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I turn to an entirely different and, frankly, much less serious point. One of the matters with which this group of amendments is concerned--the Minister did not touch on it in his opening speech--is the registration of what are described as "minor parties". As the Bill is drafted, my understanding of the purpose of the amendments--I may be corrected--is that all local authority elections are to be regarded as relevant elections for the purposes of Clause 22. This means that anyone who wishes to stand in any local election under a party designation can do so only as the nominated representative of a registered political party. As the Bill stands, unamended, registration as a political party brings with it all the obligations of reporting on donations, and so on, which apply to large-scale parties.
Amendments Nos. 77 and 93 are part of this group; I am not sure why. I believe that they should not have been but there they are and it is impossible to ignore them because there will be consequences if we do so.
Presumably someone in the Home Office realised that it is inappropriate to require a group of people who wish to stand only in parish or community council elections to adopt all the burdens which attach to registered parties. Therefore the amendments create a new class of registered parties, described as minor parties. Those will be parties which intend only to stand in parish or community council elections in England or Wales.
The Government have introduced amendments--I assume that this is the reasoning behind them--which will reduce the burden on such groups by requiring them to register but relieving them from a number of burdens which go with registration. The real question is this. Why require registration of groups which contest only parish or community councils? Why should a group of people in Ambrige who want to run a slate for elections to the parish council, as the Ambridge ratepayers have to register as a political party? That seems seriously unnecessary and exceedingly bureaucratic.
I have attempted to deal with the problem by Amendments Nos. 61 and 62 which are not included in this group. Unfortunately, they have not been grouped with the relevant amendments. However, if the amendments are passed, Amendments Nos. 61 and 62 will be effectively pre-empted. Therefore I should like briefly to explain them.
Amendment No. 61 deals with the problem simply by redefining relevant elections--that is, elections which can be fought only by registered parties--as excluding elections to local authorities which are not principal authorities. Parish and community councils are not principal authorities within the meaning of the Local Government Act.
Amendment No. 62 confers fall-back power on the Home Secretary to prevent candidates standing under confusing party names. I would not expect regulations to be needed for elections at parish council level but there is a possibility, so a power is, by my amendment, included.
I ask the Government to think again on the issue. Why on earth should rules about registration apply to parish council elections? Why not simply let the ratepayers of Ambridge put forward their slate without having to go through the rigmarole of registering as a political party and paying the fees which will no doubt go along with that registration? I ask the Minister, therefore, not to move today those amendments which relate only to minor parties but to use the gap between now and Report stage to reconsider whether it is necessary to make provision for minor parties, or whether it would not be infinitely simpler and easier, as I believe, to take parish council elections broadly out of the registration scheme.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I suggested that this group of amendments was broken up. I tried to suggest ways of doing so but quickly ran into the sand because the minor parties issue and the Northern Ireland issue sometimes appeared in the same amendment. This is an appalling piece of drafting and forward planning and an appalling way to treat the Committee and the other place. It will receive a whole chunk of new material in Lords amendments.
I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who explained the minor parties issue in the amendments. The Minister did not mention minor parties; his speech did not contain a single word about them. I tried to work my way through the amendments, but I am not a lawyer. That is why I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for doing so. However, when I read subsection (1A)(d) in Amendment No. 77,
I wondered whether there had been an attempt to block up what the government officials thought might be a loophole; that a major party might decide to allow the existence of a small unit which was a minor party, which would not need all the reporting restrictions and which could obtain cash from somewhere or another and pass it on. I am not sure whether that is possible under these arrangements, but perhaps the Government ought to examine that closely.
However, the proposals are extraordinarily complex. The Government say that they are going to remove from the small parties standing in parish community elections most of their obligations, including having a treasurer, submitting a financial scheme and statement of account and the rules on donations. It certainly reduces the regulatory burden, but it still leaves the party with the problem of understanding this complex legislation and working out what does and does not apply to it so that it can register.
It was incumbent on the Minister to explain to the Committee why the amendment had been put forward, but he made no attempt to do so. He will have to make an attempt in summing up because we cannot even pick and choose what amendments we might decide to reject. I am not minded to try to reject anything I want to reject at this time of night, but the point has been well made.
Lord Goodhart: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am concerned about the procedural problem. If Amendment No. 93 is moved and agreed to today, we might not be able to come back to it and seek to delete it at a later stage.
Lord Bach: Perhaps I can assist the Committee because I am due to answer Amendments Nos. 61 and 62, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, which deal only with minor parties. I am conscious that some of the amendments in this group deal with minor parties alongside the Northern Ireland issue. Perhaps it would be acceptable to Members of the Committee if the minor parties issue was left until we deal with those amendments, when I shall attempt to answer. I have examined the issue because those two amendments are the only ones in the group. If the government amendments presently before the Committee are passed, then on Report noble Lords can look at the Bill and return to the issues at that stage. I am trying to find a way through what is becoming a thicket and taking up a lot of time.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for trying to help us. The problem remains that there is a kind of interweaving of the issues. I considered trying to amend his amendments, but I would have needed a cold towel and many hours to do that. It would have been extremely difficult. The real problem is that Amendment No. 93 concerns the registration of minor parties. There is nothing before Amendment No. 61 of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about minor parties. I suspect that if we pass something before that amendment, as the Government invite us to do, it will
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That being the case, I believe that we are all right. Therefore, we can leave the question of minor parties until we come to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I believe that I have made most of the points, but they are worth underlining. It was not until the Minister spoke about the Green Party issue that I realised that these amendments had anything to do with that issue. As I have explained to noble Lords a number of times, I am not a lawyer and this is particularly difficult territory.
Lord Goodhart: I apologise to the Committee. In subsection (1B) of Amendment No. 58 there is a reference to minor parties. There is no explanation of that. Procedurally, I believe that there would be no great difficulty in ignoring that because it is only part of the amendment and can be struck out by an amendment at Report stage. The real difficulties arise when we reach Amendment No. 63 and subsequent amendments.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am sure that the noble Lord is right. We should proceed in the way which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, suggested. I had not noticed where the Green Party came into it. I recall the issue because it was one that I raised during the Scottish and Welsh referendums. There was not only the Green Party, but also what we know in Scotland as Tommy Sheridan's party, but what is properly known as the Scottish Socialist Party.
The whole issue is that we only need this pile of legislation because of the change to the electoral system. It was simply so that registered parties could appear on the top-up list that we needed all this complexity. Even though the Conservative Party in Scotland has been the beneficiary of the complexity, I wonder whether it is worth it in the longer term. Perhaps, after the London elections last week, the Government may also be wondering whether it is worth it.
I did not appreciate that the Scottish Green Party issue was going to be resolved in this manner. To be honest, although the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, spoke about it, I did not manage to work my way through the amendments to see exactly how they do what is necessary for the Scottish Green Party. I am pleased to hear that they do. I presume that they also do it for the Scottish Socialist Party, which is right. As I say, it was a major issue when we addressed the Scottish referendum Bill because it would have stopped both the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish
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