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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, until half an hour ago the Minister probably thought that, apart from a bit of justified teasing on the subject of the candidates for mayor of London, and on election addresses being posted free, this order would be plain sailing. However, as the Minister almost said, there is unfinished business--indeed, business previously
I bend over backwards not to be a conspiracy theorist, but what are the Government up to? In my experience, the members of the Joint Committee never take it into their own heads to report on orders; they always ask the relevant government department a question or two first. The Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on this occasion was asked the same question and the reasoned reply is printed in the tenth report. I will summarise those reasons.
Firstly, the law needed changing because of the Bowman case, which held that the £5 limit violated Article 10 of the ECHR Convention as it was a restriction on the freedom of expression. This is all well and good, but noble Lords will probably agree that an increase from £5 to £25,000 was somewhat excessive insurance against being found guilty again by the court for the same reason.
Secondly, the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its fifth report recommended a limit on third-party expenditure at parliamentary elections of £500. Obviously, we are not dealing here with parliamentary elections but I would have been happy to go along with that limit for the London elections; but the Government have gone into overkill again.
The last reason is the most obvious reason. The Minister said that the £5 would be replaced by new limits on third-party spending if the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which is currently at
The Minister has the ability to pacify me, if he will be good enough to do so. Can he explain who the third parties are likely to be? Would an advocate of Mr Livingstone or Screaming Lord Sutch, were he still alive--both of whom are unlikely to have agents--qualify? Would an ordinary canvasser qualify? Can a candidate have more than one such supporter? If that is the case, the total amount for the London mayor would rapidly approach half a million pounds, which is a large amount of money that would have to be found from somewhere.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but I should like to intervene briefly. I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and I was a member at the time when the committee recommended a substantial increase in the limit on third-party spending. I think I should explain how we arrived at that recommendation and how the figure came to be calculated.
The problem was that the United Kingdom lost the Bowman case before the European Court of Human Rights, in which Mrs Bowman had spent money on circulars to the electors of the constituency of Halifax, to explain to them on behalf of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child the views of the various candidates on abortion. Clearly, this was directed against the sitting Member of Parliament, Alice Mahon.
The European Court held that a limit of £5, which effectively prevented any circulation of material at all, was unreasonable. It was accepted therefore that the United Kingdom had to change its laws to recognise that third parties--that is, those who are not supporting a particular candidate but who are raising particular issues--must be allowed a reasonable sum of money to make their case to the electors.
The figure that we thought was appropriate for parliamentary constituencies was £500, that being approximately the cost of printing a leaflet which could then be distributed by volunteers around the constituency. As an extension to that, we applied broadly a figure of 5 per cent for third parties at all elections: that for the national elections, where we
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The noble Lord is correct in saying that that was the reference. On the other hand, I can correct the noble Lord: if we do not pass a spending limit today, there will be no spending limit in relation to the GLA, because the Act does not apply that limit but requires a different limit to be substituted by order: if we do not substitute an order, there is no limit.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has helpfully set out the background to the decision made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I can understand the reasons for the hesitation and the indication that third parties should not intervene to this degree in elections. However, it is considerably less than proportionate to the proposal by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for £500 per constituency. There are 74 constituencies in the Greater London area, and therefore that would be a higher figure. Likewise, the £25,000 maximum relates to 5 million electors. We have looked into this matter at great length: to print a single sheet for 5 million electors would cost at least £60,000. We have to bear in mind, in that context, that it does not seem to be an unreasonably restrictive limit on third party interventions, which for the most part will probably be single-issue campaigns or single interest group campaigns. Given the Bowman judgment, we feel that we need to put a realistic figure into this delegated legislation to meet the concerns that have been expressed.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. With the leave of the House, perhaps I may ask, before the Minister sits down, whether this is only directed at campaigning leaflets or whether other people can take advantage of these large amounts of money.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure to what "other people" the noble Lord refers. These are leaflets paid for by third parties; there is no public expenditure involved. It is a question of expenditure up to £25,000. I agree that an enforcement issue arises, but an enforcement issue in relation to candidate's expenditure arises also. That could well be addressed by similar means.
The third parties may be single-issue groups, small businesses, campaign groups or people interested in any individual issue. If the question relates to whether it is a leaflet campaign material, in a physical sense, or whether it is activity, then the provision applies to everything. It is £25,000 worth of intervention in the campaign.
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