New Clause 1 Content of election address

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 22 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘(1)Section 91 of the 1983 Act (parliamentary election rules) is amended as follows.

(2)After subsection 1(b) insert—

“( )If, and only if, the universal service provider considers any matter in that communication not properly to constitute ‘matter related to the election only’ in paragraph 1(a), then the question as to whether it is included must be referred to the Electoral Commission for determination.

( )The universal service provider may not by any other means specify what matter can be included in a communication under this section.”.’.—[Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is about regulations on the content of electoral addresses—material sent out by candidates via freepost and delivered by the universal service provider, which is, of course, currently Royal Mail. It deals with whether Royal Mail has powers of editorial control over candidates’ material. I say that it does not, apart from the requirement, already enshrined in statute, not to send out offensive material, material that contravenes statute, or material irrelevant to the election. Some people in Royal Mail think otherwise. They think that they have the right effectively to determine that material is unsuitable for their postmen and postwomen to carry. I think that they are wrong, but the law is sufficiently ambiguous to require some clarification.

An aspect of the matter that causes constant concern to many candidates is any reference to or depiction of the Post Office in election material. Every hon. Member in the Committee knows that the Post Office has been a current political issue for some years. Our views on what should happen to it and to Royal Mail deliveries are a proper political issue, within the province of Parliament, on which we can and should express an opinion. The topic is particularly current when closures of sub-post offices are threatened. This has been a very hot political issue in my constituency, and, I suspect, in the constituencies of many other Committee members.

On post office closures or the future of the Royal Mail, some postmasters—not all; there is some difference in practice—will not accept such material in a freepost leaflet. Some splendid rows have developed as a result. Some postmasters go even further. It is not even a question of expressing an opinion, positive or negative, about Post Office or Royal Mail services. The suggestion is that being pictured with a post office in the background is somehow inappropriate for freepost material and must be changed, even if, incidentally, Royal Mail does not own if it is a sub-post office or a private dwelling that is part of the streetscape, village or community.

Postmasters know perfectly well that a general election period is brief and that there is no time for a long argument about whether election material is acceptable. If their initial reaction is that it is not, expediency dictates that the design of the election material must be changed. I understand from the Electoral Commission’s statutory report that that was a big issue in the 2001 election and remained a problem in 2005, despite the best endeavours of the Electoral Commission and the Government to talk to Royal Mail.

That also happened during the European parliamentary election, in which postmasters decided of their own accord that certain political issues were not the province of election candidates and that they had no right as candidates to talk about them in their constituencies because it was not a matter for the European Parliament. It is not for a postman to decide what goes into a communication between a candidate and the electorate; it is a matter for the candidate and   his or her agent to determine. The authorities should intervene only when an issue contravenes the firm requirements governing offensive material or material outwith the Representation of the People Act 2000.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point, but at least the literature that he mentioned was delivered. He may not know this, but there were serious black holes throughout Norfolk in which no election material was delivered at all. We have discovered that there is no comeback against the Post Office, because it simply denies any knowledge of the problem. I do not know whether he has had that experience in his own county. Perhaps the Government should consider the matter separately.

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

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not want to get into bashing Royal Mail because that is not the intention behind the new clause. Undoubtedly, there are problems with Royal Mail delivery of freepost in some areas. I have no idea about black holes in Norfolk, but it is no great surprise to learn that they might exist. I do know, however, that that happened elsewhere in the country. Incidentally, there are often significant problems with delivery in areas where parliamentary constituencies are so inconvenient as to cross postcode areas. Constituents of mine who live in part of the constituency with a Dorset postcode very often receive communications from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), although they live in Milborne Port, Somerset rather than Sherborne, Dorset. That is a great aggravation for my constituents who, I am sure, like to know about the right hon. Member for West Dorset, but do not feel that he is entirely relevant to their constituency.

My general point is that the universal service provider—whatever that company will be; at present, it is Royal Mail—must realise that it does not have any editorial control over election material. That is not a matter for Royal Mail. If it has a serious doubt about whether material is within the constraints of the law, which is a question that will arise sometimes, it should not make that judgement, but pass it to the Electoral Commission to adjudicate. Although the Electoral Commission is not looking for additional work in this area, it is the only sensible outcome, rather than allowing a postmaster to take a view without the commission’s support.

If there were such a scheme in place, it would have the desired effect. I do not envisage a lot of material being sent to the Electoral Commission for adjudication, nor that it will be a time-consuming or onerous task. Once the message has got through to postmasters that it is not their job, they will not seek to intervene in inappropriate areas, and the Electoral Commission will not have a huge new task foisted on it. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to those points.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 12:15, 22 Tachwedd 2005

I am almost agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, with one exception. If he is arguing that postmen are not fit for that kind of job, how can he argue that it is only where they disapprove of material that it should go to the Electoral Commission? If they are not fit to do the job, the commission should surely do the whole job, because if postmen are not fit, they may allow something to go through when it should not?

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

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The difficulty is that the postmaster has to adjudicate on matters such as design, fitness for purpose, size and clarity of address, which are proper postal matters. The material has to be sent to the postmaster in proof form in any case. It would be an over-cumbersome process for every single piece of election material to go to the Electoral Commission, which would not welcome that. That would be a misuse of the resources at its disposal at the time of a general election. We are talking not about a passing reference to a sub-post office, or a picture of somebody standing in a street with a post office behind them. We are talking about somebody setting out to be offensive, such as through racial or other forms of discrimination; that is the sort of material that I would expect not to be sent out by freepost, and to be sent to the Electoral Commission to intervene.

There are, sadly, parties that would include such material in electoral address, and they must be stopped from abusing the freepost system to do so. There are also those who would use freepost for commercial advantage. Where an election address sets out an advertisement for widgets at threepence a go, or buy one get one free, instead of a platform for a candidate, clearly that is not proper electoral material and the postmaster would refer it. The distinction is clear. At present, sadly, there are instances of postal authorities overstepping the mark, and getting involved in areas that force them to make editorial judgements. We should prevent that if possible, and I hope that my new clause, however imperfect, might address that issue. If the Government agree with the principle, but think that the objective can be achieved by other means, I am happy to listen to what they propose to do.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I also have great concerns, although I generally support the thrust of the amendment. I am not sure that the wording is absolutely as it should be, but I take the point that we are giving postmasters a job that they are not capable of, equipped for or trained to do. In the last election, there were a couple of cases in which points were made about political issues that the Post Office was clearly not equipped to deal with.

There should be proper segregation of what the Post Office can take decisions on, such as the size of election material, the way in which it is presented for posting, how it needs to be received for delivery, and the way in which it is stacked in terms of addresses. All those things are vital for the good offices of the Post Office, and it is right and proper that a postmaster should take   decisions on them. However, political matters do not fall into that category, and a clear definition of those areas should be drawn up.

The other point about which I am concerned is the time and bureaucracy necessary to achieve those objectives during an election campaign. I recognise the difficulties, but it might make it easier if we had a clear definition of the two areas, and made greater use of the electoral registration officer, and subsequently the Electoral Commission, rather than relying on the Post Office. I therefore make a plea for the Government to consider that matter again, for all our sakes. Although I generally support the thrust of the amendment, I am not sure that the wording is correct. Will the Minister give us some comfort in that respect and say that he will examine that matter again?

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

I am not going to recommend that my colleagues accept the new clause if it is pressed to a vote, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for giving me the chance to clarify some of the issues that have been raised during this short debate.

As we know, the Royal Mail has certain obligations—in relation to obscene publications, for example—and has obligations to its own staff in relation to the weight of items delivered. The hon. Gentleman made the point that it also has its own procedures and sets out regulations on how those leaflets should be delivered. However, the 1983 Act gives the Royal Mail other obligations. It says that the communication should include, and that therefore the Royal Mail should deliver

“matter relating to the election only and not exceeding 60 grammes in weight.”

It is not for the Royal Mail, or the postmasters, to express a view on the editorial content—

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

Let me finish. They should not express a view on the editorial content of a particular leaflet. That was a problem in 2001, when the Royal Mail was issuing guidance in relation to the closure of post offices, but it now accepts that it was wrong to do so, and will not do it again. That matter has therefore been clarified and dealt with.

As I understand it, the only leaflets that were rejected for delivery at the last election were adverts for Madame Tussaud’s, which had nothing whatever to do with the election. The Royal Mail is not intending to start interfering in the editorial content of the leaflets; it does not want to do that—[Interruption.] I shall give way in just a moment.

Moreover, individual postmasters do not take such delivery decisions; the Royal Mail has its own internal procedures so that, should an issue arise on which a judgment is needed, it is passed up the chain of command in the Post Office for legal advice, so that the Royal Mail conforms to its legal obligations. The average postmaster at the sorting house does not take such decisions; if he or she is confronted with such an issue, there are internal procedures in the Royal Mail that will address it.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Is it not true that the Post Office will have to look at the editorial content? The Post Office would become liable to libel proceedings if it were to distribute literature that contained defamatory remarks about any of the other candidates. Perhaps elections in Northern Ireland are more robust than in other areas, but I think that it will be necessary for the Post Office to do that.

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

I made the comment about editorial content after I had said that the Post Office has an obligation to ensure that it complies with other legislation such as that on obscene publications. I did not specifically mention libel, but clearly that is one of the issues that it would have to look at.

I am happy to clarify that point. The Post Office should not send out material that is libellous, as it would be partly responsible for the libel. That general principle guides it on everything that is sent out. The leaflet before us does not libel anyone and it is not obscene; the Post Office has no business saying that it does not agree with this or that policy.

An enormously wide range of leaflets go out at election time, from the extreme left to the extreme right, and there is no evidence that the Royal Mail is interfering routinely in those matters. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is chuntering away, saying, “Yes, it is”, but he cited one example to do with privatising the Royal Mail. I have already said that that issue was raised with the Royal Mail, which accepted that it was wrong and agreed not to do it again. The hon. Gentleman began by saying that timetables are tight and so on, but he would introduce another layer of bureaucracy. That would exacerbate the situation.

The hon. Gentleman did not answer the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, which was that if the Royal Mail is not fit to decide what should not be in, why should it be fit to decide what should be in? If we say that someone has to exercise editorial control, but we have a fallback position only if the Royal Mail decides that something should not be in, then we come to the logic of the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, which is to give the whole thing to the Electoral Commission and let it decide on every leaflet. We do not want that. Only one leaflet fell foul of the provision at the last election, but we obviously need to keep an eye on the situation in case it starts to spin out of control again, as it may have done in the past.

We cannot accept the new clause as it stands; we need to have a big think about how it would be resourced, how the Electoral Commission would work and what other appeals mechanisms there should be. However, I hope that I have clarified the situation, which is what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was looking for. It is not for the Royal Mail to express a view one way or the other on the content of policies that are not obscene and do not libel anyone. Its duty is to ensure that the leaflets relate to the election; adverts from Madame Tussaud’s do not relate to the election, which is why they were ruled out.

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

I have noted before that the Minister gets rather more excited towards the end of the sitting than he does at the start. Perhaps is something to do with his blood-sugar levels. What he states does not reflect the experience of a great number of practitioners from all parties, who have had precisely that difficulty with the Royal Mail. Although I hear what the Minister says about procedures within the Royal Mail, I do not accept that they are always put into effect in the way that he suggests.

If the result of our debate is that a clear message goes out that there are limits to the extent to which the Royal Mail can interfere in such matters, that would be a good thing. That is the outcome that I desire. However, to say that it does not happen is wrong. I know for a fact that a vociferous argument took place in my constituency during the European parliamentary elections in 2004, long after the Minister claims it was all sorted, because a leaflet included references to the health service and the police. The health service and the police are as relevant to politicians seeking election to the European Parliament as they are to anyone else, but the postmaster decided otherwise. He decided that those matters ought not to be included in an freepost election leaflet for a European parliamentary election. If that is not editorial control, what is?

I suggest that the Minister collates information from his own party agents, if not from those of other parties, as to exactly what happens rather that simply asserting that everything is all right now. It is not. It needs further clarification. [Interruption.] Exasperation will get the Minister a long way but not, I suggest, in this Committee, because he has not made a case; he says only that everything is all right. I welcome the support of Members from other parties who say that it is not all right and that problems still need to be addressed. The Minister would do well to listen to the various political parties and their experience of what happens.

As I say, our debate may be sufficient to effect a change. I would welcome that enormously. However, I firmly intend to return to the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.