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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-97)



  80. On the funding front, my understanding is that there are restrictions on what any particular political party or group can spend, but do you have any powers to limit overall spending on behalf of one campaign or the other?
  (Mr Younger) The powers we have are in relation to the limits set down in the legislation. Any organisation or individual who wants to campaign in a referendum and who wants to spend money in a referendum has to register with us.


  81. Does that include the European Commission?
  (Mr Younger) I am sure it would. I look to my right.

  82. Mr Creedon is sensibly keeping a straight face. Does that include the European Commission who in the first referendum not only spent vast amounts of money in campaigning but said they had the right to do so?
  (Mr Creedon) My recollection is that there are definitions about who can actually be a permitted participant. I need to check the legislation about whether or not those definitions would encompass the European Commission or not.

  Chairman: The Committee would welcome a very precise note on this.

Chris Grayling

  83. I suppose it applies not simply to a referendum but actually applies to limits put on General Election spending as well, where you have the ability of third parties to spend money in a campaign. Let us take a hypothetical example, colleagues forgive me, the trade unions and the Labour Party, not necessarily friendly relations always but we have X numbers of trade unions, each of which has the power to spend X amount of money. The Labour Party has the power to spend one amount of money. In theory rather than donating money to the Labour Party to spend, each union can spend it directly itself, thus massively multiplying the buying power and theoretically that way you could get round both General Election spending limits and referenda spending limits.
  (Mr Younger) Yes, in the sense that there are limits for third parties in General Elections and other elections, there is for any organisation which registers as a permitted participant in any referendum a limit of £500,000, but there is no limit to the number of such participants.

  84. So you could set up as many front organisations as you wanted to spend your money rather than having your own limit.
  (Mr Younger) Thinking of it in terms of the campaigning organisation, the only factor which might prevent that would be if they wished to be designated as the lead organisation. To be designated as the lead organisation we would have to be satisfied that it was broadly representative.

  85. Do you think that is a satisfactory state of affairs?
  (Mr Younger) It is not something frankly I have considered yet. The legislation does give more structure to any referendum, whether Euro or any other, than there has been in the past, but it seems to me that what it guarantees is that there is a realistic campaign on each side of an argument because there is the provision to allow that. What it does not guarantee is that there is an equality of spending in any shape or form because it could very much go another way. You have not only this limitless number of organisations which could register themselves and spend half a million, you also have a graded list in terms of the parties which can spend £5 million maximum if you have more than 30 per cent of the vote downwards. Where there is an equality is on the designated organisations each of which has a limit of £5 million plus those other privileges which parties have at a General Election.

  86. It is an important point of principle. Leave aside the Labour Party and the trade unions and flip round to the other side. Were there to be any wealthy citizens in our society who felt strongly about the Euro issue and had large cheque books they would not in their own right be able to spend all of their money because of the constraints on individual spending, but under the current legislation, by the sound of it, there is nothing to stop them setting up Teenage Mutant Turtles Against the Euro or whatever and giving it £500,000 to spend.
  (Mr Younger) No, there is not under the legislation.
  (Mr Creedon) That is analogous to the General Election where we now allow third parties at General Elections who can spend up to a predetermined limit but there is no limit on the number of third parties. In effect the picture is a replication of the General Election.

  Chairman: Can you expand your note to make it clear? I agree that this is a very important point because I do not particularly want the European Movement campaigning for a pro vote and the European Commission campaigning for a pro vote and everybody else campaigning for a pro vote. These are the points we should like to know.

  Chris Grayling: It seems a fundamental flaw in the system.

Andrew Bennett

  87. On the wording, why do you not get in first and publish what you think would be reasonable wording rather than wait for the Government to put a proposal to yourselves? You must basically know what the issue is so can you not come up with some wording?
  (Mr Younger) I do not think we could. What we are required to do is comment on the wording put forward; that is what we are required to do by legislation. To be honest, that is the best thing for us to do.

  88. You talked about auditing at an election. Why do you not start with by-elections?
  (Mr Younger) Do you mean the sort of dipstick audit I was talking about?

  89. Yes.
  (Mr Younger) One would require legislation anyway; this is one of the things we would need to look at because we would need legislation in order to be able to do it. By-elections would be one possibility. I have not thought through exactly how we would do it, but I feel there is a value in looking in that direction.

  90. Postal vote fraud. Why was the Today programme not prosecuted? They publicly announced that they broke the rules in the General Election. Would it not have been better to bring a prosecution for that?
  (Mr Younger) As I understand it, the Today programme got a significant number of ballot papers.

  91. They were filled in for people who had died. You cannot fill in a postal vote application without getting the signature of somebody, so they must have forged the signatures to get those.
  (Mr Younger) Yes, I suppose they would have done if that is what they did. That was not something for us to deal with as a prosecution or as a suggestion for prosecution.

  92. Are you satisfied that the Post Office—Consignia, whatever they are called—really managed to deliver the postal votes efficiently during the General Election?
  (Mr Younger) There were several problems with Consignia. We have taken those issues up with Consignia and one of the elements of the postal voting review is the efficiency and effectiveness of that delivery. One of the big difficulties there with Consignia is that it may well be over much of the country it works well but there are certainly pockets where it does not.

  93. Surely you need to have some sort of guarantee. It is a bit unfair for people to take the trouble to go for a postal vote and then actually be disenfranchised.
  (Mr Younger) Absolutely; that is right. There is an added point which is important which is that if you look at the standards of delivery Consignia put a guarantee generally on first class deliveries of 97 per cent or something the next day. In the context of an election you need a guarantee which is 100 per cent, not 97 per cent. I would have to say that it is something they are very conscious of and take the issue very seriously; so do we.

  94. If you want to make elections a bit more exciting why do you have such a dull website?
  (Mr Younger) Not everybody thinks it is dull. The website is something which is currently under redevelopment in order to make it much more genuinely interactive. I would ask you to remember, if you would, that the website was set up in a scramble to allow us to get up there the donations reports and the things we statutorily had to have up there. It was not put together in the first instance.

  95. So it is going to improve.
  (Mr Younger) It will be wonderful next time we come to talk to you.

  96. What are the election broadcasts worth to the British parties in cash terms?
  (Mr Younger) I do not know what they are worth in cash terms. I do not have a figure. They are clearly pretty valuable bits of broadcast time. If you added that notional figure at election time to the figure of what is already public funding you would get quite a substantial amount of public funding. On party election broadcasting, that is one of the reviews which is in the latter stages now. A consultation paper has gone out which has had a very great deal of consensus around the continuing need for the parties at election time to have a form of direct linkage into the electorate. There has been no appetite to get rid of them. Equally no appetite to go into paid political advertising on the electronic media. The issue really is about how you develop the system for allocation. It is one which rested with the political parties effectively for many years. It has been a matter which has rested entirely with the broadcasters more recently. The issue is whether you get some more clear and transparent system of how party political broadcast allocations are arrived at.

  97. Should it be with the broadcasters or should it be a responsibility you take over? What about leaders of the parties having to appear in discussions with each other?
  (Mr Younger) As far as we are concerned party leaders appearing in discussions with each other is a separate issue which is one we hope to look at some time but it is not one of our higher priorities. The consultation paper we put out does actually say that our proposition is that there needs to be a more formal system and a more transparent system for the allocation of party broadcasts and it is not entirely satisfactory as it is, being entirely with the broadcasters.

  Chairman: This may be my last opportunity to say to you that I think the work of your Commission is not only very important but very interesting to the House of Commons. The issues which you are dealing with are so central to the development of our democracy that we are desperately keen that you should succeed. This does not always translate into total approval of everything you do. I would say to you on behalf of the Committee how impressed we are with the speed at which you succeeded in taking up so many different subjects. I hope that we shall continue not only to expand the relationship between the Commission and the House of Commons but do so in a way which means that all of the members can see their really considerable worries expanded in dialogue with you and with the other Commissioners. We are very grateful to you for coming this morning. It has been extremely

interesting and I am very grateful to you both. The Committee stands adjourned.

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