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Political Parties and Elections Bill

20th October 2008

Jonathan Djanogly winds up the debate on behalf of the Opposition and calls for the Bill to not solely focus on funding but also to address electoral fraud.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): We have had an interesting debate that has covered a large number of issues. The Conservative party believes that the debate should go far beyond the simple principle of party politics. Today, we have addressed our democratic system, and we need to, because an electoral system based on integrity and protected from an attack by those intent on defrauding it is a fundamental aspect of a proper democratic process. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), in a very strong speech, and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made that point. To fail to protect that integrity is to undermine the democratic mandate to represent and govern those who have elected us.

It is not good enough, in our view, for the Secretary of State to call British politics "fundamentally clean". We believe that in the past decade the Government have permitted a gradual erosion of the trust that the electorate have in this House. By inaction in deed and misdirection in policy, the Government have failed to stop a collapse in public confidence in the ballot box. However, the almost exclusive concentration of the Justice Secretary and the Lib Dem spokesman on funding rather than on dealing with fraud in the electoral system is misdirected, in our view.

Labour's insistence on promoting turnout before the security of the poll, its repeated tinkering with the electoral system and its electoral gimmicks, such as the disastrous e-voting pilots, have served only to push more of the population into electoral apathy. The previously robust systems of electoral administration have reached breaking point, as new schemes, such as widespread postal voting, have been instituted without adequate verification systems.

We heard various speeches on the meaning of consensus, and, in the case of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), an evaluation of its relative worth. However, the Bill is half-hearted, and is characterised more by what is missing than by our wholesale objections to its content. The hon. Member for Cambridge called it "inadequate for the task". My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester called it "a tiny Bill". My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) called it "running repairs". Labour is missing an opportunity to rectify the damage and to add legitimacy back to the system, certainly via consensus.

The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) noted that the Bill was not going as far as Labour Members wanted, but we are not the only ones to think along those lines. A key finding of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in its report this March was:

"Public confidence in the electoral process in the UK was the lowest in Western Europe in 1997, and has almost certainly declined further as a result of the extension of postal voting."

The damning judgment of Richard Mawrey, QC, when judging the cases of electoral fraud in Birmingham in 2005, is as relevant today as it was then. If the public have no confidence in an electoral system, the entire system is called into question, and ultimately the state will become nothing more than a banana republic.

An effective electoral system and its administration must be the foundation of our democracy. It is a logical process, but one that seems to elude the Government at every attempt they make to implement it. A democracy needs elections, but those elections cannot be free and fair unless the rules governing them are fair and coherent. Those rules must be administered properly and, if necessary, enforced actively. Party funding regulations are, of course, also important.

We believe that the regulatory framework needs strengthening. The principle set out in clause 1, which is that the Electoral Commission is now required both to monitor and regulate compliance, has long been supported by the Conservative party. We will need to tie down exactly what that means, and we also hope that it will result in the commission's doing less of what it should not be doing, such as spending millions of pounds on increasing turnout. That is our job as politicians, not the job of the commission.

The Conservative party cautiously welcomes in principle the proposed additions to the investigatory and sanctioning powers of the Electoral Commission, although we will wish to look more closely at how they will work in practice, particularly in relation to powers of entry as elaborated so succinctly by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the hon. Members for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester, for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). The subject was elaborated on by many hon. Members. I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers), which was that the commission is willing to engage on the subject of those powers. That was good to hear. We shall certainly be concerned to ensure that the provisions do not have the effect of destroying donors' willingness to participate.

In a thoughtful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight voiced concerns about stop notices. We will look at that point.

The current system is unnecessarily complicated and could be seen as preventing the prosecution of cases or of representing too much of a nuclear option. We consider that the use of administrative powers to award penalties could prove a useful and proportionate tool in the fight against funding illegality. Not only could it speed up the process, but it might make it cheaper for all concerned.

We believe that the Bill does not go far enough, not least because it ignores the key actions that we, the Electoral Commission and even the Government have agreed need to be addressed. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life noted in 2007, for that to happen we must ensure that all those entitled to vote are included on the electoral roll before an election and that everyone who is registered can exercise their vote. The right to vote and the duty to register are of equal importance. The process needed to secure those fundamental issues should be as simple as possible and barriers should be kept to a minimum. However, the Government have failed to take the opportunity to implement a method that guarantees it-namely, that individual registration should be introduced to safeguard the secrecy and security of postal voting. That was supported by the hon. Member for Slough, although only selectively, which we would not accept, but it was powerfully promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, among other Members.

In Northern Ireland, legislation was introduced because of a perceived level of electoral fraud that was far lower than the amount of electoral fraud committed in Great Britain at present. It is unacceptable for the Government to apply one standard to one part of the UK and another standard for the rest of us. Justice Ministers have not been consistent on that issue and I am not wholly sure where the Lord Chancellor stood in that regard in a rather cryptic response earlier today. However, the issue is important to us.

The demography of our society has changed radically since household registration was introduced. Not to register is an offence, yet although the Electoral Commission estimates that 3.7 million people-8 per cent. of the population-are missing from the electoral register in England and Wales, not a single person has been prosecuted for non-registration. Indeed, the commission believes that there are between 1 million and 3 million further "ghost" voters. The lack of certainty about such figures, as described by the hon. Member for Slough, demonstrates how inadequate and flawed the current system is. If people are not even registered, what is the point of talking about anything else? My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) pointed out that overseas registration is much too difficult. We shall address that issue in Committee.

In this post-Phillips offering, Labour has undoubtedly set out an extremely watered-down version of his proposals, although with the introduction of new trigger rules, so that candidate election spending caps may kick in before the election period starts, the Government are trying to return us to the pre-2002 position, and possibly the old system of rules for prospective parliamentary candidates, considered by everyone-certainly on the Opposition Benches-as absolutely unworkable. However, that was not the view of the hon. Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Southampton, Test. We see those rules as archaic and almost farcical.

The ruling of the Court of Appeal in the case of ex-MP Fiona Jones was set out earlier. The judge said that misunderstanding of the rules was "rife". The hon. Member for Manchester, Central thinks that the rules can be refined, but we do not know what the exact rules will be, because the Bill is being rushed through before the Electoral Commission can issue statutory guidance. Are we really to go back to the bad old days when a PPC's photograph on political literature was okay if it was with a third party, but not if it was a portrait?

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester showed that in 2000 there was consensus against triggering. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge that the provisions will not work anyway and I think the hon. Member for Cannock Chase reached the same conclusion, although for different reasons.

We shall debate the issue fully in Committee, because we think that the system will be a huge step backwards in the clear running of elections. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) said, it will bring uncertainty to candidates and it is unfair, from a retrospective point of view, to institute it before the election-a point supported by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East. Setting practicalities apart, the Government are being grossly partisan and hope to tilt the playing field in their favour in an attempt to protect Labour marginal seats funded by parliamentary allowance. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was accurate in his criticism of the communications allowance.

On party funding, the Government propose in clause 8 yet another level of bureaucracy and red tape that would tie up even small donors of only

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