Clause 60 - Referendum and election material

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

Quite a lot of disputes, some uncertainty and at times vexatious complaints can   arise over imprints. If a candidate decides to use material from a previous election in which they stood—posters would be the obvious example—but the agent has changed and the previous agent does not give permission for the imprint to be used, is there any way of overriding that lack of permission?

The relevance of the matter is that when you and I, Mr. Conway, began our political careers, many years ago—we were both elected to this place for the first time in 1983, although of course since then we have both been in and out—posters were normally paper. Now Correx posters are all the rage; they are a great deal more expensive and election rules allow them to be re-used. However, I should like clarification of the point about the imprint. As we move to a different type of electioneering, using different types of materials and facilities, the point will grow more relevant. I do not know whether I am making my inquiry under the correct clause, but I should be grateful for guidance.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk for raising those points. An opportunity has been missed in the clause to clear up several confusions about the use of imprints, and a clearer and slightly more radical wording would be better. There is a fog of confusion about what does or does not need an imprint. I am sometimes given the advice that several parts of a single piece of paper need imprints, in case someone tears or cuts them off, leaving a piece of paper with no imprint. That seems like nonsense to me. If one publishes a document, what someone does with it later is their business. If it has an imprint on it, it should comply with the law.

Another issue is whether, in local authority elections in which a leaflet promotes several candidates—all the county council candidates in an area, for example—the name of each one is required in the imprint. It appears that at the moment that would be required. In Somerset I think that the council has 57 or 58 members, so if the names of that many candidates had to appear in the imprint to make its distribution promoting their candidacies legal, the result would be a rather long imprint, which would not improve clarity or reliability in the electoral process. It therefore seems sensible to reconsider the whole question of what is required for imprints.

Two more notes have been given to me. I do not entirely understand them, but I hope that the Under-Secretary does. One is that the 2001 legislation that suspended the introduction of new imprint rules is not repealed, so the clause will not come into effect. Is that correct? Will he also make it clear that the requirements of the Newspapers, Printers, and Reading Rooms Repeal Act 1869 does not apply to election material? I hope that he can make that absolutely clear, and I look forward to his reply with interest.

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

Not as much as I do. I shall reflect on my answer after I have given it.

Clause 60 makes three changes to the requirements for imprints on election and referendum material. In the case of closed list elections—that is, European parliamentary   elections, GLA elections, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections—although obviously not in elections in first-past-the-post constituencies, the imprint requirement on election material makes it permissible to list solely the names of political parties, rather than the names of all the candidates on the party list, as the person on behalf of whom the material is published, as is the current requirement. It is a sensible and practical measure.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked a sensible and practical question about whether or not all 59 council candidates needed to be listed. The clause relates solely to party lists and not to individual requirements, so I do not have an immediate answer his question because it is not directly relevant, but I shall try to be helpful and find out.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned when he referred to one of his notes—the one that I understood—the Election Publications Act 2001 suspended the three-part requirement under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 for election material of printer, promoter and person on behalf of whom the material is being published and who is not the promoter. The requirement was suspended when it was found that political parties still had large stocks of material with the old-style imprint of printer and publisher.

It is quite clear that sufficient time has now passed so that the 2000 Act three-part requirement should be solely in force, which is what the clause does, and we will in due course consult the parties on the appropriate implementation date.

Finally, although I shall return to this point before my last, ''And finally, Cyril,'' I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point about using posters with the name of someone who is not the agent. That probably crosses some line. I appreciate his concern if he has a large stockpile of posters from a previous election that he did not manage to put up. Perhaps my Scottish thrift and that of the hon. Member for Epping Forest is seeping into him and he does not want to waste them.

The role of agent is clearly defined in law and carries with it many legal obligations and duties. I am not immediately attracted to the idea of being able to put up posters that have the wrong agent's name on them. Nor do I believe that the person who is not the agent would be attracted to the idea. We all know that agents are legally responsible for large numbers of things that happen during elections.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Llafur, Livingston

Will the Under-Secretary clarify whether putting a sticker with the name of the new agent on it across the board would suffice?

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

It depends. Stickers can fall off and be blown away. Should we deface posters so that they cannot be read? Frankly, it would be better simply to get new posters.

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I am still minded to stick to my original thinking on this matter. We should not put up literature that describes as the agent the name of someone who is not the agent, because the   agent has very serious legal duties and responsibilities. We all know that agents can be imprisoned for such breaches, so I am not drawn to that particular example.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:45, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I am not trying to legislate on the hoof. I honestly think that we might have a more relaxed view on posters with no editorial content, which simply say the name of a candidate and a party, than on literature that clearly has editorial content, with which there is strict legal liability for what is written.

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

I am sorry; I do not agree. Suppose that someone plasters posters all over a shop window or somewhere that they should not be, and the name on the bottom of them is the election agent. Clearly, the police are going to knock on the door of the person whose name is on the bottom. If they were not the person, they would be upset by that. Therefore, I am not convinced that we should exempt posters.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister must recognise that paper posters cost next to nothing, and that in rural constituencies—I do not know if he has any rural stretches in his constituency—there is a tendency to put up Correx posters, which are extremely expensive. A standard 4x4 Correx poster is about £100, so one can easily burn up one's election expenses if one has more than a few of them. Of course, some get stolen, defaced, eaten by cows or run over by tractors. After the last election, we recovered a number of them, which we intend to use again; putting in a second-hand amount for them, obviously. What is the Minister's view about changing the imprint—cutting out the old imprint and replacing it—and reusing them? Many candidates in rural constituencies are likely to ask the Electoral Commission about that closer to the next election.

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

I have both an urban part and a large rural part of my constituency. For reasons that may or may not appeal to the hon. Gentleman, I do more of my campaigning in the urban part of my constituency. We do not tend to plaster the rural parts with quite the amount of Correx with which he will plaster his rural parts. That might say something about where we anticipate attracting support.

When the new law was implemented, allowing breathing space for people to use up old stocks was the right thing to do, but a number of years have passed since then. I am told that that Electoral Commission is looking into that—the busy bunch of happy elves that they are there—and that it will issue guidance and guidelines on that. We do not need to be too prohibitive on this issue in the Bill, but I foresee some problems prima facie; on the hoof, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome says, which is no reference to the hungry cows. At this stage, I am not minded to entertain hon. Members suggestions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.