Speaking in the debate on the Second Reading of the Election and Political Parties Bill, Sir George supported some of the proposals but was critical of other omissions.
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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who made a thoughtful speech, and I agreed with what he said at the beginning about regulation and the powers of entry. However, I am afraid that I did not agree with him on clause 10 and the trigger mechanism. The Secretary of State for Justice can normally be relied on to make a robust defence of whatever proposition he is putting to the House, but when he reached clause 10 in his speech today he was extraordinarily defensive, with an over-reliance on an Opposition amendment tabled 10 years ago in the other place. Any objective listener to the debate will have found the counter-arguments, put first by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), very powerful. He holed clause 10 below the waterline. Before the smoke had settled, there came another torpedo from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), headed the same way. I shall be amazed if clause 10 survives its passage through both Houses in the form in which it is currently drafted.
During the speech by my right hon. Friend, he put on the table a genuine offer that would deal with the Lord Ashcroft issue. We would be happy to discuss a cap on donations of £50,000. If the hon. Member for Manchester, Central and his colleagues are worried, that is an offer that should be pursued, because it would address some of their concerns.
I agree with the Secretary of State that the regime introduced by the 2000 Act has, on the whole, worked fairly well, setting up the Electoral Commission and introducing controls on parties and elections. However, since its introduction, a range of committees has considered it—the Hayden Phillips report, the Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and, of course, the Electoral Commission itself. The time has come to make some running repairs to the 2000 Act. Some of the recommendations from those bodies are included in the Bill, but some are not.
I begin with a word of warning about the Government’s approach to matters dealing with elections. Party advantage has not always been erased from their mind. When the original legislation went through, I was my party’s spokesman on these matters and I recall that one key recommendation of the Neill Committee was not in the Bill: the principle of match funding to encourage party membership. The absence of that recommendation caused the Government much difficulty with the Bill in the other place. Since then, that recommendation has been repeated by several bodies. At the time, its omission was seen as partisan because it would have benefited the Conservative party. The alibi that that was unaffordable was destroyed by the Government’s subsequent munificence in almost every field of public expenditure. I mention that in the context of today’s debate because the Government have form in seeking to tweak electoral legislation for party advantage, and we need to be clear to prevent it from happening with this Bill. My right hon. Friend put down some markers in that respect, and I am sure that the other place is on red alert.
I wish to speak briefly on two issues. The first relates to clause 5 and putting politicians on the Electoral Commission. The commission has made it clear that it does not like that suggestion. It has said:
“We are deeply concerned that public confidence in the Commission’s independence would be undermined as a result of the Government’s proposals.”
That is seriously overplaying its hand. If four of the 10 commissioners were put forward by the leaders of the political parties, it would enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the commission, rather than contaminate its independence. Having met many of the commissioners, they did not strike me as people who would be walked over by politicians and of course they would remain a majority. Nor is it the case that politicians are always partisan. Anyone who has been a Minister or a Chairman of a Select Committee will realise that politicians are perfectly able to switch to neutral mode. If I may say so, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Deputy Speakers are good examples of that. They are elected with a party hat, but they serve the House impartially and neutrally.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life has representatives of the political parties, and I have seen no evidence that people think it less independent because there are two MPs on it. My Committee has powers to make recommendations, and although it is composed solely of party politicians coming from four different parties, I do not believe that that has compromised its effectiveness or credibility. So I believe that the anxieties expressed by the commission on that score are misguided.
My second point relates to clauses 2 and 3, coupled with schedule 1. I apologise to the hon. Member for Cambridge, because this is an internal matter for the House. The clauses will extend the investigative powers of the commission considerably, and Members of Parliament will be subject to the new provisions. This part of the Bill is relevant to the ongoing debate about how best to resolve the current requirement on colleagues to register certain interests both with the Registrar of Members’ Interests here and with the Electoral Commission. How do the proposals to extend the investigatory powers of the commission and their application to MPs fit the provisions of section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which has not yet been brought into effect?
When the 2000 Act was introduced, nobody spotted that it introduced two parallel reporting regimes for MPs, and that has caused much confusion. Colleagues who have registered their interests on the register here and whose entries are accessible online are now getting letters in some cases from the Electoral Commission saying that they have committed a criminal offence because they have not also registered the identical item with it. That is absurd, but it is what the law currently requires. That is why the House, after full consultation with the Electoral Commission, passed section 59 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 which, in a nutshell, would introduce a one-stop shop for MPs in respect of the vast majority of what are called “permissible donations”. We would register our interests here, and the commission would get the information which it required for its registers from us, streamlining and simplifying the process without compromising on transparency.
Section 59 cannot be enacted without a commencement order laid by the Secretary of State. There is real pressure from both sides of the House to get on with this. This issue is central to assessing the impact that the proposals in the Bill will have on hon. Members, and other holders of “relevant elective office”. In practice, once section 59 is commenced, MPs will remain subject to the overall legislation on donations, but would be relieved of the personal obligation to report each recordable donation we receive to the Electoral Commission as well as the register. Consequently, we will no longer be at risk of committing the criminal offences that can arise from a failure to comply in full with the statutory requirements. As such donations make up the overwhelming bulk of donations that Members report to the commission, the decision on commencement is of considerable significance when looking at the potential impact of this Bill on the House.
So, what is the Government’s policy on commencement of section 59, which they put on the statute book two years ago? The Secretary of State wrote to me in August, saying:
It might be considered that there is an inconsistency between the measures...to strengthen the Commission’s powers and sanctions...and the removal of MPs from the investigatory and sanctioning powers of the Commission. I am concerned that commencement of section 59 could therefore prove difficult for the reputation of the House, particularly when viewed in the context of the reforms to the Electoral Commission which the PPE Bill proposes.”
That implies that the Government may now have set their face against bringing this provision into force. What the House needs today from the Minister is a clear commitment on whether the Government still support the commencement of section 59 and, if so, on what time scale. As he will know, the Standards and Privileges Committee is working towards creating a registration structure that is consistent with achieving that, and gave a commitment in our 13th report to the House before the summer recess that it would aim to make firm proposals shortly after the summer recess.
If the Minister gives a clear commitment to the commencement of section 59, I can tell the House that it should be possible, subject to the Government’s finding time, to complete the steps necessary to clear the way for commencement well before this Bill receives Royal Assent. There is widespread support across the House for an end to dual reporting of donations. Commencement of section 59, the inclusion of which in the 2006 Act all parties supported, as did the Electoral Commission, would achieve that for 99 per cent. of donations. I invite the Government today to confirm their commitment to taking that step.
If the Government are unwilling now to commence section 59, I hope that the Minister will tell the House why, and what alternative plans he has for ending the thoroughly unpopular requirement for dual reporting. If legislation is needed to deliver an alternative approach, the Bill provides the appropriate vehicle. On a more consensual note, I am happy to discuss these matters further with the Secretary of State and the Electoral Commission, but they will need to be taken forward urgently if the opportunity to change a system that many hon. Members find unacceptable is not to be lost.