Clause 29 - Meaning of election expenses for purposes of the 1983 Act

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:00 am ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 9:00, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 29, page 30, line 38, at end insert—

'(2A) For the purposes of subsection (1), any expenses incurred by a registered political party in respect of communicating with an individual elector in that election, irrespective of whether that communication makes reference to the candidate of that party by name, shall be treated as an election expense.'.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 56, in clause 29, page 32, line 33, after 'costs', insert

'(as defined in any code of practice produced by the Electoral Commission pursuant to paragraph 14 below)'.

No. 57, in clause 29, page 33, line 24, at end insert—

'(14) The postage of any items relating to fundraising.'.

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

The amendment deals with something that I clearly signalled on Second Reading ought to be looked at seriously. I want to say immediately that all parties will be affected, particularly in marginal constituencies, because all parties use similar techniques to reach electors. I am not aiming at one party or another, but particularly at the conduct of the large political parties.

At the moment, I believe abuse goes on. Fairly large parts of expenditure avoid being included in the returns required from the agent in a specific constituency; specifically, communications from political parties addressed to electors, or delivered door to door, that clearly convey either a positive message about a party engaged in that election or a negative message about another party contesting the election, but that are not included within election expenses, simply because there is no reference to a specific candidate.  

In my own, marginal constituency, in the last election I saw letters addressed to electors by the Conservatives, from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). We retaliated in kind, not unexpectedly. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) had much the same situation in his constituency.

The point that I am making, which is not to score against other parties, is about a communication of any kind specifically addressed to an elector; specifically addressed, because we cannot sensibly apportion the cost of billboards, for instance. We accept that there is some national advertising, which might be more prominent in some constituencies rather than others, but is nevertheless a national campaign. To devise a system that allowed for apportionment of that within individual election expenses returns would be beyond us. However, communications within a specific constituency for named electors or by implication for named electors, because they are put through a specific door, are surely an election expense incurred in the prosecution of that particular election. For that to fall outside the present electoral laws seems perverse and hugely distorting of the intentions of having election expenses limits at all.

There will still be abuses. I am not so naïve as to believe that my amendment would end all abuses. A very large industry has developed around phone canvassing, for instance. Very often, phone canvassers operate not only from premises outside the constituency in question but from far away. I understand that they sometimes operate even from call centres, which is counter-productive, as all the anecdotal evidence from my constituency suggests that someone ringing constituents from a long way away—

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

Perhaps not very far from Mumbai or Bangalore.

I assure members of the Committee that someone ringing constituents from a long way away and telling them which way to vote would not have the desired effect on them.

Some abuses will almost certainly not be caught, but a letter to a constituent saying, ''Candidate X is appalling because he has done this, this and this, which I know because I am a leader of Y party,'' is surely part of the election campaign. It is absurd to pretend that it is not. My amendment would simply tie down that particular abuse. It would not stop letters from party leaders being delivered to people's doors; it simply says that a letter sent in those circumstances should be included in the return.

In effect, the amendment says, ''You know perfectly well that it is happening, Mr. Agent, so do not pretend that you do not. You know perfectly well that it is going to the electors in your area, so do not pretend that it is not. So include it in the election expenses and let it count against the total allowable expenses for that constituency.'' That is the sole import of my amendment, which I hope commends itself to the Committee.  

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

Clause 29 deals with the itemisation of election expenses and the period in which the election expenses are calculated. Amendment No. 7 seeks to impose seemingly restrictive controls on what would constitute an election expense by seeking to calculate all expenses incurred by the political party in communicating with individual electors, irrespective of whether that communication refers to the local candidate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that a certain amount of grey matter is involved in deciding whether or not a local candidate is being promoted. Conceptually, however, we believe that what the amendment proposes could be very difficult, bureaucratic and expensive to manage and would do nothing to make the calculation of individual constituency expenses more transparent.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Perhaps it would be helpful to differentiate between general stuff about a political party being sent to electors and stuff that refers specifically to a constituency in that it contains details and information about a particular constituency that one would not send to the whole electorate as it was clearly part of a local campaign and not a national one. There is a clear distinction between the two.

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

There is a debate to be had on that. Perhaps the Electoral Commission could consider the matter. At the same time, however, this is not the time or the place to vote on such an amendment.

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

Perhaps it would be if the hon. Gentleman had taken up the matter with the Electoral Commission and it had been considered earlier, but that is not where we are.

The Conservative party has various concerns about the constitution of election expenses, which are addressed in amendments Nos. 56 and 57. New schedule 4A itemises expenditure that is considered to count as election expenses. New section 90ZA(2) provides that it is immaterial whether items are used before or after the candidate is adopted, so long as they are used within the relevant period. The explanatory notes state that the lists of items in the schedule are based on those used for political parties' national campaign expenditure under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Electoral Commission is given power to prepare a code of practice on expenses that is subject to the negative procedure for statutory instruments and allows the Secretary of State to amend the list by order.

The election expenses list in new schedule 4A includes accommodation and administrative costs but does not provide further explanation as to whether that includes, for example, the cost of permanent staff. The policy report also considered the definition of election expenses, again amended by PPERA, and considered the situation to be unsatisfactory. It thought that some items could reasonably be excluded from the definition of election expenses; for example, the use of a   candidate's home computer or the cost of posters produced for previous elections.

The commission considered that a prescribed list of election expenses could form the basis of an elections return and provide greater clarity. Schedule 4A is rather vague and our amendment would clear up the long-standing ambiguities. The amendment would ensure that the Electoral Commission was expressly mandated to prescribe clearly and comprehensively in the code of practice governing election expenses the precise meaning of those ambiguous terms. The effect would be, we hope, to clear up the extent to which permanent staff, for example, constitute election expenses.

Election expenses are an area fraught with difficulties and suggestions of foul play can greatly damage the reputation of candidates and the electoral system. We must therefore do all we can to make the rules as clear and unambiguous as possible, which they are not.

Part 2 of schedule 4A discusses the general exclusions to the revised election expenses detailed in part 1. Although we welcome many of the suggestions, we suggest adding the further paragraph in amendment No. 57, excluding postage of any items relating to fundraising. This country has a long history of political parties fundraising during election campaigns. Public awareness of politics increases during election periods and this represents a good opportunity for all political parties, great and small, to discuss policy and ideas with the public. It is the time when the public engage most with politics and political parties, and if individuals wish to help to further a course of policy in which they believe, they should have the freedom to do so.

Without the amendment, political parties are unlikely to send specific mailings about fundraising, thereby denying individuals an easy opportunity to financially support parties. Also, some political parties might try to include fundraising mailings with postal vote applications, which does not seem particularly desirable or even practical; the fundraising responses have to be returned to the party and the postal vote applications to the local council. Given that most of the money raised during the campaign does not fund it but normally replenishes that already spent and funds future campaigns, there seems little credence to the argument that the money affects the forthcoming elections.

Finally, such fundraising does not concern the great wealthy political donors who give to all the parties, but rather the huge numbers of ordinary individuals who choose to give small amounts of money at the times they most feel politically engaged. In an age of decreasing popular involvement in political parties and the political process, such low level financial support and political involvement is important and should not be discouraged.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:15, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I found it rather strange that the hon. Member for Huntingdon said that this was not the time or the place to discuss the issue. I cannot think of a better time or place. I am not sold on the wording of   the amendment, but there is no doubt about its target or the issue.

For the record, I have discussed the matter with Sam Younger at the Electoral Commission. He will undoubtedly read the text of the debate. His response was broadly sympathetic to my point, although he recognised some of the difficulties in framing legislation to counteract the all too clear abuse of the limits on local candidate expenditure. The abuse is not on the part of one particular party; it is probably indulged in, regrettably, by all parties in one form or another. However, it is certainly not in the spirit of the Bill.

I want to exemplify that by considering the situation in my constituency. I did not mind the visit from Conservatives from far afield; they were a welcome boost to tourism, as it happened, and did little harm. Tourism, not Toryism, I should say. The visit did nothing for Toryism, but the associated publicity did quite a lot for the local economy. I did not mind the posters, because we all recognise that posters have to go somewhere. However, the number has to be limited. Had, for example, the Liberal Democrats decided to put all their posters in Folkestone, other Members from the Opposition might have raised issues about that.

I did not mind the posters. However, I became a bit concerned when a torrent of letters poured in from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. The letters mentioned specific facts about my constituency, such as the number of cases of MRSA. He ridiculously exaggerated the figure, and that led to the local hospital making a complaint to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. They urged that he retract the figure that he had quoted.

There followed a letter on asylum seekers that gave specific details about the cost to the local council tax payer. The facts were again wrong. The local council and local churchmen complained. They felt that the letter had done little, if anything, to boost community relations.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I just want to clarify in my own mind what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does that mean that the campaign, which the Liberal Democrats led, to decapitate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe is inside the law, yet our letter is outside the law? Will he clear that up for me?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

If the hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment to that effect, I am sure that we would be prepared to look at it.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

If I may press on, by the end of the election period, many of my constituents were firmly convinced that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe had become their pen pal. They were somewhat disappointed when the election was over.

The point remains that specific details about my constituency were listed in a letter. There was also an injunction not to vote for the local Liberal Democrat   candidate and a recommendation that my constituents should vote for the local Conservative candidate.

The party names could change, but any party could distribute such literature. As far I can see, there is no finite limit on what can be done. Such literature clearly forms part of a local campaign if it mentions local figures and tells people to vote for one local candidate over another. All that it does not do is name the candidate. However, electors can figure out the names of the major parties' candidates. Theoretically, what can therefore be done is limitless. Every issue in an election could be individualised to every single elector in a constituency, by mentioning specific details about that constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) could have done the same on my behalf. For whatever reason, he did not. None the less, even though it may not be against the letter of the law as it currently stands, such communication is clearly, evidently and explicitly against the spirit of the law. It is an abuse, and I wish to put on record that Sam Younger recognised it as a difficulty. I am sure that he will want to correspond with the Committee. We now have time to address that abuse.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Mr. Conway, hon. Members are raising important issues. Spending can come under three categories: the constituency election expense; a party's national campaign; and nothing at all. It is crucial that the rules are right. Money must not only be spent appropriately but must be spent in the right place.

The difficulty arises because of the question of direct mailing; targeted direct mailing, in particular. I accept that all parties do that and that everybody's indignation is equal, but also extremely blinkered and partial.

I shall give a random example to illustrate that. Let us suppose that letters are sent out that are addressed to individual electors. On them is a most lovely picture of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), with his lovely wife and children. It asks for money for the Conservative party, because it is the party of the future not the past. The party is looking forward, not back. It wants economic prosperity and to tackle social injustice—[Interruption.]

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Order. Will Members on the Government Benches not heckle their Minister? [Laughter.]

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Thank you, Mr. Conway. Let us suppose that it goes not just to the constituency of Witney, but to the constituency of Battersea or nationwide. The difficulty is that we are trying to look at the form that it takes. Does it, as the hon. Member for Southport said, mention a constituency or a candidate from an opposing party? If it mentions the candidate standing in that constituency, that is straightforward, and we know that we are dealing with an election expense. But what if we are trying to identify which category it should go into by looking at the destination, rather than at the form that it takes?  

These are difficult issues, and we need a fair system with which everybody agrees. Hon. Members have mentioned the problems, and we all understand them. We want a fair solution. I would not put things in exactly the same way as the hon. Member for Huntingdon, who said that this is not the time or the place to discuss this issue. This is the time and the place to discuss it, but it is also the time and place for us to reject the amendments and for clause 29 to stand part of the Bill. It is also the time and the place for us firmly to flag up the fact that we have more work to do with the Electoral Commission and the parties. That work is planned and on the agenda.

The issue of which side of the line something goes will require further guidance. I think that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome accepts that as soon as one puts something in primary legislation, one can immediately think of something else that is not covered. We must clearly establish, on the basis of as many examples as we can find, the spirit of what we are trying to achieve. We will then need the Electoral Commission to draw up codes of guidance and electoral registration officers to be fully engaged, so that when they use their judgment to apply the guidance, they do so with the right objective in mind.

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

I am most grateful to the Minister for her comments and I think that she is responding reasonably positively to my suggestion. What is important, however, is not just that we think good thoughts, but that the provisions have an effect in terms of regulation. Is the Minister sure that the Bill would allow for regulation to be extended if it were agreed that it was necessary to redefine election expenses? Would it be possible to do that by regulation in the context of the guidance issued by the Electoral Commission?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Yes, it would be possible to revise in secondary legislation the list of matters to be treated or not treated as election campaign expenses or campaign expenses. That would be in addition to the code of guidance. I can undertake to look at the points that are raised.

We will also have to look at the amount of money that is allowed for election expenses at constituency level in the light of the amount that will be necessary for national campaigning. It is a question not just of what, but of how much, and the Electoral Commission is also looking at that.

On that basis, I ask hon. Members not to press their amendments. They have raised an issue, and we agree that it is an issue. This is a new problem, and we need to have fairness across the board. We also have to consider the possibility of future innovations. We have to have the right regulations, the right guidance and the right judgments made by electoral registration officers.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 9:30, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I hoped that I had addressed them by implication in the example of when something is or is not fundraising. If fundraising is sent to a constituency in the run-up to an election to extol the virtue of a particular party, it is not an open and shut case that that should fall outside national campaigning or individual election expenses for that constituency. The hon. Gentleman has invited us to reconsider that category, and that is what we must do. We all agree that campaigning for funding is important; we do not want parties to have insufficient funds to do their important democratic work, but we must ensure that that does not just become another loophole.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I am grateful to the Minister, particularly for pointing out that there are different ways of registering electoral expenses at both national and local level. That is important in relation to this clause. And how good it is to hear from the squeaky-clean Liberals. I hope that that general view will filter down to constituencies. Most of us would welcome that.

I have two concerns about the amendment, the first of which is about the word ''communicating'', particularly in relation to telephone marketing. It is difficult to differentiate between what is advertising and what is canvassing in a telephone call. Indeed, when we canvass, we advertise as well as seek information. Often, we are led into advertising by the person whom we have called, who might talk about the party and the candidate. There are serious difficulties with that. Also, most of our election agents are voluntary workers; the last thing that we want to do is create a system that will lead them inadvertently into quite serious charges that they had no intention of being involved in. The more complicated we make things, the more chance there is of that happening. I ask the Minister take that into account, particularly in framing clauses of this kind.

My second concern is about the whole business of money raising. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon on that. I am grateful that the Minister recognises that there is an issue. I foresee that we will run into all sorts of difficulties if we are too precise. We must all recognise that we use election appeals to subsidise our local organisations for longer than the election period, so there is a differential. We must be careful about that.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I want to follow up on the hon. Gentleman's point about advertising and canvassing. Is it not something else when one gets a phone call from a political party asking what one's issues are as part of the election campaign—that is not obviously canvassing—and subsequently, amazingly, one gets a letter from that party saying something about those issues? That is another grey area that needs to be looked into.

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

That was, in many ways, a useful little debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) for his contributions to the Committee. His experience is extremely valuable, but I do not entirely agree with some of what he said. The canvassing effort is part of   the campaign, and I am not sure that we can sensibly exclude it from elections.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that most agents are amateurs, or volunteers, and do not want an over-complicated system, but that makes it even more important that they are given proper information about what the national parties are doing on their behalf, whether or not they are affected in local constituencies. There is a growing tendency among all parties for the national campaign suddenly to decide, ''Such and such a constituency needs a boost, let's send a bucketload of letters to constituents in that area,'' which may come as a surprise to the local agent. The hon. Gentleman is nodding, so I suspect that that happens in all parties.

Moving to the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, amendment No. 56 would simply expand the requirement for a definition by the Electoral Commission, which is sensible. I think that, by implication, the Minister accepted that principle.

Fundraising is a much more complicated issue. If there were such a thing as a communication aimed solely at fundraising, which simply asked someone to send £1, £250,000 or whatever the going rate was for each party, one could argue that the cost of that communication was not part of the election expenses, but I suspect that the communication would carry a political message. It might suggest that a particular candidate was rather a good egg and should be supported, or that they had a programme that they would like to implement at local or national level. Therefore, the communication is political; it is designed not only to raise money but to reinforce messages in the election campaign.

It would be extraordinarily difficult to produce any definition of an item relating to fundraising. We can be sure that, if the definition were put in the Bill in those terms, not a single piece of paper would go to anyone's door in any circumstances without a little note in the corner saying, ''Can you give us some money please, so that we don't have to record the postage against limits? Thank you very much, sir.'' For that reason, such a definition is likely to be difficult.

We have had a useful debate on the principal amendment, No. 7. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she will take it back to the Electoral Commission and others so that it can be discussed. However, there is some urgency about the issue; we need to clarify it in the regulations well before the next general election. The curious thing is that the techniques that I am discussing were pioneered largely, I think, in parliamentary by-elections—and in parliamentary by-elections such items come under election expenses. Communications do not suddenly appear from nowhere without being included in the by-election expenses. If the communication goes to an elector in the by-election, the cost of it is recorded as part of the expenses. Of course, there are much higher expense limits for parliamentary by-elections, which makes it easier.

We should recognise, however, that the technique is now used to a serious extent in marginal constituencies in general elections. We keep returning to the point   that in this country the political process is now decided in a very small number of seats—the marginal seats. That is where all the parties put huge amounts of expenditure, in comparison with the rest of the country, where the campaign is likely to be somnolent.

I suspect that the hon. Member for Huntingdon does not have to run a particularly vigorous campaign. I do not know. Perhaps he campaigns extremely vigorously, but I suspect that with his majority, the campaign is slightly easier for him, in that the other parties are less likely to run a strong campaign against him than they do in constituencies where the result is likely to be closer.

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

Indeed. The situation varies throughout the country, and that factor can have a real effect.

We have briefly discussed content versus destination. I think that the definition can relate only to destination. If the communication is a political message going to a specific elector in a specific constituency during an election period, in my simplistic mind the cost of that communication is an election expense. The definition is not difficult. Even the simplest soul acting as an agent could understand that if a letter goes out in support of his candidate or party in his constituency during an election, the cost of that is a declarable expense.

I welcome what the Minister said. It may be useful to discuss the issue again at later stages of the Bill, particularly if in the immediate term we have a response, as I hope we will, from the Electoral Commission to enable us to formulate our thoughts more fully. However, on the basis of today's discussion, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in clause 29, page 31, line 4, leave out subsections (5) and (6).

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 52, in clause 29, page 31, line 5, leave out

'of four months ending with' and insert

'from the Notice of the Election until'.

No. 53, in clause 29, page 31, line 9, leave out

'of four months ending with' and insert

'from the Notice of the Election until'.

No. 54, in clause 29, page 31, line 13, leave out

'starting with the day when the vacancy occurs and ending with' and insert

'from the Notice of the Election until'.

No. 55, in clause 29, page 31, line 15, leave out subsection (6).

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

This is perhaps the most important and substantive issue that we will discuss in Committee, as other such issues have been dealt with on the Floor of   the House. The clause proposes to extend the period for which the election expenses clock runs to four months, ending with the date of the poll in a parliamentary election. I can only conclude that the consequences of the proposal have not been thought through.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab) indicated assent.

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

I see the hon. Gentleman is nodding.

First, there is a clear difference between a parliamentary election and other elections for which the term is set. We do not know when there will be a general election, so knowing the four months that precedes it requires a degree of prescience that most of us do not have. We do not know when to start the clock running and, more importantly, neither do our constituency parties.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South rightly mentioned the position of volunteer agents. To have control of all election-related expenditure over a period of four months before a general election implies that an agent must be in place for that period. How could an agent legally have control of expenses when that person may not have been appointed, or have any notion that they are to be appointed as agent? How could they control expenditure for a period four months before a date that they do not know? It would mean that agents would have to be in place all year round, every year, controlling every item of expenditure that might be related to an election, just in case a general election is called. That would be a very onerous task. Every party, in every constituency in the country, would have to have an agent in place on a permanent basis, checking the expenditure. Parties would find it increasingly difficult to get people who were prepared to be agents in many constituencies, which would be a retrograde step.

Secondly, there is no proposal to change the total expenses limit, which is something else that has not been thought through. Would an appropriate limit on expenses over a short election campaign of three or four weeks be appropriate if the period were extended to four months? Either that would mean a very limp campaign stretching over the four months, or the election expenses limit would have to be changed considerably to accommodate all the electoral material that might be sent out over that much longer period. It would not be sensible in principle to have very much larger election expenses on a constituency-by-constituency basis, as that would provide for much less precision in what is included and what is returned. If there were a higher expenses limit, those who wished to subvert the system would be able to manoeuvre to a much greater degree than they can at present—something that we do not want to encourage.

There will be a return to the nonsense of the ''prospective parliamentary candidate'', ''spokesman'' or some other nomenclature, which clearly denotes someone whom everyone expects to be the candidate in a parliamentary election, but who is not allowed to say so because that might start the election clock   running. Excitable individuals in the constituency will scour the newspapers to see whether someone has inadvertently described themselves as a parliamentary candidate by mistake, and then write an excited letter to the agent saying, ''Do you realise your election clock has started running? We're now counting every penny.''

We all know what used to happen, and what a bore it was. It may have caused a little innocent excitement for some, but it was nonsense. The problem was that the system was all based on an artifice, and was not a proper control on election expenses. If the provisions were implemented, they would have a further perverse effect, because we would have to extend the upper limit of the election expenses to cater for a four-month period—there is no way round that—and then people would be saying, ''Oh no, we weren't candidates,'' right until the notice of poll. They would then have the higher level of expenses to push into the four weeks. What a jolly good revolution that would be in the control of election expenses.

I do not think that the measure has been thought through. It will lead to nothing but more uncertainty, more of a regulatory burden on the voluntary parties, and, effectively, the abolition of financial limits on local campaigning. I do not believe that the public would be better served by that.

I hope that the Minister will be prepared to look again at the matter. I do not believe that those consequences were intended; it is quite possible that they are a matter of inadvertence rather than any intention on the Minister's part. As a country, we would be doing ourselves and the electoral system a great disservice if we were to introduce that retrospective four-month period before parliamentary elections. We have a system that works, after a fashion, so let us stick to it unless we have something better with which to replace it.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 9:45, 17 Tachwedd 2005

Amendment No. 8 seeks to remove all subsections relating to a change in the period in which election expenses are calculated. The proposal in subsections (5) and (6) is to impose a four-month period in which all expenses incurred in promoting or procuring a candidate's election are calculated. If the purpose of the amendment is to remove the new provision creating a four-month period in which expenses would be calculated and to retain the existing time frame running from the date of the election being called, it is most welcome. We strongly oppose the extension of the period for expenses to four months. That proposal does not stand up to close scrutiny, which is why we have tabled our own amendments to the clause.

As well as regulating national campaign expenditure, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 made changes in the start date for the calculation of expenses of individual candidates, as the drafting of the Representation of the People Act 1983 was considered to be uncertain and unsatisfactory. The period was considered to have begun when the person was declared to be a candidate, and there was case law dating back to the 19th century   on when that declaration had occurred in reality. The 2000 Act changed the law so that the relevant start date for becoming a candidate was the dissolution of the relevant legislature or the subsequent declaration of candidature. There were also provisions to allow for occasions on which expenses had been incurred before that date, such as the advance purchase of stationery.

In its 2003 policy review, ''Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—Recommendations for change'', the Electoral Commission noted the concern of a number of parties, candidates' agents and electoral administrators that the start date was too close to the election, leaving a significant period of campaigning unregulated. The Commission recommended a clear cut-off date of four months before a poll to provide clarity, accepting that there were difficulties with that approach for general elections, in which national campaigning was subject to a 365 day cut-off limit.

As has already been stated, clause 29 changes the period when candidates start running up election expenses. Currently, election expenses commence at the notice of the election. That is clear and straightforward and, although it is not an overall panacea, we support the existing provisions.

The Bill changes the period to four months before the date of the poll for general elections and local elections; for all by-elections, the start date will be when the vacancy occurs. We oppose that change, for a number of reasons. The date of general elections is not widely known in advance. In a country without set term limits for general elections, although the Minister might be privy to the Prime Minister's views on the election date, no other candidates are likely to be, certainly not Opposition ones. Those candidates should not be forced to guess the date of the election for the purposes of their expenses. The proposed changes would create confusion as to how much parliamentary candidates may legitimately spend. It is already difficult enough for political parties to second-guess their likely national campaign spend; it will be even more difficult for individual candidates.

Even Prime Ministers do not always know for certain the date of an election until well into the four-month period. For example, the delay of the 2001 general election from May to June, because of the foot and mouth crisis, highlighted how candidates could easily be caught out. A by-election would be equally problematic. As far as I can see, this Bill would start the expenses period at the moment of the death or resignation of a sitting Member, not the moment when the by-election is called. A party may not chose a candidate until weeks later, and it seems absurd that that candidate could find a large quantity of his or her expenses already spent, long before they began campaigning.

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, the changes could lead to a return to the fake and non-transparent days of prospective parliamentary candidates, action committees and other equally bizarre titles that once had to be used to avoid incurring expenses from the start of the four months until the notice of election. The proposals will do   nothing to restrict or stop the political arms race of spending on elections; funds will just be spent in different ways. There would also need to be a substantial increase in the expenses allowed, because of the longer period of time over which expenses will be incurred. That would put political party candidates at a disadvantage compared with independents, as political parties with offices and staff will run up bills for longer. It does not appear that those matters have received any consideration during the drafting of this Bill.

The suggested amendments remove the proposed four-month period and replace it with the existing period, which runs from the notice of the election. The Electoral Commission agrees with a standardised regulated period for candidates' election expenses that begins on a date specified in legislation, but it acknowledges that four months is not the only appropriate period. As I said earlier, we support measures to increase fairness and transparency in electoral expenses, but these proposals are ill-conceived and could be unworkable. Indeed, in their implicit assumption of set term limits, and that a by-election campaign begins in earnest at the very moment of an unfortunate MP's death, they bear little relation either to the constitution or to reality.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

I was an election agent for some 23 years; I started when I was 10. [Laughter.] I agree with the comments of other two hon. Members. I do not wish to repeat the points that they raised, but I shall use my experience as an example. I am a newly elected by-election candidate. I am setting up an office, sending Christmas cards, and dealing with requests for bottles of whisky.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

Very keen. I am arranging a pensioners' ''do'' and sending calendars to schools. And with all that expenditure, which is concerned with self-promotion in the constituency, if a snap election were called in January—

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

Not in Scotland; it is too cold in January. However, if a snap election were called in January, all the practical things that I am doing to set up an office, to obtain furniture and computers, to set up a website, to hold surgeries, and to assist my constituents as I was elected to do, would suddenly become election expenses. As has been said, the proposals have not been fully thought through.

During council elections, quite rightly, many councillors will want to be photographed with their MPs in order to put out a message about what the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat team is doing locally. If a general election is called within a matter a weeks of a council election, the leaflets that have been put through 30,000 or 40,000 doors during the former campaign become an election expense. Hon. Members have highlighted the fact that there are easy ways round that. However, the existing rules are clear and tight: from the kick-off point of an election, any expenditure on promoting a candidate is counted against election expenses. That is how things should remain.  

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

May I say how good it is to hear the words of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine)? It is nice to have been joined by another political professional. Agents consider candidates to be legal necessities, so it is good to see him here.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I was never paid.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Then his input is even more valued. I also support what my colleagues have said. This measure demonstrates that the ladies and gentlemen of the Electoral Commission—good people though they be, and valuable work though they do—are adrift from reality. We need to make that point firmly, because working, as they do, away from the hurly-burly of local politics, they do not always understand what happens on the ground. This is the best example of that in the Bill.

I foresee awful problems arising from this clause. I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge them. Newsletter delivery is covered, because the expenditure for the preceding year is already reported centrally—albeit in a different way for a different purpose. On timing, there is an old adage: ''I'm going to start a newsletter. It will be a regular newsletter, so it is not an election expense, despite the fact that it started a month before the election. Please believe me that it is going to carry on.'' How often have we heard that? Such newsletters do not carry on, because they are part of the election material. There are many problems in that respect.

I come back to voluntary agents. We all know that more duties have been laid on school governors. I am not arguing about those duties; it is right that they should have them. However, they have become more onerous, and that has made it more difficult to get school governors—I am sure that all our constituencies have suffered from that problem. I am fearful that the same problem will arise in respect of election agents. I cannot envisage a person taking on a job voluntarily for six weeks at a time when it is reasonable to think that we might have a general election, but being responsible for a further two and a half months of expenditure, paid for and authorised by somebody else. That person would be putting his credibility and legal standing on the line, and I cannot imagine that anybody would take such a job on. That is a serious concern.

The point about offices has been made, and I do not want to be repetitious. However, I do want to say that the clause is fraught with difficulties that will rebound on us again and again if we let it stand. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider this part of the Bill, for all our sakes.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office 10:00, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I support everybody who has spoken. The Electoral Commission's recommendations are plain daft. If a snap election were to be held—there would normally be three or four weeks' notification of the date—a Member who had been spending heavily in the period prior to that, perhaps not knowing that there would be an election, could find that they had exceeded the limits already. Should the candidate then put up their   hands and say, ''I can no longer stand, because I know I have already broken the law'', or should the matter be left until after the election and dealt with by way of a challenge in the courts? It is crazy. It reminds me of the question, ''How long is a piece of string?'' There is no measure of these things.

I am not aware of any concern having been expressed about this issue in the UK—certainly in Wales. No political party has mentioned it. Why did the Electoral Commission make the proposal? Where did it get the idea? Who has been making representations to it? Will the Minister assure us that she will seriously consider the concerns that have been raised by hon. Members of all parties in the Committee, and come up with some better recommendations?

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Llafur, Worsley

I, like some of my hon. Friends, have some sympathy with the amendments, and support much of what has been said by Opposition Members. We do not know when the clock starts; our agents will not be in place, and there is a problem with the expense limit.

There may be two other perverse and unwanted effects of the four-month provision. We know from the recent general election that the pre-campaign period ran for months. In many ways the media start that, but we, the parties, respond to it. We must ask whether we want that to start even earlier. A four-month general election campaign period would mean that the media activity would kick off earlier, and we would have to respond. The whole thing would go on for even longer, as it does with US presidential elections.

As a new Member, I sympathise with what my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston said; it would be difficult for new MPs to create a separation between the relevant activities and our normal communications with constituents, which are just getting started, including our round of newsletters, as well as expenses for travel, accommodation and activities. In many ways what is proposed would bring about the opposite of what we want. I do not want to be discouraged from setting up consultation meetings with my constituents or putting out newsletters to tell them what I am doing.

Some hon. Members who knew that they would have to run a substantial campaign in a marginal constituency might, if a four-month period were in operation, stop doing things that they should be doing, when the period began. Where there is apathy and distrust we want to engage in year-round communication, consultation meetings and contact with constituents. We do not want a measure that would prevent our doing that.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is right to say that the debate is important. I remind the Committee that the Government do not want to drive through measures affecting elections in all constituencies without a consensus. Having identified problems we want to suggest solutions and hear what hon. Members say about them.

To answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), the   consultation was undertaken by the Electoral Commission, which consulted the parties, but this is the first time that hon. Members have had a chance to comment. They could, of course, have obtained the commission's consultation booklet and responded, but that would not have been the most thorough form of consultation.

We should acknowledge that there is a problem—our very short election periods. The period can be just two weeks from notice of election, or dissolution. There could be a situation in which, in advance of those two weeks, everybody would know in practice—or would at least believe with great confidence—when the election is to be held. Considerable amounts of money would be targeted on particular constituencies to win votes. I have great sympathy with the points that hon. Members have made, but I ask them to think about whether there is a problem and whether it ought to be addressed. Perhaps we will just not have to address the problem or address it in a different way. It is a pity that in this debate Members have assumed that there is no problem with the status quo, and I do not believe that: there is a problem with the status quo.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Of course, I thank the Minister. She is right, and I welcome her initial remarks, because they suggest a view that we would all welcome. Her remarks about the length of time before an election can be declared are relevant. She is right about the problem; let us not dismiss it. However, the question of timing the calling of an election should be addressed separately. If there is a problem, we should pay attention to it rather than solve it in another way by elongating the period before the election. Will the Minister take that into account?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that we should have fixed-term elections to provide that certainty—

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I was saying that if there is real concern about when an election can be declared, and that having an impact on the problems that the Minister was enunciating, we might then consider the timetable for the announcement of the election. I am talking not about a fixed term, but about the days allocated to the separate incidents that we have to go through in the calling of an election.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Mr. Conway, I have finally understood the hon. Gentleman's point. He is talking not about fixed-term elections, but a fixed interval between dissolution and the election. That is not covered in the clause. Having said that, I believe that there is a problem, because there can be a short period and a massive amount of spending in advance, which will not count as national campaigning or election expenses. The question is, because we are all so wedded to certainty, whether we leave that period uncovered and unregulated. There is a trade-off between certainty and reach.

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

The Minister keeps on saying that there is problem and, of course, there is. One of the confusions that I have, and that other hon. Members have expressed, is that the problem existed pre-2001. It was considered in 2001, and consensus was reached, so many of us do not understand why we are changing it.   What has happened since 2001 to say that we have to look at it again?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We had a situation where large amounts of money were focused immediately before the dissolution, and that money, which was, to all intents and purposes, campaign expenditure in a particular constituency, was not caught by the rules. Although it might not have been identified as a problem before we last legislated, that is as it may be. That does not negate my argument that there is currently a problem. That is what the clause is designed to address. As we do not have fixed-term elections, we have a trade-off on certainty. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston is right: the rules are clear. However, they allow for considerable off-the-books spending, which can create unfairness. The hon. Member for Northampton, South said that there would be awful problems and that campaigning by way of newsletters would have to be reported. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) said, that could constitute normal parliamentary activity and not, if it took place prior to dissolution, an election expense.

We all agree that the old concept of prospective parliamentary candidates was an artifice that did not work. We have changed that, but we now have a new problem and we have made a proposal to deal with it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked whether it would be right, if the regulated period were extended from four weeks, or even two, to four months, to keep the same spending level, given that the period would have been extended but the allowable amount would not have been increased. I hope that it will reassure hon. Members—it probably will not—if I undertake not to bring into effect the four-month provision until we have agreed the increase in the amount of spending that will be allowed within that four months. I do not see a great rash of enthusiasm for that on my side of the Committee.

The best that I can do—given that the Bill is our attempt to tackle many problems, that we want to listen to debate, and that this has been the first opportunity for hon. Members of all parties to discuss the detail—is to ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that we will come back to the matter on Report. Before that, we will have to have further discussions with all parties in the House of Commons and with the Electoral Commission. When the commission consulted them, the parties—unsurprisingly—all had different views. None appeared to fall full square on the four-month period.

The measure is an attempt to deal with the problem, but there is no consensus, even within parties, on a solution. I urge the Committee to leave the clause in the Bill; not to press the amendment to a vote; to agree that there is a problem; and to accept my undertaking that we will not impose a solution that does not have wide support—that is not the approach that the Department for Constitutional Affairs would take on such an issue, even if colleagues could be whipped into supporting it. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment. However, if we are pressed to a vote, I would ask the Committee to reject   the amendment on the understanding that we will come back to the matter.

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

That was an elegant retreat on the Minister's part and I am grateful. I do not say that disparagingly; I believe that she is listening to the whole Committee, so if she is not persuaded by me, I hope that she will be persuaded by others with a great deal of electoral experience, particularly those on the Benches behind her.

The suggestion would not be absurd were it not for the fact that we do not have fixed-term elections. I could argue in favour of such elections, but that would not be within the terms of the amendment.

There are also arguments against fixed-term elections. The hon. Member for Worsley talked about the American situation in which there is a very long lead-in period. The other consequence is a lame duck, last term president. Of course we could not have a lame duck, last term Prime Minister in this country, could we? The political situation in this country is very different, which we should acknowledge.

The Minister is right that the quasi fixed-term elections is an issue that the Electoral Commission needs to address. It has, in fact, sought to address it. The past three elections have coincided with the county council elections in England and Wales, which is very irksome to colleagues standing in county councils who never ever get their own campaign and never get the chance to stand on their record because it is enveloped within the general election campaign.

The quasi fixed-term election also means the timing of a general election is predictable to a certain degree, despite the fact that we do not have a fixed-term election. Certain people feel able to expend large amounts of money in what they believe to be the period before an election because there is a reasonable expectation that it will be close to the general election.

There are other ways of addressing that issue. We had a debate in Westminster Hall only last week on regulating the funding of political parties and the potential for caps on donors. That might bite in this instance, because very often the abuses come not from the funds of local political parties but from funds from external sources, sometimes in very large amounts, immediately before the general election. There may be other ways of addressing that particular abuse, and I encourage the Minister to consider them.

A consensus has developed that the proposal simply will not do, because the remedy is likely to be worse than the ailment. The Minister has assured us that she will talk to other parties and will return on Report with an alternative, so there is no point in my pressing my amendment to a vote. We have made progress, and I am grateful to all those who have contributed to the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.