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Lord Norton of Louth: I also rise to support my noble friend's amendment. I do so briefly because the point I wish to make has been made already by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. My noble friend in moving the amendment has stressed the need to be fair to candidates. But I think the noble Lord made the more important point that one should be looking at the issue from the perspective of the electors. Therefore, while there is a need for regulation, one should not regulate in such a way that it unduly limits the amount of information available to the elector. One should put the elector first in considering
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thought that this issue would raise such concerns and I have not been disappointed. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made his usual heartfelt plea--I think it was heartfelt--on behalf of independent candidates so that they might continue to have some description of themselves against their name on the ballot paper. I entirely agree that the politics of this country should not be the preserve of registered parties. That point was amply made by a number of noble Lords. I am sure that there will continue to be, under the provisions of the Bill, a role for the genuine independents--the Bill Boakses of this world.
The purpose of Clause 20 is to bring all organisations which put up candidates at an election within the controls on parties' income and expenditure. With due deference to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I have to say that Amendment No. 60 would serve to undermine that desirable objective. The key identifying feature of a political party is that it puts up candidates for election under a common banner. We know that a Labour candidate in London is part of the same party as a Labour candidate in Brighton. If the amendments were accepted, who is to say that an "Independent Against Europe" candidate standing in one constituency is not in some form of an alliance with a similarly described candidate standing in another? Indeed, the "Independent Against Europe Party" could easily field candidates across the country. Under these amendments, it could secure all of the advantages of having that description on the ballot paper but attract none of the controls on parties' income and expenditure set out in Parts III to V of the Bill.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am trying to follow the noble Lord's argument. If in every constituency, or jolly nearly every constituency, someone wearing the title "Independent Against Europe" came forward and was nominated, is the noble Lord telling me that that would not breach the law that he is beginning to set out in this Bill and that somehow the electoral commission would not be able to say, "We think this is a political party"? If he is telling me that, what is to prevent one of the other parties putting its name on the ballot paper and trying to pretend that it is not a political party? What is to stop it breaking itself up into individual constituency organisations? I am a little puzzled that an organisation could circumvent the rules as readily as the noble Lord is suggesting.
If that seems fanciful, let us look at the list of existing registered parties. Among the parties currently registered are the Christian Independent Alliance, the Independent Alliance, the Morecambe Bay Independents, the Newham Independents Association, and the North Devon Independent Group. I know nothing of those parties, but from their names the final three at least are probably residents' groups. Although they may put up candidates who describe themselves as independents, they clearly act as a coherent group showing a common set of values and pursuing broadly similar policies and should therefore be regarded quite properly as political parties.
I do not pretend that we have put this provision into the Bill without a single qualm or without recognising its consequences for a number of individuals and perhaps--who knows?--for their electoral prospects. If a person standing as someone independent of any political party cannot describe in a few words the main point that he intends to pursue if elected, that is undeniably a loss. Some people might, however, think that it is not a very large loss. The nomination form and the ballot paper are places for the candidates to identify themselves, not to expound their policies. A candidate has already to have at least two supporters to back his nomination, and if they feel strongly that he wants a description against his name, it is open to them to form a new party.
In any event, if this provision does impose some costs, it is a price worth paying. We cannot contemplate a situation in which two or more candidates are in effect operating as a group, but are able to avoid the need to register. The amendment as drafted would drive a coach and horses through the scheme set out in the Bill.
Before I sit down, I shall deal in turn with the points that were raised in our debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, thought that he had designed a simple answer to the problem. I listened to his comments and I agree that his proposal sounded simple enough. However, a substitute would prove to be an onerous and contentious procedure to meet a simple rule. It would require an extremely detailed set of provisions to be added to the Bill, thus introducing even more complexity. There lies the problem: this matter is not as simple as perhaps the noble Lord first thought. The question of whether people comprise a group is difficult to disentangle.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made a valiant plea on behalf of the Bill Boaks of this world. I have some sympathy with his point of view; I can well remember many selections where Bill Boaks was the candidate. However, it is the duty of the candidate to explain his platform to the electorate. He should not be able to rely on a candidate's description, a point I made plain earlier. If we are to have an informed democracy, then candidates--however lacking they may be in professionalism--have a duty to explain clearly themselves, their policies and why people should vote for them other than on the ballot paper.
My noble friend Lady Gould raised an important point. Candidates with the same first and family names can be distinguished by their second, third or even fourth names and by their addresses. That is already provided for in current electoral law. If candidates wish to use a description, it is open to them to register as a political party and to comply with the provisions of the Bill.
I recognise that this may seem somewhat heavy handed, but in order to ensure that the scheme works effectively in its totality, I am afraid that we cannot accept the amendment. As I said earlier, it would drive a coach and horses through the scheme as it has been set out in the Bill. For that reason, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots: Desirable though this may be in the Minister's view, does he accept that this will mean that the bigger political parties will inevitably enjoy an inbuilt advantage over local individuals who, because they lack resources, wish to use their slogan as a part of their policy?
Lord Rennard: Before the Minister sits down, would he at least undertake to look a little further into this issue? This system does work in local government and on a number of occasions we have been able to prevent candidates from abusing the system. We on these Benches will find it rather hard to deny independent candidates the right to construct a short description. Perhaps the Minister could agree to examine this problem a little more deeply and thus come up with a solution that would avoid the problem which concerns us all.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I always try to be as helpful as I can, and not only to the Liberal Democrat Members of your Lordships' House. I shall be happy to explore the matter a little further without making a commitment. As I hinted in my response, designing a system that would accommodate the noble Lord's proposal would result in a method that was perhaps rather more cumbersome and bureaucratic than would be desirable. Furthermore, it would not help the cause of those independents who seek a more expansive use of the title.
Lord Norton of Louth: Before the noble Lord finally sits down, perhaps I may put one further point to him. When arguing against my noble friend's amendment, the Minister said that candidates may call themselves "Independent" against X or Y and that several candidates might come forward under that label, thus forming a de facto grouping. However, as I read it, could not those same candidates call themselves "Independent", omit any description on the ballot paper and yet still campaign against X or Y so that
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