Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 26 March 1991


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Banks, Mr. Tony (Newham, North-West)

Barnes, Mr. Harry (Derbyshire, North-East)

Benyon, Mr. W. (Milton Keynes)

Butler, Mr. Chris (Warrington, South)

Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley)

Channon, Mr. Paul (Southend, West)

Darling, Mr. Alistair (Edinburgh, Central)

Davies, Mr. Quentin (Stamford and Spalding)

Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey (Hampstead and Highgate)

Garrett, Mr. John (Norwich, South)

Illsley, Mr. Eric (Barnsley, Central)

Kirkwood, Mr. Archy (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Knight, Mr. Greg (Derby, Norm)

Lawrence, Mr. Ivan (Burton)

Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Croydon, North-West)

Page, Mr. Richard (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Rost, Mr. Peter (Erewash)

Rumbold, Mrs. Angela (Minister of State, Home Office)

Vaz, Mr. Keith (Leicester, East)

Mr. D. J. Gerhold, Committee Clerk

3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 26 March 1991


Draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1991

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Variation of limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1991. The draft Order was laid before Parliament on 5 March. It increases the limits on candidates' election expenses at parliamentary and local government elections, to take account of inflation. The existing limits were set in April 1989. My right hon. Friend has power to vary the maxima where, in his view, there has been a change in the value of money, and after nearly two years it seems reasonable to increase them in order to restore their original value. The political parties represented in Parliament have been consulted about the proposal to increase the limits, and the aim is to have the increases in place for the district council elections in England and Wales on 2 May.

10.31 am

Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central): there is no need to detain the Committee. As the Minister said, all the political parties have discussed the issue and there is general agreement that expenses should be raised in line with inflation. All the political parties will be pleased that the limits are to be raised in time for the district elections, for which we cannot wait.

10.32 am

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South): I am not a member of the Committee, but, as a Member of Parliament, I can exercise my right to attend and make a contribution to the debate, and I have chosen so to do. I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which is charged by Parliament with the task of examining most categories of instruments. That task, as laid down by Standing Order No. 124, is to determine "whether the special attention of the House should be drawn to" an instrument, and it lists the grounds. The Clerk of the Committee has corresponded with the Government Whips Office. This instrument is to be considered this afternoon at 4.30 pm. The Joint Committee meets every week in a routine way. It is not a glamorous Committee, but it carries out an important function, as did parliament in passing the Standing Order. This afternoon the Committee will consider a response to two relatively minor questions on the difference between the amount specified in article 2–4.7p—and that specified in 4 article 3–3.5p. This is not a great issue, but a principle is involved. The Government have submitted a memorandum, yet Standing Order No. 124 states: "It shall be an instruction to the committee that before reporting that the special attention of the house be drawn to any instrument the Committee do afford to any government department concerned therewith an opportunity of furnishing orally or in writing to it or to any sub-committee appointed by it such explanations as the department think fit." We asked the Department for an explanation, which it furnished, but we cannot provide it to the House—and for the purposes of the Standing Order this Committee is the House—because we shall not consider it until this afternoon. It is disgraceful for a Committee to be established to carry out a task, however routine and mundane and then be denied the opportunity of reporting to the House the need for special attention. The Government will have denied themselves the opportunity to publish their memorandum should the Committee decide this afternoon that there are sufficient grounds for drawing the issue to the attention of the House. That has not yet been decided, and I cannot anticipate the Committee's decision. It vexes me that other Commonwealth countries, which have appointed committees similar to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, have provided those committees with powers to deter Government Departments from rushing ahead with statutory instruments until they have received a report from the relevant committee. The House should consider that matter. In this case, a Government Department is saying, in effect, that it intends to go ahead with the order, which is to come into effect on 1 April, for the convenience of that Department. It is not for the convenience of the House. We on the Joint Committee often find that instruments are produced at the last minute because Departments are not well organised. The instruments are rushed through the House, giving no time for the Joint Committee to carry out the functions that it was appointed by the House to cany out. As a result, parliamentary scrutiny is bypassed because of the inefficiency of Government Departments. It is simply not good enough for the Government to take that attitude, and I hope that as a result of this example—and the mercifully few more important, examples—there will come a day when the Joint Committee has to report to the House before an instrument is considered. The Clerk of the Committee made representations to the Government's Chief Whips Office about discussing the instrument tomorrow, but they were spurned. If the Joint Committee chooses to report the matter, our report could be ready tomorrow. The present procedure deprives the Committee and Members of Parliament of information. Very few people care much about delegated legislation. Committees considering statutory instruments are routine and are normally over within a few minutes. Members of such Committees usually say, "We shall be in Committee for only five or 10 minutes," but if they see me in the Committee they may get a bit worried because I might delay the Committee for an extra five or 10 minutes. The majority of legislative action in the United Kingdom is carried out, not by primary legislation, but by powers delegated to Ministers in secondary legislation. Our powers of scrutiny are sparse. If a statutory instrument is to be challenged, recourse to the courts is necessary. In the 5 absence of proper, careful scutiny, the Commons has an obligation to ensure that scrutiny is carried out properly, within our present parliamentary rules. The Lords has a superior system of review. I do not understand why the Commons should be inferior to the Lords in that respect. The Lords cannot debate an affirmative instrument before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has reported to that House. We should follow suit. I have raised those points because important matters of principle are involved. I hope that the Minister will use her best endeavours to get a grip on the Department so that abuses do not occur again. She should ensure that the standing order is put into effect.

10.38 am

Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes): I do not want to delay the Committee or to oppose the order, but I propose to reiterate points that I have made elsewhere, especially on the Floor of the House. I represent the largest constituency, in voter terms, in the United Kingdom. The proposed expenses are totally inadequate today, when elections are fought with modern technology. Once a parliamentary candidate has published his election address and printed a few leaflets, he does an odd bit of press advertising. The order takes no account of candidates participating in phone-ins, putting their case in detail in the local press, or on television or radio, which allows constituents to put questions direct to candidates. For those and many other reasons, I believe that if our democracy is to continue in a proper way we shall have to increase the figures in future.

10.39 am

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West): I shall be brief. It is right that we should agree to vary the limits of candidates' election expenses, because there has been a change in the value of money. Two main planks defend democracy in this country. One is the franchise, and the other is the limit on the sums that can be spent on an election. I shall not spend a great deal of time on either. I am sorry to disagree partially with my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon), but we must be cautious about where we pitch the limits. If we are not, we shall begin to move into areas where greater sums are spent. This would put pressure on candidates and begin our slide down the slippery slope that other countries such as the United States and Japan have taken, where vast sums are necessary to sustain a campaign, although in the end we would not necessarily have a better candidate or government. Whenever we debate a measure such as this it is important that we keep in line with inflation. It would be easy to jazz up a campaign to make it much more personal and give it greater impact. Throughout our history we have gone out of our way to eliminate rotten boroughs and to prevent people buying their way into the House. Those are bulwarks that must be supported and defended at all times.

10.41 am

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): The hon. Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) said that he represented the largest constituency in England. Unfortunately, we have no way of confirming that. Many 6 questions have been tabled in the House about the size of the electoral representation in each constituency. We cannot have district figures until the end of April, or constituency figures until May, when the figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys will be published. It is disgraceful that we are discussing a representation of the people order without basic information about the number of people on the electoral register being available to hon. Members. Problems arose with the electoral register last year. There was a shortfall of 600,000 for the over-18s. It would be useful to know the current arrangements for electoral registration. I hope that the Minister will take this into account. Perhaps it is not directly relevant to the order, but it is essential background information that should be available to us when we debate such issues as this because, to a degree, there is nothing of greater significance, or greater constitutional importance, than the franchise and the arrangements made in connection with it. I hope that global figures will be published soon for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

10.43 am

Mrs. Rumbold: First, I shall deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). I note his comments and hope that he will take the matter up with the business managers, because neither I nor my Department intended to deny any machinery of the House an opportunity of studying these proposals. I understand that the business managers are in some confusion as we are proceeding apace with statutory instruments. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to their attention. I note the anxieties of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon), but I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page). This matter was considered when we debated the Bill that became the Representation of the People Act 1989, when maximum levels were set for parliamentary by-elections. There was also general recognition of the increased campaign activity that takes place not only at by-elections but at general elections. Many hon. Members expressed similar anxieties to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West. For those reasons, it was generally agreed that we should increase the limits to accord with inflation when the time occurred, as we are doing today. It was decided that to increase election expenses further than that could take us down a road which we in our parliamentary democracy are reluctant to travel. I understand the worries of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) about figures for the constituencies and boroughs. We are issuing guidance to registration officers to ensure that this information is available more rapidly. We have taken action to try to alleviate the problem. I apologise for the fact that the information may not be available this year, but we hope that the difficulty will be overcome in future years.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1991.

Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Lofthouse, Mr. Geoffrey (Chairman)

Bernes, Mr. Harry

Benyon, Mr.

Butler, Mr.

Channon, Mr.

Darling, Mr.

Illsley, Mr.

Knight, Mr. Greg

Page, Mr.

Rumbold, Mrs.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(5):

Cryer, Mr. Bob (Bradford, South)