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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Is the noble Lord suggesting that we simply delete paragraph (b) and make no attempt to replace it? Does he believe that parties should be able to describe themselves however they like, or does he intend to come back with a further amendment limiting the description to, say, nine or 10 words?
Lord Norton of Louth: This is intended to be a probing amendment to see what response we get from the Government. I did not want to be overly prescriptive at this stage. I just wanted to see whether the Government were interested in amending the limit. There may be a case for increasing the limit slightly or giving the commission a little flexibility. I did not intend to remove the limit altogether.
Viscount Astor: Amendment No. 81 is in this group. It may be helpful if I speak to it. It would apply a test of reasonableness to the Electoral Commission, ensuring that it would not unreasonably withhold registration and would explain in writing to the applicant if registration was withheld.
We do not think it very likely that there will be deliberate obstruction of a political party's registration, but it is important to establish that the commission must have good reasons for refusing registration and must explain those reasons fully. The amendment would greatly reduce the likelihood of cases going to judicial review or the High Court. As we have seen recently, commissions can be taken to court and can be found wanting.
As well as preventing the electoral commission from behaving unreasonably, as I am sure that it would not, the amendment would strengthen the idea that any party with a reasonable case should be given registration. Very importantly, it would also specify that if registration was refused, the reasons should be given in writing, so that the party in question could decide whether it wanted to appeal or was prepared to accept the judgment of the commission.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has explained, his amendment would simply delete subsection (2)(b) from Clause 25. That paragraph requires the electoral commission to refuse an application for registration from a party if the proposed registered name of the party comprises more than six words. As I am sure that the noble Lord is ready to acknowledge, the provision replicates an existing provision in Section 3(1)(b) of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998.
The limitation on the number of words reflects the requirements of rule 6 of the parliamentary election rules contained in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. That rule allows a candidate to state a description on his nomination paper. Any such description is then carried through to the ballot paper. Under rule 6(2), a description must not exceed six words. If there were no such restriction on the length of a candidate's description, there would clearly be scope for abuse. A candidate could describe what he stands for in a 500-word mini manifesto. Does the noble Lord really want to be faced with that when he enters a polling booth? I suspect not. The limitation of six words is entirely reasonable. It has been an accepted part of our electoral arrangements for 30 years and I have heard no persuasive argument for changing it.
Amendment No. 81 would place the Electoral Commission under an obligation not to withhold registration unreasonably and to give its reasons for withholding registration in writing. We have heard many allegations and suggestions today that the Bill is overly bureaucratic--I have owned up to that--and over prescriptive. I have no doubt that the commission will give its reasons in writing, but I do not think that it is necessary to specify such good practice in the Bill. I am sure that the commission will be mindful of the fact that its adjudications could be challenged. No doubt it will want to confirm its view in writing, but I see no reason to specify that in the Bill. The only grounds for refusing an application for registration are those set out in Clause 25(2). It is quite clear that the electoral commission would be subject to a successful application for judicial review if it introduced
Viscount Astor: Before my noble friend decides what to do about his amendment, perhaps I may deal with Amendment No. 81. I understand the point that the Minister made about the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the commission's decision. However, he said that he was sure that the commission would want to carry out good practice and put its reasons in writing. Therefore, it seems to make perfect sense to include that provision in the Bill. It simply confirms what is said and I believe that it is important that that is so. That is the minimum safeguard that we would require without going for the full amendment as drafted.
I hope that the noble Lord will consider that point; otherwise, I believe that we shall have to return on Report with at least the second part of the amendment, which ensures that any explanation is, indeed, put in writing.
Lord Norton of Louth: I have noticed on past occasions that when the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, responds to points he sometimes delivers a speech of two halves. In the first half he expresses his own opinion, which tends to be extremely helpful; in the second half, he reads out the brief, which tends to be less helpful. I was a little disappointed in his response this evening because he confined himself to the brief.
I was disappointed because it struck me that he was either repeating points that I had just made or he was making points which I had anticipated and dealt with in my opening comments. Therefore, boiled down to its essentials, the only point that he made in response to what I said was that the system has worked for 30 years. Of course it has worked for 30 years; that is the law that has been applied, and parties have not been allowed to have more than six words in their name. Therefore, in that sense it has worked.
One can only really advance the argument that it has worked effectively if one knows whether anyone is pressing for more than six words. Of course, we do not know whether that is the case. Therefore, I raised the point of whether there should be greater flexibility. As I pointed out in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I do not want to allow an unlimited use of words. However, I believe that there may be a case for a little more flexibility if there is a demand for it. As it may be worth reflecting on that point, I therefore raised the issue in order to put it into the Minister's mind. However, as I said earlier, I do not consider this to be the most crucial amendment that we are debating this evening. It is not something on which we should go to the wall. Having put the matter into the Minister's mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
("(2A) In subsection (2)(a) "already registered in respect of the relevant part of the United Kingdom" means--
(a) in connection with registration of the applicant party in the Great Britain register, already registered in respect of any part of Great Britain in respect of which that party is applying to be registered;
(b) in connection with registration of the applicant party in the Northern Ireland register, already registered in that register.").
Page 16, line 23, at end insert--
("( ) If--
(a) at any time two or more applications for registration are pending each of which would (in the absence of the other or others) fall to be granted by the Commission, but
(b) the registered names proposed by the applicant parties are such that, if one of those names was already registered in pursuance of the application in question, the Commission would be required to refuse the other application or applications by virtue of subsection (2)(a),
the Commission shall determine by reference to the history of each of the applicant parties which of them has, in the Commission's opinion, the greater or greatest claim to the name proposed by it, and shall then grant the application by that party and refuse the other application or applications.").
Page 16, line 28, at end insert--
("(5) In this Part "the register" means--
(a) in relation to a party registered in the Great Britain register, the Great Britain register, and
(b) in relation to a party registered in the Northern Ireland register, the Northern Ireland register.").
Page 16, leave out lines 35 and 36 and insert--
("(a) would either--
(i) be the same as a registered emblem of a party which is already registered in the register in which that party is applying to be registered, or
(ii) be likely to be confused by voters with a registered emblem of a party which is already registered in respect of the relevant part of the United Kingdom,").