Clause 23 - Description of independent candidates

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:30 pm ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 20, in clause 23, page 25, line 7, at end insert—

'(c) in relation to a candidate standing in an election in Scotland, it consists of the word ''independent'' or the word ''Neo-eisimeil''.'.

No. 21, in clause 23, page 25, line 43, after 'Wales' insert 'or Scotland'.

No. 22, in clause 23, page 25, line 45, after 'or' insert 'Scottish Gaelic or'.

No. 23, in clause 23, page 26, line 35, leave out 'Scotland'.

No. 24, in clause 23, page 26, line 38, at end insert—

'(c) in relation to an election in Scotland ''IND/NEO-E'' or, if the candidate so requests, ''NEO-E/IND''.'.

No. 26, in clause 23, page 26, line 45, after '''ANNIB/IND''', insert '''IND/NEO-E'' and ''NEO-E/IND''.'.

No. 25, in clause 23, page 26, line 45, leave out 'and'.  

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The amendment stands in the name of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil). I entirely understand why he wished to have it moved because the clause is relevant to his constituency and a few other others in Scotland. It is right that the Committee should consider his amendment and that the Minister has the opportunity to argue against what he proposes, if, indeed, the Minister intends to oppose it. The purpose of the amendment is clear. It is to put Scottish Gaelic, for those who speak the language, on an equal footing with Welsh. In clause 23, an independent candidate in a Welsh constituency can be described as ''Annibynnwr'' in Welsh rather than as ''Independent'' in English.

I add in parentheses that that might cause some confusion in principally Welsh-speaking constituencies, because I understand that ''Annibynnwr'' is a commonly used abbreviation for Annibynnwr Cymru, which is the Welsh Congregationalists Union. The Minister should be aware of, and perhaps address, the prospect of confusion arising.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

The chief executive of Denbighshire county council has written to point out that the terminology in the Bill is incorrect. The word that needs to be replaced is ''Annibynnwr'', as a description of an independent candidate in Wales. That should be ''Annibynnol'', in line with all the other electoral registration, whereas ''Annibynnwr'' is a member of an independent chapel.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, representing as he does a Welsh constituency. Although my proud boast is that I was born 25 miles from Cardiff, it was a rather wet 25 miles, and we are the Celts who could not swim.

That is a diversion from the point that I am trying to make, which is that Gaelic is a language spoken by not a huge number of people resident in Scotland, but by a significant number particularly congregated in one or two constituencies on the west coast. It is recognised in the name of the constituency, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, which used to be, as those who served in previous Parliaments will know, the Western Isles. It is no longer described as the Western Isles, but is described in Gaelic to reflect the preferences of the population in that area. The point that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar is making is that, although Gaelic does not have the same statutory protection as Welsh, nevertheless, for clarity of purpose, for a candidate standing in a constituency in which Gaelic is the principal language of everyday conversation, at least amongst a section of the community, it would not seem unreasonable for Gaelic to be given the same position as Welsh in Wales. Having already expressed my concerns about ''Annibynnwr'', I have insufficient Gaelic to know what the word for ''Independent'' is. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain, if he wishes to resist the amendment, why it is appropriate to do so. Perhaps he may not and suggest that it should be pursued, possibly in consultation with the Scottish Executive and his Department.  

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing these issues to be discussed in Committee. I shall deal with them in turn. On the issue of the apparently wrong Welsh word, we had a long discourse on that from the hon. Gentleman who speaks for Plaid Cymru on these matters. I have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West by telling him that I told the spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales—I even got that pronunciation wrong—that I had enjoyed his discourse. He told me that he is the author of a Welsh language dictionary, to which I said that I thought that he sounded as if he had swallowed it before his talk, interesting though it was. I am simply in no position to adjudicate. I realise that when Ministers stand at the Dispatch Box, they are the fount of all wisdom. Alas, this issue is not something on which I can give a definitive assurance. Suffice it to say that the issue has been drawn to our attention, both by the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading and by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd. I thank my hon. Friend and his chief executive for bringing it to our attention. Clearly, we want to get the words right and, in a sense, what matters is getting the words right on the ballot paper. If—I had better not use caricatures—there is an agreement after that discussion, however long it may take, that we need to replace one word with the other, we shall certainly seek to do it.

The amendments would allow the Scottish Gaelic words contained in them to be used as the counterpart for ''independent'' on nomination forms and ballot papers at parliamentary elections. I appreciate why hon. Members are using this opportunity to promote the use of Gaelic language. There has been a boom in Gaelic language education and a general reawakening of interest in the language, which the Government fully support.

The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, an Act of the Scottish Parliament, recognised that by providing for the establishment of a body, Bord na Gaidhlig, to promote the use and understanding of the Gaelic language. Indeed, I met the new chairman of the bord last weekend in Inverary. He is certainly undertaking his role with great vigour and vim. The Act enables the bord to require certain public bodies to prepare and implement plans that will set out how they will use the Gaelic language in the exercise of their functions. However, limitations are placed on the bord. It cannot require any reserved public body, or any body undertaking reserved functions in respect of those functions, to prepare and implement such plans. The conduct of parliamentary elections in Scotland and the franchise for all elections are reserved matters, so such plans cannot be required in respect of those issues. The Scottish Act does not provide for forms and so on to be provided in Gaelic, although some public bodies may plan to make their forms available in Gaelic.

The provisions in clause 34 that enable returning officers to provide information and so on in languages other than English and Welsh will allow them to provide such information in Gaelic. In some areas of Scotland returning officers will probably wish to make   use of such provisions. In other areas, perhaps the vast majority, it is unlikely that there will be a great call for them. The clause will not relate to nomination forms or ballot papers, as they are specified in legislation and can only be in English or Welsh. The reason for that is a much bigger issue about the relative use and wide-spokenness, if that is a phrase, of Welsh and of Gaelic in Scotland.

According to the 2001 census, there are 582,000 Welsh speakers in Wales out of a total population of 2.9 million. In comparison, there are 58,600 Gaelic speakers in Scotland out of a total resident population of just over 5 million. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was correct to say that the latter are disproportionately resident in a couple of small areas, but given that the provision would apply not in a small area but across Scotland, we are not persuaded that there is a case to be made for the use of Gaelic language on nomination and ballot papers. I therefore encourage the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the hon. Members in whose names the amendment stands, to seek to withdraw it.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I thank the Minister for setting out his reasons for resisting the Gaelic amendments. If a candidate wishes to describe himself by means of a Gaelic language in an area that is principally Gaelic speaking, it does not seem necessary for there to be an impediment to that process, given that it is a native language of these isles, but that can be debated on another occasion. I am grateful for the clarity of the Minister's exposition.

As regards the Welsh issue, I simply say to the Minister diolch yn fawr, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 48, in clause 23, page 25, line 13, leave out 'to be likely'.

No. 49, in clause 23, page 25, line 15, leave out

'it is not likely to' and insert 'will not'.

No. 50, in clause 23, page 25, line 22, leave out 'be likely'.

No. 51, in clause 23, page 26, line 23, at end insert—

'( ) If the returning officer thinks that the description on the nomination paper of a candidate whose description is not authorised as mentioned in rule 6A(1) or (1B) is misleadingly similar to a ''registered description'', as detailed in section 28A or 28B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, he must, as soon as practicable after the receipt of the non-authorised description, give his decision on its validity.'.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

At first sight this looks like a wrecking amendment. It is not intended to be. It is a probing amendment. The clause describes a process by which independent candidates can affix, within the description on the ballot paper what is essentially a political message about what they are standing for.   Many people say that if someone has a political platform, unless they are absolutely alone in that view, it is perhaps better to form a political party to espouse it. The registration process for political parties is not difficult. If they want to be described as independents, they should be independent rather than use the ballot paper to promote a political platform. That is the position we have taken for some time. I would not go to the stake on it, because I can see that there are instances where a local issue is relevant to the candidacy of an independent candidate.

There are perils in allowing such descriptors to be placed on the ballot paper, not least the concerns, which I know the hon. Member for Huntingdon will want to explore, about terms that might cause confusion with a registered political party standing in the same election. As I say, an independent is an independent. Some independents are more independent than others, as we all well know, not when standing for parliamentary elections but in some local government elections. If we accept the fact, as we should, that some people do not wish to be tied to a political party or a party position, that should be taken at face value in the description used on the ballot paper.

My request, through the amendment, is for the Minister to explain why he believes it appropriate for independents to provide a slogan on the ballot paper when registered political parties are generally restricted to their name and logo. It seems an unfair advantage.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

We share many of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. Independents are by definition just that. They are separate and unaligned to any organisation or pressure group. If candidates wish to run under a particular banner, they should register as a political party and be subject to the same public scrutiny and accountability that registered parties face under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, such as the publishing of their accounts. It cannot be of service to the important role of independent candidates in our democracy for their independence to be eroded by descriptions of a partisan nature, or for special privileges to be bestowed on them that are unavailable to political parties. We support a lot of what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said on that.

Amendments Nos. 48, 49 and 50 are essentially probing, intended to draw attention to the need for the clause to operate with certainty and to identify some of the problems that could arise if it were applied inconsistently. We want to add certainty to a vague clause that could lead to inconsistency. We understand that each decision will need to be made case by case, but that does not mean that there should be inconsistency of application to similar cases. Returning officers will operate under guidance issued by the Electoral Commission, and that is most welcome.

There is no need to include such phrases as ''to be likely to'' in subsection (3). Such phrases introduce a large objective element to the decision.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I thank the Minister—''subjective'' rather than ''objective'' is correct. In whose opinion should it be likely? If returning officers are to make such a decision, and if that decision has to be based on Electoral Commission guidance, it should be made clear and certain that that is the case. That would ensure that the commission guidance was more strictly applied. Additional legislation may be needed to ensure consistency between all returning officers when it comes to deciding whether there is a conflict.

The Bill gives returning officers authority without consultation, provided that they have regard to guidance from the Electoral Commission. We wonder whether that will be sufficient. For instance, the Bill states that descriptions should not be the same as the description of another candidate and should not be

''likely to lead electors to associate the candidate with a registered political party''.

That seems vague. Once again, is ''Independent Left'' acceptable? Is ''Independent Labour'' misleading? The final decision would depend on the opinion of the returning officer, and there would thus be no consistency among constituencies or council areas. What opportunities would be available for other candidates or electors to contest the judgment of the returning officer? Does the Minister agree that the clause could be seen as vague and that such vagueness could lead to problems?

Subsection (4) would amend rule 12 in the 1983 Act so as to require the returning officer to inform a candidate if he considered that the candidate's desired description was ''misleadingly similar'' to that of another candidate. Amendment No. 51 would extend the requirement on the returning officer to include informing a candidate if he considered that the candidate's desired description was

''misleadingly similar'' to a 'registered description', as detailed in section 28A or 28B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000''.

The amendment would therefore help to protect registered descriptions that political parties wished to use on nomination papers, and we believe that it is a sensible extension of the requirement on the returning officer. Will the Minister explain why something of that sort was not included originally?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Amendment No. 6 may seem harsh. We need a change in the law not least because of the famous time when a candidate took votes from the Liberal Democrats by describing himself as a ''Literal Democrat''. After the various processes of judicial appeal, that situation was upheld.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the other famous incident, when Rod Richards' opponent in Clwyd, West called himself the ''Conservatory'' candidate?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is such cases that obliged those standing for election to nominate a party. I am relaxed with the idea of independents forming, almost ad hoc, whatever party they choose. I once ran against a candidate standing for ''Your party'', but it was confusing when canvassing because people would always say, ''We're voting for your party''.  

Independents can use almost whatever epithet they choose—the regulations do limit what can be chosen—and they do not seem to be precluded from using the campaign theme of the moment. They can almost turn the election into a referendum. For instance, if candidates who described themselves as ''Stop the Iraq War'' were standing at a particularly volatile time, people might take their candidature as a verdict on the war rather than a question of who would most properly represent them. With that advantage, it is only to be expected that mainstream political parties would wish to describe themselves and their stand in a fuller and more explicit way.

Other issues are involved. For instance, proposed new section 6B(3)(d) says that the returning officer must decide whether a description is offensive. I can imagine that that would lead to some fine judgments. If a candidate chose to describe himself as an ''anti-corruption'' candidate—I do not see why he should not do so under existing legislation—would it be offensive to the other candidates standing against him? Would they be thought of as pro-corruption candidates? The returning officer has to make such judgments.

Allowing candidates to be independent and giving them the use of a pile of descriptors, so long as they do not confuse people about whether they are members of a different party, still puts the returning officer in a difficult situation, and different returning officers in different parts of the country will make up their minds differently. However, it will not be universally incontestable, so it may be simpler to stay with the status quo.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

The provisions that will allow independent candidates to use a description on their nomination and ballot paper are based on the Electoral Commission's recommendation in its report ''Standing for election in the United Kingdom,'' which was published in June 2003.

Perhaps I might outline some history. Between 1969 and 2001, all candidates standing for election in the UK were entitled to use a description, until a change introduced in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which restricted independent candidates to using the description ''independent'', or none at all. The only exception is, as we know, Mr. Speaker, who is entitled to use the description ''The Speaker seeking re-election''. The Government's provision will change the current situation, whereby candidates who represent political parties can use a description on their nomination paper and, thereby, on the ballot paper, but independent parties cannot. It will create, essentially, a level playing field for all candidates who want to participate in the democratic process.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That bears precisely on the argument that I was trying to put, although the hon. Member for Huntingdon put it rather better: fundamentally, if candidates are allowed an epithet, or some kind of description, they have an advantage that the simple words ''Labour'', ''Conservative'' or ''Liberal Democrat'' will not confer, because they can identify themselves with something that may be the main theme of the election.  

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

That will be so only if the candidates for the political parties choose to describe themselves as, for example ''The Labour party candidate''. They choose to do that, but they do not have to. They can use another message if they want to. That is the point. Independent candidates cannot include a description, but we can. The current position is that we tell them that what is good enough for us is not good enough for them. I am not entirely sure that the change is a particularly big step forward.

Clause 23 provides additional protection for political parties, ensuring that, when using a description, independent candidates cannot do so misleadingly. It sets out the requirements to which an independent candidate must adhere, when providing a description at nomination. That was not the case under the previous regime for candidates' descriptions, before 2001, when independent candidates could use any description they wanted. We are not returning to the free-for-all of the past; the matter has been clearly prescribed.

Clause 23 states that it would be a matter for the returning officer, having regard to any guidance issued by the Electoral Commission, to decide whether a description proposed by an independent candidate would be permissible. We are laying down guidelines in statute. Some will be issued by the Electoral Commission, and the returning officer will have some discretion. We are including significant safeguards.

Amendment No. 6 would remove the provision allowing independent candidates to use a description on their nomination paper. The Electoral Commission consulted widely on that. There was genuine, widespread support among local authorities, political parties and others for liberalisation with respect to the candidates' descriptions. However, numerous responses pointed out that, if more than one independent candidate stood for election in the same constituency, the candidates and the electorate would be disadvantaged by the confusion arising from the general use of the term ''independent''.

There are, then, good arguments for allowing an independent candidate to use a description on the nomination paper and the ballot paper. In many cases, more than one independent candidate will stand in a constituency, and the use of a description will enable voters to distinguish between the candidates. Effectively, that will mean that they will not be able to use the same description as another, apart from the word ''independent''. Nor will they be able to use a description likely to confuse an elector, lead an elector to associate the candidate with a registered political party, or mislead an elector as to the effect of their vote. For example—to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Southport—no independent candidate would be able to adopt a description like ''Literal Democrat'' as happened in the past.

As I have said, we are trying to create the right balance between avoiding confusion for voters and facilitating the participation of all candidates, irrespective of whether they belong to a registered political party—and registered political parties do not own democracy; we may all belong to them, and view   them as the best vehicle for achieving change in society, but we should not think of them as the only route into the democratic process.

Independents have a long-standing place in the political system and have traditionally been an important force in local politics and elections. I see no good reason for an independent candidate not to enjoy the same privileges as those afforded to candidates who represent political parties with respect to the inclusion of a description on a nomination form.

Amendments Nos. 48, 49 and 50 would change the requirements by which the validity of an independent candidate's description is determined. Those requirements are set out in clause 23(2). They state that the description should not be likely to confuse an elector by being so similar to a registered description or the description of another candidate as to be likely to confuse an elector. The description should also not be likely to lead electors to associate the candidate with a registered political party. Moreover, the description should not be likely to mislead a voter as to the effect of their vote, or to contradict or hinder an elector's understanding.

I fully understand the position of the hon. Member for Huntingdon as to the word ''likely'' introducing a subjective element. However, I am struggling to understand how else the objective can be accomplished because one cannot prove definitively, beyond a reasonable doubt, at the stage that the nomination papers are introduced, that the description will mislead. The only way one could discover whether it would mislead would be to hold the election and to find out afterwards whether people were misled or not. That would be quite a risk to take with as important a process as voting.

On balance, it is best to allow a degree of subjectivity, subject to the guidelines that I mentioned, the provisos in the Bill and the guidelines from the Electoral Commission. That will allow a degree of discretion to the local returning officer to say, ''I am sorry, but I think that that is likely to mislead.'' I take the hon. Gentleman's point: at that stage it will be impossible to prove one way or another. The only way to prove that definitively would be to wait until someone had been misled, by which time the damage would have been done. People will have the opportunity under the provision of other clauses to come up with another name and submit a form that will pass muster.

Amendment No. 51 is modelled on the provision in clause 23(4), which requires the returning officer to make a decision as soon as practicable after the submission of a nomination paper if it is misleadingly similar to that of another independent candidate. That would have the effect of allowing an independent candidate to resubmit their nomination form, which is a good thing.

Clause 22(7) amends parliamentary elections rule 12(3A) to specify that if a returning officer decides that a candidate's description is likely to confuse or wrongly lead electors to associate the candidate with   a registered political party, and is so invalid, the returning officer shall make a decision as soon as possible after the delivery of the nomination paper. The candidate would, therefore, be able to resubmit a nomination paper, assuming, of course, that there was enough time. The serious matter raised by the tabling of amendment No. 51 is addressed by a previous measure. However, we fully sympathise with the spirit behind the amendment.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:00, 15 Tachwedd 2005

The Minister spoke of a level playing field with regard to descriptions for parties. If a Labour party candidate wishes to flesh out precisely the kind of politician he is, and describes himself as a ''Labour party anti-corruption candidate'' or the ''Labour party candidate fighting for Camberley'', is that allowed in the same way that independent candidates can add that kind of information about themselves?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I understand that those matters must be agreed at a higher level, but I shall take guidance on that. The description must be registered. At the last Scottish Parliament election, a Scottish Socialist party candidate stood as ''Scottish Socialist Convener Tommy Sheridan'', as he was better known in the party. He was subsequently sacked as convener, so presumably he will have to re-register for the next Scottish Parliament elections.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the Minister. He has finally touched on the difficulty. Without wishing to pre-empt our debates, clause 47 limits the number of descriptions that a political party can have. It would be impossible for a candidate standing on behalf of a political party in a particular constituency to say that he was in favour of saving the local hospital, for example, but an independent candidate would be able to make precisely that claim. Such an issue might be the most important in that election campaign. I do not think that we have the equity that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

It saddens me that such a profoundly liberal gentleman as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is taking such a heavy-handed approach to independent candidates. Registered political parties will be able to register up to five descriptions and they can choose which descriptions they have. An independent person can register, or submit, one description for use on the ballot paper. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's concerns are entirely valid. It could be argued that the name ''Liberal Democrat'' sends out some political message, as does the word ''Conservative''.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

But it presumably is not just the name of a party; it is the philosophy underlining the party. It could be argued that the hon. Gentleman's party gets two bites of the cherry by having it in the name and also having one of five descriptions.

We have to keep this in context. It is confusing if people are just registered as independents and are not allowed to differentiate themselves from other independents on the same ballot paper. The provision aims for clarity. It will allow independents   to differentiate themselves from each other and to use descriptions of themselves in the way that registered political parties do. I cannot understand what the big fuss is about.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I am concerned. If I wanted to stand as a ''Conservative against the sustainable communities project'' in my constituency, I assume that that would be disallowed because it would not be one of the registered five slogans that my party might choose nationally. If, however, an independent stood as an ''Independent against the sustainable communities project'', that would be a powerful message in my constituency. Let us consider the number of electors who read our literature—we are talking about being inclusive. We like to think that every one of those electors reads our literature from beginning to end. The truth is—all research tells us this—that few do. That is one of the problems we face. The ballot paper therefore assumes greater importance.

The Minister has misunderstood the point made by Opposition Members. Will he at least tell us that he will rethink his position in the light of those statements? There is a built-in bias, in view of the example that I have just given.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

Order. I appreciate the promotion.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Mr. O'Hara, I am sorry. The evening is drawing on and I am at a loss to understand why we are having this particular debate.

Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he fears that when someone goes into the polling station and takes a ballot paper, just seeing the words, ''John Smith: independent candidate against sustainable development'', completely out of context, will suddenly give the candidate a great advantage that he, as a representative of a political party that we heard today gets £50 million of taxpayers' funding, does not have?

Such a view presupposes that the individual, irrespective of their name and what appears on the ballot paper, has not been able to distribute literature throughout the constituency making their case and calling themselves what they will on that literature. We are talking about the description that appears on the ballot paper. Political parties can put those on; they can register up to five, whereas independents cannot. There is a question of equity. Are we saying to independents, ''Sorry, you cannot do that because it slightly inconveniences us''? Alternatively, are we telling them that they can do it because there is unlikely to be more than one Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate, but there might be more than one independent person standing? For both of those reasons—equity and avoiding confusion—independents should be allowed to put a description on the ballot paper. If somebody wishes to describe himself as an independent candidate against sustainable communities, and that is read as an attack on the position of another candidate, it is up to each of them to convince the electorate that he is right. Preventing people from describing themselves on ballot papers is not the way to go. That would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I put it to the Minister that there is an issue here—it is one that I have faced, albeit in a council election. My party highlighted an issue that turned out to be the one on which the campaign was fought. An independent came along, used that issue to describe himself and, although he was not elected, took a significant number of the votes that would otherwise have gone to my party. Thus a party's total number of votes can be reduced and, in a proportional representation election, that could cost it the seat. Council elections in Northern Ireland are fought under PR, so one could lose a seat because somebody has stolen an idea and put it forward. Not everybody votes for personalities or parties. Some vote for policies, and if the up-front policy of the election is attached to one candidate's description, some people might well vote for that person.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

The same principle applies to the registering of a party. If an independent describes himself on the ballot paper as the ''Save the hospital'' candidate, there is nothing to stop that person from registering as the ''Save the hospital'' party. We have established the principle that people can use descriptors in registering themselves. However, at the risk of repeating myself, we are saying that political parties have the ability to use descriptors but we do not allow that for independents. On the grounds of equity, I do not see why we should not allow it for independents.

There is also something that nobody has addressed: if we do not allow it for independents, we could end up with three or four independents on the ballot paper, with no means of knowing which is which. If elections are about issues, we should be in favour of the measure. I understand where hon. Members are coming from, but the issue will not be so momentous as to decide elections one way or another. If it is the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, having consulted widely, it seems equitable to allow independent candidates to do what we, as political parties, are able to do. We should not hog all the benefits, but should allow the tiny benefit of a few words on a ballot paper to be extended to them. We have not had a meeting of minds, but I hope that amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It is my intention to do so. However, the Minister is right: far from having a meeting of minds, we have diverged further during the course of his remarks. We have sat through them, because he is trying to provide an equitable solution to the problem, but one has only to look at Wyre Forest to see the potency of the use of a particular descriptor in a particular area and the linking of a campaign to it. One could also look at Blaenau Gwent.

I merely put to the Committee the point that has been made many times. The Bill reduces the capacity of political parties to position themselves on ballot papers in association with what might be major issues in particular constituencies while allowing a person who calls himself an independent to have a slogan. Independence should be independence. That is a noble and proper position to take. However, it should not give somebody an electoral advantage over those who   are prepared to stand in support of a political party with a wider programme.

The Minister does not agree with me, but he does not agree with any Opposition Member so far as I can see, and his colleagues have not spoken and do not intend to do so. On that basis, although we might return to the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston 6:15, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 23, page 26, line 8, leave out '(b)' and insert

'(c) (inserted by section [Candidate not to stand in more than one constituency]'.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14, in clause 23, page 26, line 10, leave out '(c)' and insert '(d)'.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

I am moving the amendment on behalf of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). In preparing to make my contribution, I have had what I think of as a Blackadder moment. Hon. Members who know the television programme ''Blackadder'' will know that Baldrick, a much misunderstood individual, was always coming up with cunning plans which never came to fruition. In explaining the importance of agreeing to the amendment, I want to mention a very cunning plan.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Lord Chancellor of England in 1075 was also called Baldrick.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

I think that I saw the television programme in which he was elected—but I want to take us to January 2010.

There is press speculation that this will be the last chance that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs—still fresh of face, but with the ageing process catching up with her—will have to run for the leadership of the party and, therefore, become Prime Minister of this great country.

Let us imagine that fortuitously, my right hon. and learned Friend's great aunt has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer—and, being an election agent of many years standing, I have a cunning plan. I shall get her great aunt to stand in the constituency of some 40 of her Cabinet colleagues throughout the country. Because of the wonderful national health service that we have under a Labour Government—with more nurses and doctors providing care—she survives until the election campaign, but sadly dies during the election, and as a consequence, 40 of the Minister's parliamentary Cabinet colleagues have to postpone their election. Waking up on the morning of the first Friday in May, not only is the Minister in 10 Downing street, but she is the beneficiary of a large inheritance from her aunt.

Using this Devine cunning plan, I have also worked out that on that same morning, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will be Secretary   of State for Scotland, Secretary of State for Transport, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Defence Minister, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Deputy Leader of the House and Deputy Chief Whip.

The worrying thing is the twinkle in the eyes of my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend, who may now decide to oppose this worthy amendment. I suggest that in that scenario, my colleagues should keep the Parliamentary Private Secretary positions open for when the new Cabinet members come back, so that they can get started back in the ministerial line as quickly as possible.

That is the scenario we face today, which is why we need to change the law. Someone from a euthanasia society, for example, could stand in constituencies throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom and have a major impact not only on the democratic process, but—bearing in mind what happened in 1974, when there were two general elections and a minority Government coming to power—but on the election of the Government. The chosen will of the people of this country would be forfeit. That is why I am proud to support amendments Nos. 13 and 14—with linked later amendments—tabled by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, which would prevent candidates at future UK parliamentary elections from standing in more than one constituency. An amendment was accepted for inclusion in the Bill, and consequential amendments are necessary to make the clause effective.

Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 would change clause 23, which itself introduces changes to rule 8 of schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. I am glad that I do not need to do that research myself. The amendments take into account the insertion of the new clause preventing a candidate from standing in multiple constituencies; that, too, changes rule 8 of the rules under the 1983 Act.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 are consequential amendments that would give effect to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that were accepted on the Floor of the House. As such, these amendments enjoy the full support of the Government.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 14, in clause 23, page 26, line 10, leave out '(c)' and insert '(d)'.—[Mr. Devine.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The clause makes amendments enabling independent candidates to include a description on their nomination papers and on the ballot paper. It also allows independent candidates to include a description other than the word ''independent'' on ballot papers. We have concerns about it for a number of reasons, several of which were mentioned in the debate on the amendments to the clause.

The ability to add some words of description on the nomination and ballot papers after a candidate's name   was first offered by the Ballot Act 1872, rule 6. The present position was summarised in a 2003 report by the Electoral Commission, ''Standing for election in the United Kingdom'', as follows:

''A person can stand as a candidate for a party only if the nomination paper is submitted with a certificate of authorisation of candidature issued by or on behalf of the Nominating Officer of a registered political party.

Any candidate can include a description on the nomination paper that will be included beside the name on the ballot paper. However, if a candidate is standing independently, he/she can only have 'Independent' inserted beside their name. If the candidate is standing for a registered political party, a description of no more than six words may be included, provided that they have produced a valid certificate of authorisation from their party.''

Independent candidates should be required to sign a declaration along with their nomination papers, confirming that they are not standing on behalf of a collective, a party or a commercial organisation. The clause introduces a new rule 6B into the parliamentary elections rules of the 1983 Act. The rule will allow a six-word description for independent candidates. In Wales, there is provision for six words in English or six words in Welsh. The description must not be the same or confusingly similar to the description of another candidate. The exception is the word ''independent'' or the Welsh equivalent, which may be used by any or all independents.

The clause makes provision for a list of prohibited words or expressions, which are to be specified by the Secretary of State after consulting the Electoral Commission, and that is certainly welcome. The returning officer is to decide on the acceptability of the description, but he must have regard to guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. We welcome that provision, which will go some way towards ensuring consistency of application.

Descriptions must not be obscene, offensive or likely to lead to the commission of an offence. The clause also provides for independent candidates to have an emblem, ''IND'' or ''ANNIB'', next to their name on the ballot paper, and to make a statement that they have not been selected to stand for a registered political party. Nevertheless, if there is to be a description, it would not be a substitute for including the word ''independent'' in that description.

The clause allows independent candidates to include a description other than ''independent'' on ballot papers. We have a problem with that, for various reasons. First, the wording of the clause could be seen as ambiguous; it appears to me that if independents use the word ''independent'' in their description, they would not be limited to a six-word description, but could have a description of unlimited length. Is that correct? That reading of the clause arises from the word ''or'' in subsection (3)(g)(i), and the use of the word ''consists'' in proposed new rule 6B(2). Perhaps the word ''only'' should follow the word ''consists'' in order to remove the ambiguity.

Secondly, as I said earlier, independents are, by their very definition, independent. They are separate and independent from any organisation or pressure group. If candidates wish to run under a banner, they should register as a political party, and they should be subject to the same public scrutiny and accountability   that registered parties face under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The non-partisan position of independents is important in our democracy, and is worthy of protection. These proposals could undermine that position, both by giving them certain advantages over candidates standing for political parties and by altering their essential political neutrality. These measures would weaken the long-term position of independents, and open the electoral system to even greater confusion than already exists.

Thirdly, the desire to maximise opportunities for independents to describe themselves in any manner they wish is inconsistent with the Government's other proposal radically to restrict the ability of political parties to do just that. I do not wish to stray into a discussion of another set of amendments, but by contrast—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome identified this—clause 47, relating to the descriptions of political parties, seeks to restrict the ability of registered political parties to use variants of their descriptions. For the first time, parties will be limited to only five different types of description—although the Secretary of State can vary that number. Independents will be able to use any number of potential variations, but political parties will not. The Minister cannot simultaneously advocate simplicity for political parties and diversity for independents. That is both inconsistent and somewhat biased. Therefore, we oppose the proposals.

If we are to accept that the historical position of independents on a ballot paper has to be altered to allow the six-word description, the most viable method is to insist on the word ''independent'' being included in those six words. That would allow the description, but it would limit confusion for the elector and go some way to protect the position of the independent candidate as something distinct and worthy of separate classification—which I suspect that the majority of independents would be anxious to ensure for themselves. Allowing the six-word description with no obvious reference to independent status would maximise confusion, penalise political parties and downgrade independents to becoming little more than one-man political parties by the back door.

We recognise that there may be concerns that current rules governing the registration of political parties control only the Electoral Commission's register of party names, rather than the party names used on ballot papers, which may be variants of those on the register. However, the solution proposed is demonstrably wrong.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I accept that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to revisit these issues in his clause stand part speech, but given that the amendments that we have just addressed, taken together, would delete almost the entire clause, we have already effectively had a substantial stand part debate on them.

I reiterate the points that I made then. First, there are reasons of equity; we allow ourselves such descriptions, but we do not allow them to independents. I think that we should. There is also the reason of avoiding confusion; if there is more than one independent on the ballot paper, it might be useful   for the elector to know which independent is which, so we should allow descriptions. It is simply not the case that independents can have as many descriptions as they want; they can have only one—one independent candidate, one description.

We who are in political parties are not in a position to say, ''Everybody else has to get into political parties, or else they will not be able to take part.'' That expresses a bit of a siege mentality. If an individual wishes to stand as an independent, and is genuinely independent, they should be allowed to have a description on the ballot paper. Clearly, I have not convinced the massed ranks of the Opposition. I did not do it when we were debating the amendments and I suspect that I am not going to do it now, but, for reasons of equity and to avoid confusion, I urge hon. Members not to reject the clause at this stage, because it is important.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 23, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.