PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 1989

DRAFT REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE (VARIATION OF LIMITS OF CANDIDATES' ELECTION EXPENSES) ORDER 1989

Tuesday 14 March 1989

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse

Bennett, Mr. Andrew F. (Denton and Reddish)

Brandon-Bravo, Mr. Martin M. (Nottingham, South)

Carlile, Mr. Alex (Montgomery)

Carlisle, Mr. Kenneth, (Lincoln)

Cohen, Mr. Harry (Leyton)

Conway, Mr. Derek (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Cryer, Mr. Bob (Bradford, South)

Darling, Mr. Alistair (Edinburgh, Central)

Dykes, Mr. Hugh (Harrow, East)

Hill, Mr. James, (Southampton, Test)

Hogg, Mr. Douglas (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)

Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)

Hordern, Sir Peter (Horsham)

Key, Mr. Robert (Salisbury)

Knight, Dame Jill (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

MacKay, Mr. Andrew (Berkshire, East)

Mitchell, Sir David (Hampshire, North-West)

Rowlands, Mr. Ted (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Mr. M. D Hamlyn, Committee Clerk.

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3 Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 14 March 1989

[MR. GEOFFREY LOFTHOUSE in the Chair]

Draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1989

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1989.

The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the other order before us, namely, the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1989.

Mr. Hogg: I am grateful to the Committee for agreeing to take the two instruments together. Both deal with increases, to keep pace with the value of money, in financial limits prescribed by law in relation to elections. First, they raise the permitted maximum level of a candidate's expenses during an election. The increase for United Kingdom elections, is, as always, strictly in line with inflation. My right hon. Friend's powers in respect of European elections are more flexible, so in that case, some rounding has been possible to produce a tidier figure. But the increase applied is still broadly that suggested by the change in the value of money since the last European parliamentary elections in 1984. Secondly, the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations raise the candidates' desposit for the European parliamentary elections from £750 to £1,000. A European parliamentary constistuency is about eight or nine times the size of a parliamentary one. In 1979, when the deposit was set at £600, the deposit for a Westminster election was £150, whereas now it is £500. Restoring the European deposit to its full 1979 value would have meant an unacceptably large increase—£600 in 1979 is the equivalent of nearly £1,200 now—but we felt bound to make some move to arrest its drop in value. The figure of £1,000 now proposed represents a compromise between the £900 suggested by inflation since the last increase and the full £1,200 needed to restore the original value. The political parties represented in Parliament have been consulted about the proposal to increase the limits, and the aim is for the increases to be in place in time for the county council elections in May and the European parliamentary elections in June.

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10.32 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who is, I believe, campaigning in Leicestershire. No one else from the Shadow Home Office team was available, so I was asked to deputise for him on the basis that, as our Front Bench team thought, everything was all right. However, I have not sat in my hon. Friend's place, and I have not taken up the pen which seems to be the main mark of office on the Opposition Front Bench. While the Opposition Front Bench may think that everything is all right, I am disappointed that the Government have increased the deposit from £750 to £1,000. There were strong representations from the Greens against the increase. The system of substantial deposits does not help parliamentary democracy. I realise that candidates standing for either European or our own elections benefit from the free post. However, it is not justifiable to create a penalty that will effect parties that get few votes and lose their deposits. If the Government want to discourage cranks from standing and to ensure that only those with genuine political viewpoints stand, it would be far better to insist on 100 or 200, rather than 10 signatures, on the nomination paper. That would be a more accurate register of a political party's credibility with the electorate than the ability to pay the increased deposit. Most political parties have lost deposits at different times. It is an insult to the many people who participate voluntarily in election campaigns that their hard work is rewarded not only by few votes, but by the additional penalty of a lost deposit. The Government could have left the deposit at £750 and not raised it in line with inflation. It is undemocratic to insist on such a substantial deposit. Even if the Opposition voted against the instrument it would not change the position. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government will reconsider and stop uprating deposits in line with inflation.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South): In the draft Representation of the People (Variations of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order, the differences between metropolitan and non-metropolitan wards are not sufficiently recognised. The order provides for the lump sum to be increased from £150 to £162 and includes an amount for each elector, but the very large differences between wards are not properly taken into account. For example, the metropolitan wards in my constituency might comprise about 10,000 to 11,000 electors whereas wards in non-metropolitan areas might have as few as 3,000. The lump sum allocated to a ward should recognise such differences. The amount per head of the electorial population is insufficient recognition. The provision for the City of London wards is altered to £162 by article 5. Those wards are very small and it is wrong to equate them with wards in 5 the metropolitan areas where provision is also being increased to £162. Will the Minister look into that as it may not have occured to the Home Office? In local government contests, in metropolitan areas especially, the maximum expenditure is often reached. It is not a matter of bending expenditure limits; getting round to 12,000 electors is a difficult task in local authority elections. We ought to encourage as much participation in them as possible. Candidates should be considered on their merits. We all know that local authority elections are won largely on the basis of the parties' standing nationally. Local issues are often unimportant, but I am pleased to say that that has changed in Bradford because of the extreme Right-wing stance of the Conservative majority on the council. That will doubtless stimulate increased participation in the local elections next year. But we should not depend on the controversial character of the council majority to stimulate interest in elections. We should be able to mount a compaign that persuades people to vote on local authority issues. I shall not oppose this order, but I hope that the Government will consider the merits of providing a greater initial sum for the larger metropolitan wards before introducing the next order. I share the reservations of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) about the draft European Parliamentary (Amendment) Regulations. I do not like the Common Market. That may surprise the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), among others. However, if Britain remains in the Common Market, we must have a voice in its councils. People should not be deterred from standing for election to the European Parliament. There are already sufficient deterrents, such as huge constituencies. I speak from practical experience, as I am a Member of the European Parliament, although I am happy to say that my membership ends in May. The Common Market is a political wilderness. Generally, European constituencies consist of more than 500,000 people, and eight or nine Westminster constituencies. The prospect of standing for election is therefore forbidding. It is difficult for candidates to cover the constituencies, because of their size. Campaigns are very expensive and I believe that that is why the Labour party did not hold by-elections after the 1987 general election for the Labour Members to the European Parliament who were elected to the United Kingdom Parliament. They had a dual mandate for the overlap period. Adding to the expense by increasing the deposit is unnecessary. I believe that £750 is a large enough deposit. I see no reason why EEC elections should not attract fringe candidates, who would be more appropriate for the European Parliament. The Monster Raving Loony party, for example, would find more common ground in the Common Market than in the United Kingdom. We should not raise the deposit as a matter of course. It seems that the Minister has simply increased the deposit because of inflation. 6 In view of the daunting task facing European Parliament candidates, it is not sensible to add to the obstacles of its semi-democractic election process. It is semi-democratic because the size of the constituencies is a barrier to any democratic relationship between the candidate and the majority of the electorate. That is one of the reasons why there is such a low turnout—between 25 per cent, and 35 per cent.—for the European Parliamentary elections. The majority of people have long forgotten the referendum and they have a deep suspicion of the Common Market. That is the underlying reason for the low turnout.

10.44 am

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test): I shall be brief, as one wants to sit here all morning. Some of what the Opposition have said has been perhaps too probing. I am surprised that the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations set the deposit at only £1,000. Let us assume that a European parliamentary constituency represents half a million people, that the free post is worth 15p per constituent, and that a party can spend £30,000— £10,000 plus 4.3p per constituent—on its campaign. Such an election is obviously not suitable for the smaller splinter parties. We should welcome anything that prevents irresponsible parties from standing at European elections. I calculate that the free post is worth £75,000 of taxpayers' money. It is up to us, as guardians of the taxpayer, to ensure that the opportunities for irresponsible, splinter parties—who probably take part in elections for the sake of the free post, but who have no hope of canvassing anywhere near half a million people—are kept to a minimum. The Home Office is being generous in setting the deposit at £1,000.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Greens are an irresponsible party? I thought that even the Conservative party now believed that green issues should be aired. It is a service to the electorate that the Greens can put up candidates and raise those issues.

Mr. Hill: I took care not to mention any party by name, even though in the past there have been Raving Loonies and others. One can define a party as irresponsible either by the attitudes of its candidate or by the scarcity of its followers. Anyone who objects to a deposit of £1,000 is ignoring his responsibility to the taxpayer.

10.46 am

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): I support the instruments and especially the proposed increase in deposit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) said, the rise is extremely modest, especially in the context of national election figures. It strikes the right balance between the need for a rise in line with inflation and the need not to deter people from taking an active interest in the elections. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) 7 made me realise that a good reason for enthusiasm about the forthcoming European elections is his imminent departure from the European Parliament, where he has rendered good service to no one, least of all to members of his own Labour party sub-group. What he says about the European Parliament is a kick in the teeth for Barry Seal and other members of that group. Other members of the European Parliament regard members of the group with derision and contempt for their funny views, which many of them share with the hon. Gentleman, about the Common Market and Britain's membership of the Community. It is interesting that their views are not now shared by many Labour party members, among whom enthusiasm is gradually developing for working with foreigners. I do not want them to rush. I know that foreigners are very difficult and dubious people. They are not the same as us. They do not have the same thought processes, their eyes are set slightly closer together and they are not quite as trustworthy as the Brits. None the less, even the Labour sub-group, Labour Members of Parliament and members of the Labour party are now beginning to accept that membership of the Community may be a good thing and that the European elections are too. I hope that they will contribute to the higher turnout that the hon. Gentleman rightly said was important, even though he hates the Common Market and the Community. For those who are more enthusiastic about the Community, especially those in the Conservative party—the party that took the dramatic and historic decision to join the Community, which has been of service to the country ever since—it is important to increase the turn-out, though that is difficult with giant constituencies. The regional list system that was originally proposed would have effected that increase long ago, but unfortunately that system was not adopted. Britain is the only country struggling with giant constituencies apart from Ireland, which uses the same single transferable vote system in its European elections as in its national elections.

Mr. Cryer: The hon. Gentleman always raises the alleged insularity of those who criticise the Common Market. I agree that we should not be hostile to foreigners, so will he join me in opposing the Government's massive expenditure on nuclear weapons, which are all directed against foreigners in the Soviet Union?

Mr. Dykes: If I were to go down that road, you, Mr. Lofthouse, would get distinctly restless and unhappy. The fact that I am speaking at all is probably worrying some of my hon. Friends. The adjustments proposed by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State do not worsen the problems that we are dealing with. Britain is differentiated from even the Community's newer member states by the apparent lack of enthusiasm shown in the low turn-out in European elections. I hope that that will be gradually put right, though much depends on the modalities and energy of the parties' campaigns. 8 The Conservative party will take the lead in the election campaign, as it is regarded as the European party and as the architect of the developing single European market. I hope that that will be the main issue of the election, though domestic politics will impinge on it to some extent. Anything that this Parliament can do to increase the turn-out will help the overall impact of democracy in Britain. The political impetus of the House of Commons will not be undermined by that. The two Parliaments are complementary and sustain each other. We should show more enthusiasm and support in welcoming MEPs of all parties to the House, especially if they are from one's own party. The Government's recent proposal was better than nothing. It was a cautious, minimalist proposal, which involved allowing MEPs a Westminster pass, and excusing them from the security checks, but it still required a three-line Whip to get it through. It compares poorly with the welcome extended to MEPs by other national Parliaments. Westminster Members receive a substantial welcome from our MEP colleagues in the European Parliament. The Government Whip looks as if he is already organising a visit for my hon. Friends so that he can see the warmth and depth of the welcome from the European Parliament. The welcome that we extend is a matter of shame to those of us who are now used to working with foreigners and finding that they are decent people like ourselves. We wish to reciprocate the welcome that foreigners extend to us.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury an Atcham): I am not convinced that many of my hon. Friends would share my hon. Friend's view without the force of a three-line Whip. His enthusiasm for the European elections will be enhanced once those who are pro-Community get it across to the British public that it costs them £2 billion net of their hard-earned income every year for the privilege of belonging to the European Community.

Mr. Dykes: I am tempted to respond to that argument, Mr. Lofthouse, but you look distinctly anxious. That is a curmudgeonly note on which to end my speech.

10.53 am

Mr. Hogg: I am sorry that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) is not here, and I suspect that he will be sorry too, because the position of the Labour party's Front Bench is wholly different from that advanced by the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who were against raising the deposit for European elections. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) said about the hon. Member for Bradford, South. It is distressing to see him as a member of a Parliament for which he has such contempt. I doubt whether he made his position plain to his European electorate—at least not when he first stood, but he probably felt it was safe to do so once he had been re-elected to his Westminster constituency.

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Mr. Cryer: I wish to make it clear that my opposition to the Common Market was explicit in my election address. I said that I was working towards withdrawal by the United Kingdom. There were no illusions among the electors of Sheffield. That is why my majority increased from 16,000 to over 50,000.

Mr. Hogg: There is a difference between opposition and contempt. The hon. Gentleman may have told his electors that he was opposed to the European Parliament, but I doubt whether he made it plain that he despised it. Indeed, his continued presence there is unacceptable, not least to the taxpayers who indirectly fund it. On the substantial issue of raising the deposit, the Labour party Front Bench support the Government. That view was also supported by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in the 1982–83 Session. It considered the comparative merit of raising deposits as opposed to increasing the number of nominating signatures. It concluded that the latter was a non-starter as a method of excluding frivolous or maverick candidates. It was right to do so, as it easy for any old candidate to secure a large number of nominating signatures. Even the hon. Member for Bradford, South could probably get three score without any difficulty, but that would not reflect the underlying support for him. Likewise with any old number of signatures for any candidate, and it might have the effect of overwhelming the electoral returning officer at a critical moment. At the Kensington by-election, one candidate who had 10 nominating signatures secured only five votes—only half of his proposers bothered to turn up to vote for him!

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett: There is a danger of taking an argument too far. I accept that it is easy to secure signatures on petitions and, by implication, on nominating papers, but if the electorate understood the sytsem and the consequences of signing to nominate candidates, there would be a beneficial effect. Geniune political parties, however few votes 10 they received, would not be deterred by the need for sufficient signatures, whereas the frivolous probably would. It does politicians good to have the mickey taken out of them occasionally. The Minister still needs to consider the problems created for geniune parties with few votes by the increased deposit charge.

Mr. Hogg: It is a jolly good thing for people to take the mickey out of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, but why should the taxpayer fund that enjoyable spectacle? On the subject of expenses, the hon. Member for Bradford, South suggested that there should be a distinction between different classes of local government unit. But the statue does not permit us to make that distinction—we can only uprate the limit, not the change the basis of the calculation. There would also be a distinct difference between the hon. Gentleman and me as to which unit should be most favoured. I represent a rural constituency where the problems are very much greater than those in Bradford, South. On the second issue of the City of London, postal communication is the answer. It is right for people to be able to communicate with their electorate. They can do so by post and it is necessary to increase their expenses to provide for that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1989.

DRAFT REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE (VARIATION OF LIMITS OF CANDIDATE'SELECTION EXPENSES) ORDER 1989

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Represenation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidate's Election Expenses) Order 1989.—[Mr. Douglas Hogg.]

Committee rose at one minute to Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse, Chairman

Bennett, Mr. Andrew F.

Brandon-Bravo, Mr.

Carlise, Mr. Kenneth

Conway, Mr.

Cryer, Mr.

Dykes, Mr.

Hill, Mr.

Hogg, Mr. Douglas

MacKay, Mr. Andrew