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Political Parties and Elections Bill

20th July 2009

Jonathan Djanogly reiterates his opposition to last-minute amendments which, whilst permitting British citizens resident overseas to vote or stand in elections, prevent them from donating more than £7,500 to their campaign.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The amendments represent a clarification of the Government's new position-set out this time last week-in relation to exceptions to those who can constitute acceptable donors. In practice, they have been clarified on the Government's own terms, because of the deficiencies in their own amendments last week and not on the basis of any kind of consensus.

Once again we were given very little notice of amendments in the Government's rush to finalise legislation, but perhaps I should not be surprised, given that we received the Government's earlier amendments only six hours before we debated them in the House a week ago. That is not how we should be making the laws of this country. We expect to be given an opportunity to scrutinise the major changes in our electoral law that the Government propose.

The Government's performance has been chaotic and confusing. We are here to ensure that effective legislation is produced, and that means dealing with the incredibly detailed legal arguments involved in the amendments in a controlled and balanced manner. In its briefing on the amendments, the Electoral Commission itself says,

"we have not yet had time to analyse the amendments fully".

It is evident from the speed with which we received the amendments, and from the turnaround involved in dealing with them, that the Government have not had enough time in which to consider, in full, their implications and whether they work in practice. We are particularly surprised that the Government are bulldozing them through, given the lengths to which they went last week to secure a carry-over motion so that the Bill could be dealt with after the summer recess. I ask the Minister why, given the depth and complexity of the subject matter, the Government do not consider the issues that we have raised with them over the recess, and allow Parliament to produce effective and fully considered legislation when we return.

These latest amendments, which were debated in the other place this afternoon, attempt to improve technically the amendments that we debated last Monday on the permissibility of donations for those who wish to support our democracy but are currently resident overseas. Again, these amendments have been clarified on the Government's own terms. The Government have ignored a host of important issues, and have pressed ahead with the amendments in the face of strong arguments for our belief that the legislation is flawed.

A week ago, I presented a number of reasons for our inability to accept the fairness of the amendments. The fact remains that the clause will be extremely hard to implement, and we feel that it could be unreasonable to impose requirements that are so difficult to meet when the consequences are so draconian. This proposal may be an infringement of an individual's right to freedom of expression, it is likely to be contrary to EU law, it would certainly contribute to the isolation of UK citizens living abroad, it is contrary to regulatory principles, and it links political rights to taxation. Furthermore, it does not correctly address a mischief that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 aimed to address, namely a clarification of the rules on party donations.

It is irrational to us that, having been presented with so many strong reasons why these amendments should not be passed, the Government are steam-rolling the matter through at almost 10 o'clock tonight. As I have said previously in the House, this is legislating on the hoof and we do not much like it.

There is a technical difficulty in trying to assess an individual's permissibility by reference to their tax status because, by its very nature, it is both changeable and retrospective. These new amendments are concerned with the individual's tax status in the "current tax year". I need not remind the House that the Secretary of State for Justice has said:

"It is...almost impossible to establish somebody's tax status, and particularly residence status, in the middle of a tax year."-[ Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 61.]

Can the Minister explain how these provisions will work in practice and how the Government intend to regulate and enforce them?

Tonight the Government have come the full 180 degrees and completed their spectacular U-turn on the provisions. In brief, if I were to ask whether these amendments improve the drafting after the Government created such an appalling mess last week, I would say yes: on the Government's own terms they make bad law work better. But do these amendments attempt to answer the questions that we raised in order to provide effective, fair and workable legislation? No they do not.

As my noble Friend Lord Bates confirmed in the other place this afternoon, by tabling these amendments, the Government have created an anomaly in our electoral and tax law. A British citizen based overseas will be able to vote in our elections and can even stand in our elections, yet he cannot make a donation over £7,500 to a political party. The implementation of this bad law is going to be difficult given the technical issues and complexities involved, and we insist that the Government do not activate these provisions without the full review of their application that will be required.

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