Standing Committee G
Thursday 3 February 2000
[Mr. John Maxton in the Chair]
Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question again proposed.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): At the end of our sitting this morning I was explaining why I believed that the clause should be part of the Bill. I reminded the Committee that it was drawn from section 79 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and I was trying to reassure the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that it was an aid rather than a hindrance. The RPA was introduced to safeguard political parties from false claims by political opponents. I was about to address the hon. Gentleman's concern that a loophole in the clause would allow disputed claims to arise, leading to avoidance and evasion. That is a real threat, and the hon. Gentleman is right to press the point.
The hon. Gentleman has reminded the Committee on many occasions of the onerous responsibilities that are placed on the treasurer and deputy treasurer of a political party. He has been at pains to show that it is a difficult job and not one to be taken lightly. Again there are heavy responsibilities on the treasurer under the clause in respect of disputed claims. Clause 76 provides that he must make a return to the Electoral Commission and that it is a criminal offence if a treasurer does not act openly and honestly, but acts illegally. The treasurer must send the return in and state that
``to the best of his knowledge and belief . . . it is a complete and correct return''.
A person commits an offence if a false declaration is made.
That criminal sanction will lead to the avoidance of doubt: treasurers of political parties, whether big or small, will know the responsibilities that are placed on them and the threat of the law behind the Bill. There is, therefore, little possibility that clause 71 will be used as a loophole to avoid the claim. If the Electoral Commission suspects that avoidance and evasion are taking place, it can make inquiries. If its suspicions are confirmed, it is for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to bring the case to court. The Committee can feel safe in the knowledge that those extreme and rigorous sanctions will prevent treasurers and others from trying to use disputed claims as a loophole to avoid the regulations.
With that, I hope that the Committee will agree to the clause standing part of the Bill.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I shall not take long in replying. The Parliamentary Secretary has made some valid points, but Conservative Members believe that clauses 70 and 71 are linked. Therefore, having nailed our colours to the mast on clause 70, it will not come as a total surprise to him to discover that we shall nail our colours to the mast on clause 71, as otherwise we would be inconsistent in our approach to the problems that it causes.
I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for his comments. Certainly they have clarified the issue and have been helpful.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 4.
Bruce, Mr. Malcolm
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Levitt, Mr. Tom
Linton, Mr. Martin
Miller, Mr. Andrew
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Day, Mr. Stephen
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Walter, Mr. Robert
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Limits on campaign expenditure
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 47, leave out line 1.
The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 95, in page 47, line 2, leave out `or registered party'.
Mr. Walter: The amendments return to the theme of offences. We question the legitimacy of placing the party in the position of being guilty of an offence.
On reading the clause, I thought that one could take comfort, as the Parliamentary Secretary has suggested in previous debates, from the Representation of the People Act 1983. I therefore referred to section 179 of that Act, but got little comfort from it. It states:
(a) any corrupt or illegal practice or any illegal payment employment or hiring, or
(b) any offence under section 110 above,
is committed by any association or body of persons, corporate or unincorporated, the members of the association or body who have taken part in the commission of the offence shall be liable to any fine or punishment imposed for that offence by this Act.''
If we apply that to the clause, the implication would be that the 330,000-odd members of the Conservative party would be guilty—[Interruption.] I hear comments of surprise from Labour Members. The Conservative party does not have 3.3 million affiliated trade union members: they pay their fees to the Labour party and do not come within the scope of the Bill. The 330,000 members of the Conservative party may be considered guilty, if the Electoral Commission decides to alight not on the person but on the registered party because, for instance it had paid an invoice that had not arrived on time.
However, the matter is not as clear as that, because clause 139 says:
``Where any other unincorporated association is guilty of an offence under this Act—
(a) every officer of the association who is bound to fulfil any duty of which the offence is a breach, or
(b) if there is no such officer, every member of the committee or other similar governing body (other than a member who is proved to have been ignorant of, or to have attempted to prevent the commission of, the offence)''.
I have a vision of the 330,000 Conservative party members queuing up in the Strand to argue that they were ignorant of the offence, or had tried to prevent it. That relates to my point this morning—we do not wish to enact legislation that is later proved to be deficient, so that those who have to implement it can turn round and say, ``The law is an ass!''
In earlier discussions, we talked about three key officers at the head of a political party—the leader, the nominating officer and the treasurer. We placed the responsibility on them, and especially on the treasurer. The treasurer can appoint a number of deputy treasurers—the Bill allows up to 12. The treasurer and deputy treasurers are the officers responsible for keeping within the limits on campaign expenditure, which is the subject of the clause. We talked at length this morning about some of the difficulties that the treasurer and deputy treasurers will have in trying to enforce some of the time limits imposed by the legislation.
This morning, I had a list from the Library of all 100 registered political parties, some of which are very small, and many are unknown to me—for example, the Tax-Avoid for the Self-Employed party and the Walked-Over-Women party. Even such small parties would be required to have a treasurer, as the Bill's grandfathering clause requires parties to be registered for six months. I do not want to reiterate this morning's debate, but if such a party embarked on a campaign, incurred expenditure in a remote part of the kingdom, failed to submit the invoice on time, and failed to make the payment on time, the treasurer of the party would have committed the offence. Why, therefore, are we talking about the party being guilty of an offence? The Representation of the People Act 1983 states that, if the party is guilty of the offence, every member of that party is guilty. In this Bill, if the party is guilty of the offence, it is the members of a committee or governing body or, failing that, all members who are guilty of the offence. That brings us back to the Representation of the People Act 1983 provisions. It is nonsense to put the responsibility on the 330,000 members of the Conservative party.
That might sound partisan. The Parliamentary Secretary might want to tell us the implications for the 3.3 million affiliated Labour party members, who are members of trade unions first and affiliated to the Labour party second.
Mr. Tipping: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The clause that we are discussing is linked to clause 139(1). Any action taken against the party will not be against the three people that he named, or the 330,000 party members, it will be against the named party. His party's members, and the 3.3 million trade union affiliates of the Labour party, can sleep safely and soundly at night.
Mr. Walter: I hoped that the Parliamentary Secretary would provide me with some comfort. I am not sure that he has. I may, in a moment, defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, who may be able to interpret the law a little more clearly than I can, as I am not a lawyer. However, my reading of the Representation of the People Act is that if a body unincorporate is deemed guilty of an offence, that body is its members.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): My colleagues and I were pleased to see—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is not allowed to refer to anyone in the Public Gallery.
Mr. Davidson: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman will have received the approval of all hon. Members for saying very little, but saying it extremely well and at great length.
Mr. Walter: I am grateful for compliments and support from the other side of the Committee. I was also grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) gave us earlier this week in our deliberations on Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that he was called away on urgent business when there was a Division on that question.