Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Are you looking at a cap on parties spending on campaigns which would spread perhaps more in an annual way?
  (Mr Younger) I have to say that I had not thought of that. It would be difficult. After all the election period in relation to a General Election and the legislation is already 365 days. Of course it did not work like that for last year's General Election because the legislation only took effect on 16 February three months before the election. There is a year for that and for devolved legislatures it is four months. So they are quite substantial campaign periods. I would not at the moment think of moving towards something which would in effect be an overall cap on the spending of a political party, which if you extended those periods much more is what you would be inclined to be getting towards. There are already difficulties in having a campaign period which is defined as a year before a General Election because you do not know when the election is going to be. It is easier with some other legislatures, but it does mean parties have to be pretty careful a good deal of the time, any time they think they might be within a year of an election.

  21. A final knotty issue. Do you think there should be a cap on individual donations to political parties?
  (Mr Younger) I am hesitant about a personal view. My view is that there is quite a strong case for looking at a cap, but I am one commissioner, there are six of us, we have not done the investigation yet, we have not taken the public evidence. One thing I am sure of is that any move we make in that direction is going to be intimately connected with all the other aspects of party funding.

Andrew Bennett

  22. Basically you set a very high cap, did you not, so that it got the principle established, but it did not really bear down on the political parties at all, did it?
  (Mr Younger) That is the evidence from this election.

  23. Supposing it started to bear down on the political parties, what would happen if a party won the General Election narrowly and in your view had narrowly gone over the limits? Is it really practicable to take some action which reverses the decision of that election?
  (Mr Younger) I do not think it is practicable and I do not think there is any provision under the law to reverse the result of the General Election. The issue would be whether action would be worth taking against a party which had done that. If I take the example we have already had at the last election, which was not an issue of butting up against the limits, but there were several issues there where more or less every party had either done something it should not have done or failed to do something it should have done in terms of its campaign spending, which is not surprising with a new and complicated piece of legislation, the view we are taking of it in the context of the last election is to be relaxed about it and say we know there are these problems as we get the thing to bed down. We would not consider something worth pursuing which is a minor technical violation. It might be, if we found a party which had won an election had gone fractionally over the limit and could explain why, that we should not take action but on any occasion where we had a sense that something had been a deliberate flouting of the rules we would feel constrained to take action. There is no provision for reversing the result of the election.

  24. There was a situation with by-elections not that long ago when the perception of almost anybody who attended the by-election was that somehow there was some miraculous accounting in order to stay within the limits. If you have a tight cap, is that not likely to be the consequence, that there is going to be disregard by the political parties at least of the spirit of the cap?
  (Mr Younger) In a sense others in the room would be able to answer that better than I could. All I could say is that the evidence we have had from the work we have done so far is that the parties have wanted to stick both within the spirit and the letter of the legislation even though there are occasions on which the letter is difficult because it may be unclear. Clearly whatever the rules are there are going to be those who will seek ways round them. It is something we are going to need to keep monitoring. The weapon we have in that is actually the exposure of it rather than the legal redress.

  25. You do think it is practical to bear down on the cap so that it begins to limit the parties as opposed to the limit really being the amount of money they can raise?
  (Mr Younger) Yes, it is practical. The powers we have to look at party accounts, to interrogate them and the discussions we have had with parties about a lot of the detail of their accounts from the last election would indicate that—I am not saying it would not be possible—it would not be easy significantly to overspend without it being detected.
  (Mr Creedon) There is the time lag here of course before we get the returns from parties. If they spent less than £250,000 they come to us within three months of the election date, if more than that they have six months to submit their spending returns to us. The parties have a fair time to get their accounts straight before we can start our compliance role.


  26. Yes, but that would not necessarily affect the accuracy of the returns, would it?
  (Mr Creedon) We do work with the parties.

  27. You are not suggesting there would be a little creative accounting simply because they have the time to do it.
  (Mr Creedon) Certainly not.

  Chairman: No; so long as that is clear.

Mr Wiggin

  28. How can you square the circle? You are spending taxpayers' money encouraging people to vote and yet at the same time you are trying to discourage people who want to spend money encouraging people to vote. Could you also explain what your plans are for considering state funding of political parties?
  (Mr Younger) To be honest, I do not see a contradiction in the sense that in terms of discouraging people from spending what we have is legislation and we are there to invigilate; we are not there to promote particular conditions. The overall rubric we have is encouraging the openness and the credibility of trust in and then participation in elections. As Parliament has decided on the rules on donations and on campaign spending as a way of improving that trust and openness, we are there to do that, that is one facet of it.

  29. You just told Mr Bennett you were thinking about bringing the cap down.
  (Mr Younger) That is taking it a bit too far. We may come to that when we review it. There is a case for it. It is not something prima facie which I would go for now. There is going to be quite a lot of discussion of it. It is a question of balancing these issues of trust against all the other considerations. If I could for a moment leap on to the state funding issue, because it is linked to it, it seems to me that is a debate which needs to be a very wide public one and needs to see whether it can develop a consensus. We do not have a view of our own on state funding. We do recognise that it is an issue of major importance. We are launching an investigation into the funding of political parties, including very critically state funding towards the end of this year. That is one of those but it is sufficiently significant that it will include a number of public hearings as well as other submissions. We will probably not report on that until the end of next year, because it seems to me that the consultation process seems to be long and needs to be long in order to bring out all the arguments. There are many different issues coming into the argument and a lot of people do not necessarily see that too clearly and this is why the public debate is important because some people would say in principle, yes, I like the idea of a cap on donations in isolation, but if they recognise that the consequence of the cap on donations is that there is going to need to be an extension of public funding, then it looks different. Getting all those issues in balance seems to me important and that is why we will take a fair bit of time on it.


  30. When you talk about public consultation and getting all those issues in some kind of balance, how would you expect to frame that kind of balance? You are into a very delicate political area, are you not, and it is very important that you should be seen to be outwith any kind of party politicking? I do not think you would be, but how would you frame those issues in a way which you could put to the general public? How would you expect to attract the general public to respond if you were using for example meetings throughout the country?
  (Mr Younger) In terms of how we would frame it in a way which does not pull us into a party-political argument, I cannot answer now in terms of exactly how we are going to do that. I am conscious of the fact that that is exactly what we need to do. In a sense the very public nature of the consultation is one of the ways of doing it because actually what you are doing is pulling in views across the spectrum, which are not coming forward as Electoral Commission views, but are coming forward as the views of a range of people interested. That is why in particular the public hearings are important and we would expect to do public hearings of two sorts: one is formal public hearings of those most interested, the political parties in particular, a little bit as the Neil Committee did when it last looked at this issue five years ago, but we would want to take the issue out around the country and find ways of getting views in elsewhere. Those sorts of sessions may not be ones we would run ourselves. They may be ones which we would invite various groups to have their own consultations on and feed in what their views are. Once we get into this, we are not going to be lacking in input on this.

Helen Jackson

  31. May I just follow the Chairman's question about how it might be framed and ask for your views on whether you would try to disaggregate the different aspects of party activity? If I may quickly explain, there is state funding of course of a certain degree of postal delivery of campaign material, for example, there is state funding of opposition parties, there is some state funding within the education system of public awareness and the involvement of political parties. Would you think of identifying aspects of party-political work, for example training, education, citizen awareness, and saying perhaps that is something the public would accept rather than simply building up membership or some of the other aspects of party activity?
  (Mr Younger) It is certainly an important element. One of the things we will do in the initial consultation paper which goes out is set out all of those areas in which there already is a degree of public funding of political parties and their activities.


  32. Including things like what: short money?
  (Mr Younger) Short money, election broadcasts, the free mail shots and now the policy development grants which came in with the last legislation. There already is a fair bit. We would certainly be setting out some of the areas in which the case might be made and indeed several people, Charles Clarke among them, have been making the case for particular areas where there might be an extension of public funding, where there is clear public good and public support for the party. At the same time, it is terribly important that we look at the issue in two ways: that it is not just a sense of having so much state funding now in various forms that we might as well just add some bits down the line. There also needs to be that debate of principle, about whether the principle of the public purse paying for the activities of political parties is right.

  33. I want to pin you down on this. If people are discussing the principle of state funding and the argument is restricted to practicalities and the things you have mentioned are all easily set out, they are identifiable sums of money, they have to be used within particularly clear parameters and people know exactly what is involved. You have to report to Parliament. However, the whole question of state funding can have an implication way beyond the simple organisation of elections and, for example, political parties no longer relying on individual groups who have a political view which is in concert with their stated aims, but being able to obtain the taxpayers' money to run a campaign, does have quite wide implications. If I decided, for example, I could be funded by the state in order to run a campaign which said only women five feet three and with 46-inch hips should be allowed to be representatives of anyone in the North West, I would be getting myself into a very interesting situation. When you say you want to talk about the implications of state funding, how are you going to express not just the practical side of it but what it could mean in terms of changing from our existing system to a completely different system? Have you looked for example at what happens in Germany? Have you looked at what happens in areas where state funding is fundamental and actually controls the way they pick their candidates?
  (Mr Younger) I absolutely take the points you make, firstly in terms of comparisons elsewhere. The preliminary work in this review is all going to be on the international comparisons and publishing some information. Others are doing some of the same work, but we want to make sure that we have learned whatever lessons there are to be learned from elsewhere. I do think it is important that there is a discussion about the principle and the implications on both sides.

  34. Who sets out those? Do you see what I am trying to get at? We are all party politicians. We are all here because we rightly or wrongly support particular political views. How are you going to define for the electorate as a whole the implication of a change from our existing funding to state funding?
  (Mr Younger) What we can do is set out in as dispassionate a way as we can what the whole range of issues is and then when we get in the range of views we can make judgements. It is not as though in making this review we are constrained to come up with a radical new recommendation. We may conclude that there is not sufficient consensus around this to merit making any recommendation. That is just as possible as any other conclusion, but it may be that a sufficient sense of consensus of acceptability and acceptance of principles develops to go in a different direction. I certainly would not exclude the possibility that we would not come to any firm conclusion because there simply is not the consensus to back it.

Mr Betts

  35. May I come back to the issue of registration which we touched on earlier? The law is less than clear in this area at present. How do you want to see it clarified?
  (Mr Younger) In terms of registration, our main focus is encouraging registration in two ways. One is to recognise that registration in the past has been administrator focused rather than voter focused. I felt very ashamed a year ago in Canada to find myself told that in Canada a voter can register up to close of poll, whereas here one of the biggest complaints we got at the General Election was people ringing up and saying by the time the election was announced they wanted to register and found they were already too late. There is that challenge in terms of registration which seems to me critical. There is a second challenge in terms of registration which is the technology and the interoperability, for a number of reasons to be able to enable registration electronically through the internet, to be able to get to a position where people could vote at a polling station which was not their own one, for example. That use of technology seems to me to be an important element for the future. In terms of the law surrounding the register, there are regulations which Government have set before Parliament and we have argued to Government, unsuccessfully as it turns out, that in terms of the electoral register, because it is compulsory, information obtained compulsorily, it should be used only for electoral and other very closely related statutory purposes. We have opposed the provision which allows the sale of an unedited register to credit reference agencies. We believe that should not be so and, equally, in terms of an edited register our belief is that it should not be an opt-out on the registration form as is proposed so that your details will be sold if you do not opt out. Our sense is that it should be an opt-in, that you can choose to have your details so sold if you wish but that the default position should be that your details are not sold on.

  36. Returning to the first issue you raised of how we go about registering people, clearly practices vary enormously from one local authority area to another. Do you actually want a national registration system where everybody adopts the same practice in every local authority?
  (Mr Younger) We do not necessarily want to get to a system where everybody adopts the same practice in detail, though I would hope that good practice is something which spreads so that it is being done well everywhere. I do think there is a very strong case and indeed there is a project which I hope will start any minute now, for sufficient commonality across the systems—I am thinking here of the IT systems which are used to gather and record the register—so that it can all be pulled together to give a register which can be integrally consulted. You might have what is ultimately—and I would say this is probably the right aim—a UK-wide register but locally owned and administered over time.

  37. Would people go through the registration process in the same way or are you simply going to issue a code of good practice to people? I am thinking of one major difference in the way registration officers operate in that some have a system whereby if they do not get a return from a house they leave the people in that house on who were on the previous register; others take the household off if nobody fills in the form that year. That makes enormous differences in the registration levels in different authority areas.
  (Mr Younger) Yes.

  38. Are you going to sort those differences out?
  (Mr Younger) Yes, that is very much a matter of the development of good practice because it affects all sorts of areas, not just registration. One of the things which is interesting to me which came up in the course of the last election is an increasing level of concern among the political parties about the inconsistency of advice being given to candidates, for example about the operation of electoral law from one constituency to another. That is something which is a concern which is shared by the representatives of the administrators and of the returning officers and one of the major projects we are involved in is the issuing of much more standard advice right the way across the system and codes of good practice. We do not have the power to require compliance with that, but we can push those good practices forward. The national register is a slightly different thing. That is about technical standards which is a very important element, but I am wary in all these areas. We are an organisation which has been going for only 18 months. One of the implications of having a national register with very clear rules which require everybody in every local authority to do it in exactly the same way, one of the dangers there, is that somebody needs to invigilate that and I am wary about seeking to take on too much too soon as an Electoral Commission.

  39. When are we going to see a code of practice on registration?
  (Mr Younger) The code of good practice on registration will be there as part of our codes.
  (Mr Creedon) Part of the policy reviews we are doing is looking at the registration process with the aim of producing a report early in 2003.

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