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Mr. Straw: Impossible.

Sir Norman Fowler: Almost impossible, but perhaps not in name.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): A good Welshman.

Sir Norman Fowler: If he is a good Welshman, I am a Dutchman.

In 1981, an artificial Roy Jenkins attempted to fight the Warrington by-election, but the returning officer ruled that his nomination was invalid. However, in November 1982, in the Glasgow, Hillhead by-election, the artificial Roy Jenkins was allowed to stand, on the grounds that the returning officer there felt that the name Jenkins had been used for some nine months and no objection was received in time from the real Roy Jenkins.

As I understand the Bill, we shall legislate to make it more difficult for political parties to be confused, but there is no similar provision for individuals. We intend to leave it to the existing processes, whether the returning officer or the courts. In other words--the Home Secretary should take this point to heart--if legislation closes the door on political party deception, there is a danger that all attempts will move to personal candidate deception. We shall have turned the position of the 1947 committee on its head.

However, that position raises a further question about the position of individual returning officers. Self- evidently, different returning officers have made different interpretations of the law. The Bill is intended to set general rules to prevent the public's being deceived. However, what is being done to ensure that the policy of individual returning officers is the same as that of the registrar of political parties? How do we ensure a uniform policy throughout the country?

The detail of many Bills is crucial; never has that been truer than of the Bill before us. The Bill is presented as a voluntary system of registration, but, as the Home Secretary freely admitted, it is voluntary only if a party wants to forgo the advantage of party political broadcasts and the help that it can receive for the costs of security at party conferences. If it wants those advantages, it must register.

Equally, there is the question of appeal from the registrar's decision--the point rightly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East.

Mr. Syms: West.

Sir Norman Fowler: I beg your pardon; I meant my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).

The registrar grants an application for inclusion in the register unless the proposed registered name would be likely to result in the party being confused by voters with

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a party already registered. What does that mean? I do not make a party point, but one could make a sensible case that a candidate who stands as "Old Labour" is distinguishing himself from the present Administration. Equally, one could make a sensible case that a person who wants to stand as an "Independent Conservative" is giving himself a sensible description. From experience as party chairman, I can vouch for the presence of many independent Conservatives in the mid-1990s--and Independent Conservatives is only one of the descriptions that I gave them at the time. Probably, however, none of those descriptions would be allowed under these rules.

Who will settle these disputes, and who will settle the question of symbols? I really want to know that. I am deeply sceptical about the need for symbols; disputes are bound to break out as a result. The Home Secretary looks forward to our having 100 parties; the mind boggles as to what they will be. If we have 100 political parties jostling around, some will tend to push to make their symbols as provocative, or outrageous, as they possibly can. Who settles those disputes?

In short--this is a short debate--we shall want to explore a range of questions in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) raised another important point during the Home Secretary's speech. I have said that we shall not oppose the Bill on Second Reading because, obviously, we support the principle of trying to reduce confusion among the electorate--deception of the voters. However, we wish to reserve our Third Reading position, depending on the answers that we receive. By definition, we do not want legislation that makes the position worse or produces glaring loopholes in the law.

That apart, it would be wrong of me not to warn the Home Secretary that, in my belief--which, I suspect, he substantially shares--we are embarking on a dangerous electoral journey. This is but one small part of a much bigger picture. My greatest worry is about the way in which, step by step, we are moving away from the constituency basis of our democracy. In my view, the constituency link, which enables constituents to hold individual elected representatives to account, is right in principle and has served the country well.

I find the list system--whereby the public are asked to vote for parties, not individuals, and where control can easily pass to the centre and not be held at the local level--objectionable. I suspect that the Bill will raise some of the questions that will become part of the national debate in months to come, and I suspect that, when the issues have been properly exposed, the public will deplore the direction in which the Government have chosen to take the country.

5.6 pm

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I am the representative of the constituency that is, in many ways, the cause of all the trouble. In Wandsworth, in 1967, when each party had four vacancies to fill, a Liberal candidate named Pritchard stood against a distinguished Labour councillor in the area, Sir Norman Prichard, and received 4,000 votes more than the three other Liberal candidates. As the Labour candidate named Prichard was distinguished and popular, it was an inescapable conclusion that the confusion over names had misled 4,000 voters. As a result, the Representation of the People Act 1949 was amended by the Government of the day, to allow a six-word description of candidates.

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That reform was very reasonable, but, in many cases, the description has become not as much a description as an advertisement, a form of abuse, a campaigning message or an attempt to confuse. Last year, my hon. Friendthe Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) spoke about the terrible distress caused to some of his constituents when they discovered that when they voted "New Labour" they had voted, not for him, but for an unofficial candidate--so much so that one of his constituents burst into tears, and another ate her ballot paper rather than put it into the urn.

I very much welcome the Home Secretary's assurances about the meaning of the grounds--set out in clause 3--on which names can be refused, especially his explanation of clause 3(1)(d), which, as I understand it, refers mainly to words likely to stir up racial hatred, and the expression "prohibited by order" in clause 3(1)(f), which refers mainly to words such as "royal". I assume that the main casualties of this clause will be those parties that set out deliberately to confuse. At the last election, some candidates stood as Literal Democrats, Conservatories, and Conversatives, and many others stood under the inaccurate title of New Labour. Many other categories of parties may or may not be affected by the measure, and I would appreciate further explanation from the Minister.

If candidates are allowed to use a six-word description without registering as a party, will they be allowed to give themselves party names although they are not registered? I refer not to the Monster Raving Loony party--which I have no doubt will register as a fully fledged political party--but to parties such as Happiness Stan's Free to Party party, the Juice party, the Rizz party, the Ronnie the Rhino party, the Sub-genius party and the Teddy Bear Alliance party.

Mr. Swayne: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in reality, what constitutes a political party is democratic legitimacy? Having members elected to Parliament is what designates a political party. Under this legislation, anyone may be the leader of a political party in much the same way as anyone can buy a company off the shelf and become a company director.

Mr. Linton: I do not think that one must win an election in order to qualify as a political party. The hon. Gentleman cannot seriously believe that--if he does, I take it that he will stand at the next election as a candidate for the Sub-genius party.

At the last election, we also encountered the problem of candidates using their six-word descriptions as forms of advertising. I do not know whether that is covered by the Bill. For example, the Mongolian Barbecue Great Place to Party party strikes me as being a commercial message rather than a party description. The West Cheshire College in Crisis was clearly an attempt to use six words to make a point--I do not know whether it is correct. There were also a few lonely hearts-type candidates. One candidate described himself as Black Haired Medium Build Caucasian Male and there was also an Independently Beautiful party candidate. I look forward to hearing whether those examples will be affected by the Bill.

There is also the question of the commission of an offence. Several parties, such as the Legalise Cannabis party and the New Millennium New Way Hemp party,

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could, on a strict reading of the legislation, be in jeopardy. Several parties at the last election used descriptions that some people may consider offensive. Most of them were what might be called anti-political parties whose titles were attempts to deride other candidates on the ballot paper. Some examples were the Common Sense Sick of Politicians party, the Lord Byro versus the Scallywag Tories party and the People in Slough Shunning Useless Politician party--whose name I think was chosen mainly for its potential as an acronym. One candidate, whose surname must have begun with "W" or "Y", stood as a candidate for None of the Above Parties party.

I do not imagine that the Government want to use the legislation against such parties, but it would be useful to have a better idea of what the word "offensive" is intended to mean to acting returning officers. I hope that the tradition in this country of having not entirely serious electoral candidates, such as Screaming Lord Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony party, will not be lost. It may give our democracy a bad name sometimes when people from overseas see the joke candidates standing behind the serious ones, but I would hate to think that this Bill could be used to limit people's freedom to such an extent that they were prevented from standing in elections.


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