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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, will the noble Lord accept what appears to me to be the case: that in determining the registrar's opinion, the statement by the Government cannot operate on a Pepper v. Hart basis. It must be merely a statement of what they regard as being likely to be a registrar's opinion.
The fact that the operation of Clause 3 depends on the opinion of the registrar is particularly important. As several Members of your Lordships' House have already indicated, there is no appeal from his decision, although under Clause 10 he may seek advice from a committee of the House of Commons appointed by the Speaker.
The possibilities of judicial review, to which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred in his speech, are narrow possibilities where the registrar's decision is unlawful or perverse. But apart from that, I think I may say, at least as a generalisation, that the registrar seems to be very much in this field a law unto himself.
In the House of Commons the Minister said that if the registrar sought the view of the Speaker's Committee he would be expected to follow the advice he was given. However, nothing in the Bill requires him to do that, or indeed requires him to give reasons for not doing that.
I have a number of queries, as I have indicated. By and large I agree with the purposes of the Bill. In contrast to one or two Members opposite, I wish the Bill a not too lengthy Committee stage and a speedy passage on to the statute book.
Earl Russell: My Lords, it is my pleasure to offer my congratulations to two notable maiden speakers. Both of them are people to whom I have had the pleasure of listening on many previous occasions so it is no surprise to me to discover that they are both highly skilled and highly effective speakers. Perhaps I may say that I have never heard either of them speak as well as they did today. In both cases that is a tribute to the vital ability to rise to the big occasion; and I hope also perhaps a tribute to this House about which they both spoke with so much generosity. I look forward to hearing both of them on many future occasions.
I must declare a non-pecuniary interest as president of the Electoral Reform Society, by which I am in part advised. In welcoming the Bill I speak on behalf of the society, my party and myself; and between those three capacities I am happy to enjoy a complete Trinitarian unity.
I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said about the recognition of political parties. They are a vital part of the electoral process and that recognition was long overdue. The absence of that recognition in our previous law underlines the point which cannot too often be reiterated: that our existing
Clearly the Bill is necessary to any system of proportional representation. I support it for that reason. I support it for the reason of avoiding misleading candidatures. I have nothing to add to what has been said on that.
On the matter of emblems, I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said. We have possibly as many as 10 per cent. of illiterates in this country. Sad though it is to say it, one must recognise it. Those people have rights which they often have difficulty in recognising. Therefore I agree strongly with what she said.
I agree with what has been said in every quarter of the House about the necessity of appeal. I hope the Minister has heard that pretty well unanimous message. I also agree about the use of misleading names. I have two further examples of that. The example that first brought the matter to my attention was, I think, the general election of 1970. A candidate appeared in the constituency of Huyton having changed his name by deed poll to James Harold Wilson. That candidate was not elected. But there can have been no possible motive for that change save the motive of trying to mislead the electors.
The other case was in the European elections of 1994. A candidate for Surrey changed his name by deed poll to John Major. Had that candidate done just a little bit better, my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood would have been elected to the European Parliament. Although it would have given me pleasure to have her elected to the European Parliament, it would have given neither me nor her any pleasure to see her elected as a result of such a misleading piece of activity. There is a real mischief here and I hope that the Government will address it.
I am most concerned about the family tribal names of the basic political groups; the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, in the case of the Scottish Conservatives. A power is being created here. It is a necessary power, but wherever we have a power we have the possibility that it might be abused. That needs to be considered.
It is my understanding that it is not the intention of the Government that the basic tribal political names--Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat--should be monopolised. But, of course, a party system is a living thing. It is not set in tablets of stone and like other living things it occasionally tends to increase and multiply.
Political parties since 1679 have divided on many occasions. We have here what I believe we should regard as two contradictory obligations which should be balanced against each other in the manner made familiar by the European Convention on Human Rights. One is the need to avoid misleading and the other is the need to recognise the political animal that is being created. I take, for example, the case of the Liberal Unionists in
I know that the Minister will say that this is a matter for the registrar and I understand that perfectly well. But, for the avoidance of doubt and for the information of the registrar, I would find it very helpful if he would say that it is not the intention of Parliament that these names should be monopolised and that the need to understand the nature of the party will be balanced against the need to avoid misleading the electors. If he can say that now, he will save us a little time in Committee and I shall be most grateful to him.
Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, when a Bill has all-party support, normally one does not scrutinise it too carefully. However, when a Bill is designed to protect the major parties from what is regarded as unfair competition, especially by people using the electoral process, is there not a duty on us to scrutinise it more carefully when it appears that the established parties are carving the system up between themselves?
It is important to distinguish between attempts to mislead and issues of public interest. One recalls how the late Guy Barnett won the South Dorset by-election because of the intervention of Sir Piers Debenham on an anti-Common Market platform; and how my noble friend Lord Mishcon was frustrated at Gravesend by the candidacy of Sir Richard Acland on an anti-nuclear platform.
While recognising that there is a problem, I remember with affection and amusement the candidatures of Buckethead and Tarquin Biscuit Barrel, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, whose speech I much enjoyed, as I did that of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. Perhaps I may tell the House that Biscuit Barrel was the cousin of a former Labour MP. I am very strongly tempted to blurt the name out to the House, but in deference to my former colleague I had better not do so!
It is noticeable that the Home Office has pushed in a piece about party political broadcasting. I firmly believe that this is not the way to tackle this subject. This kind of problem has always been conducted through agreement and negotiation with the broadcasters. If the subject is merely slipped into legislation, without fair comment, would this not be taken as a precedent for further legal moves in this field? The democratic process should be as free from constraints as possible.
There is an element of picking and choosing about this Bill which reflects on the problems which arise when the big parties collude with each other. In another place during the Second Reading, the Minister in charge of the Bill, in commending a register for political parties, said,
On 7th March 1996, during the proceedings of the Broadcasting Bill (at cols. 515 and 516 of the Official Report), I explained to noble Lords from my experiences as both Chief Whip and Vice-Chairman of the BBC how various measures had had to be put in place to curb the activities of the spin doctors pushing to influence the positioning and content of news programmes. There is no sign in this Bill that the major parties even recognise that this problem exists.
During the proceedings in another place there was frequent discussion at all stages about the use and misuse of generic words, of which one of the most frequently quoted was "independent". The point was not pursued to any conclusion. I feel that this was a great pity because the misuse of this type of word is very easy and very misleading.
I would like to give a particular example in some detail because it is particularly relevant at the present time. I refer to the Independent Commission on the Voting System. I have undertaken a lot of work on this and I would like to pay tribute to the sixth form students of Bacon's College, Southwark. They have helped in sorting and collating the material.
This supposedly independent commission, anxious to be available to the general public and to consult as widely as possible, has its offices on the top floors of Clive House--the Home Office Passport Office--and its staff are paid by the taxpayer. One wonders about the rent arrangements. There is no sign at the entrance indicating the presence of the independent commission. When someone was sent round, she was told that she could not visit the office without an appointment. When I rang directory enquiries for the independent commission's telephone number, it was not listed. Only after I had asked a Parliamentary Question about this matter was the number supplied to directory enquiries. It is said that the telephone number is available on the website. This implies that the independent commission is indifferent to the large part of the population which does not have access to the Internet.
How, may I ask, is the public being consulted? The independent commission has conducted a series of regional meetings. On 24th June this year, during the Committee stage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that there had been an "overwhelmingly favourable" reaction of these meetings. I drew attention to the average attendance of 80 and said this represented 0.0000625 per cent. of the electorate. Even this figure is doubtful.
Imagine my surprise when I see that the president is the noble Earl, Lord Russell, as he has just told us. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell your Lordships whether these electoral reform zealots went to more than one meeting and whether we had a stage army moving around the country. I am sure that the noble Earl will be pleased to clarify these points.
Attending the Church House, London, meeting, I saw Electoral Reform Society leaflets being given out at the doors without any restraint by the organisers. Even more remarkably, the Electoral Reform Society's annual review goes on to say that the society's relationship with the independent commission was not confined to the preparation of papers but that it was pleased to assist the commission staff in their research.
The independent commission also used focus groups. This was done between 7th and 9th June 1998 with six groups, three in the Midlands and three in the South East, each comprising between seven and eight people. It is bewildering that large and important sections of the country were totally ignored. Presumably the independent commission, with middle England consulted and satisfied, felt that the views of the Labour heartlands could be ignored.
This evidently inappropriate relationship with the Electoral Reform Society has been compounded by the association of the members of the independent commission with the Constitution Unit. This was exposed in the Answer to my Question on 29th July 1998 (at col. WA74 of the Official Report).
May I point out that, on 13th March 1997, I asked this House whether the grant by the Pilgrim Trust to the Constitution Unit was compatible with the Pilgrim Trust's status as a registered charity. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, strongly defended the action and alleged that the implication that the Constitution Unit was politically motivated was a malign fantasy, which he claimed I was prone to. The facts are, I feel, that there has been a serious misuse of charitable money not only with the Constitution Unit but also by Demos and the IPPR.
Rather than go into elaborate details, I will rest my case on a quotation from a book recommended by the independent commission for background reading, called Making Votes Count by Martin Linton and Mary Southcott. Martin Linton is now the MP for Battersea, and a frequent speaker on electoral reform, but he completely blows the gaff on page 110 of Making Votes Count. He says that the Plant Commission was wound up in December 1993 even though its work was still not complete. Your Lordships may remember that the Plant Commission was set up as a Labour Party body to study electoral reform. He goes on to say that the work of the Plant Commission was taken up by the Institute of Public Policy Research, which is a registered charity, and then by the Constitution Unit when it was established in 1995, directed by Robert Hazell. It is interesting to note that in the IPPR annual report this year a commercial subsidiary has now been set up--the Public Policy Research Associates. It would not be surprising if the Charity Commission had been around suggesting that something should be done before the balloon went up.
The Constitution Unit also compromised itself when it serviced the Labour-Liberal Democrat Joint Working Party which prepared the joint manifesto programme on constitutional reform for the 1997 general election. One wonders about the question of independence when the Charter 88 "parliamentary brief" of September 1998 refers to,
I have spent some time on this example. But it is my firm belief that the British people are in danger of being made fools of through the sloppy use of words like "independent", particularly on an issue such as this. Is this not far more serious than any number of Biscuit Barrels? The Bill is not up to the job. I hope it can be improved.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his usual grace and courtesy in his opening remarks and I add my own tribute to the two notable maiden speeches which we heard this evening. Both of the contributors will now have realised at least two things with perhaps a chilling heart: first, if one puts down one's name, one has to wait until the end; and, secondly, if one waits until the end, one realises that not every part of every speech is necessarily relevant to the topic under discussion.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked specifically whether there would be a monopoly on certain names. The answer is no. As the noble Earl said, it is a matter eventually for the registrar, advised as necessary--this is an important constitutional innovation and quite a subtle one--by the Speaker's committee. We see no reason at all why the Liberal Party should not be allowed to register as well as the Liberal Democrat Party. There is no reason why the Labour Party should not register as well as Socialist Labour. I again give my example of our colleagues in Northern Ireland. There is the Democratic Unionist Party, the Official Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party and, if I remember rightly, the UK Unionist Party. All those parties, particularly in an electorate which happens to be rather well-informed about topics of present political importance, were capable of being distinguished and did not attempt to mislead the electorate; nor, I think, did any of them want to.
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