operation of this legislation, not less than four and not more than five years after it receives Royal Assent—in other words, in good time. We judge that this amendment supports the commonly shared aim of this House, and answers the recommendation made by PACAC, that the impact of the measures be assessed following implementation of the Bill.
The amendment also sets out that a report by the Secretary of State will need to be set before Parliament to allow debate and scrutiny of the operation of the Act, as your Lordships have asked. Amendment 69D is a minor and technical amendment necessary to state the territorial extent of paragraphs 25 and 26 of Schedule 1. I hope the House will understand that I wish to place on record in Hansard that I think this is a significant proposal from the Government which will allow and ensure statutory consideration and examination of the Bill as a whole if it is given Royal Assent. I beg to move.
My Lords, in Committee I tabled Amendment 205 to ask the Government to include in the Bill a statutory commitment to post-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, as recommended by PACAC. I want to say very briefly how much I welcome the amendments that the Minister has just introduced and to thank him very much for listening to my concerns and the concerns of other Members of this House about the lack of pre-legislative consultation or scrutiny. The fact that this has been included in the Bill is extremely welcome.
Amendment 69C agreed.
Clause 64: Extent
69D: Clause 64, page 67, line 18, after “24” insert “, 27”
Member’s explanatory statement
This minor and technical amendment ensures that the territorial extent of amendments to Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 made by Schedule 1 to the Bill is correctly stated.
Amendment 69D agreed.
Amendment 70 not moved.
Clause 65: Commencement
71: Clause 65, page 68, line 17, at end insert—
“(3A) Regulations must not be laid to bring Section 13 into force until—(a) a period of two years has passed since this Act is passed;(b) the Secretary of State has published guidance to Electoral Registration Officers on how to determine whether an applicant has been resident in the UK for electoral registration purposes; and(c) the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report on—(i) the documentary evidence that may be required to support an application to be an overseas elector;(ii) the length of time that a person must have previously been in the UK in order to register as an overseas elector;(iii) the security and timeliness of the delivery and return of ballots to overseas electors; and(iv) such other matters pertaining to the registration of individuals as overseas electors as the Secretary of State considers relevant.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment delays section 13 (overseas electors) coming into force for a period of at least two years, and until the Secretary of State has laid a report before Parliament on how the system of registration of overseas electors is to operate. It also requires the Secretary of State to publish guidance to Electoral Registration Officers.
My Lords, Amendment 71, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, relates to the implementation of Clause 13, which deals with the qualification for voting arrangements for overseas voters. It is my contention that this part of the Bill is technically flawed and, as drafted, will produce some strange and surely unintended consequences. We believe it essential that these are overcome before it is brought into force, and doing that needs some serious thought, proper consultation and the preparation of guidelines and advice.
I raised some of my concerns in Committee, where the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, undertook to write to me. On 6 April, the morning of Report, I received a letter from the noble Baroness which basically said on the two issues I raised: “Well, it’s okay; let’s just see how it goes”. I will deal with those two points first, but I shall come to others despite the lateness of the hour and where we are in the proceedings.
The first issue I raised in Committee, which was addressed to some extent by her letter, was the extremely loose definition of who can qualify to go on the overseas register of voters. Clearly and unambiguously, an individual must be a British citizen, but what else do they have to be to get on the register? The clause says they must have been previously resident in the United Kingdom. Nothing is specified about for how long or at what age. I will again mention the case I raised in Committee: a British couple make a touch-and-go visit back from Ghana, during which their baby daughter is born and following which they emigrate to Switzerland. In due course, at the age of 18, that baby can claim an overseas voting right, never having been on a UK register and never having been eligible to be on one, because they were not 18 before they left the United Kingdom.
The Minister’s answer was that electoral registration officers were the best people to judge whether a person claiming the right to join the overseas register had in fact acquired a UK residential qualification by virtue of spending, for instance, a fortnight in a maternity unit in Hounslow, or not. I gently suggest to the Minister that it might be better to establish a more formal and regularised decision-making process, one less prone to happenstance and the personal inclinations of electoral registration officers. There is reference in the Bill to guidance being produced, although it does not say that it will tackle that issue. Indeed, the letter from the noble Baroness does not suggest for a moment that such advice will be made available. Noble Lords will see in the amendment we have tabled that that is one of the matters we say needs to be considered and resolved before this section comes into force.
In the same debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said that the aim of this proposal was that those on the overseas register would be in exactly the same position as those on the UK register of voters. I take that to mean that, apart from anything else, they will be free to nominate someone to be a candidate for a public election in the constituency in which they are registered. No one seems to know whether that includes nominating for a local government election, or if there is a mechanism for deciding in which ward they could validly nominate.
Clearly, if you were on the overseas list by virtue of appearing on a previous electoral register, that matter is settled because you would have appeared for a particular locality, which will place you in a ward and make you eligible to nominate somebody for it if you wish. However, for someone with a residential qualification, it is perhaps less clear-cut whether ward B in the maternity hospital at Hounslow—where you happen to have been born when your parents came off the aeroplane—is or is not in a particular ward. That is a small detail compared to some of the other matters I will raise, but it certainly indicates that there are matters which are not yet clearly resolved.
So, it is clear that if a person can nominate somebody, whatever they can nominate them for—whether it is restricted to parliamentary elections because it is on a constituency basis, or whether they are located sufficiently well to nominate somebody for a local government ward—they must also be free to stand for election as a candidate themselves in that election if they should choose. So far, so equal. The aim of making sure that overseas voters have exactly the same rights and duties as electors in this country is achieved.
But surely it ought also to mean that if convicted of an offence—let us say death by dangerous driving—that results in a sentence of more than six months, they should be disqualified from standing and if elected at the time, they should lose office, just as someone on the UK register would. I remind the Minister that the Government strongly resisted efforts by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford to permit some categories of prisoners to vote. The Government are completely hostile to the view that people should have a vote in prison, never mind that they might stand or even be elected or retain their office if in prison. However, the answer that the noble Baroness gave me in that letter was that being in a foreign prison was not in fact a bar to standing for public office in the UK; she made the perfectly fair point that the UK Government—and by extension, electoral returning officers—would have no knowledge of foreign court decisions and that in any case, in many jurisdictions, imprisonment could result from acts that were legal in the United Kingdom.
That is a pretty good reply—well drafted and crafted—but it does not really bear examination, because there are a number of things which candidates cannot be: they cannot be bankrupts, and they cannot be suffering from a mental illness that requires their detention. But those matters are simply covered by a candidate’s declaration: you tick a box to say that you are not bankrupt and that you are not detained. The Government and the electoral registration officer do not have the means of checking that either. So, these matters could perfectly well be dealt with by having an additional question on the declaration at nomination stage. It would have exactly the same strength and capacity as a tick in a box to say, “I am not bankrupt, and I am not currently detained under the Mental Health Act.”
The argument that it is impossible to monitor whether an overseas elector is in prison and therefore should or should not be able to nominate somebody—or indeed continue to hold office having been previously elected—is therefore mistaken. At the moment, the Government seem to accept that there is nothing they can do about it. It seems to me obvious that a simple modification to the declaration form would solve the problem and, of course, falsification of the declaration form is an election offence. So, such an additional, suitably worded declaration by an overseas voter would be open to exactly the same challenges as the standard declaration form. In most cases, the mere existence of such a declaration would be a sufficient deterrent and any that got through would likely soon be weeded out by opponents and certainly would not need extensive investigation by the Government.
Surely the Government, with their fetish of preventing prisoners from voting, are not going to allow overseas voters not only to vote but to be eligible to stand while they are serving a sentence in a foreign prison for what would be an imprisonable offence in this country—I mentioned dangerous driving.
It might be asked what category of voter would benefit from this; well, there might be a few “McMafia” figures languishing in a Spanish prison, I suppose. All that could be dealt with by an amended declaration form, which could be produced in about 10 minutes with a word processor. But there is no provision for such a thing in Clause 13, and the Government seem to have given up in the attempt. So far, so wrong.
Let us consider the case of a councillor elected to a UK local authority—say, the London borough of Richmond or the Wiltshire county authority—who then moves to Dover. When the new register is published, they lose their vote in their old area and, lacking another qualification, have to vacate their office. I ask noble Lords to consider what would have happened if that councillor had moved a further 30 miles east, to Calais. They could of course then ask to be put on the register of overseas voters for their former area. Long before the new register comes into force, they would be qualified by virtue of that to continue in office and indeed to re-stand in due course. Do the Minister and her advisers know that Clause 13 produces the absurd result that such a councillor moving to Dover is disqualified but one moving to Calais is not?
The Minister may say that all these things are absurdly unlikely. But the touchdown baby is a real case, although she resided in the UK for about six months—that was 50 years ago. The case of relocating councillors is far from unknown, although most of them move not to Calais but to the Algarve and other sunny parts of Europe. My point is that Clause 13 is hopelessly deficient in setting out the Government’s limitations and intentions, and it urgently needs work before implementation can begin. My noble friend Lord Wallace will make the point that the actual process of issuing and collecting votes is so unfit for purpose that it raises serious concerns that, actually, the whole point of the mechanism is not to increase democratic participation by British citizens overseas but rather to increase their financial participation.
It may be that that the Government are not going to take the question of the mechanics of voting very seriously—I hope that they will, and I know that my noble friend will spell that out very clearly. But, even if they do not take his objections seriously, surely no Conservative Minister can seriously leave unaltered and unexamined a provision that lets convicted prisoners in French jails stand for election to the UK Parliament or that lets absentee councillors remain in office, provided that they remain out of the United Kingdom. Putting that proposition in front of this House makes the Government a laughing stock. But that is what Clause 13 permits, and it is why I urge the Government to accept our amendment to take time, take stock and produce a process that is genuinely fit for purpose. I beg to move.
My Lords, I simply say that I thought that that was a masterly exposition by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I would happily second all the questions that he is asking of the Minister on the absurd ramifications. The only thing that I would say by way of regret to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, is that we do not need an inquiry or further consideration. The simple solution is invariably the best one, and it is not to extend the ability to vote from overseas beyond the 15 years very wisely and fairly established by the Labour Government. This acknowledged that people might quite legitimately be going abroad for a while, and it would be wrong to disenfranchise them, but, by the end of 15 years, it is pretty well established that someone is unlikely to return and their connection with the United Kingdom diminishes by the day—and they are living with the consequences. I will certainly not repeat the argument, but, when you have a problem, look for the simple solution. Let us all agree that this extension of the franchise for life, virtually irrespective of residence, as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, has declared, is absurd.
My Lords, I should declare an interest. I have two sisters, one of whom left Britain 60 years ago and the other 50 years ago. They would be entitled to vote under this provision. I also have a nephew and a niece who left in infancy. They too would be entitled to vote under this scheme.
I also declare an interest in that my party has been in favour of moving towards overseas voting and has thought some of it through. It has looked at practice in comparable countries such as France and Australia. It is clear that we need to involve embassies and consulates abroad if we are to make sure that votes are returned in time. It is also clear that we should be moving towards overseas constituencies, given the different requirements of those who vote from overseas. This happens in a number of other countries. It could be done here. The Minister seemed astonished when I first mentioned overseas constituencies, as if he had not heard of them before.
I have had hundreds of messages about this, from people in France in particular. First, the local MP where they are still registered tells them it is nothing to do with them and they are not going to take up their case because they do not live in the constituency. Secondly, they would like to have overseas constituencies with particular MPs, or Members of the second Chamber or whatever, who would take their interests into account. France has a small number of overseas constituencies, with a much larger number of voters per constituency, and their interests are taken into account.
I hope the Minister will not mind my saying that, when I first went to discuss with him and his team the way in which this extension might be implemented, I was staggered by the lack of detail and what seemed to me to be a lack of interest in the detail. We have very little information on its implementation. It is not quite as bad as the Government’s proposal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, which appears to have had almost no thought as to how it might be implemented or costed.
There are a range of things that we need to consider. We know already that getting ballot papers out to foreign countries and back within the short time period is extremely difficult and very often fails. What do the Government propose to do about this if they are going to implement this expanded scheme? We have not yet heard anything on that. Will it involve embassies and consulates abroad? I asked a Question last summer and was told by the Foreign Office that it had not been consulted on this and did not expect to be involved to any degree. The Australians, the French and others clearly play a large role in managing and assisting with overseas voting. How therefore would this be carried out in practice when it comes? The Government also wish to shorten the campaigning period. At present, that proposal has been put off. If the campaigning period were any shorter, getting ballots out and back would be almost completely impossible.
This amendment says, “Tell us how you will do this. Demonstrate to Parliament that you have actually thought this through and that you have some way of identifying who are British citizens overseas, where they were residing in Britain beforehand and that, if they wish to vote, the means will be provided for them to receive ballot papers and to get them back—and do not implement it until you are able to answer those questions”. I have not yet heard the Minister or his officials be able to answer any of these questions, and therefore we have tabled this amendment.
My Lords, we are nearing the end of this debate on Report. I cannot say that this Elections Bill is one of this Government’s finest constitutional measures. Although it is late in the day, we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, a very clear exposition of some of the questions which have not been answered, and I think it is perfectly fair to ask the Government—even at this late stage on Monday night—to provide some answers.
I find myself sitting here thinking back to the time that John Stonehouse disappeared, which some noble Lords may remember. When he disappeared, it became clear that there was no provision under British electoral law to remove him from his position as a Member of Parliament. Even though he was arrested and imprisoned in Australia, his constituency went unrepresented, because there was no way of getting rid of him. So things that might appear to you to be unlikely, such as those outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, might still one day actually occur.
The only thing I would add is that, over the Easter Recess, I met a British citizen who left Britain 55 years ago. He has been living in an EU country. I can report to the House that he was astonished to discover that the Government were now planning to give him the vote. He asked me a number of questions, such as “Where would I cast my vote?”—which brings me to the questions mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Some countries, France being one of them, have overseas constituencies. After decades of inaction, the Americans finally made it possible for Republicans and Democrats abroad to vote while living in the UK. I am sorry to say this at such a late stage, but this is an area that has not been as fully thought through as it should have been. That is exactly what this House is here for and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for his excellent introduction to this amendment. It is worth focusing on the fact that the Minister has, on numerous occasions, stressed the impracticalities of some of the amendments that have been considered today, saying “We can’t do this because it’s impractical”. Yet, without any thought, the electorate can be increased from 1 million to 3.3 million, as we heard from my noble friend earlier, without any infrastructure or effort to manage the implications.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about other countries. Other countries have different voting systems, such as list systems and regional systems. But our democracy is fundamentally based not on a party system but on the constituency system, where an individual MP represents the people of that constituency. With what is being proposed, we could suddenly have, as my noble friend said earlier, 7,000 or 8,000 people being allocated to a constituency who, according to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, have never lived there. And we will not even make any attempt—or there will not be any practical way—to verify people’s entitlement to vote.
In this Bill, we have said that if a resident in a constituency turns up at a polling station but fails to produce photographic evidence of their entitlement, they will not be given the vote. But someone who lives abroad can get a vote in a constituency and be sent it without any proper checks. It is absolutely crazy that the Government are not taking the time to look at the practical implications of this. It comes back to the point: why is it being done? It does not really appear to be being done to defend and enhance our democracy. I know I have said it before, but all this effort is going into people who have left this country, who have never lived here or who have lived here for a very short period of time—we are extending the vote to them—but people who have lived here for 27 years, and paid tax and national insurance, will not be given the vote. It is crazy.
This amendment is absolutely right. It would ensure that the Government pay proper attention to the practical implications of their policy and do so in a timely fashion. It is not as if we are trying to say, “Don’t do this”—even though I agree with my noble friend and would prefer that the Government did not do it. The amendment is saying, “Okay, if you’re going to do it and if it’s a principle you support, do it properly. Understand the consequences, particularly the consequences for our democracy”. This side wholeheartedly supports this amendment.
My Lords, I will first answer the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I am sorry that he did not get as much information as he needed, but I will have to hold the House a little longer to give him more detail.
On candidature, anyone who wants to be a candidate in an election in this country needs to be a resident of this country and to have proof of residency. So, nobody living abroad can be a resident of this country—that is the first thing.
On prisoners, treating prisoners detained in the UK differently from those that are detained overseas is not inconsistent; it is a legitimate and appropriate difference in approach. The Representation of the People Act 1983 sets out that the prohibition of prisoner voting applies to prisoners held in UK prisons only. Whether someone is imprisoned in the UK or overseas is important. A person imprisoned in the UK has been convicted under the UK justice system for breaches of UK law; a person imprisoned in another country has not. In some parts of the world, people are, for example, imprisoned on account of nothing more than their sexual orientation or for calling something a war rather than a special military operation.
In addition to potentially removing the rights of people who would never have been convicted under the UK justice system, creating a specific ban on British prisoners abroad would be unworkable and unenforceable. How could you ascertain with any degree of certainty whether someone living in any country in the world was in a prison? It is impossible. Some British prisoners imprisoned outside the UK may in theory qualify to vote, but there would be significant barriers to their participation, not least because they would have to manage to register to vote, apply for an absent vote and then cast that absent vote, all potentially from the confines of a prison cell.
May I remind the Minister that it is part of the responsibilities of our consuls abroad to look after the interests of British citizens when they are in foreign prisons? So it is not the case that we will not have information on these. Our consular network should have the information relevant to this, but perhaps the Foreign Office has not been consulted.
Then we come to somebody who was born in the UK and has been here only a short time. The current system allows citizens who have left the UK while still too young to vote the ability to register based on their parents’ or guardians’ previous registration, but this is subject to an arbitrary 15-year limit from when they left the UK. The Government want to remove this arbitrary time limit placed on British citizens who have resided here, and we have no intention to replace one time limit with another arbitrary time limit requiring a British citizen to have been resident here for a certain amount of time before they can register.
The Bill will permit children who are UK citizens and who have resided in the UK to be eligible to vote based on their previous residency here. They would apply in respect of their last place of residency. This approach is consistent with the principle of individual responsibility, which underpins individual electoral registration and ensures that voting rights are not conditional on choices made by others in the past.
Additionally, British citizens born outside the UK must have previously resided in the UK to become eligible to register to vote. In practical terms, someone who left the UK at a very young age or who was present in the UK only for a short period will find it difficult to demonstrate their residency at a particular UK address to the satisfaction of a registration officer. I would also question whether anyone who lived in the UK only for a very short period would have any interest in voting in our elections. I hope that gives a little more substance to my letter.
I now turn to the amendment as tabled. The purpose of this amendment would be to delay the commencement of Clause 13 of the Bill for two years, and the extension of franchise for parliamentary election for British citizens overseas. The amendment would require three conditions to be met before regulations could be laid to bring into force the provisions. The Government have set out much detail on the intended registration and voting process in their policy statement Overseas Electors: Delivering ‘Votes for Life’ for British Expatriates. Referring to the condition whereby the Secretary of State must publish guidance for EROs on determining residentiary requirements of overseas electors, further detail on residency requirements will be set out in secondary legislation.
Electoral registration officers will require British citizens who have been resident, but not previously registered, to demonstrate to their satisfaction that they were resident at a specific address. Section 5 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already lays down the general principles regarding residence for electoral purposes which a registration officer must consider and apply in deciding whether a person is resident at a particular address for those purposes. The same approach to residency must be applied within these boundaries and, as now, registration officers will be supported in this by guidance from the Electoral Commission, with whom the Government will work closely.
As for reporting on documentary evidence, the Government intend to align closely with the existing exceptions process for those domestic electors for whom an ERO considers that additional evidence is required to verify their identity. This is a system that administrators are already familiar with, and we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to develop this process. It will be set out in secondary legislation and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and to parliamentary approval.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, brought up the issue of how we will help expatriates—the people who want to vote from abroad—to actually be able to vote. I think we had a discussion on overseas constituencies, and it was made very clear that the Government are not supporting that idea. However, the Government have already improved the delivery and return of ballots to overseas electors by working with Royal Mail and the British Forces Post Office, expediting dispatch abroad, and funding the use of the international business response licence that expedites the return of the ballot packs from overseas in a large number of countries, as well as covering any postage costs that might otherwise be incurred.
This Bill will also introduce an online absent vote application service that will allow overseas electors more easily apply for a postal vote.
Will the Minister develop her point about the repayment of postal charges? Perhaps she could explain to noble Lords a little more fully what that implies. To my knowledge, a number of local authorities are quite clear at the moment, that they will not post postal votes overseas because of the additional expense. I do not know if there is an element of guidance needed in those cases, but there might be an element of finance. If one had a constituency with the projected 4,000 or 5,000 overseas electors, it would be a significant additional sum. I wonder if she could say something about the Government’s financing of that additional outlay.
I cannot at the moment. It may be part of the burdens that will be financed for local authorities, but I will get the noble Lord a complete answer on that and make sure it is absolutely correct.
The introduction of votes for life is a manifesto commitment. The framework for the previous Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was subject to a full public consultation and has formed the basis for this refreshed policy. Since then, we have worked very closely with the electoral service managers and administrators on the design of the processes, and the practical implementation of these measures. On this basis, it is unnecessary to further delay the extension of the franchise, and I hope the noble Lord will feel able to reconsider and withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for her reply and for the much greater level of detail that she has provided on this occasion, which I very much welcome. She has indeed answered some of the points that I raised, although I think she skirted over the possibility of amending legislation so that some account could be taken of imprisonment overseas. As I say, that is a matter that could easily be covered by an extension of the existing declaration that candidates make.
I am not satisfied with the answer that I have had but at this time of night I certainly do not intend to force my view upon the House. I just say to the Government that I think some of these matters will come back to haunt them, and at that moment I hope to be present to witness the haunting taking place. With that said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 71 withdrawn.